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

"THE TEN BEST DOCUMENTARIES OF 2011"

For the first time ever, I am creating a separate list of the year's best documentaries. It seemed a natural thing to do at this point. Documentaries are taking advantage of new release strategies, which puts them on a different playing field than non-fiction films. A few of them do get notable theatrical releases, but many simply play the festival circuit, or have a series of traveling “engagements,” or debut on cable channels. Because of these frequently non-traditional releases, it can also be difficult to determine exactly which year a doc belongs to. Do you count the year it first showed at a fest, or the year it hit on demand, where most people will see it? These are the complexities that led to the list you are about to read.

But more importantly, making a separate list was just a way to shine a spotlight on even more great films.

Since there are so many ways for a documentary to be seen, there are now more documentaries than ever. To say this list is definitive would be a lie; I certainly didn't see every single one to achieve some kind of release in 2011. I did see a lot though, and, again, my intention is just to call your attention to some worthy movies. On that note, here are my picks for the 10 Best Documentaries of the year:

10. The People vs. George Lucas (dir. Alexandre O. Philippe) - Hardcore Star Wars fans – myself included – have a complicated relationship with George Lucas. On one hand, he gave us the thing we all revere. On the other hand, he keeps tinkering with his creation, often steadfastly refusing to give us the option to own the original, untouched versions of his epic. Interviews with fans, writers, and Lucas associates are compiled to explain why so many people feel the filmmaker has bitten the hand that feeds him. In so doing, the documentary becomes a fascinating exploration of whether an artist has the right to change his own work once it's out there for public consumption.

9. Conan O'Brien Can't Stop (dir. Rodman Flender) - We all know that Jay Leno screwed Conan O'Brien out of “The Tonight Show.” We also know that Conan launched a “Legally Prohibited from Being Funny on TV” tour immediately afterward. What we didn't know is just how conflicted O'Brien is as a performer. The film follows him on tour, revealing a man who gives and gives and gives to his fans, but then privately resents himself for giving so much. It's been said that comedians are prone to personality disorders, and that seems to be the case here. O'Brien loves the attention, yet hates himself for having earned it. A compelling look inside a top comic mind.

8. Pom Wonderful Presents The Greatest Movie Ever Sold (dir. Morgan Spurlock) - The director of Supersize Me takes on the issue of product placement in motion pictures by making a documentary funded solely through – you guessed it – product placement. In his inimitable style, Spurlock crafts a film that is frequently hilarious, yet also eye-opening about its subject. Watch a movie and you're also watching advertising, whether you realize it or not. After seeing The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, you'll never look at movies the same way again.

7. The Weird World of Blowfly (dir. Jonathan Furmanski) - Clarence Reed wrote some of the biggest hits in soul music, but is probably better known as his alter ego, Blowfly. Under that guise, he created the world's first rap song, “Rap Dirty,” and his X-rated party records influenced dozens of contemporary musicians. Pushing 70, he sets out for a comeback, which this movie documents. Every bit as profane as he was in his younger years, Reed is by turns funny, ambitious, lazy, and pissed off. You aren't likely to meet a more intriguing, unusual person in any other documentary this year. This film is a marvelous testament to both his mainstream and alternative contributions.

6. Page One: Inside the New York Times (dir. Andrew Rossi) - With the advent of the internet and blogging, the newspaper business is in transition. This candid documentary goes behind the scenes of the world's best known and most influential newspaper to show the growing pains as it tries to find a way to remain relevant in a changing journalistic landscape. It asks: How does a daily paper survive when information can be gathered instantaneously online? This is an incisive look at a timely issue.

5. Hot Coffee (dir. Susan Saladoff) - You know the story. A woman sued McDonald's after she spilled their hot coffee all over herself and was awarded over $2.7 million in damages. You've probably made jokes or expressed outrage about it. I did too. This important documentary on tort reform gives you the entire story, while explaining how anti-tort reform lobbyists warp the truth in order to create the impression of “frivolous” lawsuits. They want to generate exactly the kind of scorn and outrage this woman was subjected to. Three other case studies are presented to illustrate other reasons why tort limitations are dangerous. Here's a documentary with the power to change minds. And by the way: after seeing this film, I guarantee you'll agree with that $2.7 million verdict wholeheartedly.

4. The Interrupters (dir. Steve James) - James (the filmmaker behind the classic Hoop Dreams) spends a year following Chicago's Violence Interrupters – people who go into the streets in high crime neighborhoods and try to prevent catastrophes between warring individuals/gangs. The footage of them at work is gripping and gut-punching. Interviews reveal that most of them have their own histories of street violence that they're trying to atone for. The Interrupters speaks powerfully to the need to curb senseless violence in our society, while also showing that positive change is still possible. Not always an easy watch, but a movie you'll not soon forget.

3. Into the Abyss (dir. Werner Herzog) - The great Werner Herzog explores the death penalty in this haunting and disturbing film. Focusing on one Texas murder case, he interviews the two culprits – one of whom is scheduled to be executed just a few days later – as well as the police who investigated, and the loved ones of the both the victims and the perpetrators. Herzog's cameras even show us the execution room itself. Toward the beginning, the filmmaker states that he opposes the death penalty, as he doesn't believe any human has the right to end the life of another. At the same time, he's made a documentary that is deeply compassionate toward those dealing with unspeakably horrific and senseless loss. This is a movie you can't easily shake off.

2. Everyday Sunshine: The Story of Fishbone (dirs. Lev Anderson and Chris Metzler) - The members (current and former) of punk/ska band Fishbone give the filmmakers surprisingly candid access. The doc traces their beginnings – which go back to California's school integration – and their dynamic entry onto the music scene. Fishbone never had the breakthrough so many people thought they were due. This may have led to the personality clashes that stripped the band to its two still-clashing founding members. Everyday Sunshine explores the very psychology of this musical group, as well as the personalities that made their sound so unique. One of the best rock docs ever made, whether you're already a fan of Fishbone or a fan-in-waiting.

The Elephant in the Living Room
1. The Elephant in the Living Room (dir. Michael Webber) - I'm quoted on the DVD box calling this movie “the best I've ever seen,” so you know I love it. (Actually, the full quote in my original review was “it's one of the best [docs] I've ever seen,” but I have no problem with the slight alteration.) Elephant explores the very real problem of people adopting exotic animals as pets, unaware of the potential for danger to themselves and the community at large. We meet two interesting men: Tim Harrison, who specializes in capturing escaped wild animals, and Terry Brumfield, who can't bear to part with his two pet lions. The fates of Tim and Terry meet, to unforgettable results. This documentary hits you on many levels. It's an eye-opener in terms of how widespread exotic animal ownership is. It is a compelling look at a man with a fascinating job; Harrison never knows what kind of unusual creature he'll face when he comes to work every day. Most of all, it is a touching portrait of two men on opposite sides of the issue who work together to do what is right. Provocative and humane, The Elephant in the Living Room deserves to be discovered and appreciated.

Other quality 2011 docs: Foo Fighters: Back and Forth, Jig, Superheroes, Project Nim, Tabloid, Make Believe, Becoming Chaz, American: The Bill Hicks Story, Buck, and We Were Here.

A Special Mention goes to Werner Herzog's Cave of Forgotten Dreams, which takes us inside France's Chauvet caves, where the world's oldest known cave drawings have been found. I didn't include it on this list because it was made in 3D, and I only saw it in 2D. While still great, I felt like I was missing something by not getting that extra dimension. That's not the fault of the film, only of the conditions under which I could see it. I'm told by those who saw it in 3D that the effect really allows you to study the drawings. Still, it's a mesmerizing film in any format, and I encourage you to see it.


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