While Iím loath to make the sort of predictions that are weighed down with a sense of finality and will haunt me in the coming years as not only incorrect but downright foolhardy, it seems as though 2013 was the first year in which documentaries surpassed narrative film in their significance not just to the changing face of cinema but also to social conversation.
The most basic and obvious of these changes is the impact documentaries have on the societies they set out to depict. This is nothing new—after all, a documentaryís primary purpose should be to elicit some sort of response, either personal or widespread--but with technology not only preserving new controversies but opening up new ways in which we examine old ones, the documentarianís role is more important than ever--as archivists, investigators, prosecutors, and crusaders. With The Central Park Five, Ken Burns, Sarah Burns, and David McMahon reexamined the titular 1989 rape case and, in doing so, not only exonerated the five young men but also reaffirmed the rights of free speech and investigative journalism--or, if you prefer, investigative filmmaking--through their own ensuing court case, which was resolved earlier this year. Blackfish, a look at the indecency with which human beings inflict themselves on nature, only to watch as their Frankensteinian creations turn on other people, prompted SeaWorld to defend itself against accusations that it was enabling the tragedies documented by the film. And Jason Osderís Let the Fire Burn reconstructed the events surrounding the domestic bombing of Philadelphia activists by the cityís own police force, an act for which no one was officially punished; itís a startling diagnosis of how fear and anger can become more, especially when instilled in those whose power is threatened, and its relevancy spreads beyond the Philadelphia city limits.
The next layer--and the one that is especially relevant to an increasingly globalized world--is the democratization of filmmaking, as embodied by social media and the $400 film studios most people now carry in their back pockets. This change not only enables first-hand accounts of important events to be captured and distributed in real time, all without the burden of bulky equipment that can easily be broken or emptied, but it puts the responsibility--or, perhaps, the tools--for democratic change back in the hands of the people who need that power the most. We see this in The Square, about the revolution in Egypt; Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer, about the totalitarian tactics being employed in Russia; and God Loves Uganda, an account of right-wing evangelical colonialism and hate-mongering in Africa, among others.
But the most significant advancement in documentary filmmaking this year, and the one which allowed the genre to transcend its fictional brethren, is how nonfiction has begun to absorb elements of fiction in the pursuit of greater truths, not just for the customary sake of coherence, but willingly. We see this in two diametrically different films: Sarah Polleyís Stories We Tell, in which she documents the truths and lies surrounding her family, and Joshua Oppenheimerís The Act of Killing, in which Oppenheimer and his anonymous collaborators persuade Indonesian war criminals to reenact their crimes in a cinematic genre of their choice. Both films are in their own way cavorting with meta by challenging us to see how the lies personified by cinema often are the only keys to truth--that by documenting a motherís affair or forcing unrepentant killers to relive their worst offenses as hyperstylized Hollywood fantasies, we are able to uncover what is to be believed about ourselves and the choices we make. This is something Errol Morris has been approaching for years, but in 2013 a handful of filmmakers and crew manage to add an entirely new layer and purpose to what a documentary should be and can do.
“I loved this movie as much as I loved the romance of watching it, of laughing and losing myself and turning around to be astonished anew by Parajanov’s visionary cinematography. I haven’t stopped smiling since.” Continue reading →
“As far away as is possible from the immersive, sympathetic humanism of Puiu’s earlier The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, Aurora refuses any easy access. For three hours we follow the mundane preparations for a series of murders, but with the precise motivation and the nature of the protagonist’s relationships kept consistently unclear (although it is all resolved in retrospect at the end—perhaps too much so).” Continue reading →
“The screen can barely contain the glimmers of elaborate costumes and sets. Such sparkle could be punctuated by a comic book sound effect – zing! – and Demy likely wouldn’t want to present this weird fairy tale any other way.” Continue reading →
“The film is alluring, as it posits a diegetic world based pretty much entirely on orgasms, but with its uncomfortable insistence on imperialism and aggressive male-female sexual dynamics, it raises a number of questions in the modern feminist viewer: whose fantasy is this, exactly?” Continue reading →
“That this loony conspiracy film about telekinesis, secret government agencies, and Kirk Douglas’s massive chest even exists is mind-boggling.” Continue reading →
“This is the classic Quixotic tale, now almost wholly tragic; and though Tom and Daisy are supposedly the ‘careless people,’ smashing up things and creatures, Gatsby’s wilful commitment to plot over people puts his own creative talents somewhere on the Mr. Ripley spectrum” Continue reading →
“But with its lushly colorful visuals and incisive and soulful wit, it is the kind of art that one can take refuge in, if only for one hundred minutes.” Continue reading →
“Libera me is composed as a series of tableaux, each an achingly precise image: a slab of meat tied up with string; makeshift coffins numbered with black paint; a handkerchief; a bundle of bedding; a head doused with blood. No words are spoken, but the soundtrack is rich with the faint sounds of bodies breathing, moving, writhing, touching. Its low-key lighting and palette of dim blues and greys and browns give it an eerily outdated look that is virtually impossible to associate with the early 1990s.” Continue reading →
“Eventually, Tonto’s small figure disappears into a blanket of shade, lost in the golden mise-en-scene overwhelmed by darkness. He is walking away from history and toward a greater transcendence.” Continue reading →
“Forget the standard film-buff complaint that the sixties films were better: no, the stream of astounding work since the ‘return to cinema’ marked by Sauve qui peut (la vie) – work that marks Godard as (at 83!) the greatest working director today – has clear links with the best of his films of the sixties (e.g. 2 or 3 Things…) while developing on them in new directions, above all in the positioning of his cinema as part of a centuries-old European cultural context and in an attention to an increasingly lyrical depiction of the natural world.” Continue reading →
“When chaos does reign, D.C. explodes into a massive shooting gallery with multiple fronts, culminating in the decapitation of the Washington Monument and a gruesome gun battle on the North Lawn. It’s a bloody chess match that engulfs the entire capital in mayhem.” Continue reading →
“Imamura delivers over half an hour of classical ethnographic exploration into the daily routines of these simple fisherfolk, who make enough money to purchase necessities by pulling squid out of the sea but limit their worldly possessions lest the pirates come to plunder.” Continue reading →
“The film runs a nimble 73 minutes, and in that time it’s made clear that Gracie and Ginny (as their parents called them) would most likely have developed normally had their parents not been under the false impression that there was something wrong with them. In believing their daughters to be handicapped – and, more importantly, treating them like a lost cause – they effectively ensured that the girls would be.” Continue reading →
“A bevy of beefy sailors; shiny surfaces; the oppressive artificiality of the red and yellow lighting of a never-setting sun; the constantly shifting planes of desire and revulsion characters feel for one another amidst their awakening (homo)sexuality, the desire to fuck and to kill merging into one.” Continue reading →
“Brooks-onscreen is likely too full of himself to recognize the comedy of the moment, but Brooks-the-director certainly isn’t, and neither are we.” Continue reading →
“Sapphire & Steel’s air of supernatural paranoia and otherworldly angst has a deeply chilly existentialism about it: the spirits of those killed unnecessarily in war, souls trapped in photographs, the vengeful gestalt of organic matter that has been dead for millennia.” Continue reading →
“I had (at least) three kinds of angels to help me in my confusion of curdled love: a couple of amazing friends, the poetry of Anne Carson, and Harmony Korine’s depraved ode to America’s armchair metaphysics of halted time and pleasured oblivion.” Continue reading →
“Eggleston’s photos are only datable for the objects and fashion they contain, for technically they are indistinguishable from contemporary work. Stranded in Canton is a stark contrast, and the most unbecomingly old work Eggleston has made.” Continue reading →
“Collisions, such as these, between the person and the fiction allow the film to resonate as a dark, complicated landmark in the life and career of its star.” Continue reading →
“Coolly controlled, with a wry wit that never fully resolves its ambiguous mysteries, Tragedy is a fascinating pointer to a road-not-taken, where Bertolucci might, to the advantage of his art, have continued chronicling his own nation in a career more like that of Marco Bellocchio.” Continue reading →
“Within these 125 minutes of road, sex, rock ‘n’ roll, and good and bad witches, Lynch manages to tear apart, reinvent, and sew together a staggering amalgamation of genres—romance, road movie, comedy, crime, noir, and horror” Continue reading →
“‘Jose Chung’s From Outer Space’ posits a rather sobering thought: that truth is unknowable. Yet the desire to believe is sometimes fanatically entertaining.” Continue reading →
“While I’m loath to make the sort of predictions that are weighed down with a sense of finality and will haunt me in the coming years as not only incorrect but downright foolhardy, it seems as though 2013 was the first year in which documentaries surpassed narrative film in their significance not just to the changing face of cinema but also to social conversation.” Continue reading →