January 5, 2010

The 'T' Lists: Tom & Tamara's Top Ten Docs of 2009

As we begin to look forward to the new crop of films for 2010, we pause for a moment to review the year that just was. We present to you THE 'T' LISTS...Top 10 lists from editor Tom White and associate editor Tamara Krinsky. Thanks to all the wonderful filmmakers who constantly provide the intriguing, inspiring stories which keep our job exciting.

 --Tom & Tamara 

Tamara Krinsky's Top 10 Docs of 2009

 In alphabetical order...

1. Anvil! The Story of Anvil: The unexpectedly inspirational story about never giving up on your dreams...as told through two rockin', soulful metal-heads.
2. Burma VJ: Reporting From a Closed Country - A doc that taught me about an important situation in the world of which I was ignorant. I saw it at Sundance, and for the rest of the year, it affected the way I thought about courage in reporting and current events.
3. Every Little Step:  I've been a musical theater whore since seeing Peter Pan at age 5; hearing the original recordings of Michael Bennett's sessions with the dancers that were used to create A Chorus Line was an incredible thrill.
4. Food, Inc.: I almost left it off the list because it's received so much attention elsewhere; however, a doc shouldn't be punished because it's popular. Plus, it made me think differently about every piece of food I put in my mouth.
5. Good Hair: Funny and informative, Chris Rock's doc answered all the questions I've always wanted to ask about African-American hair.
6. HBO's The Alzheimer's Project: A set of in-depth programs that delved into the emotional and scientific aspects of a disease affecting far too many people. Heart-breaking and hopeful at the same time.
7. The Cove: There were many wonderful films this year that dealt with environmental issues; what separates The Cove is its masterful storytelling - eco-doc meets action thriller.
8. The September Issue: A gorgeously shot doc in which I expected to learn about the mysterious Wintour; instead, I discovered the fascinating Grace Coddington and the heart of an artist.
9. Transcendent Man: Whether you think futurist/inventor Ray Kurzweil is a prophet or a crackpot, this film will give you much to think on about the intertwined future of technology and man.
10. We Live in Public: As a new media junkie, I loved this visit with a fascinating architect of Internet history. Plus, Ondi Timoner gets a special nod for her trail-blazing use of new media to promote the film.

As always, there are always a few docs that slip by me that perhaps would have ended up on my list. Still dying to see: Valentino, Garbage Dreams, Afghan Star, La Danse, Beaches of Agnes, Tyson, October Country and RIP: A Remix Manifesto

Tom White's Top Ten List of 2009

My top ten list is not necessarily in order of preference, or alphabetical, or in the order in which I saw the films. But it's a little of all of those, with the attempt to make segues from title to title. Think of this list as a non-linear one--more like a cloud, if you will.

Anvil! The Story of Anvil--Heavy metal is probably my least favorite genre of music (after easy listening, quiet storm, smooth jazz and country and western), but that didn't stop me from loving this film (although evidently it was a barrier for most AMPAS voters). This is an homage to the
strivers and dreamers who fall short of their goals-but never succumb to that second act in life. Funny, poignant, heart-breaking and inspiring, Anvil the film transcended the potential for Spinal Tapian caricature of Anvil the band--although it didn't change my mind about heavy metal. But then again, imagine if Anvil were an easy listening act, like Air Supply or Bread? Now that would have been a challenge for Sacha Gervasi!

We Live in Public--Another Oscar snub. While the film captures the zeitgeist of the Aughts before it became the zeitgeist, at the heart of We Live in Public is a tragicomic figure
in Josh Harris, one whose incorrigible hubris, casual cruelty, self-destructive genius and Jim Jonesian megalomania recalled Caligula, Richard III and Charles Foster Kane.

Winnebago Man--I was tempted to assign this as a two-for-one article with We Live in Public, but the writer convinced me otherwise. But still, Jack Rebney, the Winnebago Man in
question, who gained his renown as the tempestuous pitchman from a 1986 video that spread like kudzu around the world-first in the analog days, then in the dial-up days of the Web, and now, in the super-charged, We Live in Public era of today-makes for an intriguing 21st century man. But filmmaker Ben Steinbauer set out to find the man behind the outtakes-and the man behind the worldwide celebrity. It isn't the journey, nor the destination, however, that makes this film. It's the process of making the documentary itself--of that strange, wily covenant between filmmaker and subject, the filmmaker and his film, and the filmmaker and his audience.

Big River Man--This film premieres on Discovery's Planet Green this month, and while the protagonist, Martin Strel, swims the grandest rivers in the world purportedly to raise awareness of environmental crises, Big River Man is not ostensibly an environmental doc. Strel is a Herzogian character-not a screaming banshee like Klaus Kinski, or a deluded grizzly man like Timothy Treadwell, but more of an existential cipher, who, while sharing those characters' obsessive compulsions to go one on one with nature, engages his quest with an odd stoicism. His traveling companions along the Amazon go nearly mad themselves, as the river takes on a mythical, mystical and at times monstrous aura. And yet, I found myself roaring with laughter along with the audience that packed the theater at the LA Film Festival. A hauntingly hilarious film.

The Solitary Life of Cranes--Full disclosure: I was once a construction worker in London, but I never got the chance to experience what life might be like up there alone in the cabin of a crane. Eva Weber gives me that experience--and more. Through the off-camera musings of the crane operators themselves and the fabulous cinematography, we get a sense of solitude, voyeurism, empowerment and mortality. And poetry. Another Oscar snub.

Must Read After My Death--The remarkable chronicle of a Post World War II suburban family--told entirely through audio recordings and home movies--has echoes of Richard Yates' Revolutionary Road and any number of John Cheever's stories in tracking the disillusionment and quiet desperation that inevitably accompanied the American Dream. Filmmaker Morgan Dews discovered this documentation of what happened to be the story of his grandparents, mother, aunts and uncles, and created a unique portrait.

The Cove--In the first quarter or so of the year, The Cove garnered a bevy of audience awards from festivals across the country and around the world, and at year's end, it's garnering the lion's share of kudos and accolades from critics. (And it's even on the Oscars Short List!) So why did it fall short of box office expectations? This is one of those rare films that succeed in conveying a strong message and telling a great story in a riveting, white-knuckle sort of way.

La Danse--As much as I dislike heavy metal, I have even less affection for classical ballet. But that doesn't matter here. Frederick Wiseman can mine the poetry and drama in most anything, including art forms that are innately poetic and dramatic, like...classical ballet. Here he and longtime cinematographer John Davey capture both the intricacies and mysteries of the creative process, in the rehearsal studios and in performance on stage, and the complexities and challenges of running a ballet company. It's observational cinema, yes, but with Wiseman, who manages to remain invisible even in a room full of mirrors, La Danse truly sees into the life of things.

El General--Filmmaker Natalia Almada's great-grandfather, Plutarco Elias Calles, was President of Mexico in the 1920s and ‘30s-and "El General" of the title. But this is not a history documentary, and although the audiotapes of Almada's grandmother telling the story of Calles serves the
narrative, this is not a personal documentary either. But in utilizing those genres, along with the essay doc and the social issue doc, as touchstones, Almada creates a singular exploration of the intersections and contradictions between national history and personal memory.

Sweetgrass--Although this film played in a few festivals in 2009, and officially opens today (January 6) through The Cinema Guild, I will count this among the best films I saw in 2009-and it might end up on my 2010 list as well. Filmmakers Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Ilisa Barbash call themselves "recordists," and they take their time capturing what turns out to be one of the last sheep-herding expeditions for a family business in Montana. At once sprawling in its stunning vistas of the Great American West and intimate in capturing the trials and tribulations of sheep-herding, Sweetgrass transports us back to the 19th century, yet creates its own mythology of the American West in its visionary brand of observational cinema.


Honorable mentions:
The September Issue
Carmen Meets Borat
The Yes Men Fix the World
October Country