Many documentaries have gotten so compelling, and professionally-made, that in 2016 I picked “Weiner” as the best film of the year, the first time I’ve done so in the site’s history. Only time will tell if that’s the case this year, but I’d already rather watch three of these four movies over much of what’s come out in 2017.
Chasing Coral…What defines a truly great documentary? In my case, it’s getting me to see something in an entirely new way, regardless of what the movie’s about (whether that’s Anthony Weiner’s disgraced, exposed penis or “Pandora’s Promise” and its surprisingly persuasive pro-nuclear power message). “Chasing Coral” follows coral bleaching—climate crisis warms the water, warm water destroys coral—something that I honestly had never spent 5 minutes thinking about. If watching a movie about disappearing coral sounds small or overly specific, it isn’t, and the film seems to be fully aware of, and addresses the thinking people might have. It’s a combination of beautiful ocean scenery (half the shots in the movie are more gorgeous than any Hollywood special effect), a timely thriller about coral and ocean extinction, a shocking horror film (they capture what happens in only a few months after coral has been bleached), and an educational nature documentary. Grade: A
Icarus…One of the strangest documentaries I’ve seen in recent memories. It starts out with an American cyclist trying to win by blood-doping, and hiring some of the top Russian cheaters to allow him to do it. But what starts out as an expose, really turns into a global thriller, with the eccentric Russian doctor (talk about a character) having to flee the Soviet Union before they kill him for knowing too much about their systematic, decades-long habit of cheating their pants off. How many docs turn into a Jason Bourne movie before your eyes, and help us understand the mind of government so crooked, they’ll cheat at things that don’t even matter? Grade: A-
Risk…This Julian Assange doc is made by the overrated Laura Poitras (who made the over-praised hagiography “Citizen4,” the Snowden-doc that won Best Documentary). Lightening doesn’t really strike twice here, as Assange doesn’t come off nearly as likable or interesting as Snowden, and you may wonder how it’s even possible to feel no sympathy for a man that’s been confined to an embassy for sanctuary for years and started out fighting abuses of tyrants? Probably because this film largely takes place before Assange went into that embassy, but has been released after he helped mess up our elections for kicks. You don’t really believe a word Assange tells you—he’s not motivated to topple autocracies, only American-connected interests—and his partisan bias all but destroys his original mission statement. [You don’t get the sense he even looked for Trump’s tax returns, or any dirt on Putin, and hasn’t released much on Trump since he took office.] Tellingly, he’s fueld by such paranoia that even though Poitras isn’t ideologically opposed to anything he’s doing (her reporting has been far from objective on the topic of “the Deep State”), he eventually turns on even her. Even worse, the sections where Assange isn’t on screen are usually so boring, you’re actually glad when he comes back…if only to be roused enough to dislike him. But he isn’t the right subject for a biographic doc, mostly because he’s too defensive, prickly, and image-aware to really reveal a moment’s truth (Alex Gibney’s documentary about Assange was much more definitive). Grade: C-
My Scientology Movie…Before I watched this, I had to admit that I was a little Scientologied-out. There’s only so many times you can hear the same stories about David Miscavige—I feel like I’m in the room for every person he’s ever punched—before you begin to wonder why you should really care about a relatively small-cult (most estimates don’t put the membership above 100,000) when Catholics, Muslims, Mormons, etc. have much more direct tentacles into daily society. Well, luckily Miscavige and his minions are too stupid to know to let stories die out on their own, and some of the best parts of “My Scientology Movie” are when Scientology henchmen and women follow this documentary crew. It’s more than a little surreal to see Louis Theroux—the documentary host that could be John Oliver’s brother—try to stage Scientology recreations but being filmed by the real members. The movie’s last third takes on a creepy, unsettling atmosphere, and Louis begins to wonder about his documentary partner—an ex-Scientology enforcer who’s helping him—and his role in some of the things they’re recreating. While trying to probe deeper into how the ex-enforcer now feels when his own tactics are used against him, the man handles it in a way that says maybe the programming never really ends. In a way it answers the question asked so many times of ex-Scientology members “How could you fall for this?” And it seems the answer is a lack of self-awareness or reflection. Grade: A-