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.
Touching the Void
Touching the Void recounts the true story of Joe Simpson and Simon Yates’ successful West Face summit of Peru’s Siula Grande in 1985. However, as any climber knows, reaching the mountaintop is only half the battle. The climb had already taken longer than anticipated due to inclement weather, and after successfully summiting the mountain, the two began to run low on fuel and resources. They ended up speeding up their descent, but shortly afterward, Simpson slipped and broke his leg.
Kevin MacDonald’s harrowing docudrama chronicles the series of unfortunate setbacks as they unfold, all of which nearly cost both men their lives. Filled with first-person accounts of the trek, Touching the Void is a solid pick for climbing enthusiasts and anyone with a soft spot for brutal storytelling. And while the film may be filled with re-enactments, the mere thought of the experience will still make you cringe.
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 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 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 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, while emphasizing just how integral the rotating cast of players were to some of the most iconic sounds of the ’60s. The nostalgia-steeped documentary is essentially an ode to these lauded, underappreciated musicians that lacks conflict but shines thanks to candid interviews.
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.
What Happened, Miss Simone?
Although she was one of the most gifted performers of all time, Nina Simone was often a mess behind the scenes. 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 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.
Conflict, like it or not, is often what makes a film what it 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 in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, 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 how it portrays the passion of all those involved in the conflict.