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Best of 2015: Documentaries

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WELCOME TO OUR BEST OF 2015 STUFF! Coming up tomorrow… Páraic picks out the Best of Irish Cinema.

So a word of introduction. Not all of these films have seen a cinema release in Ireland.  Some are available on video-on-demand services, some on DVD and Blu-Ray and some are still toiling around festivals looking for a bigger release. The documentary genre feels like one of the most fragmented areas of modern cinema, and often the stories are as easily enjoyed in the comforts of your own home as they are on opening night with a live satellite Q&A with the director. This evolution and wider availability should be embraced.

Anyway, all that aside, I loved each and every one of these very different documentary features. The one thing they have in common? Great stories told by talented, insightful and balanced film-makers. 

Let me know what I’ve missed in the comments or @spoooolers or @wheatln2 on Twitter.

 

best documentaries of 2015

10. The Wolfpack

wolfpack-subjects-a-move-from-the-sheltered-to-the-limelight-20150602

Crystal Moselle’s film is a marketeer’s dream. Six brothers who all look alike who have been home-schooled and effectively imprisoned in their rent-controlled New York apartment for years, with a world of VHS movies, props and a camcorder for amusement. Enter the film-maker with unfettered access to their world.

Knowing very little about the film beforehand makes for a special viewing experience. Is this going to turn out nasty ala Capturing the Friedmans? When is all this happening? What’s archive and what’s new input from the film-maker? Who the hell are these people?

Yes, it’s open to criticisms and moral questions about the close access to some clearly troubled souls, but by the film’s conclusion it feels validated.

Available: DVD/Blu-ray

 

 

9. I Am Belfast

i am belfast

The documentary/drama (though it’s not a docu-drama by any means) appears quite reactive and natural, but the post-screening Q&A revealed that Cousins scripts things meticulously and waits for the moment to fit the idea in his head. The composition of the observational moments with the staged 10,000-year-old “Belfast” scenes (shot by acclaimed Australian cinematographer Christopher Doyle) work well and, when coupled with Cousins’ superb ability to use just the right amount of archive, make for a truly engaging work. (Read my full review from Galway 2015)

Available: n/a (played at Belfast Film Festival and Galway Film Fleadh, acquired by New Europe Film Sales so perhaps a wider release is planned)

 

 

8. Cobain: Montage of Heck

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A large pinch of salt must be taken when people are remembering events after the fact yet the documentary makes an attempt to present all sides. The frankness of some of the unseen footage makes for uneasy watching as we ponder should we ever had access to this footage in the first place? It seems though the dead have little say in the matter. … There is no doubt that Montage of Heck is a forthright portrayal of a gifted songwriter ravaged by drugs, track marks and all. (Read Páraic’s full review)

Available: DVD/Blu-ray, iTunes

 

7. Dreamcatcher

dreamcatcher

At the centre of the world is the sex worker-turned outreach volunteer Brenda Myers-Powell who calls to mind Oprah Winfrey if she’d ended up on a very different path in early life. Brenda’s comfort with the camera and the people around her is remarkable and she is the reason the film works so well, without her it might almost feel exploitative of the exploited. (Read my review)

Available: Volta.ie, DVD, iTunes

 

 

6. The Queen of Ireland

queen-of-ireland

The whole film is only 82 minutes longer and sometimes feels more like a TV edit, with enough of a story here that the film could have been twice as long and still captivated the audience. All in all, a fascinating portrait of one of modern Ireland’s most important people. (Read my full review)

Available: DVD, iTunes and RTÉ2 television in the new year

 

5. The Look of Silence

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At the film’s heart is the optometrist Adi, the brother of Remly who was murdered in a series of killings in his village. Adi, much to the chagrin of his centurion parents, decides to visit the village elders responsible under the pretense of providing eye tests. It’s tense and the saddest part of the whole thing is the realisation that these men feel absolutely no remorse. (Read my review)

Available: DVD/Blu-ray, iTunes

 

 

4. Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine

steve jobs

I saw the Alex Gibney documentary Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine a week before Danny Boyle’s Steve Jobs hit screens. Ultimately it was Gibney’s look at one of America’s most interesting figures of the forty years that left me feeling let down by the Boyle/Sorkin Steve Jobs. On reflection now, that film is probably a whole lot better than I gave it credit for and deserves a second look as a purely dramatic work.

Gibney’s documentary portrait of Jobs is great as it creates a proper picture view of a man who re-defined industries as varied as computing, retailing, communication and music – and yes, was a bit of an asshole about it all too. If you’re interested in the man behind all the noise, then seek this out.

Available: iTunes, DVD

 

 

3. Being AP

Being-AP-DI-1

Tony McCoy is probably the greatest living horse-racing jockey, having won pretty much everything in his career and holding the incredible record of being Champion Jockey (winning the most races in a year) for 20 consecutive years from 1995–96 through to his final year of activity in 2014/15. It’s that final season which is covered in Anthony Wonke’s film.

Now put all those numbers aside for a moment, as Being AP is a whole lot more than some gushing portrait of a celebrated icon of an industry. Instead it gives an insight into just how exhausting, exhilarating, pressurising and often ridiculous being an elite professional sportsman is. A typical moment will be AP trying to remember how many punctured lungs he’s had and where his next win is coming from, all while his wife is there dying of worry over whether he’ll be paralysed from a fall – and what kind of fascinator hat would go well with her outfit at Cheltenham.

Available: , DVD, iTunes

 

 

2. Double Play: James Benning and Richard Linklater

double play

The film is expertly crafted, and a perfect example of how a modern documentary with access to willing subjects can be made, without any need to rely on moving photos or countless talking heads. The film instead uses primary sources of Benning’s 13 Lakes, Small Roads and Ten Skies and putting them alongside Linklater’s Slackers, Dazed & Confused, Before trilogy and Boyhood to discuss the passage of time as it’s presented on-screen in these men’s films. This won’t be for everyone but any film fan with an interest in the way films are made will take something from. (Read my review)

Available: iTunes

 

1. Amy

Amy-Winehouse

It’s a harrowing watch at times, pulling no punches in showing by the end how ravaged Amy had become by drink and drugs. It reminds us of what a truly great talent was lost and no doubt will bring a new wave of people to her music. (Read Páraic’s review)

Available: iTunes, DVD

Five more in the mix worth a watch:

  • Older than Ireland
  • Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief
  • Magician: The Astonishing Life and Work of Orson Welles
  • Fortune’s Wheel
  • Red Army

 

Five unseen that are on the watchlist

  • Cartel Land
  • The Salt of the Earth
  • The Hunting Ground
  • Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom
  • Iris
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Nigel

Nigel loves stupid films almost as much as he likes clever films. He'll watch anything but is usually drawn to documentaries, North American independent films, Irish cinema and gung-ho, balls-to-the-walls Hollywood blockbusters. Here's what he's been watching.
 
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