By Sean Boelman
From showcasing some of the biggest nonfiction awards contenders of the year to serving as a launching pad for under-the-radar gems that could become dark horses in the race, DOC NYC is one of the biggest film festivals for documentary films of the year.
We at disappointment media got the opportunity to cover the 2023 edition of DOC NYC remotely. Here are our quick thoughts on a few of the films we were able to screen.
36 Seconds: Portrait of a Hate Crime
Tarek Albaba’s 36 Seconds: Portrait of a Hate Crime is the type of documentary carried more by the power of the story than how it is told. Exploring the events leading up to and aftermath of a 2015 hate crime killing in Chapel Hill, NC, the film struggles to be particularly engaging. Split the difference between a Dateline approach to investigative journalism and the Netflix style of true crime documentary, and that’s about where 36 Seconds falls. All that’s to say, the film is competently made, and the story is incredibly urgent and needs to be told, but the film lacks the impact it could have had with a more forceful presentation.
The Home Game
The Home Game is a crowd-pleaser of a sports documentary, even if it doesn’t add anything particularly new to the formula. Following a man who sets out to get a home game played on the football pitch (“soccer field,” for uninformed Americans) his father built decades ago, the story hits all the beats one would expect: setbacks, perseverance, and eventually triumph (spoilers, but what documentary would there be if they had failed?) It’s charming and uplifting, and in that sense, the film accomplishes exactly what it sets out to do — it’s just that you’ve seen stories like this told this way dozens of times before.
Lucha: A Wrestling Tale
Winner of the Metropolis section at the festival, which is dedicated to documentaries about New York City and its people, Lucha: A Wrestling Tale is compelling and well-made if entirely familiar. The film tells the story of a girls’ wrestling team at a low-income school in the Bronx. As one would expect, the sports aspect of the story is a good, old-fashioned underdog story. However, where the film really stands out is when we get a glimpse into the wrestlers’ personal lives — their anxieties, socioeconomic qualms, and motivations to persevere. It’s nothing you haven’t seen before, but it’s certainly effective.
Winner of the Grand Jury award in the US Narrative Competition, Mediha is the story of a young girl who escaped captivity from ISIS and has since become an activist, fighting to increase awareness about the injustices committed against young women in the Middle East. This story is truly extraordinary — equal parts harrowing and inspiring. Although there have been several documentaries telling similar stories, Mediha stands out because, in addition to calling out the issue, it also shines a light on people who are working to find a real solution. The result is nothing less than essential viewing, even if it isn’t without its flaws.
The Mother of All Lies
The Mother of All Lies is a formally fascinating film with an interesting conceit — exploring the unreliable memories of the filmmaker as they relate to her past, primarily through the use of re-enactments created with hand-sculpted figurines. As such, the film deserves a lot of merit for its sheer ambition alone. However, what holds the film back is the different layers filmmaker Asmae El Moudir is attempting to unpack, causing the film to become convoluted at times, and even occasionally feel gimmicky. Although the approach is certainly exciting, the documentary is more effective as a formal experiment than a work of storytelling.
Smoke Sauna Sisterhood
The Estonian submission for Best International Feature at the Oscars, Smoke Sauna Sisterhood, follows a group of women who congregate in the refuge of a smoke sauna to share their most personal secrets, experiences, and anxieties. Smoke Sauna Sisterhood is a film that seems slight on its surface, but actually holds something much deeper beneath. Yet its monotonous nature makes it feel like this would have been better off as a short, rather than being extended to feature length. The cinematography is phenomenal, and there are some fascinating and important conversations held throughout the runtime, but the film does struggle to maintain the viewer’s interest.
Songs of Earth
One would have been hard-pressed to find a more visually stunning documentary at this year’s festival than Margreth Olin’s Songs of Earth, which also happens to be Norway’s submission to the Best International Feature race at this year’s Academy Awards. However, the film’s beauty is almost a double-edged sword, as its nature photography is so transfixing that it’s easy to lose sight of the story, following the filmmaker’s father. Perhaps that’s the point — for the viewer to get lost in their amazement at the world as much as the subject did — but Songs of Earth sadly isn’t all that compelling, even if it is consistently aesthetically pleasing.
Time Bomb Y2K
Archival documentaries can often be fascinating in how they manage to construct a story out of pre-existing media, but the HBO documentary Time Bomb Y2K doesn’t quite connect. Comprising a wide variety of footage, showcasing everyone from doomsday preppers to people on the street expressing their reluctance at what we now know was false paranoia, the documentary lacks focus. There is one narrative thread in the film — following a “doomsday messiah” of sorts — that poses some interesting questions; but for the most part, Time Bomb Y2K gets too caught up in being a time capsule to engage much with its material.
The 2023 edition of DOC NYC runs in-person and online from November 8-26.
By Daniel Lima
Before he became known for action movies starring the likes of Chuck Norris, Steven Seagal, and Harrison Ford, director Andrew Davis made his debut with a small-scale, intimate love letter to the musical scene of Chicago. Stony Island, named for the South Side street its characters call home, is a remarkably raw and passionate film that captures the particular verve of its time and place.
The story of an R&B band assembling and attempting to land its first gig, the film is based on the experiences of the director and his brother, one of the stars. The two grew up on the South Side as it went from a predominately white to a predominately black neighborhood, exposing them to Black culture broadly — specifically Black music. Their upbringing gave them keyed them into the universality of the music, how it dissolves racial divisions in the face of its emotional power, and that is well reflected in the world of the movie.
The urban landscape of late ‘70s Chicago is beautifully photographed. Davis’ first job as cinematographer was on Haskell Wexler’s docudrama Medium Cool, and the influence of his guerrilla shooting style is evident here. Each shot has a candid feel, a sense of immediacy that roots you in the gritty milieu of the South Side. Harsh blue lighting reflects the cold Midwest air and lends each frame a certain downtrodden feel. It’s the kind of textured visual style you rarely see today, as good an argument for the power of film as any.
A low-budget independent production doesn’t have the luxury of licensing music, so every musical performance is an original. Spanning the black musical tradition from blues to jazz to soul, from Chicago down to Louisiana, the songs here are incredible to a one, from funeral ballads to rousing big band numbers with hastily improvised lyrics. It is clear that Davis and his cast — most of whom were actual musicians — have a deep appreciation for this music, which shines through every note played.
That is crucial to the film, as the actual narrative is thin. The band is assembled piece by piece, recruiting players and acquiring equipment, and there are some developments in the personal lives of the members, but there is no real dramatic tension or momentum. Stony Island is certainly an engrossing watch, but not because of the story.
What makes Stony Island such a captivating watch is how full of life it is. The enthusiasm of each of the actors, giving incredibly naturalistic performances, bleeds onto the grimy milieu that surrounds them. The excitement of a jam session in a dilapidated building; blossoming young love against the backdrop of lions in stark, empty cages; a triumphant gig witnessed by all the people who came together to make it happen. Such pains were taken to organically flesh out this world, to make it extend beyond the confines of the frame. That effort allows the film to act as both a time capsule of the era and a wonderfully idiosyncratic portrait of artists coming together to make something beautiful.
Stony Island is now playing in theaters for its 45th anniversary.
The Criterion Voyages (Spine #549): THE LAST PICTURE SHOW -- Bogdanovich's Gem of American Cinema Restored in Beautiful 4K
By Sean Boelman
When thinking of the great American filmmakers, there are a few who go under the radar, including the late, great Peter Bogdanovich. Although Bogdonavich’s first film, Targets, was recently added to the Criterion Collection, his latest movie to get the treatment — in a 4K upgrade — is his acclaimed masterpiece, The Last Picture Show.
The film tells the story of a group of teenagers living in a small, dying Texas town as they come of age in a world of shifting values. Based on the novel of the same name by iconic American author Larry McMurtry, the movie was one of the most important in the New Hollywood movement, offering an uncommonly empathetic portrait of rural America.
Fans will likely recognize many of the faces who make up the film’s ensemble, including such future stars as Jeff Bridges, Ellen Burstyn, Randy Quaid, and Cybill Shepherd. However, it is arguably Timothy Bottoms’s performance in the lead role that shines the brightest, as it is crushingly powerful in its quiet nuance.
One of the reasons why The Last Picture Show remains such an important facet of American cinema to this day is the timelessness of its themes. Although the movie was made in the early ‘70s, and set in the early ‘50s, its tale of teenage angst continues to resonate to this day. There are few films about the teenage experience that feel as bluntly honest as this semi-autobiographical tale from McMurtry.
This timelessness is further aided by the gorgeous 4K restoration on the new Criterion edition of the movie. The Last Picture Show is the latest in the line of upgrades the boutique label has issued, releasing films that were already in the collection in 4K UHD. And the black-and-white visuals of the movie look as stunning as you could possibly hope for in this release.
In terms of bonus features, this edition doesn’t offer anything that the previous Criterion release — in the “America Lost and Found” box set — didn’t have. It’s mostly the standard audio commentaries, making of documentaries, and some other things like Q&As, introductions, and the like.
That being said, one thing that sets this particular edition out is that it also features Bogdanovich’s less acclaimed follow-up to The Last Picture Show, Texasville, in both its original theatrical version and a black-and-white version. In effect, this serves as a two-set and allows fans to look at the films as companion pieces.
The Last Picture Show remains an essential pillar of American cinema. This Criterion Collection edition of the movie is sure to be a must-add to any cinephile’s collection — particularly with the 50% off sale ongoing — as it offers a beautiful 4K version of this undeniably moving and brilliant film.
The Criterion Collection edition of The Last Picture Show is now available.
The Snake Hole
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