2016 ended up being a rather wonderful year for film and especially in the way of documentaries. While it would be impossible to see all of the fantastic pieces of work released over the course of the year here are a few “can’t miss” choices.
Andrew Hawkins on Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World
Werner Herzog scared the hell out of us last year. With Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World Herzog chronicles the birth of our current tech landscape and how it governs our lives. We discussed the film and its merits back in August when it hit theaters, but now the movie is even more important than before. Our culture is built around communication and this documentary explores that relationship in detail. It’s a link between man and machine that could lead to our ultimate doom.
One of the most terrifying and bone-chilling moments in Lo and Behold happens during an interview with a former government employee. Herzog asks if hackers could destroy our infrastructure and livelihood and gets a reply that is deafeningly silent. In a world where social media updates have the potential to launch us all into World War III, we should all be cautious and aware. Werner Herzog knows this and we should all be paying attention to what he’s trying to share with us.
Nick Nunziata on Newtown
This is a very hard film to watch. The massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary was one of the lowest and saddest points in our lifetime. This film peels back the news coverage to the stories of parents dealing with the loss of their children with honest and raw impact. It also showcases the widening rift between the victims of gun violence and the lawmakers. Though we know the answer now, there’s an undercurrent of hope as these people share their stories on the biggest stage. Any parent should see the film but it carries a message for all. Hold those close to you tight and relly consider what’s important when it comes to the way our country protects us.
Drew Dietsch on O.J.: Made in America
Plenty of documentaries have examined the infamous O.J. Simpson trial. What makes O.J.: Made in America something much more special is how it chronicles the entire history of Orenthal James Simpson as well as the significant current events that were happening in the city of Los Angeles as his star rose and fell. It uses the O.J. Simpson story as a jumping off point to examine ideas of celebrity, race relations, police injustice, the entertainment industry, and how our nation perceives all of those things together.
O.J.: Made in America isn’t a condemnation or an exoneration of one of America’s most notorious public figures. It looks at the bigger picture and tells a much more understanding story this event than ever before. It’s no exaggeration to call this the definitive O.J. Simpson documentary.
Danielle Ryan on Rats
Rats isn’t an easy film to watch, regardless of how you feel about the little critters. The film contains quite a bit of animal cruelty. Morgan Spurlock initially seems to vilify the rodents, but his documentary reveals how similar rats are to humans. Humans and rats both operate in similar social structures and can survive just about anywhere. One exterminator in the film talks about how much he respects rats despite his occupation.
The problem with Rats lies in its harsh depictions of rat extermination. One sequence features a man in England letting his terriers loose in a field to go “ratting”. The rats die painfully and the camera lingers on their tiny, broken bodies. It’s heartbreaking to watch, but the rest of the documentary features so much great information on the way humans and rats interact that it’s worth sitting through the nasty parts. The film briefly goes over how disease spread is tracked by the CDC, the rat meat trade between Cambodia and Vietnam, and rat temples in India.
Rats isn’t a film for the squeamish or soft-hearted. It’s a brutal look at how rats and humans live side-by-side, but it’s chock-full of interesting facts if you can get past the handful of scenes in the film that are simply there for shock value.
Nick Nunziata on The 13th
This may be the scariest movie of 2016. Not only does it illustrate just how deep the double standard goes against African-Americans, it also shows how creatively the government has kept it going. Filled with anecdotes and history from a wide array of voices (Van Jones has become a real hero), the film is eye-opening. It’s also a cautionary tale of how we, all of us, need to really make an effort to undue centuries of oppression.
Drew Dietsch on DePalma
Director Brian DePalma is one of our legendary filmmakers that came out of that game-changing era of the late ‘60s through the ‘70s. DePalma is a one person interview with the filmmaker himself that discusses nearly the entirety of his cinematic career. It’s candid, funny, shocking, and illuminating in a myriad of ways. Hearing this master dissect his own triumphs and failures is a moving testament to the power of his work.
For die-hard film fans, DePalma is unmissable. The chance to listen to the director of such groundbreaking films as Carrie, Scarface, The Untouchables, and numerous other great movies is a true treat that will make you want to seek these films out or watch them again.
Eric Fuchs on Weiner
Back in the summer of 2013, the shamed former congressman Anthony Weiner allowed himself to be filmed for a documentary. The film was going to be a record of his come-back tour as he ran for mayor of New York. Instead, Weiner lets us see the man we mocked so heartily while he weathers incredible public humiliation. While he was roasted by John Oliver and Stephen Colbert, Weiner was trying to hold his campaign and his family together.
Weiner is like watching a car wreck in slow motion, only it is a man’s life. The film tells us most from what the unspoken tension between Anthony and his wife, Huma Abedin. Huma holds a strong face before the cameras, but we can see she has already fallen out of love with her husband. Meanwhile, their toddler plays in the corner, oblivious to everything. It is a hard movie to watch, but Weiner is a humanizing look inside an easy late night punchline.
Andrew Hawkins on Before the Flood
Climate change is a hot topic these days. The world is in a stage of ecological flux and people around the globe need to know that our actions are to blame. It’s a message we have heard for decades but never really taken seriously. That’s the platform of Before the Flood.
Leonardo DiCaprio’s crusade against apathy towards global issues is an ongoing battle. The actor has been an environmental advocate since the Clinton era. Here he takes on the role of interviewer and researcher. Before the Flood is pessimistically optimistic while still managing to focus on real topics.
Fisher Stevens manages to do more with this subject than most filmmakers have been able to do before. We are shown all four corners of the globe and how pollution and energy consumption affects our surroundings. The stark and harsh reality of all this is underscored by the music of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, and it works. Before the Flood is a solid doc that educates and reminds just how big of an impact our daily lives truly have.
Check your streaming service of choice to catch these as soon as possible.