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 surrounding the bustling streets of Chicago in the late-1950s 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.
See the film that is causing some major waves — pun intended — for Sea World. Featuring interviews from former trainers spliced with live video footage of killer whales in the wild and captivity, Blackfish examines if it’s truly safe for humans to house the enormous creatures in captivity. The film showcases the horrid living conditions the captive whales are exposed to, along with the deaths of multiple trainers. Prepare to have your memories of Free Willy shattered in 123 minutes.
Regardless of whether or not you enjoy wine, Somm is a heart-wrenching story about four men trying to pass the hardest test in the world of wine: the Master Sommelier exam, which only 214 people in the world have passed. You will be hooked watching the four men study all night to prepare for the most important test of their life, memorizing arcane wine facts pertaining to wine regions and methods. You may not be able to distinguish an oaky wine from one showcasing hints of grapefruit, but they do.
Muscle Shoals’ Fame Studios is a legendary institution for many reasons. The fabled studio, which initially opened in 1969, has served as the home of everyone from Boz Scaggz and Aretha Franklin to the Rolling Stones and Paul Simon, with newer acts such as the Black Keys and Band of Horses rounding out its fourth decade of existence. Fittingly, Muscle Shoals chronicles the studio’s unexpected rise to fame, along with the key cast of players that defined the funky, soulful undercurrents and undeniable grooves with which the studio became synonymous.
Jiro Dreams of Sushi
You’ll never look at the 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 profiling his two sons along the way, the latter of which is poised to succeed Jiro and carry on the family tradition at the renowned restaurant (Sukiyabashi Jiro).
Jeremy Jones is a legend in the world of snowboarding, one who’s name is practically synonymous with big mountain freeriding. In Further, the second installment in a jaw-dropping trio of films by Teton Gravity Research, the freerider and several others skirt the globe in an effort to find some of the world’s most remote and untapped alpine terrain in existence. Renowned riders such as Terje Haakonsen and Ryland Bell join him as Jones tackles everything from the Japanese Alps to California’s Sierra Nevadas, and with the help of his camera crew, the team is able to capture the wide-open powder fields and vertical spines with vivid detail. Gorgeous time-lapses and lively commentary abound, too, rendering the film as personal as it is stunning to look at.
Albert Maysles’ penultimate film is a fitting portrait of a fashion icon who, surprisingly, still remains at the top of her game despite her old 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.
Fed Up is the Inconvenient Truth of the health movement. Stephanie Soechtig’s praised documentary looks to expose the underlying causes of childhood obesity, primarily with a focus on the effects of dietary sugars. It’s a thorough examination — if not a scary one — of what’s becoming one of the most serious medical issues in the United States, one featuring eye-opening statistics and a host of talking heads that outline our unregulated addiction to unhealthy foods. The film is a good deal to digest at times (pun intended), but the plainspoken interviews with obese teens are probably enough to make you pass on your next Snickers.
Michael Rossato-Bennett’s documentary about using music to combat the effects of Alzheimer’s and dementia is an astonishingly moving piece of filmmaking. Viewers follow Dan Cohen, founder of the nonprofit organization Music & Memory, as he struggles with America’s failing health care system while attempting to show music’s incredible power over those suffering memory loss. Each scene showing an Alzheimer’s patient “awaken” after being played music from their past is as visceral an experience as you’ll find in any movie.
Circumnavigating the globe alone is no small feat for anyone — especially a 14-year-old Dutch schoolgirl. However, Laura Dekker did just that in 2010, departing from Gibralter and sailing the world for two years using a 38-foot refurbished ketch named Guppy. She filmed the bulk of her trip using a Sony Handy Came, whether talking her onshore romps in the Pearl Islands to her harrowing encounters at sea, essentially documenting a modern coming-of-age tale that revels more so in loneliness than social media and an acute fascination with boys. Thank God.
The Wrecking Crew
You’ve likely heard the Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations” and the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby,” but you probably never knew that neither band played the instruments on either track. The Wrecking Crew chronicles the collective of L.A.-based studios musicians that did, though, while emphasizing just how integral the rotating cast of players were to some of the most iconic sounds of the ’60s. The nostalgia-seeped documentary — which is profiled by Denny Tedesco, a filmmaker who’s late father was a guitarist in the band — is essentially an ode to these lauded, under-appreciated player that lacks conflict but shines with candid interviews.
Honor Flight is truly a film about volunteers and veterans. The feature-length tribute chronicles a band of Midwest volunteers who tirelessly work around the clock to send every local World War II veteran to Washington D.C., so they can look upon the memorials built in their honor. It’s an emotional documentary to say the least, filled with wide-ranging interviews that encompass both the war itself and the ensuing aftermath for a small slew of vets, many of whom are now in their late ’80s or ’90s. The film’s premier in Milwaukee in 2012 even drew a crowd of more than 30,000 people, setting a Guinness World Record for movie premiere attendance. That alone makes it worth the watch.
Chris Malloy’s 180° South is an adventure documentary in the most basic sense. The film revolves around surfer-mountaineer Jeff Johnson’s journey retracing Patagonia founders Yvon Chouinard and Doug Tompkins’ epic 1968 trip to Patagonia, Chile. Questions of ecological conservation and wanderlust belie the footage of rock climbing and surfing, though, prompting you to reconsider our role on this planet amid a phenomenal Ugly Casanova-anchored soundtrack.
What Happened, Miss Simone?
Nina Simone, though one of the most gifted performers of all time, was often a mess behind the scenes when she wasn’t in front of them. The classically-trained pianist and jazz singer regularly suffered from bipolar episodes and bouts of depression throughout her career, while continuing to advocate for civil rights and equality for blacks. Liz Garbus’ excellent documentary is a tough-love portrait of the late legend, one that culls from audio interviews, rare performance footage, and lost diary entries to create a thorough examination of her life and times. To be honest, it will make you wonder how she didn’t burn out sooner.
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 which are boys and three of which 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 alike for the children and their parents. I guess some people just can’t handle defeat.
Baseball, and sports in general, should really be about the love of the game. Netflix’s original documentary chronicles an independent professional baseball team in the early ’70s that truly exemplified the spirit and camaraderie of one of America’s greatest past times. It’s a heartwarming and surprisingly-true film, one following a ragtag group of players in Portland, Ore., you wouldn’t believe — including a blacklisted former Yankee pitcher and team owner’s son, actor Kurt Russell.
Conflict, like it or not, is often what makes a film what is. Virguna has a good deal of it, too, spanning everything from poaching and internal warfare to the looming threat of oil exploration. The heart-wrenching documentary follows four characters fighting to protect Virunga National Park, home of the last remaining sects of mountain gorillas, yet it does so with a keen environmental focus and attention to the region’s complex political issues. It’s exemplary in a multitude of ways, but none more so than the way it portrays the passion of all those involved in the conflict.
Roger Ebert was the premiere American film critic before his death a mere two years ago. Drawn from his memoir, Life Itself chronicles his life from his earliest days at his school newspaper to his long-standing gig at the Chicago Sun-Times. It’s composed of interviews taken with his family and peers — along with those carried out with iconic critic during his final days — as well as his numerous television appearances and clips from his popular show alongside Gene Siskel. There’s a heavy focus on Ebert’s final moments, which can be jarring and perhaps too revealing at times, but the film as a whole is awash with warm detail and affection.
The Other One: The Long Strange Trip of Bob Weir
To Deadheads — and even many outside the Grateful Dead’s cultish following — Bob Weir remains an unsung hero. As a longtime musician and the founding rhythm guitarist of the band, he spent decades on the road and recording swaths of both studio and live albums, effortlessly carving his signature sound into the throne of American music and paving the way for all jam bands to come. Netflix’s moving documentary examines his modest upbringing, splicing contemporary interviews with the musician and his family alongside archival footage of his last days with the infamous Jerry Garcia and his long, strange trip into the realm of psychedelics. It’s far out, sure, but worth a watch given his insightful take on Jerry’s death and all that came prior.
Unbranded feels as much like a PR stunt as it does reality TV, but that does it make it any less astonishing. The film follows four young cowboys who cross 3,000 miles of terrain — from Mexico to Canada — with a herd of mustangs, mostly as an effort to promote the much-needed adoption of wild horses and burros housed in government activity. The conversation-centric doc introduces comments from experts on both sides of the debate, exploring whether the Bureau of Land Management should round up the animals or let the roam without intervention. It presents a jaw-dropping portrait of the American West as it does, one defined by harsh terrain and occasionally plagued by petty arguments.