Our Top 6 Discoveries of DOC NYC 2014

Ocarina Media

DOC NYC is a massive festival. The largest of its kind in the country, this thriving downtown Manhattan event featured well over 100 films this year. It included 20 world premieres and seemingly countless premieres of various types. The program also offered a revival series, special programs for local docs, music docs, sports docs and the prestigious Short List program of films soon to be in awards contention. It was a wild mix of exciting debuts and 2014 festival mainstays, with many more films than any one person can really comprehend.

As such, it would be impossible to write a list of the best films of the festival. The names at the top would also likely be similar to those at the top of Sundance or SXSW, True/False or Hot Docs. A number of our favorites of the year took another bow in New York City, from awards juggernauts like Citizenfour and Life Itself to smaller triumphs like Cairo Drive and Song from the Forest. So instead of spending more time raving about films we already know are wonderful, let’s focus on some of the festival’s most promising discoveries. Here are six of the best, running the gamut from an overlooked classic to a promising world premiere.

Divide in Concord (Kris Kaczor)

Jean Hill is a woman on a mission. Specifically, she is an aging resident of Concord, Massachusetts, determined to get her town to ban single serving bottled water. Spurred on to environmental activism by her grandson, this will is to be her legacy. And the “town meeting” government of Concord allows her to introduce the resolution herself. This form of small “d” democracy, in which the population of the town is the main engine of government, is the perfect subject for a documentary, and director Kris Kaczor captures exactly the right mood. Both sides of the issue are represented by very opinionated, fired-up people. This is after all the Concord of Concord and Lexington, where the “shot heard around the world” was fired at the beginning of the American Revolution — which everyone in town brings up every chance they get. It has the local political theater of Town Hall and the scientific passion of Toxic Hot Seat, both highlights of last year’s festival.

Heaven Adores You (Nickolas Dylan Rossi)

Heaven Adores You is the unfortunately rare music documentary with an interesting aesthetic idea: a commitment to finding a powerful visual complement to its subject, singer-songwriter Elliott Smith. Rather than contenting itself with replicating the character of Smith’s music videos and overusing concert footage, director Nickolas Dylan Rossi treats the music as a presence unto itself. He plays it over footage of Portland’s industrial landscape, Oregon’s natural beauty and the more tragically empty spaces of New York City and Los Angeles where Smith spent the last years of his all-too-short life. It lingers on sound and color, refusing to rush through this biography as if trying to delay its sad conclusion as long as possible.

Kasamayaki (Yuki Kokubo)

Kasamayaki is a beautifully crafted film about artisanship that had its world premiere at the festival. Yuki Kokubo’s parents are artists who moved from Japan to the United States in 1986. They raised her there but have since returned to the town of Kasama, in a region now affected by the nuclear disaster at Fukushima. The film is the result of a trip Kokubo took to visit her parents. Scenes of the aging couple at work, making pottery and sculpture, are coupled with intense discussions about how they have lived their lives. Folded into this personal and artistic milieu is the odd stasis given to this home by its radioactivity, strong enough to affect those living in it but not so soon that the elderly couple will experience it themselves. All of these themes are expertly woven into a quiet art object as beautiful and enigmatic as Kokubo’s mother’s clay cats.

Marmato (Mark Grieco)

There is a lot to be angry about in this documentary portrait of the Colombian mining town of Marmato, which has spent the last few years fighting off the advances of a Canadian corporation seeking to level its mountain and extract all of its gold. Director Mark Grieco balances this frightening political narrative with a portrait of Marmato’s community and its traditions. These miners still work the way they always have, with dynamite and pulleys and little to no mechanization. Yet the film does not idealize this as some sort of pre-modern oddity, emphasizing the practical and immediate concerns of the town over any romanticized depiction of its potential loss of tradition. And as an expose of the international mining industry it is surprisingly potent, approaching the dramatic honesty of a film like Virunga.

Penthouse North (Johanna St Michaels)

Johanna St Michaels’s Penthouse North falls into the microgenre of documentaries about older women at their wits’ end, the many children of Grey Gardens. Yet it is less profoundly troubling than some other recent entries, like 2010’s The Good Life from Danish filmmaker Eva Mulvad. This is the story of Agneta Eckemyr, a retired Swedish actress and model trying to hang on to her rent-controlled penthouse apartment overlooking Central Park. It is mostly a casual portrait, rich with small details of apartment living and financial difficulties rather than major emotional outbursts. This lack of excitement until its last act may occasionally sit too calmly on the screen, but the strength of its quiet honesty makes it one of the best character portraits at DOC NYC this year.

Penthouse North (2014) – Trailer

The Chair (Robert Drew)

There were a number of classics in the Docs Redux program, including Steve James’s Hoop Dreams and Albert and David Maysles’s Salesman. Yet alongside these much higher profile masterpieces was an early film by Drew Associates. The Chair was made in between Robert Drew’s two most significant Kennedy films, Primary and Crisis: Behind a Presidential Commitment. Yet while The Chair features no figures as immediately recognizable and important as JFK and RFK, it makes a single death penalty case in Chicago feel just as urgent as any national crisis. The intimate electricity of Direct Cinema, particularly in the hands of Drew and his collaborators, makes this already tense legal drama into a riveting insight into American history.

Stream The Chair free for a limited time this month on SundanceNow’s Doc Club.

Daniel is a freelance critic living in Brooklyn. His writing has appeared at Nonfics, The Film Experience, The Brooklyn Rail, Indiewire, and Dok.Revue.