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10 Best Documentaries of 2018 So Far
Especially in our current cultural and political climate, truth is often crazier, scarier, and more uplifting than fiction–which is why it’s no surprise that 2018 has, to date, been a banner year for non-fiction cinema. Whether investigating present and past tragedies and wrongs, or celebrating notable personalities and their stirring stories of trauma and perseverance, these diverse films capture reality in all its harrowing and euphoric intricacy. Utilizing formal techniques that range from the straightforward to the eccentric, they train a rigorous eye on the complex nature of life, unearthing and confronting bedrock truths in the process. As valuable as the blockbusters that dominate the multiplex, these are our picks for the best documentaries of the year.
The Bleeding Edge
Medical devices have provided immeasurable benefits to mankind, and yet the industry’s increasing recklessness with regard to innovation—and to bringing new products to market—is incisively highlighted by The Bleeding Edge, director Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering’s alarming documentary about the dangers posed by groundbreaking technologies. Through a variety of individual stories having to do with, among other inventions, Essure (a permanent feminine birth-control implant) and vaginal mesh, the filmmakers detail the FDA’s substandard regulation of medical devices that are then marketed as safe to consumers and used by professionals who have little knowledge of their potential risks.
Dick and Ziering’s Netflix exclusive shines a light on the willful malfeasance of corporations and doctors, both of whom benefit, in a symbiotic relationship, from promoting the latest and greatest devices. As heartbreaking as it is infuriating, their censure conveys the suffering and misery wrought by such irresponsibility on innocent patients—most of whom are, on the basis of the evidence presented here, women.
The Road Movie
A crowdsourced documentary of startling carnage and chaos, The Road Movie is a barrage of dash-cam videos from the streets of Russia circa 2014. With no context provided for this cornucopia of car-crash insanity, director Dmitrii Kalashnikov’s film plays like a combination of Faces of Death, Jackass, and your average exploitative YouTube clip; it delivers humor, suspense, and horror in equal measure. If that makes this collage-like feature sound ghoulish, that’s because it is—although its ghoulishness is in service of a larger point about people’s powerlessness to control their own fate.
From montages of animal-related accidents, to random and ludicrous encounters with fellow motorists, to jarring collisions that materialize out of nowhere, Kalashnikov’s vignettes coalesce to form an alternately droll and nightmarish vision of existence’s fragility. In vistas of Russia’s often-beautiful landscapes, it suggests that the line between life and death, elation and misery, laughter and terror, is perilously thin.
Three Identical Strangers
Tim Wardle’s Three Identical Strangers is a true story that deserves the designation “incredible”—not to mention “horrifying.” In 1980, Bobby Shafran arrived at his upstate New York community college to learn that he had a twin brother, Eddie Galland. That crazy situation became even crazier when Bobby and Eddie were contacted by David Kellman, who also looked just like them. It was a miraculous headline-making reunion for three identical siblings who’d been raised in divergent socio-economic households. But it also revealed a decades-old mystery that was soon investigated by both their parents and a curious, committed journalist.
Their ensuing quest resulted in answers that were as unethical as they were unnerving, and while Wardle’s film is less than wholly upfront about certain story details—withholding key information to maximize dramatic impact±—it’s true to the discovery process experienced by its subjects, whose superficial similarities masked deeper differences. It’s a gripping, and disquieting, tabloid-ready tale of underhanded medical misconduct, as well as the uneasy developmental relationship between nature and nurture.
Minding the Gap
For three teenage boys in unemployment-wracked Rockford, Illinois, skateboarding is a means of fleeing adulthood and escaping volatile home lives. Bing Liu’s documentary about himself and his two friends, Zack and Keire, depicts their arduous maturation process in intimate (and autobiographical) terms, with Bing shooting his mates riding through the city, toiling at menial jobs, and dealing with highly combustible family circumstances, especially in the case of Zack, who’s about to have an infant son with his on-again, off-again girlfriend Nina.
With deep empathy, the film investigates the myriad ways domestic abuse scars adolescents, with domineering father figures eventually fingered as the culprits for this trio’s—and community’s—pervasive problems. Part confessional home movie, part socio-economic investigation, Minding the Gap exposes the difficulties of growing up in an environment that only offers kids awful male role models. At the same time, it celebrates the liberating euphoria of setting one’s problems aside, however briefly, to hop on a skateboard and coast down parking garage ramps and empty streets.
Cielo is fascinated by the sky, particularly when seen from Chile’s Atacama Desert, where an absence of pollution and artificial light means that one can fully bask in the twinkling, radiant splendor of the universe. Alison McAlpine’s documentary stares up at that firmament with awe-struck wonder, via a variety of time-lapse tableaus in which the heavens rotate while the arid Earth below turns.
The director’s narrated comments and questions articulate her own fascination with looking upwards, and her interviews with the disparate people who inhabit this Chilean land—algae farmers who use nets to fish in the moonlight; astronomers and astrophysicists who operate enormous telescopes to investigate the great beyond; a storyteller with deep connection to this region—convey the sky’s connection to our feelings about ourselves, the Earth, God, family and history. Also marked by gorgeous organic-special-effects sequences of bursting stars, it’s a cinematic rumination on the majesty of everything that surrounds us.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor?
Fred Rogers was beloved by millions for his seminal PBS series Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, and Morgan Neville’s documentary pays loving respect to his decades-long work entertaining—and speaking honestly to—American children. Eschewing a typical biopic form, Neville’s film trains its attention on Rogers’s core values of honesty and decency, which were rooted in his Christian faith. Whether confronting feelings of doubt, insecurity, grief (including over national tragedies like the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster or 9/11), or tolerance (most notably, via a foot-washing sequence with Officer Clemmons that spoke to then-current debates over swimming-pool integration), Rogers designed his show to impart the noble ideals that governed his own life, and which he rightfully believed were crucial to pre-adolescents’ development.
The result is a heartwarming celebration of goodness, replete with a congressional hearing sequence—in which Rogers’ frank oration convinces Rhode Island senator John Pastore to give the public network $20 million—that’s so astonishingly inspiring, it wouldn’t be believable if it weren’t true.
Bisbee, Arizona is now a tiny enclave of artists and iconoclasts, but at the turn of the 20th century, it was best known for its wealth of copper—and its most notorious incident. Robert Greene’s audacious Bisbee ’17 employs fiction and nonfiction modes to recount the calamitous Bisbee Deportation of July 12, 1917, in which a local sheriff and a 2,000-man posse rounded up striking German and Mexican miners, stuffed them into cattle cars, and drove them out to the New Mexico desert, where they were unceremoniously abandoned.
Weaving together archival material, new interviews with relatives of those who remained in Bisbee, and staged recreations that are sometimes enhanced by musical numbers, Greene crafts a multifaceted treatise on the nature of memory and the scars of intolerance. Its formal dissonance in tune with its story about a community fractured by its ugly past, it’s an ever-relevant history lesson about immigration, race, and power that comes across like a disturbing ghost story.
Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda
The impermanence of individual life, of the Earth, and of music are all central to Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda, Stephen Nomura Schible’s portrait of the legendary composer, famed for both his groundbreaking early electronica work and his scores for movies such as Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence and The Last Emperor (for which he won an Oscar). A free-flowing documentary of warmth and contemplative profundity, the film finds Sakamoto grappling with his own mortality (thanks to stage-three throat cancer), ruminating on his decades-long environmental activism, and expounding on his fondness for the oeuvre of Andrei Tarkovsky.
Whether he’s discussing Paul Bowles’s cameo in The Sheltering Sky or the melancholia of Bach, protesting Japanese nuclear energy or visiting the North Pole, Sakamoto is a charming, thoughtful figure gripped by sadness over death and human (self-)destructiveness. As demonstrated by his wish for an instrument whose sound would last forever, he’s an artist in search of the timeless—something, it’s clear, achieved by his distinctive, unforgettable compositions.
Even geniuses need help, and fortunately for Stanley Kubrick, he had Leon Vitali, an accomplished artist in his own right whose work alongside the 2001: A Space Odyssey auteur—first as an actor in Barry Lyndon, then as his right-hand man for The Shining, Full Metal Jacket, and Eyes Wide Shut—is justly lionized by Tony Zierra’s documentary.
Using a wealth of archival material as well as new interviews with Kubrick collaborators (Matthew Modine, Ryan O’Neal, R. Lee Ermey, Danny Lloyd) and the now-down-on-his-luck Vitali, Zierra paints a vivid portrait of extreme commitment, as Vitali’s dedication to his illustrious partner’s vision damaged both his health and his relationship with his family. Filmworker is an illuminating dissection of a vital behind-the-scenes collaboration, and a case study of the identity-negating self-destructiveness of unwavering devotion. Moreover, it’s a nuanced depiction of the less-than-glamorous work that goes into classic art—and, in the end, a deserved tribute to the invaluable individual behind the legend.
Neither a fictional film nor, strictly speaking, a traditional documentary, late Iranian master Abbas Kiarostami’s 24 Frames is an experimental endeavor that plumbs the nature of non-fiction imagery—and, in doing so, proves a haunting meditation on mortality from a filmmaker who knew this would be his final work. Kiarostami’s unique effort features 24 still images, all of which (save for the first, Bruegel’s 1565 painting The Hunters in the Snow) he took himself, and which come to animated life through computer-generated means.
There’s no straightforward drama to any of these scenes, each of which lasts approximately four-and-a-half-minutes. Yet there are patterns, which slowly emerge to suggest unifying themes of isolation, loneliness and the inexorable forward march of time. That journey, of course, ultimately leads to the grave, and death hangs like a specter over these imaginative proceedings. Just as powerful, though, is the cine-affection that Kiarostami expresses throughout, culminating with an Andrew Lloyd Webber-scored celebration of the undying nature of love.