Scores of documentaries premiered at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival. In the coming year, you’ll be catching many of them in theaters or on HBO, Netflix, PBS or any other number of avenues. We didn’t get to see every doc that played the fest, but we saw a fair share. Here is the cream of the crop, in alphabetical order.
3 1/2 Minutes
Nearly every week brings us a new story of a white person killing a black person on baseless justifications. Forty-something Michael Dunn shot teenager Jordan Davis over an argument about loud music. This meticulous court documentary weaves footage from Dunn’s trial with interviews with Davis’s friends and family. The wound in their lives left by this young man’s senseless death is stung by the absurd legal rigmarole created by “stand your ground” laws, which have made it possible for a good number of people to literally get away with murder. Avoiding made-for-the-camera exposition such as infographics in favor of cutting court testimony down to the most salient parts, 3 1/2 Minutes is an enraging film, one that’s utterly, tragically of the national moment.
Coming soon to HBO.
The Amina Profile
Another movie that could only have been made right now, both for it’s plot, which is steeped in the messy political turbulence of the Middle East, and its themes, which concern murky identity maneuverings in the online sphere. The best part of The Amina Profile is how it works equally smoothly whether or not you are familiar with its story. That should be a no-brainer for a documentary (or any movie, really), but docs that are built around a twist have not always done so well in this regard. But the twist is the whole core of how the Internet, which enables both love stories and revolutions that once may not have been possible, can also be used to betray us. And it culminates in what may be one of the most devastatingly uncomfortable scenes of the year.
Unquestionably the funniest doc at the fest, though that description belies the amount of heart that Finders Keepers also contains. The tale of two men fighting over a mummified human leg is the stuff of supermarket rags, but this painfully American conflict, which encompasses a lawsuit eventually settled on a daytime courtroom TV show, treats its odd players with decency. The humor comes naturally from their outsized personalities and situations, not at their expense. Add in a heavy dose of gleeful quotability (“fuckery and shenanigans” will likely be a regular part of my lexicon now) and you get a winning little film.
Coming to theaters and digital release via The Orchard later this year.
Pervert Park sticks to the conventions of the confessional subculture genre, exploring a specific environment and letting its inhabitants have their say about what it’s like to be a part of it. But what sets it apart is the sheer discomfort that its chosen world evokes. We don’t want to think about sex offenders as anything other than monsters, but this movie will have none of that. So it tells us their stories. Their awful, disturbing, sometimes unfair and sometimes even sympathetic stories. Film is an empathy machine, and this film holds true something that most people might say they agree with but secretly not live out: that everyone, no matter who they are, deserves some empathy.
The Royal Road
Jenni Olson turns a movie in on herself by turning a camera outward to the Pacific coast. History, cinema, romance, memory, philosophy and theory all intermingle along The Royal Road. Solipsism and documentary don’t always jibe together too well, but Olson uses her own experience as a jumping-off point for some big ideas about nostalgia and its relationship to us and the places in which we live. This is a quiet film but never a dull one. Plus, its gorgeous 16mm cinematography easily makes it the best-looking doc at the fest.
The Russian Woodpecker
I want to believe. Like all the best conspiracy documentaries, The Russian Woodpecker makes you a little bit crazy and paranoid. But even if it turns out that Fedor Alexandrovich is wrong about the true cause of the Chernobyl disaster (though I’m honestly convinced that he could be on the money), this is not a film whose true value lies in “proving” anything, but rather in how it draws up a portrait of life in modern Ukraine and what it’s like to be constantly grappling with the shade of the Soviet Union, a behemoth that in many ways is still alive and well. Besides that, this film is endlessly riveting, sometimes chilling and often quite funny. And if we find out that Alexandrovich is right, then this may well be one of the most important documentaries ever made.