Anyone who has lost a loved one knows that in the weeks and months that follow, after the most intense spasms of grief have subsided, that the question of how exactly to remember that person remains. It’s a tremendous question that has no universal answer, that everybody and every family must find for themselves. And it’s this question that sits at the heart of “306 Hollywood,” an experimental documentary that attempts to both craft a vivid portrait of a grandmother through the treasure trove that was her house and to reconcile with what it means to lose someone you love. And despite its tendency to lean upon self-serious reimaginings, it is nonetheless an engaging and tenderly drawn film that is likely to resonate with anyone who has had to do the tireless work of sorting through an estate of a family member.
Inevitably, families fall apart. Not all of them out of malice or spite, but more because of time and growth. At the very core of raising a family is the idea that someday you will watch your children leave you, and this, of course, will upend the very thing you have been trying to hold together for so many years. But what happens when that upending moment comes early, when the eldest on his way out the door is only 16 years old, but the opportunity he’s granted is once in a lifetime? This is the question at the heart of “Loveling,” a small-scale family drama from Brazil that suffers under the weight of its lack of narrative ambition and uneven quality, despite the revelatory performances at its core.
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.