Alex Stapleton pulls off an interesting trick with the documentary Reggie, about the baseball great. On the surface, it seems like a warts-and-all presentation. Reggie says on several occasions that his desire to tell the truth often gets him in trouble, and we are reminded of his conflicts with manager Billy Martin and owners Charlie Finley and George Steinbrenner. But the warts are understandable in the context of the film, which is largely told from Reggie's own point of view. Yes, he had problems with those people, but it was because he told the truth and demanded that he be treated with respect and dignity.
Reggie comes across well throughout the film. He has a lot of important things to say about racism and baseball, and the stories of the experiences he had in the south playing in the minor leagues reminded us of how bad it was back then. (His struggles to be part of ownership reminds us that we still have a long way to go.) It's fun to see him hanging out with his old Oakland teammates, including the late Vida Blue ... he and Dave Stewart exchange memories about when Stew was a youngster growing up in Oakland and Reggie took him under his wing. It's also illuminating to see him talking with fellow legends like Hank Aaron and basketball's Dr. J, sharing as only people who have reached the pinnacle of success can do.
I felt like Reggie would be happy with how the movie turned out. If someone without a lot of knowledge about Reggie watched this, they'd think he was an OK guy as well as a great baseball player. There's nothing wrong with that. But I felt, without really knowing what they might be, that I was missing other aspects of Reggie as a person and a ballplayer.
The House Is Black is a short (21 minutes) documentary about a leper colony in Iran, considered now to be a central movie in Iranian film history. It is the only film directed by Forugh Farrokhzad, an important poet who died in a car accident when she was only 32. Her approach is unique, including voice-over narration by Farrokhzad of her own poetry, along with other narration taken from the Old Testament and the Koran.
While Farrokhzad and cinematographer Soleyman Minasian do not shy away from the realities of what leprosy does to a body, there is no feel of exploitation. We get an honest look at the disease and its effects, but Farrokhzad insists on our also seeing the essential humanity in the people who appear in the movie. As the first lines of narration say, "There is no shortage of ugliness in the world. If man closed his eyes to it, there would be even more."
One wishes that Farrokhzad had lived long enough to give us more films. Over time, The House Is Black has only increased in reputation ... it is #241 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time.
[This is the fourteenth in a 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. 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.]
I first saw No End in Sight in late 2007. At that time, I wrote:
A common thread emerges from all of these witnesses ... Whatever your thoughts on the morality or political efficacy of the war, we might have pulled it off. But the people in charge were arrogant pricks who refused to listen to expert advice because they knew what they wanted to do, and they did it.
Bush is attacked primarily as the hands-off President who let things happen on his watch. The ones who construct the failed scenario (Cheney, Rumsfeld, and later Paul Bremer, to mention three of a very small number) apparently didn't do a single thing right. So whatever "success" might have been possible was never going to happen, thanks to the colossal incompetence of the men (and Condi Rice) in charge.
The film's own success comes by presenting material you think you know from a slightly different angle, which allows you to see things afresh. This is not an anti-war film, or perhaps even an anti-Iraq War film. It is a film that unsparingly documents the endless series of boneheaded decisions that have left Iraq in a state of chaos. It is not a pretty picture, or a pretty film.
Judging (or rather, re-judging) a documentary is affected not just by the artistic work itself, but also by how the situation depicted in the movie might have changed in the ensuing years. The American presence in Iraq has been reduced enough that President Biden was able to announce the end of the combat mission in Iraq (in 2021!) without sounding too evasive. But the main thing you take away from the film isn't anything specific about Iraq policy. Instead, Charles Ferguson shows how incompetent the U.S. was, and nothing I've seen since then makes me think he was wrong in his assessment. (Also, that their incompetence didn't rise from innate stupidity, but more from innate arrogance.) Most of the leaders are still with us (Donald Rumsfeld died a couple of years ago). Perhaps the most interesting continuing story from the film is that of Seth Moulton, a Marine who was one of three U.S. veterans of the war who are interviewed extensively. Moulton entered politics, becoming a member of the House of Representatives in 2015, where he still serves.
I think the film not only holds up, but makes me wonder why I hedged on the ultimate 10/10 rating. That's what it deserves, and probably deserved then, as well. No End in Sight was nominated for an Oscar ... Ferguson's next film, Inside Job, won the Oscar. If this series lasts long enough, I'll eventually re-evaluate Inside Job, too.
The "Up Series", quoting from Wikipedia, is a "series of documentary films follows the lives of ten males and four females in England beginning in 1964, when they were seven years old. The first film was titled Seven Up!, with later films adjusting the number in the title to match the age of the subjects at the time of filming. The documentary has had nine episodes—one every seven years—thus spanning 56 years." I first watched films from the series in 2007 ... I thought 49 Up was going to be nominated for an Oscar, and decided to watch all of the series up to that point in preparation. (It wasn't nominated, and someone pointed out since it's a TV series, perhaps it will never be nominated.) I thought the series got better as it went along. but the idea has always seemed better than the result. At that time, I wrote:
The films are, or at least were, intended as a critique of British class society, but the films are least successful when they push that point. Far too often, interviewer and director Michael Apted asks leading questions designed to show off his notions about class … just as often, the replies are unexpected, thankfully. In 49 Up, more than in any other of the films, Apted is challenged by the participants. Many of them dislike having their lives interrupted every seven years … some think Apted and the series unfairly portrays their lives. A couple have quit participating over the course of the films, including at least two spouses.... Because it’s well-made, because the participants are likeable, because over the course of 42 years we get to know them, or at least get to know their “Up” personas, for all of these reasons, the Up series seems legitimate, even classy, and I think we might see more in them than really exists.
I found 56 Up to be the best yet, but the reason was largely because these films have a cumulative power, as we get further along in knowing the participants. We root for all of them. 63 Up continues this pattern, but the truth is, I can no longer say that each one is better than the one before. I think we get more out of each episode because of that cumulative effect, which speaks to the enormous power of the project, but that doesn't mean 63 Up is best, as much as it means every seven years we look forward to the films with increased anticipation.
It is possible that 63 Up will mark the end of the series. Michael Apted, who worked on the first film and directed the rest, died in 2021. Of the 14 original kids, one has died, and a few decided at some point to quit participating, although in every case but one, they later returned. The series has a remarkable lack of voyeurism ... it is often compared to reality television, but whatever the problems the participants have had over the years, our interest grows out of sympathy more than it does of gossip.
All That Breathes is a documentary that can be described simply, but that would miss the point. It is about two brothers in New Delhi who rescue birds, black kites to be exact. On that level, it's an interesting and informative work. But it's about a lot more than just rescuing birds.
There is unrest, always in the distance, yet never seeming to be far away. The air is so polluted that birds fall from the sky. The ground doesn't seem much better ... early on, we see rats overrunning a area filled with, well, a little of everything. The trick Shaunak Sen uses is that none of this is foregrounded. Throughout the film, Sen focuses on the brothers, working out of their basement, searching for funding for a hospital, imagining a future outside of New Delhi. You are always aware of the unrest and the pollution and the ways everything is connected, because Sen never lets us forget, even while what we are seeing is primarily the brothers.
The film features some lovely cinematography, and we get to know the brothers, Nadeem Shehzad and Mohammad Saud, as the movie progresses. There is always something interesting going on, although much of it is depressing. The brothers know their work is a drop in the bucket, but they go on, for what else is there to do except try to better the circumstances of their environment.
I'll probably watch a few more movies this year, but unless one is an all-time classic, these will likely remain the best movies I watched in 2022 for the first time. I gave all of them a rating of 9 on a scale of 10. Sorted by release year:
The Territory is a documentary about the Indigenous Uru-eu-wau-wau in Brazil, who live in a rainforest constantly threatened by encroachment from people who believe in "progress", which for the average person means "everyone dreams of having a home" and for the rich and powerful means "use the land to make lots of money". The Uru-eu-wau-wau aren't just fighting to protect their homeland, they are fighting to save the planet ... they know the importance of the rainforest.
Alex Pritz takes an interesting approach. He takes his cameras into the rainforest, and builds trust with the Uru-eu-wau-wau, with whom he clearly champions. But he also films some settlers, the ones who want a home of their own. He manages to gain their trust, as well, and it's a tenuous construction. He doesn't defame the settlers, he lets them present their case, and they do seem to trust him. But the viewer never forgets which "side" Pritz is on.
COVID had an impact on the making of the film. Pritz describes this in an interview:
Having spent months prior to the pandemic working with the Uru-eu-wau-wau to develop an Indigenous media team, the pandemic forced us to put this training into action. Through contactless drops, we delivered a new set of higher quality cameras to the Uru-eu-wau-wau villages and set up a new series of online workshops in cinematography, sound, and documentary storytelling. We hired a team of Indigenous cinematographers to film themselves as they isolated themselves deep within the forest, and the results were spectacular: by removing myself from the equation, we gained a firsthand perspective into the Uru-eu-wau-wau experience that never would’ve been possible if it were filmed by outsiders. The footage coming from the Uru-eu-wau-wau was unlike anything we had shot before: intimate family moments, intense scenes of action, and an honesty in the footage that helped us connect with the characters in newfound ways.
"Intimate" perfectly describes how much of the footage of the Uru-eu-wau-wau affects us. And the willingness of Pritz and his team to turn over some of the film making to the natives demonstrates how committed he is to their point of view. It's this, perhaps, that tilts the overall impact of The Territory in favor of the Indigenous people, even as he refuses to make the settlers evil ... they are misguided, uninformed, but we understand their point of view, as well.
Honestly, not much to this film. The title says it all. I've had cats most of my life, including two right now, so I'm the target audience for this one. Andy Mitchell does a good job of dispelling common notions about cats (many of which I share ... I assume they are either inscrutable, dumb, or both, which works to their advantage in that they don't do anything on command the way dogs do, and which means humans will never understand cats). Now I know I was wrong. There are plenty of people studying cats who do understand them, which means they are less inscrutable than I thought, and they are not dumb. Inside the Mind of a Cat is short and sweet (67 minutes), which is a good thing. I have more fun wasting an hour watching cat videos on YouTube and TikTok.
Documentary short about Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria, focusing on the people whose lives were ruined. The personal angle is effective, equal parts heartbreaking and infuriating. It might be improved if it were feature-length, since the short running time (36 minutes) leaves no room for a broader context.
New technology (better to say "new-to-me technology") is problematic, at first, precisely because it can be so impressive. I spent so much time enjoying the quality of the 4k picture on A Life on Our Planet that I often forgot to pay attention to the message David Attenborough was trying to get across. Which is no criticism of Attenborough, who is a veteran of explaining nature to us. The irony is that, while I am admiring the new-to-me technology, part of me can't wait for the inevitable moment when I will no longer consciously notice the improvements over past technologies.
It's not that Attenborough tells us something new in this 2020 film. Our world is in danger, or rather, while nature always abides, the changes we are making to it could lead to the extinction of human beings. He refers to the film as his "witness testimony" ... he's been there and done that, and his presentation of nature here is personalized. He carries an authority with him that is convincing, and there is a sadness as he describes the ways we are screwing up. But the final section of the film is more positive, for Attenborough doesn't think it is a lost cause, at least not yet. There are things we can do, starting immediately, that will help restore nature to an earlier state, one that will lead to balance, a place with room for humans. It's effective, because his list of problems are believable, and then he carries that believability over to his proposed solutions. Of course, humans still have to act on those solutions, and there's no guarantee that will happen.
Meanwhile, the beauty of nature in the film makes you want to preserve it, to rebuild it. That beauty is in some ways the film's best argument in favor of nature.