This article was entirely written by me and originally posted on Taste of Cinema, in January 2016. It is the result of the public feedback to the films, and a hint of personal preferences.
After a year full of so many documentaries about compelling topics, it is difficult to compile a list of the ten best documentaries of 2015, but there are certainly a few that stood out. While many of the films were biographical films of well-known personalities, there were also a few that succeeded in bringing forward powerful stories of ordinary people.
The power of documentary film is that of exploring situations and lifestories usually unavailable to the general public, a fact that has popularized documentary film more and more, year after year. What drives us towards documentaries is curiosity, borne from our thirst for knowledge, an immortal trait of humankind. The films on this list did the best job in provoking the viewers’ voyeuristic disposition.
10.Finders Keepers (Bryan Carberry, Clay Tweel)
This is a highly entertaining film about what appears to be an ordinary American reality TV subject. Shannon Whisnant, amateur entrepreneur as he calls himself, buys a storage locker in which he finds a human foot, hidden in a grill. In his attempt to gain fame over this finding, the authorities intervene and they find the owner of the storage space, and the leg, John Wood.
The film is a tragicomedy exploring the life beyond the absurd debate of who is the proper owner of the foot. The foot becomes an obsession, and the film interestingly documents its importance to the parties involved. John Wood’s family is interviewed, revealing the history of hardships the family has had to face.
The film quickly transforms into an intimate family portrait, put in contrast with Whisnant’s own troubles, which he seems to disregard, at least in front of the camera. In the beginning of the film, a montage raises the sense of suspense surrounding what happened to the foot, but as the story develops, the ultimate question becomes, “Did the characters get what they wanted, and are they happy?”
Once again, the subject proves its bitter sweetness when the two main characters’ real emotions are exposed in the end of the film in a raw manner.
9.Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief (Alex Gibney)
Alex Gibney returned in 2015 with another controversial subject in the insightful Going Clear. Interviewing members of the Church of Scientology, he exposes the history, practices, and abuses of the cult. It is a highly informative film, but also filled with stories that generate something between sadness, disgust, rage, and shock.
After hearing from ex-members of the cult about the torturing, blackmailing, and the tax exemption, it is hard to believe that such a thing exists or to comprehend the persuasive power of such an organization.
8.The Wolfpack (Crystal Moselle)
What makes The Wolfpack so astonishing is the uniqueness of its subject, the Angulo family, who live in isolation from the outside world in an apartment in New York City. The secrets and issues that are brought to the surface are difficult to accept, but the process has also provided an escape route for the six long-haired Angulo brothers who grew up on movies and movie scenes reenactments.
The Wolfpack is the perfect example of the power of a documentary to change the lives of those involved in the process of making it: some of the boys moved out of the house and found jobs in the entertainment industry, but all of them have become a point of interest for the American public, offering them opportunities to meet their cinema idols and make a life of their own.
7.Seymour: An Introduction (Ethan Hawke)
Seymour Bernstein is a happy ex-performer, now a piano teacher. His portrait is constructed in Ethan Hawke’s documentary debut in a genuine manner, and the greatness of the documentary stands in its ability to inspire the viewer. Listening to this charming man, we dive into his life, discovering his personality, due to his openness to sharing his thoughts.
His words of wisdom, his recounting of remarkable life events, and his reflections on creativity and art make this film seem like an intimate conversation over tea. The film is highly enjoyable and warm, a perfect combination of an overall uplifting message and beautiful music, some of which is performed by Bernstein himself.
6.What Happened, Miss Simone? (Liz Garbus)
Another insightful documentary of 2015 is What Happened, Miss Simone?, a look into the life of jazz singer and Black Power icon Nina Simone. The meticulousness of this film is striking, as it reaches into the deepest corners of the singer’s personal life, bringing to surface questionable actions, obsessions, relationships, and habits. Its nomination for Best Documentary Feature at the upcoming Oscars is understandable to say the least.
The film is an important piece, also because it documents Nina Simone’s transformation from classical pianist as a child, to jazz singer, and then activist. She played a significant role, both in music history and civil rights activism. But more than that, she was a genius suffering from a mental disease. Her daughter and her life-long friend and colleague provide insightful information of who she was in her struggling private life.
5.Listen to Me, Marlon (Stevan Riley)
Listen to Me, Marlon offers a close look into Marlon Brando’s thoughts and his dedication to the art of acting. The voiceover throughout almost the entire film is composed of the legendary actor’s own audio recordings. What better way to create a biography than through the subject’s own words and voice?
Marlon’s (self)portrait is an eerie piece of work, due mostly to the intimate recordings Marlon Brando taped, prefacing his thoughts with the phrase, “Listen to me, Marlon.” The recordings reveal Brando’s vulnerability and sadness, but also his struggle with anxiety, and even obesity. The film remains a complex portrayal of Marlon Brando’s character, constructed from an intimate, unique perspective: his own.
4.Amy (Asif Kapadia)
Another Oscar-nominated documentary, this film is full of biographical archival footage that takes the viewer on a journey of the UK’s most appreciated jazz voice in decades. Amy Winehouse was still a teenager when she began performing at different venues and slowly became known on the UK music scene. The footage reveals her first tours, a bunch of people packed into a small car, driving from venue to venue, while her interviews reveal the difficult family situation and her slip into drug and alcohol abuse.
It is a very sad retelling of her story, accompanied by the melancholic voice of the singer herself as the soundtrack. Once she became more famous, Winehouse seemed to transform into another person, feeling pressured by media and the public to create more and more art.
The media took advantage of her frail state under the influence, exploiting her struggle, as evidenced by the headlines of the time. Although a sad story, the film is an honest tribute to her amazing talent and complex personality, as well as an indictment of a media system that seeks to profit from—if not encourage—the destruction, death, and decay of celebrities.
3.Cobain: Montage of Heck (Brett Morgen)
Kurt Cobain is known to this day for his creativity, his music, and his unconventional way of life. This moving documentary explores all of this from inside, with the help of Cobain’s closest family members and friends, delving into the perspective of the lead singer of grunge band Nirvana.
A clever decision on the part of the filmmaker is the complete exclusion of the death of Cobain and the controversial discussions surrounding it. The movie does not try to ignore it for the sake of the documentary’s integrity, but because its objective is to present to the world who Cobain really was, from an innocent, blonde, active child, to a troubled adult trying to express his emotions through music.
But Cobain’s image is not embellished – we see his faults and his mistakes, as well as his love for his daughter, and both his and Courtney’s trials at protecting their family. The documentary transforms Cobain from a controversial character into a human being with his own issues.
2.Iris (Albert Maysles)
Iris Apfel is an eccentric “geriatric starlet”, as she calls herself, and the subject of the documentary made by the late Albert Maysles, one half of the famous Grey Gardens-director duo – the Maysles brothers. Iris is an intimate look into the life of the beloved New York fashion icon and her 100-year-old husband.
The two are a lovely couple that have been living a life of travels, adventures, and beautiful partnership, and now, in the last chapter of their life, their relationship is stronger than ever. As someone mentions in the film, they are like two kids, with the most fitting souvenir- and trinket-packed apartment in which they live happily.
Maysles’ signature observational, hand-held camera shooting style sometimes gives the impression of a reality TV show, but the candid expressions and the words he captures while following Iris’s activities make this documentary an intriguing adventure into the universe of the wearer of those famously big round eyeglasses, a ninety-year-old fashion connoisseur.
1.The Look of Silence (Joshua Oppenheimer)
Oppenheimer amazed in 2012 with The Act of Killing, his documentary about the death-squad leaders of the Indonesian genocide and their dreadful nonchalance in recalling the killings of innocent people. Once again, in the Oscar-nominated The Look of Silence, he brings us a powerful documentary, this time showing the other side of the same story. An optometrist who survived the genocide tries to find who killed his brother and interrogate the culprits directly about their violent acts.
It is a beautifully-shot, tragic documentary, which, unlike its prequel—which included irony and moments of ridicule—focuses on the tyrants through the eyes of the victims. The two films are not to be missed, not only for their cinematographic quality and unique subject, but for the lesson they provide on the human capacity for both ugliness and beauty.
What do you guys think? Do you agree with the list or what do you feel was left out? Let me know in the comments!