Fire At Sea
Gianfranco Rosi’s 2016 documentary examines the refugee crisis in Europe through a narrow lens, zeroing in on the small island of Lampedusa, which lies between Sicily and Tunisia. The film follows two disparate stories: That of a group of refugees crossing the sea to Lampedusa, and that of the islanders, including a young boy named Samuele. Although many have criticized the film’s structure, citing a lack of connection between the two stories, Rosi’s approach is striking. The refugees, crammed onto rafts, thin with hunger, make for a shocking juxtaposition to the story of the islander’s, living in such innocent solitude, it seems incomprehensible that war and famine could be so close. Fire At Sea takes a bold approach to documentary filmmaking, regardless of one’s political views.
Amanda Knox is a controversial figure — and a well-known one at that. In 2007, the foreign-language student and her boyfriend were wrongly convicted of murdering her fellow flatmate while in Italy, resulting in an eight-year legal battle that saw rampant misogyny, shaky forensic evidence, and shoddy journalism placed at the forefront. In the aptly titled Amanda Knox, directors Brian McGinn and Rod Blackhurst don’t so much recount the events as much as they examine the web of incompetence pervading the sexualized tabloid narrative, thus creating a riveting procedural that’s chock-full of enlightening interviews with Knox and those closest to her.
Batkid Begins: The Wish Heard Around the World
When Miles Scott was diagnosed with leukemia at just 18 months old, the youngster and his family became embroiled in a battle for survival. As he grew up living with the disease, Scott became fascinated by Batman, who was a symbol of hope while he was undergoing his difficult treatment. After years battling the disease, his parents teamed up with the Make-A-Wish Foundation in order to give their son a chance to be Batman for a day. What began as a simple event quickly blossomed into a massive campaign that brought together people from all over the globe — including iconic Batman actor Adam West and President Barack Obama — and turned San Francisco into Gotham City. Batkid Begins tells the story of how this now-viral story came to be, and moreover, does so beautifully.
Miss Sharon Jones!
The late, great Sharon Jones was a force to be reckoned with, particularly when at the helm of her fellow Dap-Kings. The singer’s undeniable penchant for ‘60s-style soul and classic R&B isn’t the central force behind this heartrending documentary, however. Oscar-winning director Barbara Kopple’s film functions as a no-holds-barred examination of Jones’ more recent triumphs and lifelong hardships, one that opens with her being diagnosed with the same pancreatic cancer that would kill her three years later. The rest of it plays out with a healthy mix of interviews and candid observations, each punctured with invigorating concert footage that serves as both a testament to the unflinching strength of her perseverance and yet another reminder at just how ruthless last year truly was.
Finding Vivian Maier
Sometimes the most fascinating mysteries stem from the unlikeliest of places. Historian John Maloof, for instance, purchased a box of negatives at a Chicago auction for a mere $400. The work turned out to be that of a Vivian Maier, a former nanny who spent her much of her time capturing exquisite photos in the bustling streets of Chicago in the late- 950s and ’60s. The discovery of Maier’s work upon her death eventually paved the way for a Kickstarter-backed film, Finding Vivian Maier, which centers on Maloof’s search for the unknown talent. The breezy narrative introduces Maier and her candid photography through an assortment of intriguing interviews with those who remember her, many of which shed light on a recluse who, for one reason or another, decided to stow away more than 150,000 photos before her death.
Jiro Dreams of Sushi
You’ll never look at a California roll the same way again after watching this fascinating documentary about one of the best sushi chefs in the world. Jiro Ono, an 85-year-old legend in Tokyo, charges $300 a plate at his small restaurant. The film follows his never-ending quest to perfect the art of sushi, while also profiling his two sons, one of whom is poised to succeed Jiro and carry on the family tradition at the renowned restaurant (Sukiyabashi Jiro).
Albert Maysles’ penultimate film is a fitting portrait of a fashion icon who, surprisingly, still remains at the top of her game despite her advanced age. The 93-year-old subject is Iris Apfel, one of the most renowned fashionistas and interior designers to have ever trotted the globe. Maysles’ film depicts the stages of her life through a series of interviews, many of which contribute to a film that functions as both an ode to individual uniqueness and an intimate look into a marriage more than 65 years in the making. Apfel’s life (and home) might be cluttered, but it’s chock-full of charming insight more than anything else.
The Resurrection of Jake the Snake
Aurelian Smith Jr. — better known by his ring persona, Jake “the Snake” Roberts — is a former professional wrestler who dominated the WWF in the late-’80s and ‘90s. As “The Snake,” Smith was notorious for conquering his opponents, taunting them, and even torturing them with his live snake, Damien the Python. Sadly, however, the former wrestler spent the better part of the following decades battling addictions to alcohol and crack cocaine, both of which took a heavy toll on his physical health, family, finances, and even Damien.
The Resurrection of Jake the Snake also follows fellow wrestler “Diamond” Dallas Page — who found post-wrestling success as a yoga teacher — and his efforts to rehabilitate Smith and Scott Hall, another friend and former WWE superstar. The candid doc sometimes feels like a reality show and an infomercial for Page’s enterprise, sure, but the interviews with wrestling greats such as Steve Austin, Chris Jericho, and Adam Copeland render it a comeback story with plenty to offer. Apparently, the only place to go from rock bottom is up.
Right in the middle of the counterculture era, a group of brave, young individuals dedicated their lives to rock climbing. Set in Yosemite National Park, Valley Uprising tells the story of these young pioneers, who paved the way for the next generation of climbers. But don’t think you need to be a climbing enthusiast to enjoy this unique historical account. The directors masterfully utilize both vintage footage and digitally-animated archival photography to keep you on the edge of your seat, while incorporating a host of enlightening interviews with climbing legends such as Yvon Chouinard, Royal Robbins, Lynn Hill, and John Long. Many contemporary climbers, such as Dean Potter and Alex Honnold, also make an appearance. With fingers of steel, these scofflaws transformed climbing from a “fringe activity” to the respected sport it is today.
The Ivory Game
In this Netflix Original, filmmakers Kief Davidson and Richard Ladkani tell the story of the elephant poaching and the inner workings of the ongoing ivory trade — from the inside out. The film paints a dire picture of the economies, both political and financial, that have emerged as a result of ivory’s value in regions where legal loopholes allow the black-market commodity to move unfettered. From Africa to China to Italy, the film looks to expose the brutality of the ivory trade and help support those looking to make it extinct. It exists in the same vain as heartbreaking documentaries such as Blackfish and The Cove, and as such, it often feels more like a loudspeaker for animal-rights activists than a work of pure journalism. Thankfully, it’s a commanding watch either way.
The Short Game
Ever seen the excellent, 2002 documentary Spellbound? Well, The Short Game is kind of like that, though it focuses on eight entrants in the 2012 U.S. Kids Golf World Championship and their overzealous parents instead of a national spelling bee in Washington D.C. Director Josh Greenbaum’s inspiring film follows the young athletes — five of whom are boys and three of whom are girls — beginning six months prior to the competition, profiling their athletic drive and personal interests in equal measure. Some of the athletes hog more of the spotlight than others, such as tennis superstar Anna Kournikova’s younger brother, but they all wind up participating in a competition that spurs both laughter and tears for the children and their parents.