By Tench Phillips, Naro Cinema
The number of documentaries submitted to the Academy Awards this year that were eligible for Oscar consideration was an imposing 145 titles. A number way too large for any one person to view. The total was then whittled down by the Academy documentary selection committee to 15 films known as the Oscar shortlist. The selected films can be viewed at the website www.oscar.org. The shortlist will later be reduced to a final five nominees for Best Documentary when this year’s Oscar nominations are announced on January 24th.
Most of the docs shortlisted for an Oscar have received their local premiere at the Naro. But not all of them were made available to the Naro and other art screens around the country. HBO, Showcase, and Netflix produce docs that go directly to cable after receiving an Oscar qualifying run in a NYC and LA theater. They include such titles as 13th, The Ivory Game, and O. J.: Made In America. Regardless of their quality, I believe that these films are not theatrical releases since they could not be booked in theaters to be screened for cinema audiences. Contrary to current Academy policy, these films are television productions distributed for home viewership and should not be eligible for Oscar competition.
It was a very rich year for documentaries in general and for investigative film journalism in particular. Issues that were tackled by films included government malfeasance, the secret surveillance state, unchecked militarism, corporate corruption, the concentration of wealth and power, and the failure of environmental regulation.
The assault on the planet by global capitalism has been subverting our democracy even while we’ve been under the helm of a Democratic administration. One can only imagine how the unregulated power, greed, and corruption of a Trump presidency will degrade what remains of our civil liberties and fragile ecosystems. In these regressive times the imperative for a free and independent media has never been more important.
My film choices for the best docs of the year are listed below. These are all films that received their premiere at the Naro Cinema. I have grouped them into four categories and they are listed chronologically in the order that they were screened during the year. There is no order of preference – each stands on its own as an important film. Filmgoers who missed seeing these films on the big screen will have a second opportunity to view them when they show up next door on the shelves of Naro Video. These are films that have the potential to enlighten and educate our society. If only they were available for viewing by a wider audience.
Best Docs of 2016: Arts and Sciences
THE WINDING STREAM
The source of American root music is in the Appalachian foothills of Virginia where the Carter Family made their mark and continues to this day with the music of Rosanne Cash, daughter of June Carter and Johnny Cash.
HEART OF A DOG
“Hello, little bonehead. I’ll love you forever.” So begins Laurie Anderson’s wry and wondrous tribute to her beloved rat terrier Lolabelle and her late husband Lou Reed.
JANIS: LITTLE GIRL BLUE
Janis Joplin was one of the world’s most influential rock icons breaking new ground for all the female rock singers who followed.
One of the great surviving icons of the 1960s, David Hockney’s career may have started with almost instant success but in private he struggled with his art, relationships, and the tragedy of AIDS.
FREE TO RUN
The women’s liberation movement of the 1960s took long-distance running out of the stadiums and onto the streets.
Meet the artists who are redefining the tradition of knit and crochet, bringing yarn out of the house and into the world.
EAT THAT QUESTION: FRANK ZAPPA IN HIS OWN WORDS
The self-taught composer, musician, bandleader, producer, and social satirist died far too early in life of cancer in 1993.
THE MUSIC OF STRANGERS: YO-YO MA AND THE SILK ROAD ENSEMBLE
An extraordinary group of instrumentalists, vocalists, and composers have formed an international community of music, love, and light.
LO AND BEHOLD
Acclaimed filmmaker Werner Herzog chronicles the digital world of the internet from its recent origins to its outermost reaches.
THE BEATLES: EIGHT DAYS A WEEK
Ron Howard’s loving documentary is well researched compilation of the first part of The Beatles career (1962-1966).
HARRY AND SNOWMAN
A Dutch immigrant Harry paid eighty dollars for a legendary horse that went on to win the triple crown of show jumping.
DON’T BLINK: ROBERT FRANK
Now 91 years old, Robert Frank is among the most influential artists and photographers of the last half-century.
SAINT PETER’S AND THE PAPAL BASILICAS OF ROME
The exquisite artwork and interiors of the Papal Basilicas are revealed for the first time in a decree proclaimed this year by Pope Francis.
Best Docs of 2016: Philosophy, Psychology, and Spirituality
A young idealist filmmaker who joined a secretive spiritualist community in L.A. led by a charismatic guru has documented 20 years of living inside the cult.
UNLOCKING THE CAGE
The Nonhuman Rights Project advocates for the personhood rights of animals by breaking down the legal wall that separates nonhuman beings from human beings. The judicial system remains willfully ignorant; animals are not things nor are they property.
Owen Suskind is an autistic young man who was unable to speak until his family discovered the key; to converse with Owen through classic Disney animated storytelling. Nominated for the Oscar Shortlist.
GURUKULAM: One without a Second
At a remote forest ashram in southern India, Swami Dayananda and his students confront the fundamental questions about the nature of reality and self-identity.
PATHS OF THE SOUL
A group of Tibetan villagers leave their small village to make a Buddhist “bowing pilgrimage” along the 1,200 mile road to Lhasa, the holy capital of Tibet.
DYING TO KNOW: RAM DASS & TIMOTHY LEARY
In the early sixties Harvard psychology professors Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert, who later became Ram Dass, began their legendary experiments with psychedelics.
After stumbling upon a bizarre “competitive endurance tickling” video online, wherein young men are paid to be tied up and tickled, filmmaker David Farrier uncovers a vast criminal empire.
Best Docs of 2016: Environmental Justice
HOW TO CHANGE THE WORLD
An eclectic group of young activists set out in the early seventies to stop Richard Nixon’s atomic bomb tests and ended up creating the worldwide environmental movement, Greenpeace.
DEAR PRESIDENT OBAMA
This cross-country journey investigates the detrimental effects of fracking, the companies doing the drilling, and the state legislatures that they have bought off. It’s a clarion call to keep fossil fuels in the ground.
HOW TO LET GO OF THE WORLD: And Love All Things Climate Can’t Change
Academy Award nominated director Josh Fox (Gasland) investigates the causes and effects of climate change.
TIME TO CHOOSE
Academy Award-Winning documentary director Charles Ferguson (Inside Job, No End in Sight) turns his lens to address worldwide climate change challenges and possible solutions.
WE THE PEOPLE 2.0 – The Second American Revolution
Lawyers from CELDF (Community Environmental Defense Fund) have been working with communities besieged by fracking and mining companies to pass ordinances stripping the corporations of their personhood rights and making their exploits illegal. The companies counter by threatening the local governments with lawsuits. Its a legal battle for community rights and the re-invention of the U.S. legal system.
SEED: The Untold Story
In the last century, 94% of mankind’s legacy of seed varieties have been lost, to be replaced with monoculture crops and GMOs. This is a David and Goliath battle to defend the future of our food.
THE EAGLE HUNTRESS
A courageous young girl trains to become the first female eagle hunter in twelve generations to break through the tribal patriarchy in Mongolia. Nominated for Oscar Shortlist.
Best Docs of 2016: Social Justice
REMOTE AREA MEDICINE
The non-profit RAM produces health and dental clinics throughout the Appalachia for rural people desperate for healthcare. The urgent call for Medicaid expansion in Virginia has never been better illustrated.
In the wars being fought today in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Syria – the U.S. government and the military-industrial complex have developed war strategies based on video games and played by young male gamers.
REQUIEM FOR THE AMERICAN DREAM
Noam Chomsky met over a four year period with the filmmakers to give his penetrating insights into the rise of economic inequality, the death of the middle class, and the swan song of functioning democracy.
THE BRAINWASHING OF MY DAD
Using her dad as an example, the filmmaker pulls back the curtain to expose the tools and tricks of the wizards behind the right-wing media revolution.
WHERE TO INVADE NEXT
Michael Moore visits a host of nations to learn how the U.S. could improve on our health care, education system, penal system, paid vacations, child care, maternity leave, pension plans, and school lunch programs.
Filmmaker Alex Gibney (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room) exposes how a clandestine mission hatched by the U.S. and Israel against an Iranian nuclear facility, has opened up forever the Pandora’s Box of global cyber warfare. Nominated for the Oscar Shortlist.
With 2.3 million people behind bars, the U.S. has the largest prison population in the history of the world. The film presents a long overdue critique of such essential issues as the failure of the War on Drugs, mandatory minimum sentences, and corporately owned prisons-for-profit.
WHEN TWO WORLDS COLLIDE
The viewer is brought directly into the line of fire between the Peruvian government and the Amazonian indigenous peoples trying to protect their homeland.
With unrestricted access to former Congressman Anthony Weiner’s New York City mayoral campaign, a high-profile political scandal unfolds. Nominated for the Oscar Shortlist.
In 1966 a sniper on the top floor of the iconic University of Texas Tower opened fire, holding the campus hostage in what was a previously unimaginable event. Tower combines archival footage with animated reenactments of the dramatic day. Nominated for the Oscar Shortlist.
COMMAND AND CONTROL
Adapted from Eric Schlosser’s book about the government cover-up of a near nuclear catastrophe at a Titan II missile complex in Arkansas where a worker accidentally drops a socket, puncturing the fuel tank of an IBM. Nominated for the Oscar Shortlist.
DO NOT RESIST
A frightening view into the current state of policing in America starts on the streets of Ferguson, Missouri. A ride-along with a South Carolina SWAT team equipped with militarized vehicles illustrates the U.S. domestic war on poor minorities.
Three U.S. military veterans blow the whistle on the secret drone program and reveal the haunting costs of America’s illegal drone strikes in the Middle East.
Cinematographer Kirsten Johnson calls her new film a memoir, an autobiography, an ethical inquiry, and a theory of documentary filmmaking. It’s a tapestry of footage collected over her twenty-five-year career. Nominated for the Oscar Shortlist.
Upcoming Film Events at Naro Cinema
FIRSTLOOK FILM FORUM – WINTER SEASON
Join a discriminating group of cinephiles on designated Sunday mornings to share brunch and conversation, and then to preview and discuss an advance screening of a critically praised independent or foreign film before it opens locally for its regular engagement. Winter season starts Sunday, Jan 8. Get details at www.narocinema.com
EATING YOU ALIVE
Despite countless dollars spent on medical research, new drugs and innovative technology to improve our health, more Americans are disabled and dying from chronic disease than ever before. Featuring leading medical experts and researchers, this new film takes a scientific look at the reasons we’re so sick, and how we can use whole-food, plant-based nutrition to take control of our health and the health of the planet. Shows Wed, Jan 11. With speakers and discussion.
After traveling the world alongside migrating birds (Winged Migration), filmmakers Jacques Perrin and Jacques Cluzaud return to more familiar ground: the lush green forests and megafauna that emerged across Europe following the last Ice Age. Winter had gone on for 80,000 years when—in a relatively short period of time—the ice retreated, the landscape metamorphosed, the cycle of seasons was established, and the beasts occupied their new kingdom. It was only later that man arrived to share this habitat – and to exploit it. Playdate to be announced.