11 Favorite Documentaries of the 2016 Sundance Film Festival

Eat That Question: Frank Zappa In His Own Words (Sundance Institute)

Once again, Sundance programmers presented a diverse line up of films for their 2016 slate, from straight-up biopics to experimental hybrids that chafe at the very concept of nonfiction filmmaking. There were fiction films with documentary elements like Dark Night, which incorporates POV interviews to provide a sense of reality, while All These Sleepless Nights appeared in the documentary competition, even garnering a directors prize, despite the fact that it’s being released as an improvised fiction film in its own country.

Having screened a few dozen of the films broadly considered to be nonfiction, there are several that I found exceptional. Here are 11 favorites in alphabetical order:

Author: The JT LeRoy Story

Jeff Feuerzeig’s film brings up what I think is one of the key questions of this year’s festival: does it matter if a work is fiction or true on the impact it has on those that take it in? I can’t say I followed the cult-like fascination of this supposed child prostitute who garnered celebrity fascination, but as both an entertainment and an exposé Feurerzeig’s film does an excellent job of providing a thorough examination of the circumstances around LeRoy’s rocket to fame. Numerous questions remain unanswered, especially from those caught up in the ruse, but rarely has a subject provided as much quality fodder for their documentation, including decades of audio recordings and taped conversations to draw upon. With slick animation and a strange, dark story, this is a fine Sundance return for the man behind the much lauded The Devil and Daniel Johnson.

Cameraperson

This was the best I saw at Sundance, yet somewhat comically it was placed in the New Frontier section despite the fact that its bone fides surpass numerous works that were actually in competition in the documentary category. Experiencing Kirsten Johnson’s travelogue through 25 years of filmmaking is both exhilarating and enlightening, providing one of the most sage and savvy looks at how nonfiction cinema is shaped by those that make it. It’s a post-modern tour-de-force, where a simple sneeze belies the craft behind the given images and how what’s outside the frame or between the cuts is often even more compelling. Sure to be the stuff of curricula for years to come, it’s an incredible achievement that’s highly cinematic and intelligent, a kind of catnip for fans of this idiom.

Eat That Question: Frank Zappa In His Own Words

I’ve been describing this as the Kids Are Alright for Frank Zappa — not a definitive doc that goes from cradle to grave of this remarkable talent, more a survey of contemporaneous footage assembled in a subtle, pleasing way. Director Thorsten Schütte extends Zappa’s own project, drawing out the “conceptual continuity” to include not only the musical works but the performative act of being interviewed. At its best, this film serves as a new element within Zappa’s canon, not dissimilar to certain albums (Mothers of Prevention, 200 Motels, etc.) that overtly mix interview and conversational elements with musical flourishes. A film for fans and neophytes alike, this may not convert you into a Zappaphile, but it’ll certainly give you a taste of his genius.

Holy Hell

Sure, the film is flawed, its construction a bit slapdash and unaware. Yet it’s perhaps not surprising that its greatest fault is a lack of self-awareness on the part of the director, Will Allen, of what he’s captured, given the fact that he’s the subject of his own film, joined by a group of like-minded individuals who didn’t seem to notice for several decades that they were under the spell of a cult leader who was physically, emotionally, financially and sexually abusing them. Seen from a certain vantage point, the flaws in the film are the same that led Allen along his road to enlightenment, and the hippy-dippyness of his in-house propaganda are only slightly removed from his talking-head interviews with his fellow escapees. Yet the film is a remarkable capsule into the life of these clearly damaged souls, and one can more readily see what it is that they saw frolicking with one another and bonding under a common goal. It’s a great film to discuss and perhaps fodder for an even more interesting work about the making of this doc and the factors that are left unexamined by a filmmaker too close to the subject he’s still coming to terms with.

Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World

This may not be Werner Herzog’s definitive masterpiece, but really, who cares at this point? Don’t you just kind of like sitting back and hearing him pontificate on whatever subject comes to his mind? It’s almost arbitrary that he’s looking now at the Internet, and why not? It’s as odd a place as Antartica or a Cave with prehistoric paintings in Southern France. He tracks down some nutters and quirky scientists, makes his trademark asides, and through 10 chapters makes you look at the world of instant global communication in a slightly different way. Herzog is one of a kind, and even if this film feels very much like what’s come before, that’s for this fan not a bad thing at all.

Michael Jackson’s Journey from Motown to Off the Wall

With the second of Spike Lee’s looks into Michael Jackson’s recordings, I freely admit that there’s a glaring omission of the kind of journalistic insight into Jackson’s often salacious private life that might draw some people to this subject. Yes, the film is celebratory, but it’s not free of critical discussion, even if its entire focus is on the artist and his art rather than on the life outside the realms of recordings. This era is even more musically compelling than the Bad recording, of course, and there’s some phenomenal performance footage that’s sure to sate even the casual Jackson fan. Yet it’s Lee’s humorous and effective engagement with his interview subjects that gives the film its lift, transcending mere talking-head ramblings for a film that’s terrifically entertaining and informative.

Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You

Much of what makes the film work is the charm of its subject, but it’s really not such a bad thing to spend this much time in the company of a legend. As an interview subject, Norman Lear is top-notch, born of years of knowing how to tell a story well. Primed thanks to his recent work on his memoir, Lear comes across and genuine and reflective, shying away from anything approaching aggrandisement and instead providing what appears to be a moving, genuine look back at an unprecedented career in entertainment. While the narrative structure might irk some, I found the shtick entertaining and adding to the stylishness of the piece.

Nuts

Penny Lane’s look at the use of Goat gonads to improve virility is a lovely film, full of quirky animation and old-timey storytelling. The story of a one-light town easily could have descended into a one-joke riff on the silliness of quackery, but the telling of John Romulus Brinkley goes beyond any point-by-point, Wiki-like drudgery and brings the kind of flim-flam that the subject was noted for in the telling of the tale. Running a brisk 79 minutes, the beauty of Lane’s craft is in knowing the heart of her story and presenting it without fluff or frill, all while being extremely entertaining.

Sky Ladder: The Art of Cai Guo-Qiang

My knowledge of contemporary art is pretty abysmal, so for me a look into Cai Guo-Qiang’s world was pretty revelatory. As a fan of pyrotechnics I was enthralled by the images he creates in the sky, amused by his tenacity and hubris as his canvas reaches ever greater heights. I was also pleased by filmmaker Kevin Macdonald’s focus not only on the results but the processes of construction, even getting at the conflict between the need for resources to stage these events coming into collision with the drive for artistic freedom. A rare film about art that feels artistic itself, it’s a well-crafted, remarkable piece that serves as a perfect introduction to a man who uses explosions to paint the sky.

Tickled

I love it when a documentary seems to be unfolding as the filmmakers find out the facts, as if the more they work on the subject the more crazy the narrative becomes. Tickled is most certainly that kind of doc, a beautifully executed bit of journalism that has the added dry wit that exemplifies New Zealand filmmaking. What starts out as a simple bit of jest turns very dark indeed, and while a whole lot of the fun comes in the form of this kind of discovery, I’m betting that multiple viewings will still be quite popular given the nature of the subject. Don’t let anyone spoil the surprise. Go check it out and be enthralled at what happens when one scratches the surface of a group where, for financial reward, they literally scratch each other’s surfaces.

Weiner

Out of all the films this year, I for some reason had little faith in this one. The downfall doc can often be dreary, and I expected something along the lines of Gibney’s overly arch Client 9, about Eliot Spitzer’s fall from grace. Instead, in scant few weeks during Anthony Weiner’s 2013 mayoral campaign, filmmakers Elyse Steinberg and Josh Kriegman capture both the compelling image of the man and his secondary downfall, an amazing tumble caught almost in real time. The subject himself seems shellshocked, asking directly to the camera why he even agreed to be filmed. The moments with his wife Huma, a confrontation with a man in a deli, all insights into events that go behind what superficially was reported by the incessant New York tabloid press. Right down to an absolutely brilliant McCluhan quote at the outset you’re unlikely to find a more compelling, funny and charming look at a politician any time soon. It joins the pantheon of rare, extraordinary political docs, sitting alongside masterpieces like Primary, The War Room and Caucus.

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