Doc NYC, which celebrated its fifth anniversary this year, is one of the East Coast’s best film festivals; a lovely, oftentimes overlooked celebration of all things nonfiction, where films are exhibited in a small cluster of theaters downtown. If you’re a documentary nut, this is a must-attend festival, one lovingly programmed for the casual fan and the aspiring filmmaker alike.
If you’ve never been, make it a priority to go next year. It’s place on the calendar is overshadowed by flashier Uptown cousin, the New York Film Festival (and the two do share a couple of titles), but Doc NYC has carved a superb niche all its own.
This year was no exception. All types of documentaries vied for the public’s eyeballs and the press’ imagination, and here are nine of the buzziest films.
An Open Secret
Director: Amy Berg
Synopsis: An unflinching look at the Hollywood sex abuse network, supposedly orchestrated, at least in the early days, by Den, a digital network that served as the hub of activity.
SSN Insight: At it’s premiere, Berg noted that Secret, given only a single screening, was unlikely to receive distribution. This is a shame, considering how warmly the film was received, and how truly important, and highly volatile, its subject matter is. When Berg did press for another film earlier this year, journalists weren’t even allowed to bring it up. Now that it’s finished, here’s hoping that it doesn’t just get swept under the rug.
I Am Big Bird
Directors: Dave LaMattina & Chad Walker
Synopsis: A deeply personal look at Carol Spinney, the man inside the Big Bird costume, who’s essayed the character (and Oscar the Grouch) since Sesame Street’s infancy in 1969.
SSN Insight: Anyone who’s done even cursory research into Sesame Street knows what a fascinating show it is, and what a cantankerous, creative character Spinney is. With access to Spinney’s personal archive, Big Bird appeals to the masses while avoiding the trap of saccharine sentimentality. It’s a rare documentary that could find mainstream success without feeling too safe.
Above and Beyond
Director: Roberta Grossman
Synopsis: The harrowing, surprisingly kooky story of the origins of the Israeli Air Force.
SSN Insight: Watching Above and Beyond, you can’t help but think, ‘wait this hasn’t been turned into a big Hollywood war movie yet?’ Utilizing talking head interviews with former pilots, and historical recreations courtesy of visual effects house Industrial Light & Magic, the movie is unexpectedly moving, intermittently tragic, and oftentimes funny. If this doesn’t get a semi-wide release, expect some production company to snap up the rights and turn it into a narrative feature.
Filmmakers: Anthony Morrison
Synopsis: A year after being shut down by the state of Michigan, Antony Gerard, overseer of the Timid Rabbit, a costume and magic shop in Kalamazoo, mounts his most ambitious haunted house yet—Phobia House.
SSN Insight: Everyone loves to be scared, and these elaborate haunted houses are becoming more of a Halloween draw. The scrappy nature of Phobia House is equaled only by the enthusiasms of its participants. Morrison could have turned the concept into a weekly reality show, given the number of strange characters involved and general weirdness of the operation (one performer has a seizure right before Halloween), but instead he chose to give an intimate portrait of a driven few. It’s too real for reality TV.
The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness
Director: Mami Sunada
Synopsis: A behind-the-scenes look at the legendary Ghibli animation studio, and its founder, Hayao Miyazaki.
SSN Insight: Ghibli is one of the most renowned animation studios in the world; if ever there was a place to out-Disney Disney, this is it. What makes Madness so gripping isn’t that it gives you unlimited access to magical realm, but that it gives such a wonderful portrait of Miyazaki, whose final film, The Wind Rises, was released last year to widespread acclaim. Miyazaki is now retired from directing but is a constant presence at Studio Ghibli, and animation fans are better off for it.
Heaven Adores You
Director: Nickolas Rossi
Synopsis: A look at the life of Elliott Smith, the cult sensation and Oscar-nominated singer-songwriter who tragically took his own life at the age of 34.
SSN Insight: Music-centered documentaries seem to connect with audiences in a big way (Searching for Sugar Man, Twenty Feet from Stardom) and Heaven Adores You shouldn’t be any different. While offering a detailed portrait of the singer’s life, it doesn’t get bogged down in minutia, and director Rossi wisely chooses to focus on the more elliptical aspects that influenced Smith as much as the biographical specifics.
Love and Terror on the Howling Plains of Nowhere
Director: Dave Jannetta
Synopsis: Based on the acclaimed memoir by Poe Ballantine, Love and Terror is ostensibly about how the community of Chadron, Nebraska, reacts when, in 2006, the body of math professor Steven Haataja was found under strange circumstances. It looks as if he was tied to a tree and burned to death in a wild fire.
SSN Insight: This is the perfect moment for Love and Terror, considering how much it resembles the NPR program, and current cultural fascination, Serial. Points-of-view shift, secrets are uncovered, and it’s less about the mystery itself than about how the mystery is filtered and picked apart by those immediately affected. This could be a cult classic in the making.
The Life and Mind of Mark DeFriest
Director: Gabriel London
Synopsis: As a teenager, DeFriest was sentenced to four years in prison after stealing tools that were willed to him by his late father. But what was initially a brief sentence turned into an epic back-and-forth that continues today.
SSN Insight: What makes this documentary so fascinating (and potentially commercial) is the way it investigates the problems of America’s prison system through the mind of a singularly gonzo individual. DeFriest has broke out so many times that he’s earned the reputation of, “Florida’s Houdini.” Through a combination of a decade’s worth of research, talking head interviews with those close to DeFriest, and comic book-y animated sequences, what could be a sketch of an American oddball turns into something much grander and more damning.
Tales of the Grim Sleeper
Director: Nick Broomfield
Synopsis: The Grim Sleeper was a notorious, near-mythological serial killer who stalked South Central Los Angeles for 25 years and claimed countless victims.
SSN Insight: While Sleeper has played festivals before, it’s finally getting the attention it deserves (film critic David Edelstein even singled it out on an episode of CBS Sunday Morning). Broomfield, a noted agitator, perfectly examines the systemic and societal foundations that allowed and encouraged the Grim Sleeper to continue his bloody business. This is the rare true crime documentary where the killer is less horrifying than those who egged him on; the murders just a spring broad for the discussion of something darker and more sinister.