Films so good, you won’t believe they’re true
By now, many moviegoers have already watched the lunacy of Tiger King, a documentary about the wild feuds in the American big cat trade. While the world of Joe Exotic has inspired plenty of memes, you’re missing out if that’s the only documentary you’ve streamed while in quarantine.
Here’s a look at films that will educate, thrill, and give you tons to talk about.
In the 1970s, if you weren’t classified as “able-bodied”, your choices in life were limited. Many with physical or mental limitations were institutionalized, kept from school, or treated as unwanted parts of society. Heavily marginalized and often smothered by families who wished to protect them, there was no place where a differently-abled person could feel free.
Enter Camp Jened, a hippie-run “camp for the handicapped” in the Catskills. There, for the first time, people with physical and mental delays got a taste of what it was like to be “normal”.
Sometimes, this wasn’t a great thing—teenagers left unsupervised and just discovering sex and love lead to a pubic lice (aka crabs) outbreak at the camp. But sometimes, this was a truly great thing. The bonds formed at Camp Jened lead to a disability revolution that changed America as we know it.
A funny, touching look at how a dilapidated hippie-camp changed the world, Crip Camp is one of the best new documentaries of 2020. Filled with stories that will break your heart or make you guffaw, this is a film that celebrates diversity of body and mind and the brave men and women that worked to ensure those who came after them wouldn’t be forced from society.
Great Documentary * R * 106 mins.
For Alex Honnold, mountain climbing just wasn’t exciting enough. He chooses to free solo, or scale the highest peaks in the world without ropes or safety gear. The only thing keeping Alex on the side of the mountain is the grip of his fingers and toes.
It’s a harrowing way to climb—most people who free solo fall to their deaths—but for Alex, it’s a way of life. His current goal is to scale the face of California’s El Capitan, a cliff face so sheer, it’s challenging even using ropes and harnesses.
A breathtaking documentary that will have you on the edge of your seat, Free Solo will likely leave you dizzy. Directors Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi employ drones and creative shooting techniques to capture every tense inch of Alex’s climb. The directors also include their own internal debate about filming Alex in a way that could distract him and cause him to fall to his death. The entire movie is an exercise in tension. Don’t be surprised if you’re breathless as Alex begins his climb.
Great Documentary * PG-13 * 100 mins.
Self-proclaimed grizzly bear activist Timothy Treadwell spent 13 summers camping deep in bear territory in Alaska’s Katmai National Park and Preserve. He filmed himself giving expert advice on how to live with and respect grizzly bears, as well as why he felt they should be protected. He would pet the bears, perform bizarre rituals to show that he was accepted by the bears, and rant about how people doubted his prowess as an expert naturalist because he was self-taught.
During his 13th year in the preserve, Treadwell and his girlfriend were killed and eaten by bears. All that remains are his travelogues. Director Werner Herzog pieces together Treadwell’s footage with interviews of those who knew him best, trying to understand what drove Treadwell to live with the bears, and what happened the night he died.
If you loved the weird and wacky Tiger King, Grizzly Man is the perfect follow up movie. Herzog is in top form, uncovering how a well-meaning layman let ego and mania drive him to take huge risks with his safety. Treadwell’s own footage is fascinating—knowing the end of his story makes every odd interaction with massive grizzly bears both sad and nerve-wracking. Treadwell has the unearned confidence of a Joe Exotic, but with very different results.
Great Documentary * R * 103 mins.
For many, Roger Ebert was the face of film criticism. Along with partner Gene Siskel, the duo became famous worldwide for their “thumbs up/thumbs down” ratings. But Ebert was more than just a thumb.
A Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic with a deep love of movies and art, Ebert’s meteoric rise sometimes eclipsed the work he did to earn his notoriety.
Life Itself examines Ebert’s career, his personal battles, and how he helped shape pop culture. The film also captures his final years, as he fought cancer and disabilities to continue to watch and review movies.
This moving look at the last years of his life brings forward the reasons Ebert and his adoration for the silver screen were so important to shaping how scholars look at films today.
Two Thumbs Up * R * 121 mins.
Elephant Shani and her baby Jomo must join their herd as they journey across the Kalahari Desert. The trip is long and perilous, filled with challenges that the herd must face together.
Disneynature documentaries are created with children in mind. Though technically nature documentaries, the films are given a simple, upbeat narrative. The problem with this technique is that it tends to “Disney-fy” nature. Lions aren’t the bad guys and elephants are anthropomorphized into characters. The G-rating means you’re getting a very sanitized view of nature.
Still, films like Elephant are a great way to get kids interested in nature. If you’re tired of watching Frozen 2 and Onward on a loop, consider putting this on and getting a brief reprieve from cartoon singing.
Good Documentary * G * 86 mins.