The Bridge (2006)
While perhaps disappointing to those expecting a skillfully edited montage of bodies breaking apart on the waves while power chords drift and moan, The Bridge is much more than a voyeuristic death rattle. The images of human beings jumping from San Francisco’s famed Golden Gate Bridge are undeniably wrenching, but this is not exploitation. We watch because we must; these stories, told by friends and loved ones after the sad events have taken place, need that final act to lend credence to the words of the survivors. Their anger, sadness, and sense of betrayal deserve the big leap, for what other cruel reminder could suffice to let us know that for that brief moment, a monstrous selfishness won out over the feelings of others? One’s death is one’s own to be sure, as we’re the ones who have to experience it, but to watch these people — men and women, young and old alike — pace, pause, reflect, and finally jump, could only lock down the understanding that suicide is vanity’s last gift to the world; a final kiss of hoped-for infamy that will force civilization, even an extremely small portion of it, to never be able to forget. Why else would anyone commit suicide in this manner?
Cocaine Cowboys (2006)
Corben’s film is so damned exhilarating because of its self-conscious, hip style, but the facts of the matter are what sell this glitzy package. There is no shortage of interviews, news accounts, archival footage, and anecdotes to punch it all home, but its guiding theme — much like the nostalgia we feel for the older, better, mob-driven Vegas — transforms mere journalism into a grand sociological statement, irrefutable in its logic. Is the American dream — our dream — on par with the brutality and greed of barely literate, amoral gangsters? Not line for line, of course, but there stands that brilliant, glass-filled Miami skyline — a testament to economic power and success — and what else brought it from dirt and dust but the billions of dollars generated by drug sales? No one’s denying that cocaine country was a brutal, rigged game that enriched but a chosen few (no parallels to the “legitimate” economy, eh?), but their money (and theirs alone) bought the houses, drove the cars, paid the bills, raised the clubs, the restaurants, and the bars, and, most of all, was laundered through dozens of wildcat banks, which in turn promoted a construction boom unlike anything the area had ever seen. Throughout, cops, politicians, and all those deemed “respectable”, knowingly turned away. It’s worth noting that while the rest of the country suffered through a recession in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Miami maintained its time in the sun, as if walled off from reality by a haze of addiction. Snowblind, indeed.
Darwin’s Nightmare (2006)
The cinematic arts are often meant to inspire, instruct, and entertain, but on those rare occasions when the mood has but one direction, they are meant to produce a level of disgust and outrage so overwhelming that it’s all one can do to get home in one piece. Darwin’s Nightmare, Hubert Sauper’s new documentary, is so punishing in its bleakness, in fact, that it acts as a white flag for all further endeavors. The liberal humanist in me always wants to believe that mankind might improve, or that through various political actions, despair and exploitation might be tempered with a bit of justice, but after today, I can’t point to a single shred of evidence that justifies my cautious optimism. After 107 minutes of such pain, cruelty, savagery, and callousness masking itself as “the laws of business,” I’m not sure how to approach each and every hour of the coming days; where I am constantly reminded that we in the West — fat, content, and so blissfully successful that we have to invent problems in the absence of real troubles — must either check out via the blade, bullet, or pill, or else find a way to live with hypocrisy and crushing guilt. As I’ll still be here tomorrow, I know I’ve made my decision (I’m no saint), and I’m not nearly sanctimonious enough to judge others for joining me on my well-trod path. The world suffers, whereas I do not, and I’d be lying if I claimed to be doing anything real about it. That said, Darwin’s Nightmare is a perfect repudiation of the idea that anything can be done at all, absent altering man’s essential nature. With atomic weapons.
Deep Water (2006)
I’m convinced that no one returns from the sea unchanged, and more than any other form of adventure available to the ever-curious human animal, it holds the greatest risk of madness and death. The lust for exploration is built into our very DNA, and we the timid owe a great deal to those who pushed beyond their borders to better the lot of mankind. But now that the conquering spirit has been tamed by our modern age, all that remains is adventure for its own sake — contests, competitions, and collisions of ego that might hold vicarious thrills for spectators, but by and large are little more than senseless trips of vanity. So if we are to concern ourselves with these stories any longer, there must be an insight into the human experience that moves beyond mere winners and losers. Thankfully, Deep Water is just such a tale; a documentary that begins with a now-forgotten competition (a 1969 London Times-sponsored event that would bestow a cash prize upon the first man to complete a solo boat trip around the world), and winds up as an examination of man’s fragility so profound that it leaves us stunned.
Grizzly Man (2005)
Werner Herzog’s decidedly unromantic vision of the natural world and the foolish vanity of man was the year’s most thought-provoking work; a hammer blow to a curious self-absorption that pits the lust for relevance against an indifferent habitat that knows only survival. Timothy Treadwell, the poor sap in question, just might be insane, but there’s a touch of innocence in his quest to devote his life to Alaska’s bears, which is precisely what gets him killed. In this realm, after all, only cold-eyed realism will suffice. Herzog, as expected, is fascinated by this man’s obsession (he is our best chronicler of human beings at the extremes), and while he refuses to judge from a privileged position, the narration speaks to a differing point of view that makes Treadwell’s account seem hopeless by comparison. And no film better captured the unique intersection of sadness, thrill-seeking, and delusion so often found in individuals unable to find their place in an increasingly alienating world. At the end, we can safely assume that Treadwell wanted to die — on his terms — for martyrdom quickly supplants all else in the mind of a narcissist. In all, a devastating account, and it deserves to be recognized as among the finest documentaries ever made.
The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (2007)
Ali vs Frazier. Bird vs Magic. Borg vs McEnroe. Wiebe vs Mitchell. Of all the great rivalries of sport, it is arguably the latter that best defines the American experience, despite being the least recognized, as well as the only one that did not actually involve head-to-head competition. But don’t be distracted by the absence of a field, rink, or stadium, or even a blood-filled trench of athletic endeavor, because these two men, far, far away from arenas packed with roaring crowds, did battle in garages, basements, and lonely arcades, where only the nerdy and nostalgic do not fear to tread. The game is Donkey Kong, the warfare is real, and by the end, we have witnessed a film with as many twists and turns as the boldest fiction, with heroes atop noble steeds and dastardly evildoers in black hats to match. Seth Gordon’s The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters travels through these minefields of obsession, compulsion, arrogance, and unholy competition, but above all, takes the lives of two men — Steve Wiebe and Billy Mitchell — and the classic video game that has consumed each for the better part of the past quarter-century. It is a heartfelt, unflinching look at a bizarre, almost grotesque subculture, but more than that, it channels the drive to escape anonymity and mediocrity that afflicts high and low alike. And while we might recoil in horror at the utter seriousness by which these gamers live out their days, it is impossible not to end the screening in hysterics. Above all, this is a riotous, supremely entertaining work, and through style, music (Leonard Cohen has never seemed more appropriate), personality, and the complete absence of condescension, it becomes one of the best films of the year.
As an exploration of hubris and unrestrained ego, I’ve never seen a more blistering portrait than Overnight, and I doubt I’ll ever encounter a viler monster than self-proclaimed genius Troy Duffy. A Shakespearean villain who would have both Richard III and Lady Macbeth for breakfast, Duffy was Hollywood’s new “Golden Boy” back in 1997, when his screenplay for The Boondock Saints sent movie executives scrambling for both dollars and superlatives. Given the opportunity of a lifetime (a generous contract to direct the film, as well as a record deal for his band The Brood), Troy lost it all not because of unfortunate circumstances or the cruelties of fate, but due entirely to his own bitterness, stupidity, arrogance, and unparalleled vanity. The film is both a document of a poor boy’s rise to the top (the filmmakers were initially asked to chronicle a “star in the making”), and a complete meltdown that might have been perceived as tragic had Troy had an ounce of human decency. About fifteen minutes in, we know what’s coming (Troy is a prick to everyone, especially the most powerful people in the business), but the ride down is never anything less than a laugh-filled, entertaining riot; the most glaring example of schadenfreude ever witnessed. I’d sooner trust my fate to Hitler, Stalin, Genghis Khan, Mao or Pol Pot than Mr. Duffy, the most putrid stain on humanity since the earth first cooled. I defy you to spend 81 more pleasurable minutes in the presence of something that isn’t naked.
The Revolution Will Not Be Televised (2003)
Everything filmmaking should be: passionate, exhilarating, dramatic, and spirited. This documentary about the attempted coup in the spring of 2002 against Hugo Chavez, the democratically elected President of Venezuela, contains the pure, heart-pounding excitement of a summer action movie because we are witnessing history (and life) as it unfolds; raw and unscripted. Originally, the filmmakers (Ireland’s Kim Bartley and Donnacha O’Briain) were in Venezuela to make a film about Chavez alone, but a military coup began as they were filming and their cameras continued to roll throughout the crisis. We are taken right into the heart of demonstrations, behind the doors of the Presidential palace, and into the minds of both the participants and those defending the Constitutional order. The film does not shy away from its sympathies for Chavez and his radical reforms, which posed a great threat to the ruling elite as well as an American government heavily dependent on Venezuela’s oil. After witnessing how little respect conservative forces in that country have for democracy and the rule of law, we can make connections to our own country — whenever an election doesn’t go their way, right-wingers seem hell-bent on reversing the “unfortunate” outcome, regardless of morality or simple legality. And based on how much American corporations had to lose from Chavez’s nationalistic and redistribution policies, it stands to reason that America strongly endorsed — if not outright aided — the coup attempt. But again, politics aside, this is filmmaking at its finest: literally edge-of-your-seat fire and anger swirl about, leaving the viewer dizzy with outrage. Easily one of the best films of the year and frankly, a masterpiece of the documentary form.
Running Stumbled (2006)
Johnny Roe, Jr. and his common-law wife Virgie Marie Pennoui, once beautiful, talented, and full of life, are now the scariest, most bizarre human beings you’re ever likely to see; two lost souls so pathetic, so riddled with addiction, abuse, and self-loathing, that not even John Cassavetes, tortured by visions of Grey Gardens and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, could have conceived of characters so demented. They are sick, vile, appalling, and unnaturally cruel; dancing around a relationship that long ago ceased to be anything other than sadomasochistic dependency, crossed with a heavy dose of murderous rage. Only they’re real — all too real — and their passion play is set before Johnny’s estranged son, rather than an indifferent director. Having not seen his birth father for over 25 years (he was taken from the home after his father deliberately crashed the car they were riding in, bringing forth charges of attempted murder), he has brought his camera to a dirty, dank home in Terrytown, Louisiana in order to exploit the living hell out of people he has never really known. And thank fuck for that, as what transpires is a hilarious, gut-busting treat; not only one of the best films of the year, but one of the most entertaining visions of hell in the history of the cinema. The truest test of its greatness lies in the fact that at 83 minutes, it’s not even remotely long enough, and I could have watched this bloody train wreck for dozens of hours, if not days. Hell, let’s cut to the chase: it’s damn near a masterpiece for our times. Seek it out immediately if you value all that is honorable and true.
The Staircase (2004)
I hadn’t experienced an emotional reversal of fortune this dramatic since discovering that the soft-featured prostitute devouring my member was, in fact, a transsexual named Robert. Like that moonlit night long ago, an orgasm is still an orgasm, but it’s forever tempered by disgust and shame. Jean-Xavier de Lestrade’s documentary The Staircase, then, is a cinematic wonder of technique, insight, and suspense, though after a bit of research within minutes of the film’s conclusion – I had neglected such things prior to the screening, so as to avoid ruining the surprise – I was forced to undertake an immediate reassessment tantamount to a thunderous rug-pulling. While the film played – all six hours of it, spread out over three nights – I was enthralled, stimulated, and even pushed to the brink, but now that I know the facts of the case, the film becomes a hollow exercise in manipulation, deception, and outright falsehood. I’ve been hoodwinked and bamboozled, ladies and gentlemen, and I feel like an utter fool. No, the film portrays an actual case (this is no mockumentary) with flesh and blood human beings occupying the frame, but instead of taking us through the intricacies of the event, the filmmaker instead operates from a position of contemptible bias; using his film to fulfill a sinister agenda, rather than shed light on an infamous murder trial.
Are you a Negative Nathan? Check out Matt’s worst docs of the decade.
Why aren’t there more science and nature docs? Because they’re here, idiot.