I’m currently in Park City, Utah, in the thick of the 32nd Sundance Film Festival, a showcase for top documentaries from around the world, about which more next month. The documentary field has grown enormously — the 40-plus premiering at Sundance were selected from thousands of submissions — and the best can be counted on for outstanding cinematic experiences. One on many lists is Joshua Oppenheimer’s Oscar-nominated The Look of Silence, a followup to his extraordinary The Act of Killing on the aftermath of the 1960s Indonesian genocide. It topped my best of 2014 though was not released beyond the festival circuit until this year.
With that in mind here are my top 10 and five honourable mentions:
1. Salt of the Earth (France/Brazil/Italy)
This luminous homage to the work of renowned photographer Sebastião Salgado has received numerous awards and an Oscar nomination since its acclaimed debut at the 2014 Cannes festival. Co-directed and written by his son Juliano Ribeiro Salgado and German master Wim Wenders, it offers a remarkable window on the human condition. Some of Salgado’s indelible images starkly capture the heart of social extremes; others open up planetary wonders as explored in his latest epic project Genesis.
2. Racing Extinction (U.S./China/Hong Kong/Indonesia/Mexico/U.K.)
Oscar-winning director/oceanographer Louie Psihoyos (The Cove) leads an intrepid crew in a globe-spanning investigation, sometimes involving risky undercover operations, of human activities, from resource depletion to climate change, that threaten the survival of other species in this “anthropocene” age. More optimistically the film also highlights potential remedial actions that could avert, or at least mitigate, the prospects for a sixth mass extinction.
3. Democrats (Denmark)
Director Camilla Nielsson gained behind-the-scenes access to the protracted, often tense, negotiations over a new constitution for Zimbabwe that took place between the party of autocrat Robert Mugabe and the main opposition party. The fascinating result is a remarkable achievement awarded the top prize by the Tribeca festival jury “for filming in conditions where simply to be present is a triumph; and for prioritizing dignity, courage, and our common struggle for humanity.”
4. (T)ERROR (U.S.)
The first film by co-directors Lyric Cabral and David Felix Sutcliffe is also the first to secretly probe and expose the shady details of an undercover FBI counterterrorism “sting” operation against several Muslim suspects. It turns a timely critical lens on the tactics of those charged with keeping us safe, earning plaudits from juries at Sundance and the International Documentary Association.
5. Welcome to Leith (U.S.)
This multiple award winner by directors Michael Nicols and Christopher Walker is a chilling account of how notorious white supremacist Craig Cobb and a band of neo-Nazi supporters attempted to take over a tiny town in North Dakota, intimidating the longtime local residents until they fought back. It’s an unsettling look into a dark corner of racist extremism in America.
6. Meru (U.S.)
The Himalayan summit of Mount Meru is considered the world’s ultimate climbing challenge and this Sundance audience award winner captures the extraordinary attempts to conquer it by a three-man team, finally successful in 2011. Veteran Conran Anker is the driving force. Another member, Jimmy Chin, co-directs and works the camera along with the third member, Renan Ozturk. Their personal stories are as compelling as the cinematography is stunning, fully justifying the movie’s tagline, “Believe in the impossible.”
7. Haida Gwaii: On the Edge of the World (Canada)
Awarded best Canadian documentary at Toronto’s HotDocs festival, director Charles Wilkinson’s exploration of the British Columbia coastal islands delves deep into their significance as the homeland of indigenous cultures facing the modern challenges from resource development threatening ecosystems and ways of life. The resilience of the Haida in overcoming “cultural genocide” and the preservation of some of the earth’s most beautiful natural habitats strike notes of hope in this gorgeously filmed featured that also took the jury prize at the Ottawa One World Film Festival.
8. Something Better to Come (Denmark/Poland)
It will be hard to top the dedication to a difficult project of director Hanna Polak who devoted 14 years to following the fate of Yula from girlhood to young adulthood. Yula and her alcoholic mother are encountered on society’s extreme margins among those whose home is Europe’s largest landfill outside of Moscow. Even more extraordinary than what Yula endures is how she survives, eventually escaping to find a new life and motherhood.
9. TransFatty Lives (U.S.)
Recently my local MP, Mauril Bélanger, destined to become Speaker of the House of Commons, was instead diagnosed with ALS, an incurable degenerative condition with a survival expectancy of only a few years. When the devastating news was given to Patrick Sean O’Brien, a popular New Jersey DJ nicknamed “TransFatty,” he didn’t withdraw into despair. Instead he had the camera turned on himself in a journey that has included both terrible challenges and the joys of becoming a new father. Winner of the Tribeca festival’s audience award, the moving intimate result is utterly remarkable.
10. Becoming Bulletproof (U.S.)
More than a movie about people struggling with disabilities, Michael Barnett’s engaging feature shows what they can do making their own movies. The filmmaking collaborative Zeno Mountain Farm runs actors’ camps in which disabled participants learn how to produce short films, including a shoot’em-up western in the one delightfully showcased here. Sometimes creating cinema together is the best therapy.
How to Change the World (Canada/U.K.): Writer-director Jerry Rothwell tells the story of how in the early 1970s a small ragtag group of Vancouver-based anti-nuclear and environmental activists created Greenpeace, becoming a movement that despite conflicts among the original members, grew to become the world’s largest environmental protest NGO.
This Changes Everything (Canada/U.S.): Naomi Klein narrates the screen version of her award-winning book on the radical imperative of confronting the climate change challenge. As directed by husband Avi Lewis, it effectively dramatizes the human impacts through the stories of people and communities on the environmental frontlines in nine countries on five continents.
Listen to Me Marlon (U.K.): This one stands out among numerous documentaries on artists, notably musicians (three on stars who died tragically at age 27: Amy on Amy Winehouse; Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck; Janis: Little Girl Blue). Drawing from Marlon Brando’s previously unheard personal archive of hundreds of audio tapes made over the course of his career, director Stevan Riley does a masterful job of bringing to the screen the legendary actor’s reflections on his extraordinary life — in his own words and voice.
Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief (U.S.): Prolific filmmaker Alex Gibney was busier than ever, making several award-winning features for HBO, including for television the excellent four-hour Sinatra: All or Nothing on the turbulent career of America’s greatest singer-actor. Going Clear, which won multiple Emmy awards after premiering at the Sundance festival and a brief theatrical release, is an incisive and highly critical probe into the cult that has attracted some of Hollywood’s biggest names (most notably Tom Cruise).
Hitchcock/Truffaut (France/U.S.): In 1962 famous French New Wave director Francois Truffaut, formerly a critic for Les Cahiers du cinéma, conducted a lengthy interview with the master of suspense, later published as a seminal book Cinema According to Hitchcock. In this feast for cinephiles, writer-director Kent Jones captures the encounter’s enduring influence on subsequent generations of filmmakers.