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  • Writer's pictureJames Rutherford

A Choice Selection of 10 Illuminating and Insightful Documentaries (Vol. II)

10 Illuminating and Insightful Documentaries

1. Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse

Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse (1991) is a stunningly insightful documentary recounting the filming of Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now in The Philippines between 1976 and 1977—a production beset by cost overruns, lengthy delays, health concerns and logistical nightmares. Utilizing footage shot by Coppola’s wife Eleanor while on set, directors Fax Bahr and George Hickenlooper explore the complicated and often hazardous conditions the cast and crew were forced to endure, all at the behest of the increasingly megalomaniacal Coppola. On the heels of his enormous duel successes of The Godfather and The Godfather Part II, Coppola set his sights on adapting Joseph Conrad's novella Heart of Darkness as a surrealistic Vietnam-era odyssey, little realizing the enormity of his aspirations nor the toll they would take on himself, his family and many of his collaborators. It’s an extraordinary glimpse behind the curtain that provides a fascinating peek into one celebrated auteur’s remarkable genius—and serves as a strikingly antithetical testament to the creation of what is now considered one of the greatest films ever made.

2. My Octopus Teacher

My Octopus Teacher (2020) is a profoundly moving documentary feature that follows naturalist-filmmaker Craig Foster as he explores the undersea kelp forest off the coast of Cape Town, South Africa. Free-diving daily for over a year, Foster records his exploration of False Bay's dynamic ecosystem and his burgeoning friendship with a young female Octopus Vulgaris. Surprised by the benevolence the lithe creature displays from the outset, Foster proceeds to film her daily ventures—often obfuscating her appearance out of necessity while displaying remarkable playfulness for an invertebrate. Her reality is marked by constant peril as she desperately evades predators (the pyjama shark being the film's primary antagonist) while Foster looks on, reluctant to upset the natural order of the sea. His presence in her subaquatic world is that of observer and compatriot, drawn near by her amiability and inspired by her perseverance. Directed by documentarians James Reed and Pippa Ehrlich, and produced by Foster himself, My Octopus Teacher is an astounding true story almost too illogical to believe, yet to watch it unfold is to experience a transcendent portraiture of life's fragility first-hand.

3. Free Solo

Free Solo is an utterly enthralling documentary from National Geographic Documentary Films that follows world-renowned rock climber Alex Honnold as he plans out and executes his boldest challenge to date: a free solo climb of Yosemite National Park’s “El Capitan”—a 3,200 wall of sheer vertical granite—without ropes, harness or protective gear. Honnold emerges as an utterly fascinating individual, whose other-worldly physicality and dedication to the sport is illuminated by biographical details that include the implication that he inherited Asperger Syndrome from his father. This revelation lends fascinating insight into Honnold’s mind-set, his near obsession with conquering Yosemite’s greatest attraction and his unique relationship with his girlfriend, Sanni. The suspense that develops as his feat approaches is palpable, while the filmmakers disclose precise and welcome insights into the technical side of free solo climbing. Alongside Honnold, directors Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhely shine brightly in this shared endeavor—delivering stunning, nearly-hypnotic camerawork to the screen. They bring the entire experience to death-defying reality and illuminate what a remarkable and one-of-a-kind feat Honnold is able to achieve.

4. Hoop Dreams

Hoop Dreams (1994) is an extraordinary American sports documentary focused on two African-American teenagers, William Gates and Arthur Agee, competing at the highest level of high school basketball while dreaming of future success on the hardwood courts of the National Basketball Association. Traveling daily from inner-city Chicago to suburban Westchester, Illinois to attend St. Joseph High School, the two young men strive for excellence on the court while struggling to assimilate to a predominantly white student populace. Enduring lengthy and physically demanding practices under legendary head coach Gene Pingatore, Gates and Agee both yearn for deliverance from lives of poverty while embracing dreams of wealth and prosperity for themselves and their families. As their lives ultimately diverge onto very different paths, the film follows their varying trials and tribulations as they progress toward young adulthood. Directed by American documentarian Steve James (Prefontaine, The Interrupters), Hoop Dreams is an absorbing cinematic achievement, showcasing the compelling lives of two young men while delivering an incisive depiction of ambition, hardship and social inequality in 1990's-era America.

5. The Look of Silence

The Look of Silence (2014) is a deeply profound documentary that examines the long-term consequences of the Indonesian Genocide, the state-sponsored mass murder of millions of Communist party members and sympathizers between 1965 and 1966. The focus of the film’s narrative is middle-aged ophthalmologist Adi Rukun, whose brother Ramli died in 1965 at the hands of President Sukarno’s death squads. Eager to confront the men who implemented the government’s campaign of extermination, Rukun partners with American filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer to meet with surviving assassins under the guise of providing free eye examinations. Given the opportunity to sit with these men and casually inquiry about about their heinous acts, Rukun provides a gravely alarming glimpse into the psyche of the utterly remorseless and deranged. Serving as a companion piece to Oppenheimer’s previous effort The Act of Killing (2012), also featuring a series of confrontations with Indonesian death squad members, The Look of Silence is an entirely unforgettable viewing experience. Certainly not family fare considering the true-life horrors spelled out in such grim detail, it remains an astonishing and utterly monumental achievement in non-fiction filmmaking.

6. Dogtown and Z-Boys

Dogtown and Z-Boys (2001) is a documentary feature about the Zephyr Competition Team (aka "Z-Boys"), a surf team from the Venice Beach-Santa Monica area of Southern California first formed in 1971. Joining the team in 1974, Jay Adams, Tony Alva, Chris Cahill, Stacy Peralta and Allen Sarlo represented the Santa Monica-based "Jeff Ho Surfboards and Zephyr Productions" in competition, while frequenting the infamous Pacific Ocean Park breaks they unceremoniously dubbed "Dogtown" for its dangerous conditions. Intrigued by the burgeoning sport of skateboarding, the Z-Boys solicited Jeff Ho and Skip Engblom to sponsor a competitive skate team the following year, quickly altering the sport inextricably with their low-riding, hand-dragging style wrought from their years on the surf. The team's famous appearance at the Del Mar Nationals in March of 1975, delivering a fresh and aggressive form of skating to the crowd, would lead them to instant notoriety—sparking an outright revolution in the sport that quickly swept the nation. Narrated by Sean Penn and directed by Peralta, Dogtown and Z-Boys is a charmingly nostalgic and wonderfully energetic recapitulation of a bygone era, captured with true gusto and gratification.

7. Jiro Dream of Sushi

Jiro Dreams of Sushi (2011) is an absorbing documentary crafted as a profile of world-renowned Japanese chef Jiro Ono. Purveyor of Sukiyabashi Jiro, a highly-celebrated sushi restaurant located rather inauspiciously in a Tokyo subway station, Jiro maintains a tasting menu of just 20 courses yet upholds the highest degree of meticulousness in the sourcing, preparation and delivery of his delicacies. Widely considered the greatest sushi chef on Earth, Jiro has indeed maintained a lifelong dedication to excellence and the pursuit of perfection—a single-mindedness that has earned his restaurant a prestigious three-star Michelin Guide rating. The film follows then-85-year old Jiro as he attends to every minute detail of his sparse 10-seat operation—one that attracts admirers from around the globe. on pilgrimage to one of the most tantalizing destinations in the culinary universe. Directed by David Gelb, it's a fascinating depiction of artisanship at the highest level, with Jiro's ruminations on his eventual succession key to the storyline's dramatic undertones. With his 50-year-old son Yoshikazu poised to one day inherit his father's enterprise, Jiro's story is one of awe-inspiring conviction—the preservation of his accomplishments serving as a lasting display of manifest greatness.

8. The Imposter

The Imposter (2012) is an enthralling British-American documentary about French con artist Frédéric Bourdin, who in 1994 successfully impersonated Nicholas Barclay, a missing 13 year-old boy from Texas. Three years after the troubled young Barclay disappeared from the city of San Antonio, his parents received word from abroad that their son had been located in Spain. Claiming to have escaped from a child sex trafficking ring, Bourdin was able to convince Spanish authorities to put him into direct contact with Barclay’s family thousands of miles away. Soon thereafter Bourdin was delivered to San Antonio, explaining his physical changes (hair and eye color) as the product of an elaborate ploy by his kidnappers to hide his true identity. Unquestionably convinced by his story, Barclay’s family fully embraced the crafty Frenchman just as word of Nicholas’ near-miraculous homecoming began to make headlines across the country. Directed by British filmmaker Bart Layton (American Animals), The Imposter is a fascinating depiction of deceit and the psychological phenomenon of group suggestibility. Layton delivers Bourdin’s exploits through an captivating fusion of first-hand interviews, archival footage and fully cinematic reenactment—crafting an altogether unique form of true-crime storytelling in the process.

9. Gimme Danger

Gimme Danger (2016) is a vibrant documentary film recapitulating the formation of punk rock pioneers ‘The Stooges’, led by the inimitable Iggy Pop (Jim Osterberg). First constituted in 1967 by Osterberg, guitarist Ron Asheton, bassist Dave Alexander and drummer Scott Asheton in Ann Arbor, Michigan, the group brought a raw and aggressive form of rock n' roll to audiences, roundly considered one of the earliest incarnations of proto-punk music. They helped to shepherd a new era of musicianship highlighted by a outrageous form of stage behavior that flew in the face of the flower power era of the 1960’s. Though they found only brief success before disassembling in 1974, Pop would go on to global success as a solo artist while the The Stooges would retain universal acclaim as historic trailblazers and innovators. Directed by cinematic auteur Jim Jarmusch (Dead Man, Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai), Gimme Danger delivers a lively tale of youthful ambition beset by a remarkable capacity for intoxication, drug-abuse and now legendary sexual escapades. Wistful and infectious, it represent a historic confluence between one of the most esteemed members of the independent film world and one of the most notorious and influential musical ensembles of all time.

10. Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child

Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child (2010) is a vibrant and introspective documentary exploring the life of famed neo expressionist artist Jean-Michel Basquiat. Centered around a rare interview with filmmaker Tamra Davis in 1985, the film provides insightful perspective on Basquiat's meteoric rise and the burdens of phenomenal success he bore at such a young age. First gaining notoriety as a New York City-based graffiti artist in the late 1970s under the moniker "Samo", Basquiat would later translate his work to canvas in the form of "suggestive dichotomies" that contrasted cultural differences, drawing the attention of the art world elite. Aligning himself with Andy Warhol and quickly launched into international stardom, Basquiat nevertheless struggled throughout his life with depression and addiction—the latter ultimately leading to his tragic death at the age of just 27. Directed by film and music video director Davis, The Radiant Child benefits enormously from her intimate conversation with the charismatic phenom alongside interviews with numerous art world luminaries who hold Basquiat's work and legacy so dear. Highly compassionate and genuinely wistful in its delivery, the film explores Basquiat as both artist and human being, delving into the mystique he holds to this day amongst his many devotees.


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