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The Best Documentaries of 2015

January 29, 2016

By John Corrado

Amy PosterI probably watch more documentaries in any given year than I do any other type of film, and 2015 was no different in this regard, bringing with it plenty of variety and a great selection of non-fiction filmmaking.  So this list is a longtime coming.

Between Hot Docs, TIFF, and the great programming at the Bloor Cinema, I’m lucky enough to live in a city that offers plenty of opportunities to actually see these films.  And out of all the many non-fiction features I saw last year, these are my belated picks for the ones that have stuck with me the most and deserve a wider audience, ranging from the highly successful Oscar frontrunner Amy to, well, you’ll see…  Enjoy!

#10: Amy: Starting with home video footage of the irrepressibly voiced Amy Winehouse belting out “Happy Birthday” as a teenager, and ending with the tragic events of her seemingly inevitable but still shocking death in 2011, Amy weaves together various clips and images to create a narrative portrait of the great modern jazz singer.  Director Asif Kapadia’s choice to only feature new interviews with family and friends in voiceover is an affective and sometimes fittingly claustrophobic alternative to the usual talking heads approach, that allows the film to play almost like a haunting ghost story.  At its best and most revealing, Amy is an emotional portrait of a star who was on the rise, before being ravaged by the media and brought plummeting back down by the incessant flashbulbs of the paparazzi, and unstoppable addictions to drugs and alcohol.  The result is an engaging and impressively edited collage of moments from her tragically short life, filled with compelling performance footage that proves why her death was such a loss for the recording industry and every one of us who loved her music.

#9: Hurt: Steve Fonyo was a young cancer survivor who ran across Canada in 1985, inspiring people around the world and raising millions of dollars for research.  But after drug problems and encounters with the law all but derailed his public image, he is now living in a dirt poor small town in British Columbia.  Directed by Alan Zweig, Hurt is perhaps the notable documentarian’s finest work yet.  This is a raw and gutting look at a side of the hero’s journey that we normally don’t get to see, when said hero is washed up and broken, stripped of even the laurels that cemented them as a cultural figure in the first place.  Powerful and almost painfully intimate in its narrative, Hurt is a compelling and heartbreaking portrait of a man who has fallen on hard times, allowing the always enigmatic Steve Fonyo to remain a sympathetic figure throughout, even when his redemption seems unfairly elusive.

#8: Hitchcock/Truffaut: When François Truffaut, budding master of the French New Wave scene, sat down to interview Alfred Hitchcock in 1962, the result of their week-long conversation was the iconic book Hitchcock/Truffaut, exploring the true artistry behind every one of the master of suspense’s films up until then.  The book helped critics see Alfred Hitchcock for the artist that he was, inspiring generations of future filmmakers in the process.  Director Kent Jones does an excellent job of bringing this book to the screen in Hitchcock/Truffaut, interviewing the likes of Wes Anderson, David Fincher and Martin Scorsese, who delve deep into how the book and these two classic filmmakers helped influence their own styles.  This is an invaluable portrait of two great artists who came together at the respective peaks of their creativity, and managed to elevate the collective appreciation of each other’s work through mutual respect.  A must see for all cinephiles and aspiring filmmakers, Hitchcock/Truffaut is worth it just to hear Martin Scorsese discussing the cinematography of Psycho and symbolism of Vertigo.

#7: Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck: Rivalling Amy as the year’s best portrait of an artist consumed by addiction and the media, Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck shines a compelling light on the tortured genius of the Nirvana bandleader, and brings us the closest we will ever get to actually being inside his head.  Director Brett Morgan does an impressive job of editing this all together through rare performance footage, animated excerpts from his diaries, and even chilling home video footage of him and Courtney Love stoned out of their minds with their young daughter.  The film is just as thrilling, heartbreaking and at times exhausting as it sounds, an experience that is equal parts disturbing and fascinating.

#6: Call Me Lucky: What starts as an entertaining portrait of standup comic and political satirist Barry Crimmins becomes a deeply moving and surprisingly layered study of surviving childhood sexual abuse in Call Me Lucky.  This is a film seething with righteous anger at the multiple systems that have allowed far too many children to fall victim to pedophilia, from the Catholic Church looking the other way, to internet providers that have profited off of child pornography.  But Call Me Lucky is so profoundly affective because it also has some wise things to say about forgiveness and helping others, even when such things might seem impossible.  This is director Bobcat Goldthwait’s best work since the knockout World’s Greatest Dad, and one of the year’s most essential and emotionally gutting documentaries.

#5: The Look of Silence: Director Joshua Oppenheimer’s equally brilliant follow up to his Oscar-nominated The Act of Killing, The Look of Silence follows a local optometrist and family man in Indonesia whose brother was murdered by the military in the 1965 genocide, and is now confronting the men responsible for these mass killings.  As hard to watch as it is impossible to shake afterwards, The Look of Silence is one of the most emotionally draining and shockingly intimate documentaries of the year, a haunting and complex look at humanity’s capacity for pure evil, as well as the compassion and empathy that others are able to retain, even in the face of unspeakable tragedy.

#4: Where to Invade Next: For his latest cinematic adventure, prolific documentarian Michael Moore responds to being consulted on whether or not to send more troops overseas, by travelling the world to find more progressive uses for our tax dollars, instead of pouring more money into the military or oil industries.  The filmmaker touches on a lot of social and political issues throughout this always engaging film, including prison reform, women’s rights, decriminalizing street drugs and prosecuting bankers for fraud, offering plenty of food for thought alongside some of his finest comic antics and most gutting dramatic moments.  Entertaining, surprisingly moving and ultimately profoundly optimistic for a brighter future, Where To Invade Next is Michael Moore at his best and most inspiring.

#3: The Wolfpack: Here’s a story that is so strange, it can only be true.  Everything the Angulo brothers know about the outside world has come from the movies they watch, having grown up rarely leaving their subsidized apartment in New York City.  Homeschooled by their mother, and raised under the fanatical rules of a cultish father, the six teenagers spend their days watching movies, meticulously recreating scenes from their favourites and dreaming of more independence, a newfound freedom that starts to come just as director Crystal Moselle is allowed into their world.  Entertaining, emotionally involving, and even weirdly inspiring, The Wolfpack is an incredible and entirely unique portrait of delayed awakening, and the power of cinema to literally open our eyes to the world.

#2: Raiders!: There is perhaps no greater compliment than to say that watching Raiders!, the story of a group of friends who embarked upon creating a shot for shot remake of Raiders of Lost Ark in 1982, gave me the same feeling I had seeing Indiana Jones for the first time as a kid.  Directors Jeremy Coon and Tim Skousen have crafted an excellent look at this greatest fan film ever made, beautifully capturing the ups and downs of both creativity and friendship over the seven summers this project spanned, as the friends reunite as adults to complete the one scene that eluded them as kids.  Filled with dramatic twists and turns, their remarkable story makes for a wildly entertaining and incredibly inspirational film, that resonates with the sheer joy of witnessing movie magic come together.

#1: Stand By for Tape Back-Up: Here’s something entirely unique for my number one pick.  An old VHS tape that Ross Sutherland and his late grandfather used to share provides the compelling visual backdrop to Stand By for Tape Back-Up.  After his grandfather died, the tape became the one thing that helped him grieve and work through major depression, a physical reminder of the life and memories they shared between them.  The film is edited together entirely from the clips on this decaying tape, and as scenes from pop culture touchstones like The Wizard of Oz, GhostbustersThe Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Thriller and Jaws flicker and loop before our eyes, his narration shifts between beautifully poetic monologues and hypnotic freestyle rap, finding patterns that connect the broken up images.

This film deserves my number one spot because it’s a true cinematic experience that is unlike anything I’ve ever seen before.  Adapted from a live show, Stand by for Tape Back-up does a remarkable job of playing with perceptions of time and the way our minds work, and as the tape pauses, rewinds and fast-forwards through this seemingly random assemblage of clips, the ingeniously edited images start to represent our collective memories.  At just over an hour, Stand By for Tape Back-Up is quite simply one of the most spectacular things I have ever seen, a beautiful, beguiling and profoundly moving exploration of how memory works, and a complete study in film language at its purest.  I’m thankful every single day to have seen it, and I sincerely hope they find a way to get clearances so that it can be released.

Honourable Mentions:
1971
All the Time in the World
Al Purdy Was Here
Cartel Land
Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon
Finders Keepers
Fractured Land
Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief
Help Us Find Sunil Tripathi
Listen to Me Marlon
Lowdown Tracks
Merchants of Doubt
Monkey Kingdom
Orion: The Man Who Would Be King
Radical Grace
Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine
Sweet Micky for President
Transfixed

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