The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan

"THE TEN BEST DOCUMENTARIES OF 2014"

The Ten Best Documentaries of 2014

A few years ago, I made the decision to make two separate Ten Best lists Ė one for fiction, the other for documentaries. There were several reasons for doing this, but the most important was that it allowed me to spotlight even more great films than I could if I had everything competing for space on the same list. My picks for the year's best fiction films can be found right here. And below are my picks for the Ten Best Documentaries of 2014.

10. Jodorowski's Dune - In the mid-1970s, El Topo director Alejandro Jodorowski planned to make a sprawling film version of Frank Herbert's beloved sci-fi novel Dune. He got artist H.R. Giger (Alien) to help design the look, enlisted Orson Welles, Mick Jagger, and Salvador Dali to star, and recruited Pink Floyd to do the music. Unbelievably, no studio would touch the project. This enjoyable documentary takes you step-by-step through the process Jodorowski went through to set it up, as well as the crushing disappointment everyone experienced when the project fell apart. It's safe to say, his version of Dune would have been unlike anything ever seen before.

9. The Internet's Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz - Aaron Swartz was a child prodigy who grew up to be an information activist. He helped create Reddit and develop RSS. Swartz also fought for open access. When he discovered that a system was in place allowing major corporations to charge internet users for journal articles already funded by taxpayers, he worked to change the situation. What followed was a legal nightmare, as the government declared him a ďhackerĒ and set out to make an example of him. Brian Knappenberger's film asks why those responsible for the financial meltdown (a real crime with many victims) went unprosecuted, while Swartz (who only wanted the public to have what it was already entitled to) was vilified to the point where he committed suicide to escape 13 unjust felony counts. Provocative and infuriating, The Internet's Own Boy raises important questions about our information age and how it should be regulated.

8. The Dog - This documentary focuses on John Wojtowicz, a guy who, in the 1970s, robbed a New York City bank in order to get the money for his loverís gender reassignment surgery. His story was the basis for the Oscar-winning Dog Day Afternoon, starring Al Pacino. Wojtowicz appears on camera to narrate his own tale, which is even wilder than the movie it inspired. Even if you know Dog Day Afternoon by heart, The Dog is well worth seeing. Archival footage shows just how much authenticity that film contained. Itís also fascinating to see how Wojtowicz used his notoriety to feed his ego and create the illusion that he was a star. This is a thoroughly absorbing portrait of a bizarre ó and possibly delusional ó personality.

7. The Final Member - Here is the amazing true story of the Icelandic Phallological Museum (i.e. a penis museum) and the two men competing to provide its first human specimen. While that may sound crude and vulgar, the film is actually a deeply humane portrait of three guys (the third being the museum's curator) desperate to leave a lasting imprint. The Final Member is funny, fascinating, and frightening in about equal measure.

6. The American Nurse - This film follows five nurses working in different locations: a Baltimore maternity ward, the most remote parts of Appalachia, a prison hospice, a program to rehabilitate wounded soldiers, and a nursing home run by an animal-loving nun. The beauty of The American Nurse lies in its simplicity. It just lets these nurses speak for themselves, while observing them at work. The end result gives you a deeper, richer appreciation for nurses, who make our lives better in ways we often take for granted. After seeing this documentary, you'll want to thank every single one you come in contact with.

5. Glen Campbell: I'll Be Me - Director James Keach's touching film follows the legendary singer as he stages a farewell concert tour while also battling Alzheimerís. Aside from presenting some obviously great music, the movie will move you with its portrait of Campbellís bravery in soldiering on in the face of increasing memory loss. Various superstars appear in interview segments to discuss the subjectís impact and legacy. Itís an inspiring doc about the healing power of music.

4. Kids For Cash - A Luzurne County, Pennsylvania judge was accused of sentencing non-violent children to detention facilities in exchange for kickbacks. Not surprisingly, he ruined the lives of some of those kids, who now suffer depression and anxiety. The powerful Kids For Cash explores this shocking case in great detail, but more than that, it really makes you question our juvenile justice system. Why are we putting so many children behind bars instead of getting them help?

3. The Overnighters - In Williston, North Dakota, thousands of men gather, hoping to gain employment in the booming fracking industry. So many show up that competition for jobs is tight, and many of those who make the trek arrive penniless, with nowhere to stay. Jay Reinke, pastor of the Concordia Lutheran Church, makes the controversial decision to allow dozens of these men to sleep on the floor of his church, or stay in their cars in his parking lot. He believes he's doing the Christian thing by helping those in need. But then he makes a critical error that threatens to crumble his entire ministry. The Overnighters is an eye-opening look at economic disparity. Even more so, it's a haunting reminder that walking the righteous path is a lot harder than it looks.

2. Life Itself - Roger Ebert had a legacy that would be amazing in any profession. He's directly responsible for inspiring scores of people (including yours truly) to become film critics. Ebert was graceful in his writing, and equally graceful in fighting the cancer that took his jaw, and later his life. Steve James's portrait of Ebert as both critic and man is a lovely, touching tribute, as well as a detailed look at a guy who was the absolute best in his field.

And my choice for the Best Documentary of 2014 is:

The Ten Best Documentaries of 2014

1. Citizenfour - We all know that Edward Snowden blew the whistle on the fact that the NSA was engaging in a massive invasion of every Americanís privacy by collecting information from cell phones and social media accounts, among other things. What you may not know is that filmmaker Laura Poitras was in the Hong Kong hotel room when he did it, and she had her cameras rolling. Citizenfour is a hypnotic real-time look at a historical game-changer. We see the subject explaining why he's chosen to blow the whistle, while simultaneously preparing for what he knows will be substantial personal fallout. Agree with his actions or not, you will never look at Edward Snowden the same way again after this unique, important, and engrossing film.


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