The 5 Best Documentaries We Saw at the 2014 Los Angeles Film Festival

Stray Dog 2

I didn’t see as many films as I would have liked at this year’s Los Angeles Film Festival, but there were more than enough documentaries I caught that are more than worth recommending. And even from my limited selection, two clear themes for the festival’s docs emerged. The first is how America’s economic climate is slamming the lower class. The second is of crime and punishment, and the absurdity that runs rife through our country’s courts and prison system. Most of these films are led by a magnetic single protagonist. None of them take a macro view of an issue, instead focusing on personal experiences. And of course, all of them are great.

1. Stray Dog

I already spent 800 hundred words raving about this jury prize winner, but it’s worth another paragraph. This is a documentary that doesn’t feel like a documentary. It abides by none of the tropes of nonfiction storytelling with which we are familiar. But even if it were rife with voiceover or interviews or explanatory chyrons, the endlessly riveting title character would still make this movie worthwhile. Ron “Stray Dog” Hall spends every minute he’s on screen gently dismantling every assumption the audience is likely to make when they first seem him, festooned in the requisite leather and denim and patch-covered biker attire. Joining a fantastic subject to a novel approach makes this one of the best surprises of the year.

2. The Overnighters

More than any other film, this one feels like it’s built to generate big buzz this year. We’ve already recommended it out of multiple festivals, and it was again a standout at this one. The Overnighters embraces a lot of problems in recession-era America in pursuit of a story about one man trying to do the right thing that reads almost like a Biblical parable. Which is appropriate, since that man is a pastor. It’s wrenching, and damning of our society’s rampant corporatism and empathy-averse culture.

3. Out in the Night

There are plenty of documentaries about gross miscarriages of justice that tell their tale, then end with their unfortunate characters put in prison, with a brief coda about where they are now. But in this film, the imprisonment is only at the halfway point. This doc delves deeper, because it’s concerned with all the effects that a society dead set against one has on their psyche. We follow the women involved in the 2006 Greenwich Village assault case from their lives before that fateful night through their trial, incarceration and release. It’s a harrowing look at institutionalized racism, sexism and homophobia. And it makes a for perfect double feature with 2012’s The Central Park Five.

4. Evolution of a Criminal

This movie takes the Sarah Polley approach to personal investigation, only instead of tangled family history, Darius Monroe explores how and why he robbed a bank 10 years before. Without ever excusing his actions, he tries to make sense for himself, the people he talks to and the audience how he, a model student, was set on a path towards becoming “the bad guy.” Almost everyone Monroe talks to appears at least slightly dazed at the nature of the project, but they talk to him nonetheless, and the result is a can’t-look-away dialectic.

5. The Life and Mind of Mark Defriest

Mark Defriest has served 30 years in prison for taking tools that technically belonged to him, but at the wrong time. While this film gets a little repetitive, that repetition does help to convey the endless nightmare in which Defriest lives. He has continually extended his sentence thanks to repeated escape attempts, and those plans are breathtaking in their ingenuity and audaciousness. Recreated via animation, each escape sequence is a treat, better than any heist film in years. And it drives home the movie’s point, which is that a mind like this should have been put to useful ends, instead of tamped down behind bars.

LA-based writer about movies, TV, and other assorted culture stuff. Work collected at