2022 Year in Review: Documentary
2022 was a year of extremes and intensity: Russia’s war with the Ukraine; the US Supreme Court overturned abortion rights; Covid continues to disrupt; worldwide inflation and extreme weather events. Beyond the boundaries of our planet, the Webb telescope sent back awe-inspiring images of our galaxy, and the moon is experiencing a bit of a come back. No surprise that the films that document our lives also share these qualities.
Below are the documentaries that moved me this year:
Verite films are my favorite because of the sheer effort of bringing them to the screen. The best are sometimes years in the making, requiring negotiation for access, intimacy, trust among the subject and the director/producers.
The Guardian’s review says it all: “As Putin’s nemesis Alexei Navalny phones up the secret agent who [poisoned him], this terrifying documentary enters the realm of far-fetched spy thriller and yet it’s all true.” Daniel Roher has incredible access to the pro-democracy activist as he investigates his own near death experience.
Part Dead Poets Society, part doc, the film follow a Belfast elementary school principal who uses philosophy and critical thinking to teach kids how to diffuse violence in contemporary Northern Ireland.
Director Matthew Heineman captures the withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan and the attempt by the Afghan military to prevent Taliban takeover the months that follow. After nearly 20 years of US intervention, they cannot hold back the Taliban wave. As reviewer Sheila O’Malley writes “Retrograde is a deeply mournful film, and the focus on people is why.” The footage is terrifying (Heineman is in a chopper that is taking fire, on a roof under sniper attack) and heartbreaking (US soldiers determine who gets to evacuate after the fall of Kabul and who stays behind). I’ve never cried so much watching a film.
A moving and triumphant family portrait, first time documentary feature director David Siev doesn’t shy away from big issues of the pandemic, racism, PTSD, and the economy by putting his family in the spotlight as they struggle to keep their Michigan restaurant afloat.
I enjoyed the execution of this J Lo promo film in which director Amanda Micheli had to weave three big story lines together: the stakes and anticipation of the 2020 award season for Lopez’s film Hustlers and the grueling prep for the halftime Super Bowl show as well as Lopez’s journey as an artist and her reluctant political awakening.
Traditional interview-driven documentaries are a great way to effectively and efficiently tell a story, particularly a complicated one. The best interviews are intimate and genuine and require the filmmaker to make an instant connection. For Death Row Stories, we had to rely on interviews with prosecution teams, victims, defense teams and death row inmates to unravel the truth behind capital murder cases, and it was never a straight forward story.
The US and the Holocaust (PBS)
Ken Burns, Lynn Novick, and Sarah Botstein have meticulously constructed this devastating and comprehensive look at the United States’ response to escalating Nazi atrocities. It is both timely and sobering considering the rise of anti Semitism and isolationism today.
The Janes (HBO)
Tia Lessin & Emma Pildes direct a straight forward story of the Jane Collective, a clandestine group in Chicago which provided thousands of safe abortions in the 1960s. Many women felt marginalized by anti-war and civil rights organizations and describe the underground abortion network as a calling to rebel against an unjust law. This story is frighteningly relevant 50 years later.
I love it when a director approaches documentary with a fresh perspective and tries new things. Asif Kapadia’s doc Senna never shows the interview subjects but instead focuses on archival footage. Brett Morgan’s The Kid Stays in the Picture uses a “2.5D” effect to create depth in the archival photos and consequently make them feel contemporary. Listen to Me Marlon tells Marlon Brando’s biography from hundreds of hours of audio tapes that Brando recorded over the course of his life.
Brett Morgan made a documentary rock opera using only archival footage from David Bowie over the years. If you’re a Bowie fan, you’ll be delighted by the deep cuts that illustrate the evolution of a man who lived his art with every breath.
What happens when director Chris Smith tries to make a documentary about two reluctant protagonists? The father starts directing the director to make his own alternate film. Robert Downey Jr pays tribute to his dad in this “off beat portrait of an oddball underground filmmaker that turns into something far more compelling, affectionate and moving.” Rolling Stone
Jonah Hill directs a strange and poignant love letter to his therapist Phil Stutz by delivering a film that takes on the POV of a patient growing throughout each session. Hill breaks the fourth wall in an effort to get Stutz to open up about himself. I found it completely self-indulgent and totally fascinating. Stutz says in the film “this is either the greatest documentary ever made or the worst…probably both.” I agree.