In the year since the cultural shift ignited by the 2016 election, there have already been a handful of films that have taken on the ongoing war in Syria and the refugee crisis it has sparked. (Two of them — “City of Ghosts” and “Last Men In Aleppo” — made our list of the best docs of 2017.) These films, which are often painful to watch, let alone to capture on film, paint a shocking picture of pain and suffering while simultaneously indicting the global community for its failure to act (or even sustain interest). Taken together as a body of work they draw a portrait that spans from the origins of the devastating war, to the ruins of once-great cities, to the harrowing journeys that hundreds of thousands of families have made across seas and mountains and borders all in the name of safety. But what happens when a family finds itself, after years in a refugee camp, finally on its way to America? To the land of freedom and opportunity? What’s it like to finally make it? Alexandra Shiva tackles these questions in her new documentary “This Is Home,” but the answers she offers are anything but comforting.
This year, more so than even the chaos that was 2016, has been the year of fact vs. fiction. A divided country has strayed away from agreeing upon facts and debating action, to being unable to even agree on what exactly constitutes a fact. An obvious proponent, of course, has been the push by many to discredit the media industry at large. It’s already served as fodder for a bevy of uncomfortable holiday meals (with plenty more to come later this month, I’m sure), but, to brave optimism, it’s also provided us with some truly revelatory filmmaking. That such films — like Steven Spielberg’s hotly buzzed “The Post” — were in production long before turmoil struck, is worth noting. But, happenstance aside, the gravity that films about journalism have taken on in light of the political and societal climate of the moment, is real, and it’s more important than ever that the diligent reporters and editors that populate newsrooms the world over get their due. The HBO doc “The Newspaperman: The Life and Times of Ben Bradlee” mostly succeeds at doing just that.
Advocacy documentaries are a huge risk — such blatantly opinionated content risks alienating viewers, playing to an already established audience, and, in the end, failing to educate anyone. Still, some manage to make a big splash, for better or worse (“An Inconvenient Truth,” “Super Size Me”), but others can truly be sickeningly partisan garbage (anything by Dinesh D’Souza and his manipulative ilk). It’s quite a wide spectrum, but how could it not be? The medium of film is undeniably powerful and people with money have always been eager to exploit it. But the far more mundane reality of advocacy documentary is that so many such films are middling, mediocre exercises that will never find an audience besides those already invested in the cause. Which is likely the fate of “Unfractured,” the new doc that chronicles the life of Sandra Steingraber — a scientist and leader of the anti-fracking movement.
The name Steve Madden is an interesting one. For those who came of age in the ‘90s, Madden’s shoes, with their ridiculous, disproportionate advertisements, their high-fashion style, and their affordable cost were defining and, pretty quickly, ubiquitous. But, in the last two decades, the shoe mogul has been most associated with Wall Street and his notorious transgression: Early in his company’s growth, Madden hitched his wagon to Jordan Belfort — of “Wolf Of Wall Street” fame — and became embroiled in an insider trading scheme. In 2004 Madden was charged, convicted and sent to prison. But, as the new documentary “Madden: The Steve Madden Story” makes clear early on, people don’t exactly know who Madden is, even though he’s the mastermind behind one of the most successful shoe companies in history. It’s exactly what Ben Patterson’s film sets out to correct.
Dennis Hopper was a legend. His tumultuous career — replete with soaring highs and harrowing lows — was matched only by his turbulent and unruly personal life. The director behind the prototype for American independent cinema, the classic “Easy Rider,” Hopper’s career began alongside that of James Dean, whom he shared the screen with twice, before bottoming out with his ambitious disaster “The Last Movie” when he was blackballed by the industry for his indignance and difficult attitude. His story for the next two decades was basically cyclical: the dizzying highs of cinematic masterpieces (“Apocalypse Now,” “Blue Velvet”) and plenty more ghastly misfires and personal woes. His life, as he lived it with passion and abandon, was an imposing story just waiting for the right documentary to piece it together. “Along For The Ride,” from director Nick Ebeling, is not that doc, for better or worse.
The nature of the medium of documentary is built around an unknown. Filmmakers journey into a subject or a life without all the answers (the worst documentaries purport to hold all the cards), and what often makes a good documentary riveting is the narrative of exploration, the uncovering of a truth. But, what often defines the best documentaries is their ability to pivot and spot, mid narration, a wellspring of truth more compelling than that of the original focal point of the film. In Luke Korem’s new documentary “Dealt,” that’s just what happens. What is, at its outset, a rather charming film about the world-famous card mechanic Richard Turner and the obstacles he has overcome, winds up being a searching study of the painful nature of coming to terms with your own vulnerabilities.
Telling a good love story on the big screen is a challenge of originality in 2017. The trite and cliche rom-com narrative is over burdened with expectation and is running on empty, and the year’s best rom-coms have relied heavily on shattering the formula (even “The Big Sick,” the most typical of romantic comedy of the year, is also one that challenges stereotypes and confronts nuanced culture clashes). It’s no surprise then that the documentary form has answered the call and offered up one of the most surprising and thoughtful romantic comedies of the year in “Dina.”
Admittedly, we paused when we found out Todd Haynes (a Playlist favorite) was adapting a YA novel, but sometimes you just gotta have faith. Haynes, after all, has rarely let us down, and, more often, he has blown us away. While some consider him to be a provocative, subversive filmmaker, labeling him as such misses so much of the beauty and nuance that he invests in his wildly tender and luscious films. In truth he is one of the most balanced and rounded filmmakers working today and any new film from him is one we eagerly await. And “Wonderstruck” is no different. While it doesn’t hit the highs of his magnificent “Carol” (our 4th favorite movie of 2015), our B+ review out of Cannes said, “Haynes has made a lovely wish-fulfillment movie, and you do not have to believe it, to be struck by wonder.” Plus, this trailer has done nothing but whet our appetite for his latest.
It had been a long four years after “Bright Star” waiting for Campion to return, but when “Top Of The Lake” finally came, it was obviously worth the wait. The seven-episode first season, which premiered at Sundance in a single seven-hour showing (there was a lunch break), is exactly the slow-burn sort of mystery we expected from the director: the twists and turns serving only to reveal and revel in the nuanced relationships at its core. Campion’s show weaves a complex, thoughtful set of narratives between an even more complex set of characters, each of whom is carefully drawn and beautifully realized. “Top Of The Lake” is packed with colorful, recognizable people that we all live among (with some obvious exceptions) struggling to do the right thing in a broken world, one where accidents define us as much as — if not more — than the choices we make. By its finale, Campion’s series has transformed into something grand and soulful, a moving exploration of the dynamics between strong, whole women and the toxic, masculine world they’re bucking against. And, while “Top Of The Lake” is by no means as gracious or damning as some of Campion’s other work, it is an achievement for its sense of harmony and for how badly it left us wanting this much-deserved second season.
Few artists have made a claim for so drastically altering the shape of their medium than Cecil Beaton, the fashion photographer turned war photographer turned royal photographer turned costume and production designer, who arguably forever reshaped the concept of possibility in the static image. Beaton faced his share of adversity and controversy, rubbed shoulders with the biggest stars and the Queen herself, and generally lived the sort of bohemian life that artists dream of. And while he is best known for the iconic images that he captured of the likes of Marilyn Monroe, Cary Grant, and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Beaton himself was a fascinating, lively character who imprinted himself on the lives of anyone whose orbit he entered. And all of this is the life that “Love, Cecil” aims to — and mostly succeeds in — capturing, despite taking such an openly adoring stance. The rest…