[This is the second in a new series that will probably be VERY intermittent, if I remember to post at all. I've long known that while I have given my share of 10-out-of-10 ratings for movies over the years, in almost every case, those movies are fairly old. By rough count, I have only given the top rating to 16 non-documentaries from the 21st century. (For some reason, I don't have a problem giving tens to new documentaries.) So I got this idea to go back and revisit movies of relatively recent vintage that I gave a rating of 9, to see if time and perspective convinced me to bump that rating up to 10. Of course, it's always possible I'll drop the rating, but time will tell.]
The second movie in the series is Stories We Tell, which I last saw (and rated "9") in 2017. At that time, I wrote:
Sarah Polley is up to many things with Stories We Tell, which seems surprising if you just offer a brief description: Polley makes a documentary about her family, using interviews and home movies. Polley turns this seemingly simple exercise into a smart examination of memory, family, and the very act of making a documentary. She is so smooth with her craft that her ambitions never slow the film down, never seem pretentious.
(I notice that back in 2017, Stories We Tell was #185 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century. It is currently at #116, which shows how our impressions change over time.)
One way Polley avoids being pretentious is by sneaking her methods into the film. The first time I watched it, I missed Polley's "trick" entirely until the closing credits. It's such an audacious move that everyone who writes about Stories We Tell must apologize for the spoilers they are about to offer, arguing that you can't talk about the movie without talking about the spoilers. This is an example of how extraordinary the movie is, for it's hard to think of a documentary that needs spoiler warnings. It's not a spoiler to say that someone gets killed at Altamont during Gimme Shelter, and while the audience for Stories We Tell might not know specifics about the lives of Polley and her family, you could look at Wikipedia to find out "what happened". The spoiler is in how Polley tells the story. (And this is as good a place as any to mention Michael Munn, the film's editor, who is exemplary in his work here.)
This is crucial. As at least one person asks, why would anyone be interested in the story of our family? The people have led interesting lives, the way all of us lead interesting lives. But Polley doesn't really make us interested in her family as much as she makes us interested in her "smart examination of memory, family, and the very act of making a documentary". There is a meta theme here ... Polley makes a documentary that examines making a documentary. Where someone like Frederick Wiseman essentially hides what he is doing with his fly-on-the-wall documentaries, Polley draws attention to her methods. Which makes the one big secret to her film all the more surprising, because the movie seems transparent, but it wasn't, at least not completely. And Polley doesn't use her "trick" to draw attention to her brilliant film making, she uses it to further emphasize the theme of family memories.
In an interview with Kate Erbland in 2019, Polley admits she is surprised at how resonant Stories We Tell is for so many people. What feels like a smartly planned approach turns out to been have something less controlled:
The fact that anyone saw a cohesive film in there is still amazing to me.... For me, the legacy is that anyone thought it was an actual movie, as opposed to just a complete mess that I never cleaned up.... At no point did I feel like I knew what I was doing when I was making it. It just felt like such a mess, it felt really unpleasant.
Polley accomplishes so much with Stories We Tell that it ends up being a perfect candidate for "Revisiting the 9s". Although as noted, I have never shied away from giving my highest rating to recent documentaries, I held back a bit with Stories We Tell, probably because Polley's accomplishments felt "un-documentary" enough that I treated it like just another great art film. Which it is. It's also a great documentary. It's a great film. I should have given it a "10" from the start.