The Central Park Five is a harrowing documentation of the unseen narrative surrounding the 1989 Central Park Jogger case. Five men – four black and one of Hispanic descent – have been wrongly accused, tried, and convicted for the assault, rape, and sodomy of female jogger Trisha Meili the night of April 19. No (DNA) evidence was found implicating the involvement of any of the kids to the crime and no one could identify them, but because the crime was sensationalized by the masses and the authorities were put under pressure by the media to pin a name on the case, they settled with coercing a confession out of the juveniles. This is a telling of their tale years on.
In a stunning (re)introduction to James Baldwin, intellectual, author, and social critic, this movie digs very deep into the American subconscious and racial history. It is based off a book idea that would have studied the famous assassinations of three of Baldwin's friends: Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr., he wrote about 30 pages of it before he passed away in 1987. Raoul Peck picked up the project and made it into this movie, highlighting at the same time Baldwin's genius, his unique and always eloquent perspective as well as the beauty of his soul as a human being. A mesmerizing experience, it is an immensely sad fact that the narrative still feels as relevant now as it was in 1979, and as such this movie serves as a reminder on how far America still has to go.
The Salt of the Earth is a 2014 biographical documentary about famed Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado. Directed and narrated by Wim Wenders in collaboration with Salgado’s son, Juliano, the film tells Salgado’s life story from his childhood in northern Brazil, his early career as an economist, and ultimately the shift to photography that would lead him to over 120 countries as a world-renowned photojournalist. Shot in stunning black and white by Juliano and Hugo Barbier, The Salt of the Earth is a mesmerizing exhibition of one man’s lifelong dedication to capturing humanity and nature in remarkable states of peril, compromise and elegance. From the Brazilian gold mine of Serra Pelada to the Yali Tribe of Papua New Guinea to the war-ravaged people of Rwanda (to name just a few), the film follows Salgado’s career through his photography, accompanied by his personal accounts of his many encounters and impressions. It’s Salgado’s grace, empathy and kindness that shine the brightest—remarkable for a man who has seen (and photographed) the worst of humanity over the course of his lifetime. It’s an utterly enthralling experience, upsetting at times in its frank display of war and death, but it ultimately serves as an exemplary presentation of Salgado’s work and his intimate reflections upon a career dedicated to truth, awareness and beauty.
Incredible footage combined with a great soundtrack will keep you frozen in your seat until global warming melts you off (so to speak). Chasing Ice is about a National Geographic photographer who tries to capture a complete overview of what climate change is doing to our planet. Consequently this movie took years to make and countless technical issues had to be dealt with in order to record the time-lapse videos. The result is mesmerizing, and captures something that has never been caught on camera before. This movie is evidence of what our planet is going through that everyone can relate to. Be prepared to be charmed and saddened at the same time.
From countries like Finland to North Korea, this amazing documentary explores the most fascinating active volcanoes on our planet. But as it unfolds you realize that Into the Inferno is a movie as much about volcanoes as it is about the people obsessed with them. And who can be called obsessive more than the film’s own director, Werner Herzog, who, with such an explosive career had to eventually make a film about volcanos (bad pun intended). Beautiful scenery, interesting interviews, and Werner’s majestic delivery all make Into the Inferno both an interesting and satisfying documentary.
Zero Days is a fascinating and alarming documentary about the Stuxnet computer virus that raised red flags throughout the cyber-security world in 2010 due to its complexity and ambiguous threat. Told in urgent fashion with first-hand accounts from cyber professionals from around the globe, Zero Days details the efforts of analysts to painstakingly dissect the Stuxnet code, and ultimately determine that it was the wayward product of a joint effort between the U.S. and Israel governments to sabotage centrifuges inside Iran's Natanz nuclear plant—in the hopes of slowing their development of nuclear weapons. The unfolding mystery of this story plays out with urgency and dismay, as the implications of this covert operation unfold, including the legitimate threat of retaliation by the Iranian government. It’s a stunning real-life thriller from renowned documentary Alex Gibney (Going Clear, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room) that not only details the complexities of advanced coding in a remarkably evocative visual manner, but also spells out much of the modern espionage involved in making such an elaborate operation even possible. Ultimately, the message here is that cyber warfare is very much our new reality, and this film deserves to be seen by anyone with any degree of concern over our safety and security in the 21st century.
How to Change the World is an insightful and candid documentary about the formation of Greenpeace in 1971 by a small group of environmentalists and activists in Vancouver, British Columbia. Beginning with their attempt to disrupt U.S. nuclear testing in Amchitka, Alaska, the film follows their subsequent efforts to thwart commercial whaling in the Pacific, their anti-sealing campaign in Newfoundland, and their ongoing efforts to defend the natural world against what they perceive as excessive human intervention and abuse. How to Change the World is as much a poignant tale of inspired activism as it is an interesting study of the organization’s early tribulations: idealism vs. anarchy, social movement vs. organizational structure (or lack thereof) and leadership vs. disunity. The voice of co-founder Robert Hunter (de facto leader of Greenpeace from inception) is heard posthumously throughout via narrator Barry Pepper, and it adds an impassioned air of gravitas to the film, detailing the many complexities Greenpeace experienced over the course of its early years of growth and development. A compelling and educational viewing experience.
When Russian director Vitaly Mansky is commissioned by the North Korean government to make a documentary about an average Pyongyang child, he follows their every guideline. Except the end result, Under The Sun, is the complete opposite of what they had intended. For example starting every take earlier than they thought, he makes the documentary about the watchdogs around the child and other mechanisms of propaganda. He uses quiet storytelling to expose how brainwashing in a fascist regime takes place, and how the people caught in it function. May just be the smartest, most important film you can watch on North Korea.
Arguably Werner Herzog's most renowned film, Grizzly Man is a thought-provoking documentary about Tim Treadwell, a man who, as the title suggests, lived among bears. While he remained only known for how his story ended, by one of the bears turning on him, Grizzly Man is the exploration of the man's complex mind, unlimited energy and love for nature. It could be because of the subject matter or because of Herzog's mesmerizing monotone narration, and maybe it is because of both - but Grizzly Man becomes a supremely beautiful look at psychology and how it collides nature. Also like most of Herzog's other work it's a hunt for the peculiar, so expect many funny, absurd, and charming moments.
An extraordinary documentary full of drama, comedy and heartbreak. It follows two penguins, a couple, for a year as they migrate, give birth and face hardships and tragedy. It captures never seen before moments that stand as a perfect illustration of survival in particular and life in general. All in a very well crafted documentary that you will find both instructive and deeply moving. Won the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature.
The Last Man on the Moon is a documentary about astronaut Eugene Cernan, Commander of the Apollo 17 lunar landing mission in 1972. Chronicled by Cernan himself as he reminisces on his life, the film follows his early career with the Navy, his recruitment and training as an astronaut, and his participation in 3 trips to space: Gemini 9A, Apollo 10 and eventually Apollo 17—the last of NASA’s six expeditions to the Moon. Cern also delves heartfully into his loss of friends as well as his regretfulness for missing out on so much family time while away. It’s a poignant and inspiring account, with Cern providing a fine lesson in the confidence and diligence in takes to pursue and accomplish one’s dreams
The Look of Silence is an incredible documentary from Director Joshua Oppenheimer, a follow-up/companion piece to his award-winning documentary The Act of Killing. Both films focus on the Indonesian Genocide of 1965-66, where the military government systematically purged up to one million communists. In this film an optician named Adi Rukun meets with various members of the death squad that murdered his brother, under the guise of providing them eye examinations. As he questions them about their participation in the killings, they show little remorse and in fact provide lurid details to the many executions. It’s a stunning and provocative look at the legacy of historical violence, along with the insidious propaganda that provoked it then and continues to justify it to younger generations.
This is the story of an almost unknown musician of the 60’s and early 70’s, known as Rodriguez. He was shunned in his native U.S., but beloved in the most unlikely of countries, Apartheid-era South Africa. His bootleg albums circulated widely among his fans there, propelling him to extreme levels of fame. But he had no idea. This is a feel-good production that can also be sharp-witted when it needs to be.
A striking and revelatory documentary focused on the behaviour of captive Orcas and their treatment within SeaWorld and other theme parks around the world. At the center of the story is Tilikum, a bull Orca that has been responsible for the death of three individuals, and the legal and ethical challenges that have arisen from apparent cover-ups by officials. What happened to Tilikum to make him adopt such behavior? First-hand accounts by former whale trainers and experts deliver fascinating truths about Tilikum and the species as whole, with particular attention on their remarkable intelligence and advanced social behaviors. Blackfish will undoubtedly change your perspective on whale captivity indefinitely. It’s certainly not to be missed by anyone who appreciates top-notch documentary film-making as honest historical record.
Twinsters is a documentary about a young Asian American actress, Samantha Futerman (also co-director), who is contacted over the internet by a young French-Asian woman, Anaïs Bordier, who has been shown a video of Samantha on the internet — and cannot believe their remarkably similar physical appearance. After initial perplexity and uncertainty, Samantha and Anaïs are soon embroiled in excited correspondence and travel to meet one another in their respective countries — eventually confirming via DNA testing that they are in fact long-lost twin sisters given up for adoption 25 years earlier in South Korea. A remarkable true story with a wonderfully beating heart, Twinsters does a lovely job of not just spelling out the amazing story of the sisters’ unlikely connection, but also finding and exploring the growing love and affection between both the two girls, as well as their extended families and groups of friends. A truly touching and humanistic film-viewing experience.
Chinese artist Ai Weiwei directs his attention towards the ongoing refugee crisis, the biggest displacement of people since World War II. His documentary is apolitical and tries to focus on the human side of the picture. It's not a news report or a commentary on the causes of the situation. Instead, it's a combination of heartfelt stories spanning 23 countries that showcase people's battle for dignity and basic rights. A truly epic movie complemented by impressive drone footage that's as impressive as it is sad.
Another fantastic documentary from 2012, this one tells the remarkable story of the 1992 Lithuanian Olympic Men’s Basketball team that received scant attention in the shadow of the renowned U.S. “Dream Team” of NBA superstars (Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, etc.). The Lithuanians’ story is all the more fascinating in that it comes immediately on the heels of their country’s freedom from Communist rule. With little hope of participating in the Barcelona games, they received the most unlikely last-minute assistance from the Grateful Dead, of all sources. A really great true-life story, told with an exuberance and a verve not often expected from non-fiction filmmaking. I challenge anyone watch this one and walk away uninspired.
Undefeated won an Oscar but since it’s a documentary, few sadly paid attention to it. It tells the story of a football team in a poor area in Tennessee. Kids without a bright future, until the new coach arrives. Yes, that sounds like a very old, cliché tale. But keep in mind it is a documentary, and the story it tells is powerful, gripping, and any familiarity quickly becomes irrelevant. Even if you have no interest in American football, or in sports in general, you will love it and more than likely find yourself reaching for the Kleenex at least a few times before the credits roll.
A documentary that is immediate and plays out like a thriller. Beautifully shot in Virunga National Park in the Eastern Congo, the story focuses on the struggles between Park Rangers and a list of adversaries including poachers, oil company goons, and an Islamic revolutionary army. The stories of the endangered gorillas and the people who struggle to protect them will break your heart and at the same time give you hope in humanity. On top of this, the editing is superb and gives the film an intensity that rivals any recent thriller.
“As fragile as she was strong, as vulnerable as she was dynamic, she was African royalty. How does royalty stomp around in the mud and still walk with grace?”. What Happened, Miss Simone? will surprise you no matter how much you thought you knew about the soul singer - not only in its exploration of Nina Simone’s personal life and complexities, but by being both a personal and political documentary. As you discover an original singer with talents that reach all the way to performance art, you will also learn about a Civil Rights activist’s journey and an unstable woman’s struggle. The documentary is not about answering the question of what happened, Miss Simone? – it’s an exploration of why that question is so important.