This list is coming out much later than it did last year. The longer it’s taken me to compile and post, though, the more I’ve come to be sure of what movie moments I remember strongest and most fondly from 2014. Those 12 months brought us a lot of great documentaries and other films at least featuring nonfiction components, and many specific scenes have stuck with me. This list is also shorter than last year’s (10 picks instead of 25), because I’m focusing on those fewer scenes that I truly found to be the most memorable. They’re not the best, nor are they my favorite. They’re just heaviest in my mind, still. I’m also including some honorable mentions suggested by other Nonfics writers, in order to recognize more films.
A note about those aforementioned “others”: even more than in 2013, last year reminded us of how much reality can be found in fiction films, too. Thanks to computers being used to create everything from whole locations to digital touchups on actresses in movies you wouldn’t think have any special effects, those kinds of non-doc nonfiction moments are shrinking all the time. But we’re also seeing new ways that “narrative” pictures are implementing doc-like elements, such as in Boyhood following characters intermittently over 12 years in a way we’ve all likened to the Up series and American Promise but is also shared more generally with any of the hundreds of docs shot over a lengthy period of time.
This year there is one pick that isn’t technically “a film,” though it probably could have been entered into festivals and picked up a few shorts-program honors if its makers wanted to. Cinema overall is changing and expanding in scope, and nonfiction cinema is right there with it, allowing for everything from observational home movies on Facebook to the uber meta desktop docs that broke out in 2014 with Kevin B. Lee’s Transformers: The Premake to Sam Green continuing to tour around with live documentaries, including his latest, The Measure of All Things. Really, the whole year has collectively been a big memorable moment on its own for nonfiction cinema.
But regarding what’s in that cinema, on screen, here are my choices for the 10 most memorable nonfiction movie moments of 2014:
Pastor Jay flees a reporter in The Overnighters
This film seemed to come out of nowhere at Sundance last year, and it mainly struck me for how it works as a whole, over time carrying this tension that increases and tightens as the drama and suspense snowball over the course of its 102 minutes. There are plenty of unforgettable scenes, including the one with the woman with the shotgun and of course the reveal at the end, but it’s not a doc made up of parts. And if there is any standout element it’s Pastor Jay Reinke as the protagonist about to pop. He sort of loses it in this scene, as did I. I couldn’t help but laugh, partly as a release from the tension, because he acts so ridiculously. In my head, when he eventually flees at the end of the scene, he’s running faster, and screaming, like a cartoon character.
Meeting Edward Snowden in Citizenfour
When asked for suggestions for this list, a few colleagues said “in the hotel with Snowden,” as if that’s not the majority of this documentary. But I think what they all mean is the moment I agree stands out within this extensive scene. Citizenfour is not a film about Edward Snowden or his whistleblowing leak of NSA documents. It’s a film of these things, a record of a significant time and process. Particularly if you know it’s a big deal that’s happening, seeing the initial meet and introductions play out is like watching “history in the making,” as cliche yet true as that phrase is. We’re literally traveling back in time to witness the beginnings of something. It’s just four people in a hotel room together talking, and yet it’s extremely gripping, thrilling in a way that’s both exciting and nerve-wracking despite our knowledge of what it all leads to. Because we’re watching people who don’t have that knowledge yet, and that’s incredible.
Suction in Life Itself
Roger Ebert knew what would give a film integrity, what needed to be there to speak genuine truth, and so of course he helped to make his own biography a warts and all portrait. And by warts, here it’s everything from his alcoholism to his physical appearance during his final days. Not only did he want to make sure the audience saw him with his removed jaw but that we saw “the full reality” of the condition in a nurse suctioning saliva from an opening in his neck. It’s a brave part of Life Itself for the subject — and for the film itself, as it additionally shows Ebert seeming to dictate what ended up on screen, yet not in a protective manner as we get with many controlling doc subjects, like he’s co-directing with Steve James.
The diaper changer story in Actress
If I was going for something a little less subjective, I’d say the best, most striking moment in Robert Greene’s film is when Brandy Burre repeats a statement about moving to Beacon and quitting acting, as if she’s doing a second take for a TV show rather than simply telling of her life. But really the moment that I’ve continued to think about over and over is when Brandy tells an anecdote about diaper-changing tables in restaurant bathrooms, and it turns out to be the moment she fell out of love with her partner. As a father and husband, it’s a moment that hits me personally, but more important to the film it’s the one time I trust that I’m seeing Brandy being truly genuine in her showing of emotion.
Quinn Norton gets angry in The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz
There are a lot of heavy emotions on display in Brian Knappenberger’s film on the life and death of Aaron Swartz, as is understandable for something made so quickly following the young computer genius’s suicide. None are as powerful as the sadness and regret and anger felt and shown by journalist Quinn Norton, a friend of the subject who unintentionally helped prosecutors with their case against him. As she talks about the unfortunate betrayal, she gets apologetically weepy and then infuriated about how and why it happened. It’s one of the prime moments that elevate the film above mere biography to an address of the bigger picture, of important issues that affect all of us.
Sandy Fonzo confronts Mark Ciavarella in Kids for Cash
Another startling scene involving a woman’s emotions can be found in Robert May’s great, under-seen Kids for Cash, which is altogether a stunning film on the heinous corruption of judges at the expense of a whole lot of young people’s lives. It’s also because of someone who has taken his own life, the son of the woman in question, because of unfair legal prosecution. I don’t know if it would have been less striking in the doc for me had I already seen the incident as captured by media cameras and featured on YouTube after it happened, but in the context of the film it really got me.
“The Female” trips in Under the Skin
What I love about Jonathan Glazer’s sci-fi thriller Under the Skin is that it can be so surreal and otherworldly and downright fantastically fictional yet also feature so much actuality in its candid involvement of regular folks in Glasgow unaware of hidden cameras or the fact that it’s movie star Scarlett Johansson walking or driving by or inviting them into her van. The most remarkable of these blurring bits is when Johansson’s alien character, “the Female,” walks down a sidewalk, trips and falls on her face, eventually helped by non-actors at the scene. It’s an awkward scene, but it works on an extra level that it’s real people who aid her because that’s the moment, as Glazer acknowledges, when the character experiences real humanity. And then there’s also another level to the moment in that a shot of Johansson tripping from the shoot wound up online long before the movie was finished — relative to what Transformers: The Premake is all about — and found life first as a silly meme.
The Rembrandt reveal in National Gallery
Levels and layers are at play in a different way in the most fascinating scene in Frederick Wiseman’s latest. During a section focused on restoration and related behind-the-scenes work at London’s National Gallery art museum, the film lets us sit in on a presentation of a discovery made about Rembrandt’s Portrait of Frederick Rihel on Horseback, that beneath the masterpiece on the surface is a scrapped work that the artist had painted over. It fits in perfectly, as many other scenes do, with a general theme and address of how we see and are able to see of art works differently than they were originally or intended to be seen. Rembrandt certainly never foresaw that someday people could x-ray his paintings to see that they were do-overs, not to mention that the reveal would be capture in cinema for all to see.
“Camera falls from airplane and lands in pig pen”
Robert Greene beat me to the recognition of this brief yet brilliant YouTube video in his list of the best of 2014 for Sight & Sound, and he’s probably the person who originally tipped me off to it. It’s just a GoPro camera that’s been dropped by a skydiver and tumbles to the ground, but it’s a kind of natural and magical actuality that nobody could ever capture intentionally. Yes, you could let another GoPro fall from an airplane similarly, but it’s where this one landed that makes it really special. It’s the greatest movie ending of 2014.
One-armed mother breastfeeding in Concerning Violence
As I stated in the intro, these aren’t necessarily favorite scenes, and in fact I’d rather not ever again see this image of a mother with a severed arm (and maybe legs?) nursing a child with a severed leg — both dismemberments effects of post-colonial civil war in Africa. It wouldn’t matter if I did or didn’t, since I can’t get it out of my head anyway. A lot of documentary is made up of disturbing imagery, and this bit of archival footage employed by Goran Hugo Olsson for his Frantz Fanon adaptation takes the cake for me in 2014 (and maybe longer) as the most upsetting. If I could find a clip or still of it, I would put it below, because it’s not as powerful if we hide it. Unfortunately, it’s unavailable, so for now here’s a clip of another memorable but awful moment:
As recommended by Daniel Walber, Dan Schindel Landon Palmer and Jason Gorber:
The lone picketer at the Joe Paterno statue in Happy Valley
The anti-socialism bumper sticker on a charity-seeker’s truck in The Overnighters
“The reveal” in The Overnighters
The final reveal in Citizenfour
Edward Snowden covers himself with a blanket in a Hong Kong hotel room in Citizenfour
Greenwald and his husband in the elevator in Citizenfour
The discussion of who the target draw for the museum is in National Gallery.
Nick Cave recalls getting peed on onstage in 20,000 Days on Earth
Kyle in the car with Nick Cave in 20,000 Days on Earth
Roxy the dog frolics through nature in Goodbye to Language
Scarlett Johansson drives through a crowd of Scottish football fans in Under the Skin
Ellar Coltrane takes in the moment at Big Bend in Boyhood
Donald Rumsfeld flips “The Unknown Known” and “The Known Unknown” in The Unknown Known
Jafar Panahi enters the picture in Closed Curtain
Roger Ebert struggles with whether to keep shooting in communication with Steve James during the filming of Life Itself
The climax with all the different locations in Virunga
The goat in Manakamana
The opening number in the diner in My Prairie Home
The animated sequence of Matthew Vandyke’s time in prison going mad in Point and Shoot
They get the boson, everyone cheers in Particle Fever
The museum exhibition of Landis’s forgeries in Art and Craft
Vivian Maier’s world tour in Finding Vivian Maier