“The Witness” [Original Review]
“The story behind the headline” has become a cliché, but as James Solomon‘s moving and intricate documentary proves, it’s territory that can contain multitudes. The 1964 headline in this case ran in the New York Times (which incidentally emerges as a player second only in villainy to the murderer in this tragic story) and, detailing the supposed apathy of neighbors who did nothing while young Kitty Genovese was stabbed to death outside her building, it sparked a national outcry that spurred the development of the 911 system. In 2004, when the NYT partially retracted some of its coverage, Kitty’s beloved younger brother Bill, a Vietnam vet who lost both legs in the war, embarked on a quest to find out not only about the so-called “38 eyewitnesses” who did nothing, but also about Kitty herself. Solomon’s film is not formally adventurous, but it doesn’t need to be with a story this compelling, even if in its later stages, there are moments that perhaps feel a little too shaped. Still, as a portrait of devoted sibling-hood that at least partially reclaims Kitty’s life, for those who loved her, from under the shadow of her politicized tragic death, it’s valuable, noble and incredibly human.
“Lo and Behold, Reveries Of The Connected World” [Original Review]
German madman/genius Werner Herzog is famous for being able to find majesty and terror whether the terrain is the physical world or the soul of man, so while it seems initially incongruous, it was perhaps inevitable he would turn his wonderfully gloomy Teutonic intelligence to the uncharted virtual landscapes of the internet. And ‘Lo and Behold’ is the result: a fascinating exploration that is by turns flippant, philosophical, funny and fearful about the potential of the online revolution to change the very fabric of human interaction. With an eclectic mix of interviewees from both the evangelist and the doomsayer schools of thought, the film in format is more similar to the unadorned approach of Herzog’s “Death Row” series than the visual whizz-pop of his 3D smash hit “Cave Of Forgotten Dreams” or indeed his earlier, more naturalist or anthropological docs. But however unimpressive the shooting style, marshaled as ever by Herzog’s unique presence and singular, uncompromising ability to look deeper into the heart of darkness than most other filmmakers would dare, it’s still a head-spinning and often enlightening film, equally full of wonder and dread.
“Tickled” [Original Review]
Had “Tickled” turned out as planned, it’s quite possible it wouldn’t be on this list. It might have turned out to be highly entertaining, but as a film about the world of competitive tickling, it could have easily gotten lost among the dozens of other docs taking a quirky look at strange subcultures that hit every year. But the film, by Dylan Reeve and David Farrier (who seems to be a sort of New Zealand equivalent to Louis Theroux), swiftly goes in very unexpected directions. No sooner has Farrier stumbled across a tickling-themed video and begun to make some enquiries into ‘Competitive Endurance Tickling,’ he gets shockingly homophobic responses and intimidating legal threats. And the deeper the filmmakers dig, the further the rabbit hole goes. We won’t give away too much of how it goes down, but the film takes on a surprisingly sinister tone, and becomes less a look at this odd fetish, and more an examination of power and privilege, and the corruption that comes with it. The filmmakers deal brilliantly with everything thrown at them, and while the film runs out of steam a little towards the end (though in real life, the story has continued), it’s nevertheless one of the rare films to truly justify the label “stranger than fiction.”
“Holy Hell” [Original Review]
When Will Allen joined up with Los Angeles-based meditation group-cum-ballet cult The Buddhafield back in the ’80s, he never knew the kind of 22-year journey he would go on, following the teachings of a mysterious Speedo’d guru. Fortunately, lifelong filmmaker Allen was the cult’s videographer and came away with enough material to create a fascinating and intimate deep dive into the group’s world. But for all the dancing, swimming, spiritual bliss and community support, the testimonials from Allen’s friends and former group members outline the terrifying effects of mind control and abuses of power by their leader. What the film does best is show how cults need to have both the leaders and the followers to work, interlocked into a co-dependent relationship of narcissism and subservience. Allen’s archival footage, especially the music videos he created for the group, are impossible to look away from; there’s something both insanely riveting and horrifying at once about them. While the final confrontation isn’t quite satisfying, it does demonstrate the lingering effects of person’s powerful influence over another.
“Weiner” [Original Review]
You might be familiar with the story of Anthony Weiner: a fast-rising star of the Democratic Party and popular, long-serving Congressman who twice ran for Mayor of New York, only to self-destruct after a series of scandals involving him sexting strangers. But even if you followed his ups and downs in detail at the time, “Weiner,” which follows his 2013 mayoral candidacy, will hold something new: It’s one of the most compelling and brilliantly made portraits of ego, hubris and self-immolation that we’ve ever seen. Directed by Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg (Kriegman was a former aide to Weiner, hence the astonishing access they’re given), it plays somewhat like a real-life cross between “Veep” and “The Good Wife,” with Weiner simply unable to help himself from imploding even as he comes across as an undeniably talented, even compassionate politician, while his wife Huma Abedin (one of Hillary Clinton’s top aides) is one of the great screen characters of the year: loyal, long-suffering and fiery. Kriegman and Steinberg have a perfect sense of when to give their subject enough rope and when to ask them the tough questions, as well as a truly cinematic eye for framing and detail. One shot in particular, of Weiner admiring his own disastrous TV appearance as Abedin despairs, is one of the finest in any film of any kind this year.