Now in its fourth year, DOC NYC, opening today, “has boldfaced its claim to being the country’s largest documentary festival,” notes Michelle Orange in the Voice. “This year’s lineup, which includes 73 features (12 more than last year), 39 shorts, and an array of events, is the biggest yet. It is also, I’m pleased to report, easily the best.”
Our first recommendation here comes from Andrew Schenker at the House Next Door: “An exemplary documentary about an exemplary band, Revenge of the Mekons tells the story of the eponymous group by not only situating them in their proper musical and historical context, but by offering a telling look at the octet’s working dynamic and by outlining the specific qualities that have made them such a significant entity for the better part of four decades.” Frank Scheck for the Hollywood Reporter: “Using a mixture of archival and contemporary footage as well as interviews with the band’s members, music critics and such fans as the well-known writers Luc Sante and Jonathan Franzen, the filmmaker affectionately chronicles The Mekons’ long history that includes forays with such artists as Vito Acconci and Kathy Acker. The band’s communal nature is well conveyed in a sequence depicting their collective songwriting process, as well as a charming coda in which its members are seen reaffirming their ‘vows’ to each other in a pagan wedding ceremony.”
“If you’re going to call a movie Death Metal Angola, it had better be hardcore.” Jon Dieringer on one of eight docs he previews for Time: “Jeremy Xido’s documentary surprises out of the gate with its understated, observational character exploring the textures of ruin and decay in war-torn Angolan cities like Luanda, Benguela, and Huambo. Smartly photographed, it explores the heavy music subcultures like death metal, thrash, and grindcore that have sprung up in areas most fraught with violence and civil war while charting one musician’s attempt to organize Angola’s first national rock concert.”
For Anthony Kaufman, writing at Sundance Now, “two of the program’s better new films are gritty and sleazy stories that come out of New York City in the 1960s and ‘70s. Ido Mizrahy’s Patrolman P follows a corrupt cop from the 1970s that ratted out his fellow officers, exposed a widespread culture of graft—with 50% of the NYPD allegedly ‘on the pad’—and who then was arrested and convicted for a murder he vows he did not commit…. But the more interesting question may be whether Phillips, who brazenly took bribes and brags of shooting and killing a fleeing man, is or even should be redeemable. By contrast, octogenarian softcore porn impresario Joe Sarno is pleasantly vindicated in Swedish filmmaker Wiktor Ericsson’s The Sarnos: A Life in Dirty Movies…. Using clips from Sarno’s early movies—such as Sin in the Suburbs (1964), The Swap and How They Make It (1966) and Inga (1968)—and interviews with observers and fans such as John Waters and Annie Sprinkle, a picture of a more sensitive sexploitation director emerges, one whose concerns for female-centered pleasure and arty black-and-white cinematography have deservingly earned him the moniker, ‘The Ingmar Bergman of porn.'” More on Patrolman P from John Anderson (Thompson on Hollywood) and John DeFore (Hollywood Reporter).
Time Out New York‘s posted its recommendations. Here’s one from each of its contributors:
David Fear on What Is Cinema?: “Best known for his viva-the-movies Oscar montages, Chuck Workman extends his mash-up approach to feature-length to answer the titular question. Commentary from filmmakers and programmers offers insight, but the real treat here is the juxtaposition of clips: a hall-of-mirrors tour that is a cinephile’s nocturnal emission.” For the Playlist‘s Kevin Jagernauth, What Is Cinema? “is a compelling, enriching look at visionaries old and new, who continue to forge fascinating new paths in a medium that shows no signs of stagnating. Indeed, What Is Cinema? isn’t really about where film has been, but where it goes next.”
Joshua Rothkopf on A Fragile Trust: Plagiarism, Power and Jayson Blair at The New York Times: “One of the Gray Lady’s most embarrassing moments comes to complex life in this tough-minded analysis that explores issues of race, affirmative action and institutional inertia. Director Samantha Grant scores an interview with Blair himself, ready to go deeper into his own deception.”
Keith Uhlich on Misfire: The Rise and Fall of the Shooting Gallery: “Conceived as a scrappy, indie–film backing upstart, New York–based production company the Shooting Gallery quickly rose to industry prominence, the brains behind such awards-feted movies as Sling Blade and You Can Count on Me. Its fall was just as swift (a victim of rampant mismanagement and the dot-com bubble), something this engrossing doc from former Gallery employee Whitney Ransick chronicles with can’t-look-away fascination.” More from Drew Taylor at the Playlist.
At Filmmaker, Lauren Wissot recommends a handful, among them, Jeremy Workman’s Magical Universe, “a perfect example of my ‘filmmaking should match subject matter’ mantra, a throwback-to-the-90s, NYUFF-scruffy doc crafted in a style that brings us closer to (and practically inside the brain of) the 88-year-old outsider artist at its core. Through the use of nearly 15 different cameras (filming took place over a decade) and collage editing—that includes animated images of doors opening to more doors ad infinitum—Workman’s film is filled with jack-in-the-box surprises. Thus, it even manages to encapsulate the enormity of what one newspaper reporter in Maine describes as the local, real-life Chronicles of Narnia house designed by Al Carbee.”
From photographer Robin Holland: “The Pleasures of Being Out of Step, directed by David L. Lewis and narrated by Andre Braugher, profiles Nat Hentoff, who has had a long, twinned career, writing about jazz and civil liberties. Hentoff says, ‘The Constitution and jazz are my main reasons for being,’ and calls ‘James Madison and company’ ‘those improvisers’ and states that ‘jazz, a life force, comes from democracy… freedom is the common denominator in the music and the First Amendment.'”
Back when it screened in Toronto, Rob Nelson reviewed DOC NYC 2013’s centerpiece for Variety: “An aptly obsessive study of obsession, Finding Vivian Maier sifts through the volumninous work and scant personal details of the titular street photographer, posthumously recognized as a genius of the form and a master of cultivated mystery. That this initially playful, ultimately haunting documentary is co-produced and co-directed by the principal owner and chief curator of Maier’s art, John Maloof, raises questions of self-promotion that could never be directed at the subject, who kept her many thousands of photos hidden from view. But Maloof also makes a compelling corollary to the compulsive shutterbug, resulting in the docu equivalent of double exposure.”
Michel Gondry’s Is The Man Who Is Tall Happy? An Animated Conversation with Noam Chomsky will close the festival on November 21. Introducing his conversation with Gondry at the Playlist, Charlie Schmidlin calls the film “at once dense and incredibly playful.” For Indiewire‘s Eric Kohn, this is Gondry’s best work since Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004). “For the most part,” writes Steve Macfarlane in Slant, Chomsky and Gondry’s “collaboration is a magnificently quizzical diagram of two ceaselessly inquiring minds in perfect tandem, like a raw X-ray of atomized creativity.”
Update, 11/20: Jordan Osterer at FilmLinc Daily: “It’s hard not to admire Gondry’s impetuousness, even when the project falters or outright fails…. Neither fish nor fowl, the film’s peppy cartoons construct a visual world around the rhythm of a voice—you might call it a Noam Chomsky music video.” Amy Nicholson talks with Gondry for the Voice, where Alan Scherstuhl writes, “Imagine a doozy of an office-hours audience with the most brilliant professor you never had, set inside a kaleidoscopic lightboard of a shared mind-space, where everything that professor says is illustrated in pulsing, wheeling, mercurial cartoons. It’s a mad thrill, like witnessing a great evolutionary leap of the margin notes you may have doodled in class.”
4 out of 5 stars from Keith Uhlich in Time Out New York: “What a pleasure it is, the film suggests, to be perpetually befuddled.” At the Dissolve, Noel Murray finds that “even though Gondry and Chomsky’s very different sensibilities don’t mesh in such a way that either man’s work gains substantially from the alliance, they’re each such good company individually that Is The Man Who Is Tall Happy? is still entertaining.” And Jordan Hoffman talks with Gondry for Film.com.
Updates, 11/22: For Salon‘s Andrew O’Hehir, “Gondry’s odd achievement in Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy? has nothing to do with whether you agree with anything Chomsky has ever said, about language or the United States or anything else. This film captures Chomsky as a human being—a sweet and sad and rather lonely one, truth be told—without ever belittling his questing intelligence, his generosity or his ferocious assault on the entrenched narratives of power.”
Updates, 12/1: “Respect for POVs decidedly not the director’s own is a Gondry constant, and it’s far more germane than looking at his films as sporadic showcases for his visual imagination.” Vadim Rizov surveys the career at RogerEbert.com.
“Once you get used to its basic concept,” writes Slate‘s Dana Stevens, “this deceptively slight documentary starts to transform into a kind of meditative experience.” But “Gondry’s Bolex footage of Chomsky speaking in a nondescript office become the real-life surprise repatriating us from daydreamland,” notes Nicolas Rapold at the L.
Update, 11/16: From Christopher Bourne‘s collection of capsule reviews at Twitch, let’s go with The Road to Fame: “‘Jia Zhangke meets Glee‘ could be the tagline for this fascinating and engaging film, which follows five students from Beijing’s Central Academy of Drama, an institution as old as the People’s Republic of China itself. The school boasts such illustrious alumni as Gong Li (class of 1989) and Zhang Ziyi (class of 2000); the five young people the film follows, as well as countless others who inhabit the halls and classrooms of the Academy, strive to follow in those giant footsteps. However, their grandiose dreams clash with their parents’ expectations for them, as well as the brutal realities and intensely competitive nature of the entertainment industry.”
Update, 11/18: “In the early 1990’s, when refugees flooded from Rwanda into the Congo (formerly Zaire), aid groups scrambled to confront a cholera epidemic and lots of other health crises that exploded out of control among a surge of humanity fleeing an extermination campaign,” writes David D’Arcy at Artinfo. “The documentary by Laura Zizic and David Turner, Mission Congo, now at DOC NYC and at IDFA in Amsterdam later this week, exhumes the story, thanks to prodigious reporting from Bill Sizemore in the Virginian-Pilot (Robertson’s local paper) and Chris McGreal in the Guardian.”
Update, 11/22: The award-winners, as reported by Screen‘s Jeremy Kay:
Viewfinders Competition Grand Jury Prize: Mahdi Fleifel’s A World Not Ours.
Metropolis Competition: David L. Lewis’s The Pleasures of Being Out of Step.
Shorts Competition: Kelly O’Brien’s Softening.
SundanceNOW Audience Award: Michael Kleiman’s Web.