As noted in my Top Films of 2015, the year for documentaries was especially strong. So much so that I have decided to give them their own list, and I urge you all to seek these out when possible.
In no particular order, here are my top documentaries of 2015…
Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief
Alex Gibney goes delves deep into The Church of Scientology, looking at its links with the celebrities who openly endorse, support and fund it, and take time to interview those who have left the church for a variety of reasons. As with most documentaries it clearly has an agenda before going into it, and treads a fine line between sensationalist and investigative, but in terms of a catch-all documentary about the church this is as succinct as it gets.
I haven’t put these in any order, but if there was going to be a number one spot it would go to Cartel Land. Matthew Heineman puts himself in the heart of the action as he looks to showcase those taking on the Mexican drug cartels. This is grass-roots documentary making at its finest, quite often getting caught in the firing line, offering nothing but the most brutal and honest depiction of horrendous violence that takes place on a daily basis. Narcos and Sicario may have caught your attention, but there is no substitute for the real thing.
Shown on Storyville under the name FBI Undercover in the UK, this is the tale of Lyric R. Cabral who ends up being on the right side of a FBI sting operation. One of her neighbours is acting undercover, and is put out there to expose a young Muslim man and gather enough intelligence to arrest him for the terrorism charges they suspect him of, in an effort to secure the safety of their country. The documentary takes you on a journey through the paranoid US state of mind, and tenuous links made in this documentary will shock you.
I wasn’t hugely into Amy Winehouse’s music when she was alive, but you couldn’t deny her talent and originality when you heard it. She was an incredible presence, but the unfair treatment of her in the press was disgusting and sickening. I was lucky enough to see Asif Kapadia’s excellent documentary at Glastonbury last year, while it was shrouded in contention upon release due to some unfavourable depictions of certain individuals, I feel that the Winehouse story is almost too personal to get completely right. This may be the closest thing we get to a definitive picture of Amy. In my eyes, this exploration of a tragedy to unearth the true Amy Winehouse is a heartbreaking success, filled with lessons everyone can take away, and a timeless reminder of the great talent the world has lost.
Ecstasy of Wilko Johnson
Stumbling into the tent at Glastonbury to see Amy nice and early to get a good position, meant that I caught this documentary too. A surprisingly upbeat tale of the super-talented guitarist from the band Dr. Feelgood, who when diagnosed with terminal cancer decides to ignore it. Johnson comes to terms with the eventuality before him and just gets on with his life the only way he knew how. It’s an extraordinary tale, impeccably produced and told in a truly unique style; as Johnson openly reflects on his impending death, spliced with archival footage and longing shots of his hometown of Canvey Island, it creates something immensely profound.
A Syrian Love Story
Sean McAllisters documentary about a Syrian family, who struggle to keep everything together while fleeing the country they love is simply remarkable. Filmed over the course of 5 years, it’s difficult to think that the heartbreaking reality of Syria as we now know it could have been foreseen, and serves as a parallel for this refugee tale. This is a sympathetic tale although they would not want you to see it that way, because these particular refugees are not looking for handouts. They do not even want to leave, but for fear of their safety and their children’s safety, they have to. This was and still is, an incredibly important documentary.
The Look of Silence
Joshua Oppenheimer’s Act of Killing showed the mortifying reenactments of the executions of suspected communists that took place in 1960’s Indonesia. The people who carried out these horrific acts are celebrated heroes, feared in their local villages, and it’s within Oppenheimer’s Act of Killing that we meet the people responsible as they carry out the reenactments. In The Look of Silence, an optician who has a direct link to the genocide through a deceased family member, is shown watching the first doc, then interviewing the men himself under the pretense of an eye exam. Probing personal questions add another layer of sheer disbelief to the previous installment, in this simple yet fascinating documentary.
Orion: The Man Who Would Be King
A surreal and weird tale of a how singer Jimmy Ellis experienced a career rebirth upon Elvis’s death. To many at the time, he sounded like he was The King. You couldn’t tell the difference on occasion, but because Elvis was alive, Jimmy would always be classed as a tribute act. Once Elvis died, Jimmy donned a mask under the name ‘Orion’ based on a book by Gail Brewer-Giorgio and become an overnight sensation. It’s not all as simple as that though; within this story are a few conspiracy theories, and personal demons that shape the journey of Orion. Once again, archival footage and interviews make up the bulk of this viewing, but it never feels overkill, and it’s nearly always entertaining.
In mid-2015, HBO did Making a Murderer before Netflix did it, and its name was The Jinx. Don’t be fooled though, this story while it has similarities is for the most part, entirely different. Robert Durst was accused of murder in 1982, and again in 2000, and again in 2001 – each time for a different person. The story was so enthralling that it was made into a film titled “All Good Things” in 2010 by director Andrew Jarecki, the same director who is at the helm for this particular mini-series. Off the back of the film, Durst offers to be interviewed by Jarecki in what turns out to be a process over several years, and the results are jaw-dropping. It looks sharp, it’s well compiled, and the line of questioning is raw and intrusive; this is one of the most compelling documentaries you can watch.
Precinct Seven Five
One of those documentaries where you struggle to believe any of it is true, but it doesn’t take long for the truths to sink in. Centred around Mike Dowd, widely known as one of the most dirty and corrupt cops ever to work for the NYPD, Precinct Seven Five explores his history of his crimes through archival footage, the trial itself and several interviews. Drugs, guns, murders and robberies; the level and quantity of the crimes committed is no less than awful.
It’s almost like an odd experiment, in which 6 young boys are locked away in an apartment in Manhattan with no access to the outside world for their whole lives. They’re not there by force, it’s just how they have been brought up by two parents who fear for their safety and as a result they don’t leave. The only knowledge they gain is the homeschooling from their mother, but also their continuous passion for movies. Nicknamed “The Wolfpack”, they don Reservoir Dogs styled attire, talk with Italian-American gangster accents, and that’s when they’re not acting out their favourite movies in their entirety. There are a few unanswered questions, and it’s not shown in a chronological order for some odd reason, but it’s interesting. No doubt this won’t be the last time we see The Wolfpack.
He Named Me Malala
A young girl called Malala Yousafzai was shot in the head by the Taliban, but survived. The reasons for her shooting were simply that of wanting to speak out against the tyranny the Taliban were inflicting on the regions education for girls. The sheer fact that she is alive is incredible, but what trauma does that bring with it? Many would be too scared to continue to speak out for further fear of retaliation, but not Malala. This inspiring documentary showcases the unbelievable story of Malala very effectively, but in terms of a target audience this is better positioned for people with no prior knowledge of Malala, as it offers not much more than that – a story. For those that know her, this appears more like a 90 minute long advert for Unicef, very high-level, avoiding any real hard-hitting questions. If you want something a bit more in-depth, I hear her book is fantastic.
Everest was a huge disappointment for me. It wasn’t nearly scary enough, it didn’t look or sound good. It was just an average film. Part of the reason I chose to watch it was that I wanted to be scared. Scared of the unpredictability of the elements, in awe of the achievements of the men who did it, and not knowing what on earth was going to happen next. Thankfully, Meru stepped in to fill this void. A documentary about 3 elite climbers who try to tackle Mount Meru via the “Shark Fin” route; a route nobody has ever done before. Worrying, scary and gripping – and it doesn’t look half bad either.
Making A Murderer
Everyone should have seen this by now. Snuck in at the end of the year by Netflix, is this a somewhat biased but undeniably unfair documentary about the wrongful imprisonment of Steven Avery. Convicted for a rape he did not commit, this series goes on to look at the shocking aftermath of the trial and the events that unfold. The less is said the better. This is real life drama, and it’s messed up.
Last Days In Vietnam
After the USA burst into Vietnam they were met with complete and utter unpredictability. It was like a war they had never experienced before, and were made to retreat and leave. As part of this process, the South Vietnamese informants, friends and in some cases, the families they had made while occupying the south were under sudden and immediate threat. The US barely had an exit plan for themselves, let alone those who they wanted to save. This is the powerful and shocking tale of this exit, and it’s everything a, documentary should be.
Cobain: Montage of Heck
Prolific, inspiring and absolutely game-changing; Kurt Cobain’s life and influence is one that cannot be replicated easily, if at all. Director Brett Morgan’s Montage of Heck puts the focus on the infamous Nirvana frontman, attempting to tell his story through home videos, clever transitional animations, recordings and interviews with surviving family members. This feels truly fresh, and much like the Amy documentary mentioned earlier, as close to a definitive film we will probably get.
Paul, Gazza, Gascoigne – whether you are a fan of football or not, you will be familiar with this football icon. He has been the subject of intense media scrutiny over the years, from his early rise to fame to his eventual fall from grace; it seems a story all too familiar when the media are involved. Unfortunately it fails to really dig deeper into this aspect, perhaps he did not want to delve into it, maybe it was too much for him to do, and a mainly positive look back at his career might be the final confidence push he needed to not relapse. Avid football fans will enjoy this documentary; even if you were too young, seeing some context to that World Cup run, the Euro ’96 goal and that free kick, you will find plenty to love. It’s a remarkable story, and for nostalgia alone it’s worth a watch.