New works by Wiseman, Walker, James and more.
It’s not easy to make a most anticipated documentaries of the year list. Fiction films are easy to preview, because Hollywood gives us what we want and favored filmmakers in that arena are dependable in their style and talent. Most great nonfiction films come out of nowhere.
Who saw Cameraperson or Weiner or the extent of brilliance from O.J.: Made in America coming a year ago? At the start of 2016, we looked to documentarians we always love, like DA Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus and Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing. But their docs weren’t the best of the year.
Maybe the 10 films we’re really looking forward to below won’t be, either. But like Pennebaker and Hegedus’s Unlocking the Cage, they might still be great, possibly similarly taken for granted. From this vantage point, they’re the initial films that have us excited for nonfiction cinema in 2017.
Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds (January 7th)
We were already looking forward to this film from Oscar winner Fisher Stevens (The Cove) and Alexis Bloom due to all the positive reviews it’s received since its debut at Cannes last May. Now that subjects Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds have passed away one day apart, it’s even more appealing, albeit for bittersweet reason. They are a delightful duo, and their banter should be very entertaining. Primarily, though, this film will now be part of the final act and legacy of two legendary ladies of Hollywood. There’s no specific date for the broadcast premiere yet, but look for it on HBO in early Spring, if not earlier now. Update: it’s coming earlier now.
Untitled Buena Vista Social Club Documentary (January 20th, Sundance)
Among the many documentary sequels apparently on the way next year, this one — not technically an official follow-up to the 1999 Wim Wenders film Buena Vista Social Club — is the most exciting. Directed by Lucy Walker (Waste Land), the feature follows the remaining members of the group 20 years later as they rehearse, perform and reflect on the history of Cuba. That last thing should be fascinating given the recent death of Fidel Castro and the continued change in the relationship status between Cuba and the U.S. Broad Green Pictures is set to distribute this after its Sundance premiere.
Casting JonBenet (January 22nd, Sundance)
Kitty Green is one of the most interesting documentary filmmakers on the rise right now, and following her feature debut, Ukraine is Not a Brothel, and last year’s acclaimed short, The Face of Ukraine: Casting Oksana Baiul, we’re excited for this Sundance competition title that expands on the idea and hybrid technique behind that latter work. Because Casting JonBenet deals with a subject that is more appealing and intriguing to American audiences — the still mysterious death of JonBenet Ramsey — it should break Green into the mainstream, or at least as much of a mainstream as there is for documentaries.
Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Black Colleges and Universities (January 23rd, Sundance)
Stanley Nelson (The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution) is back with another essential black history, this one about higher education institutions specifically for African Americans. It’s a subject that is definitely underrepresented compared to most of the civil rights stuff he and others typically cover and seems very interesting. Looking at 150 years of Historically Black Colleges and Universities, the film sounds like a positive study of their role in building Black culture and racial equality. Presumably this will show up on PBS by year’s end.
Water & Power: A California Heist (January 23rd, Sundance)
Produced by Alex Gibney and directed by Marina Zenovich (Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired), this doc will look at California’s water crisis and expose the corruption behind an imbalanced structure in place for life’s most essential resource. The Sundance guide entry acknowledges that this sounds like a real-life modern-day Chinatown, and you can’t put the word “heist” in a doc title without expecting some comparison to fictional heist movies. Seems like a perfect project for Gibney, reminiscent of his breakout doc Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, and a nice step up for Zenovich, who proved her nonfiction storytelling skills keep getting better with the recent 30 for 30 installment Fantastic Lies. National Geographic will distribute this hopefully soon.
Nobody Speak: Hulk Hogan, Gawker and Trials of a Free Press (January 24th, Sundance)
After We Are Legion: The Story of the Hacktivists and The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz, Brian Knappenberger is the person we most want making documentaries on internet-related subject matter. That includes online media like Gawker, so we can figure this film about the website’s downfall due to a lawsuit brought about by Hulk Hogan will be compelling and insightful stuff. Filled with sex, money and the growing threat to the free press, the premise of Nobody Speak should be Knappenberger’s biggest draw yet. We’ll see when it premieres in competition at Sundance next month.
Abacus: Small Enough to Jail
This new feature from Steve James (Hoop Dreams) is exactly the sort of anticipated release from a prominent filmmaker that could wind up being taken for granted as other more exciting docs come our way. Abacus is about the only financial institution, a family-owned Chinese bank, to face criminal charges following the 2008 crisis, and it received mostly positive reviews after premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, yet it hasn’t been a big buzz title. Even lesser James is still decent, though — not that this really sounds like lesser James. More festivals are on the way, but so far there is no release date set by any distributor.
Death in the Terminal
Hollywood upstart Megan Ellison (Zero Dark Thirty, 20th Century Women) hasn’t really gotten involved with documentary features yet, but she is attached to this mid-length IDFA winner as an executive producer, along with Zero Dark Thirty screenwriter Mark Boal. Filmmaker Alma Ha’rel (Bombay Beach) also came on as a producer after seeing it and declaring it “one of the best films I’ve ever seen.” Directed by Tali Shemesh (The Cemetary Club) and Asaf Sudri, the film is described as a Rashomon-style chronicle of a terrorist attack in Israel, and that’s enough to sell us even without the names attached. Hopefully their clout helps this get some distribution in the U.S. despite the difficult-to-sell running time.
Ex Libris: New York Public Library
If you think 2016 was all bad, recall that it’s a year in which Frederick Wiseman was given an honorary Oscar, and he also recently received a Sundance Institute grant to finish his next film. Still, 2016 didn’t give us a new release from the master of the subtly subjective observational documentary, and 2017 does have that, with help from the aforementioned grant. As usual, the title indicates the institution in focus, but specifically this film will deal in the contrast between the antiquities in the NYPL’s archives and the future of library materials in the form of digital media. We figure this will premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival and of course play at the New York Film Festival before hopefully hitting theaters at the end of the year.
Sylvia & Marsha
There are a lot of documentaries focused on trans subjects coming in the next year and beyond, but the one we’re most excited about is David France’s follow-up to his Oscar-nominated AIDS treatment history How to Survive a Plague. Sure to be just as riveting and heartbreaking and hopeful, the film is about trans rights activists Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson, the latter a leader of the movement who was found dead in the Hudson River, likely having been murdered, almost 25 years ago. It’s not certain that this Sundance grant recipient will come out in 2017, but that does appear to be the goal, in part to honor the anniversary.
Honorable mentions to other films that may arrive in 2017: Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel’s Caniba, Bill and Turner Ross’s Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets, Rameen Aminzadeh’s Get Up Stand Up, Rob Garver’s What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael and untitled projects by Joshua Oppenheimer and Amanda Rose Wilder.