Wednesday, July 25, 2018

The 10 Documentaries I Tell Everyone to See

A recent conversation about the greatness of a documentary in theaters today prompted me to create this list; just keep in mind that I omitted music documentaries from possible inclusion because that's a list of its own.

10. CRUMB, 1995

This film about cult cartoonist Robert Crumb took the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance and it's not hard to see why. He came from a family of damaged souls, and of course battled his own demons. Perhaps too dark to be nominated for an Oscar, the film community understandably embraced it.

If you're discovering it for the first time, I highly recommend the Criterion Collection version, which features a commentary with the late Roger Ebert.

9. TIG, 2015

Who can endure a breakup, a near-fatal illness, the death of a parent and a cancer diagnosis ... then go on stage in front of a hundred guests and laugh about it? The incomparable comic, Tig Notaro, who tells her story in this oddly hilarious movie. My original review, when it debuted at the Seattle International Film Festival, is here.

At the time of this writing, you can stream this on Netflix.


Susan Tom is a single mother in California who has two biological children and 11 adopted, special needs children. This film chronicles a year in their life, which is run as efficiently as a military operation, but exposes the emotional gaps that result from a parent being spread so thin and gets at the reasons why Ms. Tom seems to be hoarding humans. Michael and I discuss this on a classic episode of Cinebanter.

This film is available on iTunes.


What began as a film about kids' birthday party entertainers soon turns into a portrait of a severely dysfunctional family. With two family members accused of sexual abuse (yet maintaining their innocence) the film leaves the audience wondering—if the charges are true, is pedophilia genetic? Note: this is one of the rare instances where I recommend not reading anything about the film before going in. Let the horror unfold and wash over you organically.

Available on demand via HBO GO, this film is still in rotation on the network as well.

6. ETHEL, 2012

If there's such a thing as a refreshing political documentary, this is it. Democrat or Republican, it's hard not to fall for the charms of RFK's widow Ethel Kennedy, who is profiled here by her daughter Rory. It's delightful, sad, surprising and inspiring. I wrote a gushing review of it for Cinebanter, when it played at SIFF and have seen it several times since. Every viewing is a pleasure.

This film can be found in DVD format via Amazon.


Though Sean Penn's Oscar-winning turn as the famous politician in the fictionalized version, Milk, was nothing short of phenomenal, I dare say I prefer this documentary over it. Seeing the real people discuss their friend and leader, and with archival footage of Milk himself, the powerful nature of his life and death become all the more luminous. Michael and I discussed it in this episode of Cinebanter.

You can rent this film via Amazon Prime.

4. MARWENCOL, 2010

This is one of those films you walk out of and say to yourself, "What just happened?" I loved it when I saw it at SIFF and was excited to learn a fictional version of it starring Steve Carell called Welcome to Marwen will be released later this year.

You can watch this film via iTunes.


Only listen to our Cinebanter episode where we talk about this after you've watched the film, because there are spoilers at every turn. This has everything—joy, drama, mystery, horror—you name it. At heart, it's just a story about a father and son and the influence that destroys their lives. By the time I'd finally recovered from seeing it (two years later) I ended up at a Cinequest table with the director, and over drinks gasped all over again hearing additional details that salted the wounds.

You can stream this free with an Amazon Prime membership.


Imagine being infinitely gifted in a medium of art but living your entire life telling no one about that gift, having an alternate career and then dying with a full storage unit of your work that may or may not be discovered. That was the way of Vivian Maier, an immigrant nanny who was also a stunning photographer. Read my original review here. And like I did, find an exhibit of her photos (they regularly tour) and take them all in.

This film is available for purchase on Amazon.

1. PARADISE LOST TRILOGY, 1996, 2000 & 2011

I never thought I'd develop a crush on a convicted killer, but that's what happened when I saw Damien Echols in these films for the first time. It's a harrowing story of a brutal murder of three children and the three innocent teenagers (dubbed the "West Memphis Three") who were convicted of killing them. At the urging of my Cinebanter partner, Michael, I caught up with the first two and we discussed them on our show; the third one I saw in the theater when it was released and then met Damien and his wife at an event three years later.

All three films are sold in a collection via Amazon. Note: After watching, be sure to google the footage of their release if you want a good cry.

Three Identical Strangers

On Monday I saw the documentary Three Identical Strangers.

In 1980,  Bobby Shafran, Eddy Galland and David Kellman discovered they were triplets. They grew up in separate households within 100 miles from one another, all adopted from the same agency. They had no prior knowledge they were part of a multiple birth, nor did their adoptive parents. But they were grateful to have found one another and became fast friends.

The triplets moved in together, went into business together and went clubbing together. They enjoyed instant fame and took advantage of all the perks it provided.

The parents, on the other hand, wanted answers. They returned to the agency where they'd adopted their boys and demanded to know why they weren't told they were triplets. They were told they would have been harder to place if kept together—but that wasn't the truth.

In reality, the triplets and dozens of other twins were part of an elaborate secret study trying to determine the power of nurture over nature. Case workers visited their houses as they grew up to observe their behavior, interview them, film them and learn about their habits—all under the guise of a study that was just meant to study adopted children.

Once they discover this deceit, they search for those who can provide answers, and the tale gets even more twisted from there. Laced with tragedy and pain, the true magnitude of how many people the study impacted may never be known.

The film was excellent, but is shot like a news magazine so there's nothing new to the storytelling. Also, I wish they hadn't repeated a few of the clips multiple times because that diluted, instead of strengthened, the point they were trying to make.

Still, well worth seeing for the story itself, which confirms that truth remains stranger than fiction.


Monday, July 23, 2018

Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again

On Saturday, I saw Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, starring Amanda Seyfried and Lily James.

Sophie (Seyfried) is on the verge of opening the hotel her mother Donna (James/Meryl Streep) had always dreamed of running. She's having trouble with her boyfriend, trouble with the weather and trouble with nausea. Of course, she sings about all of it.

Through present-day scenes with her and flashbacks of her young mother at a similar time in her life, we explore the parallels between the two women in a more heartwarming way that I honestly expected.

Lily James does a brilliant job of conveying the spirit of young Donna (a role originated by the magnificent Streep), finding herself in a new life on a small island, pregnant with Sophie. We get the backstory on how she first met Sophie's three dads (in somewhat comical retellings) and see her bravery and fears surface in vibrant color.

The film is enjoyable, if not a bit sad at poignant moments, and the always-reliable A-list stars definitely deliver (they even let Pierce Brosnan sing again).

My only disappointments would be the under-utilized Cher and the slow pace of the first 30 minutes.


Sunday, July 15, 2018

Yellow Submarine

Yesterday I saw the animated classic Yellow Submarine.

It's been 50 years since the film was first released and the anniversary this summer brings a glorious new 4k restoration to theaters worldwide. The Beatles always seem to reappear when we need them most.

The premise of the film is simple: Blue Meanies (short, round creatures with yellow teeth) hate the power of music, so they invade Pepperland. The conductor escapes into a Yellow Submarine to seek The Beatles' help.

But really, it's about the music.

11 classic Beatles tunes set to beautiful, hilarious (sometimes even heartbreaking, in the case of "Eleanor Rigby") imagery that moves from psychedelic to reality and back. Even if the movie had no plot, the musical sequences would be worth the price of admission, but lucky for us we get both. The result is a charming, witty, snapshot of a moment-in-time that leaves those of us who weren't even alive when it was released aching to return to it.

As one of the fab four states in the film, "Nothing is Beatle-proof."

Thankfully, that includes our hearts.


Thursday, July 12, 2018


On Tuesday I saw Disobedience, starring Rachel Weisz and Rachel McAdams.

Ronit (Weisz) is the daughter of a beloved rabbi who returns home to England from America following his death. Esti (McAdams) is the girl she once fancied, who is now married to one of their (male) mutual friends and still lives in their hometown. Because they are from an Orthodox Jewish community, the former tryst between the two women is not spoken of and Ronit is treated more as an intruder than a grieving family member. Nonetheless, the couple make space in their home for Ronit as she navigates her past.

At first, the interactions between Ronit and Esti are tense, as if they aren’t willing to acknowledge their shared history, but as the film unfolds—at a pace that feels slow, yet authentic—we see there was so much more to their story than a physical attraction between kids.

Each glance, each longing stare across the room exhibits how much emotion still resides within each woman with regard to their love for the other. Finally, when they get time alone in a space where there are no judgmental eyes watching them, they are honest with themselves and each other about their resurfacing feelings. But their renewed understanding is not without consequences. How can they move forward when one lives a life that is free in another country and the other has embraced a life of conformity at home?

The answers to this come painfully and somewhat surprisingly as the last 30 minutes of the film take us one way and then drastically another.

Brilliant performances are certainly key here, but the superb writing for me is what takes it to another level. The complexities of love, tradition, culture and friendship all erupt in beautiful and tragic ways. I was left thinking about these characters long after I left the theater.