Tuesday, April 16, 2013

My Top Documentaries

When I was much younger, I never had time for documentaries. They seemed boring and didn't interest my entertainment-junkie mind. However, now, it's one of my favorite genres of film to watch. Here are a few of my favorites in alphabetical order.

American: The Bill Hicks Story (2009)
Finally! One of the coolest, greatest people to have ever lived finally gets his own bio-doc (biography documentary)! Before comedians such as Denis Leary, Louis C.K., or Lewis Black. Before George Carlin started giving his "political truths" in his stand-up routines. There was William Melvin Hicks -- that's Bill Hicks. The quote "Dissention is the truest form of patriotism" could not apply more than to Hicks. He was a true pioneer, not just in comedy but also in getting people to think. Sadly, today he is still underestimated, overlooked, and underappreciated. When you hear any of the aforementioned comedians make any truly thought-provoking or philosophical observations, Hicks already said it. He was so ahead of his time and is an inspiration to me. Every time I hear one of his routines, I laugh and think! What a concept! He is the real-life Howard Beale (from 1976's Network), and his words are just as important today -- 19 years after his death -- than they were back when he first said them. While Hicks pointed out a lot of hypocrisy and criticisms, he also had a spiritual, positive side to him -- as evidenced in his "Just a Ride" monologue from his 1993 stand-up special Revelations.
Sadly, Hicks passed away from pancreatic cancer in February 1994. However, as this film attributes, his legacy lives on. Like his self-composed epitaph reads: "I left in love, in laughter, and in truth, and wherever truth, love and laughter abide, I am there in spirit."


American Teen (2008)
American Teen begins with the echoing, bouncy guitar riffs from the Black Kids' I'm Not Gonna Teach Your Boyfriend How to Dance with You, leading most of the public to think that this is yet another vapid movie about teenagers and the predictable storylines that usually accompany them. However, despite its Breakfast Club mock-up poster, there's something different about American Teen. Even though it's a documentary, the movie's advertising and beginning make it appear more as fiction rather than non-fiction. This documentary, brought to us by Nanette Burstein -- who directed The Kid Stays in the Picture, a documentary bio about producer/actor Robert Evans -- is shot in an attractive, contemporary style that brings a usually-dreaded genre (documentaries) to an audience (teenagers) that label them as such. With animated sequences and a stellar soundtrack, Burstein delivers a fun, truthful look into the lives of four high school seniors during their final school year.
 
Taking a cue from the classic generation-defining 1985 John Hughes teen movie The Breakfast Club, the teaser poster already sets up the tone for the "characters," featuring the students in the same poses and clothes as the characters from Hughes' cult classic. There's Hannah, in the place of Ally Sheedy's self-proclaimed "freak/loner" Allison Reynolds; Colin, in the place of Emilio Estevez's jock Andy Clark; Megan, in the place of Molly Ringwald's "princess" Claire Standish; Jake, in the place of Anthony Michael Hall's geek Brian Johnson; and, although advertised as a major character is actually just a reoccuring face, Mitch, in the place of Judd Nelson's rebel John Bender (which is not justified because Mitch is really the "popular pretty-boy"). The main four characters are easily-lovable Hannah, teen "queen bee" Megan, likeable jock Colin, and quiet unpopular nice-guy Jake. Most politically correct people would say that there are no easy stereotypes in high school. Well, I hate to break it to these people, but ... there are. Although there are mixes of these archetypes (i.e. the rebel and the geek), unfortunately, high school life -- no matter where you grow up -- is this categorized.
 
Watching the documentary, the audience can tell that director Burstein obviously identifies with Hannah, the all-things-art student who, like a majority of high school seniors, longs to escape the humdrum existence within mid-West territory Warsaw, Indiana. Like most characters in fictional films, all of the "characters" in this documentary are easy to relate to, but, unlike most fictional films -- particularly teenage films -- this film is the real world. Budding romances don't pan out, friendships don't always last, and the ending doesn't end on a "and-they-lived-happily-ever-after" vibe. And that's the brilliance of this documentary. What makes American Teen so real is that, despite its modern alternative band soundtrack and contemporary, MTV-style clothing, it shows the audience the excruciating pain and overwhelming joy that both come with our memories and experiences of high school existence.
 
Some critics have noted that there are no African-American or gay/lesbian representation in this film, but I seem to laugh at those labels since both groups have supposedly never wanted to be singled out and therefore wanted to be treated nothing but equal. So, why do we need a "gay character" or "African-American character"? What makes American Teen so endearing is that it focuses more on those traits that every kid (regardless of race, religion, or sex) falls into during their high school years: a jock, a princess, a loner/rebel, a pretty-boy, a geek/nerd.
 
Most PC folk would say that it's completely close-minded of me to say that the high school hierarchy consists just of these stereotypes. I hate to break the news to these people, but it's true. When you're that age and in high school, that's all there really is to focus on. Your world is broken down into superlatives and trivial gossip and rumors. Still, even teenagers go through their serious life-altering events and that's what's at the heart of American Teen.

Rebel/outcast Hannah -- who I can tell Burstein identified with just by the way she filmed her -- longs to get out of her sleepy town and head to California. But what's hindering her is her fear that she might inherit the manic depression that's seized her mother. Besides her love-life, we get to witness her passions and her quirkiness that endears her to much of the audience. Then there's Hannah's social extreme opposite, Megan, a bitchy princess who deals with more than most her age. Not only is she pressured by her family to get into Notre Dame, but she's also dealing with the emotional repurcussions of her older sister's suicide. Colin, the star jock, has only one shot at his future: receive a basketball scholarship or join the Army to get tuition since his family doesn't have enough money. Lastly, there's Jake, who's teenage awkwardness and video game lifestyle alienates him from most ... especially girls. All he wants is to go someplace where he can start over and not be known as a nobody. All of these kids reflect something that anyone in the audience probably could relate to or reminisce and think, "That was me!"
 
Overall, I really enjoyed this documentary, but like most documentaries, I want to know what happened to the "characters" long after the filming ceased. I don't know if American Teen would be worth buying the DVD, but it's definitely worth a watch ... especially for parents. Watching the movie, I think, and am reminded, how intense growing up can be during that transition from kid to young adult. I think of how my children will feel and think when they're making that transition, and I only hope that I can be an important base of support for them. In the modern age of MTV's The Hills, or E!'s Keeping Up with the Kardashians, with all their decadence and style, American Teen brings us to a normal teenage world that shows kids in a more realistic light -- one which we can all relate. And that's the movie's (and Burstein's) success.



The Beatles Anthology (1995)
This 5-disc DVD collection is pretty much essential for any true Beatles fan! This is the quintessential history of the Fab Four -- how they came to be, their own histories & childhoods, their love lives, and, of course, their music. Especially fascinating are the stories behind their music and Lennon and McCartney's songwriting legacy, most notably how they worked with and off each other. The documentary begins with a video collage of their history, features their youthful beginnings, days in Hamburg, how Ringo joined the band, and their rise to the top in England. Then comes their growth as a band, talks on their BBC sessions, performing for Queen Elizabeth, stories about touring, and some funny TV segments. Also included are their introduction into America, talks about their performance on the Ed Sullivan Show, Ringo's tonsilitis, and their first movie A Hard Day's Night. Other topics include the pressures of touring, drugs, Bob Dylan, the making of Help!, the inspiration for "Yesterday," winning the MBE award, their Shea Stadium performance, meeting Elvis Presley, Rubber Soul and Revolver, the events that led to the their final tour in 1966 (the Philippines and John Lennon's remarks about Jesus), "Strawberry Fields Forever," "Penny Lane," "Sgt. Pepper," their holiday in Greece, the One World performance of "All You Need Is Love", talks about the Maharishi, the death of Brian Epstein, the Magical Mystery Tour, the opening of Apple Records, "Yellow Submarine," and John's new companion, Yoko Ono, the White Album, the closing and dissolution of Apple, "Hey Jude," Let It Be, Paul's marriage to Linda, John's marriage to Yoko, George and John's drug busts, Abbey Road, and the "Free As a Bird" music video.


Body of War (2007)
In a documentary aimed at the anti-war movement against the 2003 war in Iraq comes this powerful and effective story of Tomas Young, a 25-year-old soldier who was shot in his spine and paralyzed for life after only having served in Iraq for less than a week. This story shows what all of the politicians and pro-war advocates seem to often forget -- the toll taken on those who actually serve and have their lives forever altered. Especially when that war has a sordid history. Body of War unfolds on two parallel tracks. On the one hand, we see Tomas evolving into a powerful voice against the war as he struggles to deal with the complexities of a paralyzed body. And on the other, we see the historic debate unfolding in the Congress (with West Virginia Senator Robert Byrd one of the only voices of reason) about going to war in Iraq. Throughout the documentary we see the unfolding of the beginnings of the 2003 Iraq War.



The Boys: The Sherman Brothers' Story (2009)
If you grew up in the 1960s, '70s, and '80s, chances are these guys provided the soundtrack to your childhood. Richard and Robert Sherman are brothers who were music composers (sadly Robert passed away in 2012) to childhood classic movies such as Mary Poppins, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, The AristocatsThe Jungle Book, The Parent Trap, Charlotte's Web, Bedknobs & Broomsticks, The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, and The Tigger Movie, as well as composing the Disneyland/world staple "It's a Small World (After All)." This movie chronicles from their childhood in New York to the release of Mary Poppins on Broadway in 2006 (the story was adapted for stage by Downton Abbey writer/director/creator Julian Fellowes). This bio-doc gives you a glimpse into the fame of the brothers as well as their sibling rivalry. One of the most touching parts of the documentary is when they talk about "Feed the Birds" (a personal favorite of mine that I sing to my girls as a lullaby) from the Mary Poppins soundtrack and how they composed it, and how Walt Disney was big fan of it. On a special note, the brothers will be portrayed on the big screen this December in the Tom Hanks film Saving Mr. Banks, about the making of Mary Poppins and Disney's love-hate relationship with Poppins author P.L. Travers; Jason Schwartzman will portray Richard and B.J. Novak will portray Robert.


Brothers at War (2009)
A documentary purely about soldiers and their spirit. No politics, no party agenda -- just a look at humanity at its finest. Filmmaker Jake Rademacher decided to chronicle his two younger  brothers' Isaac and Joe's tours in Iraq. One of the most important documentaries of our time! Just like any common citizen, Jake struggles to understand his brothers' urgency to serve ... even though he fully supports them. This documentary is not just a film but one man's bonding with his brothers. Great stuff!


Bully (2011)
As far as documentaries go, this is probably one of the most important contemporary ones out there -- especially if you're a parent or soon-to-be parent. Most would say that bullying (whether being bullied or being the bully) when you're a kid is "just a part of growing up" or that "it builds character." I find that those who say that were either never bullied growing up or they were the bully. And so does director Lee Hirsch, who was bullied as a kid. Someone once said, "The side that bullies soon forgets, but the side which is bullied will never forget." And truer words have never been spoken. Especially in a scene where boy #1 (who was just bullied by boy #2) is pulled over by an assistant principal and she forces boy #1 and boy #2 to shake hands, thinking that will absolve the physical altercation that had just occurred; when boy #1 (who is fed up) won't "sincerely" shake the hand of the boy who was just pounding on him, the principal scolds the bullied boy #1! Frustrating and angering. Fortunately, this film did accomplish what it set out to do: zero-tolerance policies toward bullying have been taken by most of America's schools and there is more understanding and empathy toward a child when he/she says they are being bullied. The segments in this film are powerful and some of the blind-eye action that is going on within school administration, stating that "everything is fine" when video proof shows otherwise, is appalling. A powerful, effective film! 


Crime Wave: 18 Months of Mayhem (2008)
This History Channel documentary (with reenactments) is a must-see for any fan of Bryan Burrough's seminal, well-written book Public Enemies: America's Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933-34. In fact, this documentary is much more accurate and better done than the 2009 film based on Burrough's book, Public Enemies (starring Johnny Depp) -- in fact, don't ever reference the film in a scholastic paper (you'll fail)! Unlike the Depp film, this documentary fully follows all of the notorious gangsters which made up some of America's most infamous rogues gallery: Baby Face Nelson, Machine Gun Kelly, Bonnie and Clyde, Pretty Boy Floyd, Ma Barker and the Barker-Karpis Gang, and John Dillinger. Historians and authors tell the exploits of these criminals and the paths they ripped across the mid-West and east coast.


Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father (2008)
Do yourself a favor and do NOT read anything about this before you watch it. Just watch it! I got so emotionally invested in this film and felt such strong emotions of anger and sadness and love. I've never felt so moved by a documentary -- let alone a film -- than with this one! There is so much to this doc that it almost seems like a piece of fiction. Sadly, it isn't. And director Kurt Kuenne is an exceptional filmmaker, creating an important film that is well-done with excellent editing, pacing and personal, heartfelt interviews. There are no pulled punches when it comes to presenting the facts and every available video, audio or photograph that Kuenne could unearth about his friend, Andrew Bagby. The music is wonderful and you can't help but feel for all of Andrew's family and friends. I fully support the Bagbys (without even knowing them personally) and my heart truly goes out to them. This film should truly be seen by everyone.


Empire of Dreams (2004)
Filmmaker Kevin Burns (no relation to documentarian Ken Burns) crafts a very informative, entertaining documentary which is an essential viewing for any fan of Star Wars ... whether you're a majorly obsessed fan or a subtle fan. The film traces the imaginative sci-fi saga from its meager beginnings with creator George Lucas to the beginning of the creation of Episode 1, which was released in 1999. This documentary was one of the best features about the 2004 DVD release of the original trilogy. Check it out if you can!


The Good Soldier (2009)
This 2009 documentary follows five combat veterans from the WWII, Vietnam, Korea, Gulf and Iraq wars, with each examining what it is to be a "good soldier." This is a non-partisan feature which is simply from the points-of-view of these five soldiers and what they gained from their tours of duty. Very revelatory, this film is just one that should be mandatory viewing for anybody considering enlisting in the military.


How to Fold a Flag (2009)
OK, most associate filmmaker Morgan Spurlock (who produced this film) with goofy documentaries such as Super Size Me, but don't pigeonhole this one! This serious documentary follows 4 U.S. soldiers who served in the same company in Iraq and have returned to the States. One is a cage fighter, making amends through his violent talent; another is a patriotic eccentric; another is a man returning to school with very little money and a dying mother; and another is running for Congress. All stories are simultaneously set during the 2008 election. This reminded me of a real-life The Best Years of Our Lives or Stop-Loss.


The Imposter (2012)
From my friend's blog, The Jay Affair: "There were quite a few great documentaries in 2012, but this fascinating tale of a French con-man who somehow manages to convince a Texas family that he is the teenage son that disappeared 3 years ago, is my favorite. What starts off as an intriguing tale of mistaken identity takes a darker turn as the lens is turned on the family itself and the secrets that they may be keeping. Bart Layton’s endlessly entertaining documentary keeps you on your toes and guessing. The eccentric imposter himself, Frederic Bourdin, is revealed as lifelong identity thief, able to convince almost anyone that he is who he says he is."


Joseph Campbell & The Power of Myth (1988)
After reading mythology expert and professor Joseph Campbell's wonderful The Hero with a Thousand Faces (which inspired George Lucas to write Star Wars), I was craving to soak up more of his teachings. That's when I came across this amazing documentary hosted by Bill Moyers, speaking with Campbell about the many of the world's myths and how they affect our culture and our world. What I found most fascinating about this documentary were in the later episodes when Campbell touches upon spirituality. It's almost like a religion I'd love to follow. I can't recommend this mini-series enough to anyone interested in myth, writing or history.


The Man Nobody Knew: In Search of My Father CIA Spymaster William Colby (2011)
Directed by the subject's, William Colby, son, Carl Colby, this intriguing film follows Bill Colby and his rise from WWII soldier to OSS/CIA officer. From the early days of the CIA's birth to his forced resignation from the CIA as its director in 1975 (the position was then given to future President George H.W. Bush) to his mysterious death, this film follows the ups and downs of Colby's professional and personal life from those who knew him best, including his wife (Carl's mother), Bob Woodward, Donald Rumsfeld, Brent Scowcroft, James R. Schlesinger, and Zbigniew Brzezinski. Colby is somewhat of a basis (along with James Jesus Angleton and Richard M. Bissell) for the Matt Damon character in the 2006 spy film The Good Shepherd. Ultimately, this film discusses the reason for Colby's dismissal: his revealing to Congress the illegal activities of the CIA, known as the "Family Jewels."


The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers (2009)
Named "The Most Dangerous Man in America" by U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, Daniel Ellsberg was a patriot who believed his country was doing the right thing. He was a military analyst for the RAND Corporation (a global policy think-tank), who had served his country as a U.S. Marine, and was sent by the U.S. government to Vietnam to live and serve with the military. His job was to assess the situation in Vietnam and come up with a nuclear strategy. However, what he found over there were too many lies being told by high-up military officials and politicians. When he returned to the States, he decided to uncover the lies and deliver the truth to the American public via newspapers. The information he uncovered came from the study he had worked on known as the "Pentagon Papers," which "demonstrated, among other things, that President Lyndon Baines Johnson (LBJ) and his Administration had systematically lied, not only to the public but also to Congress, about a subject of transcendent national interest and significance." These documents prove that the reason used for the U.S. to officially enter the Vietnam War, known as the Gulf of Tonkin incident in August 1964, was a lie and never happened. The entire incident was used as propaganda to gain the public's support to enter the war. The death toll of Americans from the war reached 58,000 on the foundation of a lie. Need further proof that the government lied about the Gulf of Tonkin? Check out the 2003 documentary The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara, in which former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara admits the August 4 (second event) never happened and the first event on August 2 had "uncertain" circumstances. Whether you think of Ellsberg as a traitor or a hero, this film displays with much suspense a troubling conclusion about this country's character when it comes to warfare.


Murder by Proxy: How America Went Postal (2010)
Although this documentary mostly focuses on the post office shooting rampages that occurred in the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s, it is relevant to what continues today, albeit more frequently in schools. The film reveals two of the first men who committed these shootings as well as a later disgruntled employee of the Xerox company (in Edmond, Oklahoma, Royal Oak, Michigan, and the Xerox shooting in Honolulu, Hawaii). Most notably, this films shows that the men were not merely some lunatics out for blood and most times the perpetrators are not merely cold-blooded killers, but most times individuals who have pushed beyond their limits of abusive tolerance. There was a reason they committed such acts. This documentary examines the underbelly of the Postal Service from the 1980s to the 1990s, and why "going postal" came into existence in the first place.


9/11 (2002)
This is the quintessential documentary about 9/11/2001. And what is ironic is that it did not start out as being a documentary about 9/11. The event incidentally happened on the very day that two French filmmakers were following a probationary firefighter Tony Benetatos as he was assigned to Engine 7/Ladder 1/Battalion 1 Firehouse in lower Manhattan -- the actual subject for their original documentary. On September 11, 2001, one of the brothers -- the younger Jules Naudet -- rode along with the firefighters on shift to a possible gas leak just blocks from the World Trade Center. The roar of a passenger jet's engines can be heard as Naudet quickly pans up to the Trade Center and captures only 1 of 2 video recordings of Flight 11 flying into the North Tower/Tower 1. From there on, the documentary takes on a new focus as we see Jules' near-death experience with the firefighters as they are in Tower 1 when Flight 175 hits the South Tower/Tower 2 and when Tower 2 collapses with them in the Tower 1 lobby. Also seen is his big brother Gedeon's nerve-racking search for his brother, becoming a spectator, like the rest of the public, until he flees from the collapsing towers. A powerful, haunting film where death is ever present and love, sacrifice and duty take the forefront.


9/11: Press for Truth (2006)
Another essential 9/11 documentary. This film follows the four New Jersey widows known as the "Jersey Girls," who lead the families of the victims of 9/11 to push for an investigation into the attacks. The best companion piece to this documentary is freelance writer Paul Thompson's The Terror Timeline: Year by Year, Day by Day, Minute by Minute: A Comprehensive Chronicle of the Road to 9/11 -- and America's Response, an accurate report that agonizingly lists every detail about the history and events which lead to 9/11/01 (if you want to know all the facts and truths regarding 9/11, this is the book to read). This video documents the women's and family members' path from demanding an investigation to all of the obstacles thrown in their way by the U.S. government. This also tells the story of the 9/11 Commission in all of its failures and small successes. By the end of this film, you will find yourself sounding like 9/11 family member Bob McIlvaine: "I'm so pissed off at the American people, I'm so pissed off at this government ... because of this cover-up."


On Native Soil (2006)
According to Amazon.com's Jeff Shannon, this 2006 documentary is "essential viewing for anyone seeking to understand how systemic failures in U.S. national security led to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. By focusing on 9/11 survivors, the surviving family members of 9/11 victims, and their passionate demand for an official investigation into the World Trade Center attacks masterminded by Osama bin Laden, this riveting documentary serves as a remarkable audio-visual companion to the 9/11 Commission Report (which is included in its entirety on this DVD). Featuring alternating narration by Kevin Costner and Hilary Swank, the film contains much of the same material included in other 9/11 documentaries, but it's informed by an inspiring sense of moral outrage as we learn, step by step, how much the U.S. government and the Bush administration knew about possible terrorist attacks prior to 9/11, and failed to take any significant action against those threats. Beginning with former CNN reporter Peter Arnett's revealing interview with bin Laden in Afghanistan in 1997, and ending with the sobering observation that we're still inadequately prepared for another 9/11-like attack, On Native Soil unfolds with a deeply personal perspective that's dramatically contrasted by the galling audacity of administrative spin control. As recalled by surviving family members of 9/11 victims, ample evidence existed to prove that the government was aware of terrorist plots on native soil. In light of their research, then-National Security Advisor (NSA) Condoleeza Rice looks particularly culpable: As one grieving widower observes, Rice either lied in her post 9/11 press conferences (when she claimed "nobody could have known of these attacks") or--worse yet--she was unaware of the voluminous evidence of active terrorist plots available in the public record. It goes on from there: interagency communication breakdowns, disorganized response strategies when the attacks occurred, incredibly lax security at airports, and damning evidence of governmental neglect--all leading to the inescapable conclusion that 9/11 might have been avoided had the Bush administration been more attentive to obvious and immediate threats to national security. In driving these points home, director Linda Ellman doesn't flinch from the harshest realities: This is one of the few 9/11 documentaries to show attack victims leaping to their deaths from the burning twin towers of the WTC, and emotional testimony from survivors adds yet another layer of tragedy to these earth-shaking events. As a tribute to the families who confronted a shockingly reluctant administration and demanded the 9/11 Commission Report, On Native Soil serves a noble and timeless purpose: It honors those who died on 9/11, provides a cautionary warning against complacency among government officials and U.S. citizens alike, and reminds us that terrorism on native soil is a constant threat that must not be ignored." Especially riveting and heartbreaking is the moment when father of a 9/11 victim (Peter Hanson) aboard Flight 175 retells his last conversation with his son moments before the plane impacts the South Tower/Tower 2. This is the first time in U.S. history that an investigation had found an internal "failure of management, capability ..." (quote from 9/11 lead commissioner Thomas H. Kean found at the 4:35 mark here) and no one in the administration was demoted, fired or impeached. In fact, officials were only given promotions! (Even two top military officials were relieved of their command after the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941/1942!) Ultimately, this documentary uncovers a disturbing truth which set a disgusting, alarming precedent for the politicians and military leaders of our country: lie and/or be incompetent at your job so much so that nearly 3,000 innocent civilians are killed, and you will thrive in your career.
 


 One Day in September (1999)
This 1999 documentary tells the story of the massacre of the 11 Israeli athletes who were killed by a group of eight Palestinians from the group Black September at the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich, Germany. This documentary serves as a necessary viewing precursor for Steven Spielberg's 2005 masterpiece Munich (a film I cannot recommend enough!), which focuses on Operation Wrath of God (and is based on the George Jonas' book Vengeance: The True Story of an Israeli Counter-Terrorist Team), Israel's intelligence service Mossad taking revenge on those who planned the massacre. This film focuses more on the athletes and the loved ones who would suffer their loss. With photo and video footage, this documentary is one of the best out there!


Rebirth (2011)
This 2011 documentary is a 10-year record in the making, following five people affected by the 9/11 attacks, whether they were in the WTC, in New York, or were family/friends of victims who perished that day: Ling Young, a Chinese office worker who was badly burned at ground zero and undergoes surgery after surgery; Nick, was a teenager in high school at the time and lost his mother and afterward became estranged from his father; Tanya, who lost her fiancé Sergio; Brian, a construction worker mourning the loss of his brother; and Tim, a New York City fireman who lost almost everyone he worked with. The film documents each year just after 9/11 to 2011, showing the emotional and physical toll taken on each person. The best thing about this film is the overwhelming sense of hope that rises from each person's journey. A beautiful, touching film that has a lot of re-watching potential. Plus, a beautiful musical score provided by Philip Glass.
 


Stranded: I've Come From a Plane That Crashed on the Mountains (2007)
This is the true story of the Uruguayan rugby team whose plane crashed in the Andes Mountains on October 13, 1972. The story was made popular both by the 1974 book Alive: The Story of the Andes Survivors by Piers Paul Read and its 1993 film adaptation Alive. This documentary follows a majority of the 16 survivors as they return to the mountains they once called home for 72 days. They each retell their own personal accounts of what occurred on those mountains, and how they survived through cannibalism -- which they rightfully called "communion" -- and relying on each other through the harsh physical and mental conditions. An amazing story about amazing people whose determination forced them to live.


The Tillman Story (2010)
Ahhhh, if only this movie could have been made by that pesky Michael Moore, who is known by Republicans for his far-left agenda. Then, the ultra-fans of the Bush Jr. administration could write this documentary off as some wacko's one-sided, manipulating-the-facts work. However, this film -- directed by Amir Bar-Lev -- shows both sides of the spectrum ... and it comes directly from the family of professional football player Pat Tillman and their tireless research. Unfortunately, for the Bush Jr. administration, it doesn't cast them in the best light; particularly former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. As any Bush Administration supporter might say, "Amir Bar-Lev? Sounds middle eastern! He's a Muslim sympathizer!" Actually, Mr. Bar-Lev is an American, born and raised in California, and has no affiliation with the Muslim religion. But it's not the filmmaker's intention to make Rumsfeld and his staff to be the "bad guy." No, Rumsfeld and company do that all themselves in actual Congressional Oversight Committee video footage regarding Tillman's death. This film should be essential viewing for anyone wanting to see the true business of contemporary government politics and warfare, as well as for anyone who is considering joining the military. This is truly one of the best documentaries I've seen in a long time where there is no subject that's left "open for interpretation." All of the lies, screw-ups, incompetence and C.Y.A. (Cover Your @$$) tactics are all there in the open, for all to see. I had to watch the film twice because it stirred such anger in me; I can only imagine how Mr. Tillman's family must feel, knowing his death was used as mere propaganda for a war he did not agree with. (Note: I support the soldiers; it's the (Iraqi) war they're being sent in to that I'm not.) 
 


Undefeated (2011)
I have to admit that I'm not a big football fan. In fact, the attraction to being a fan of professional football eludes and mystifies me. However, I love a good football film. Any Given Sunday, The Blind Side, We Are Marshall, Varsity Blues, Remember the Titans, Friday Night Lights, Brian's SongTake your pick. I've watched and enjoyed them all. Also, as much as I'm not a big fan of pro football, I strongly believe in the importance of high school football. Again, I'm not a fan of the sport nor did I play it. However, I believe it teaches important aspects regarding character, time management, sacrifice and teamwork. And that's why I love this film. Never has there been a better real-life (non-fictional) film that showcases all of these aspects. Imagine taking The Blind Side and mixing it with the TV show Friday Nights Lights, then making it non-fictional, and you would have this documentary! The coach Bill Courtney says at the beginning of the film that football does not build character but reveals it. I don't know if I agreed with this statement a 100% or not. But after thinking about it, I realized that he was right. There can be a teammate who doesn't care about anyone but himself, but football itself will not make him a better person or more selfish one. Football will, however, make him reveal his true self -- a self that has already been implanted within him from early on whether he knew it or not. This is best shown in this film when teammate Chavis Daniels (who is difficult and angry through most of the season) steps up to recognize another teammate Montrail "Money" Brown (who he doesn't get along with), who is having a difficult time. It is a philosophical question to pose on whether Chavis would have had the empathy to stand up for Brown or not if he was not on the football team. However, the question is almost an answer to itself in that Chavis could have always been empathetic but it took football (and/or the coach) to bring it out of him. This is a GREAT film that I cannot recommend enough! It should be watched by anyone who loves football or even those who also don't care much about the sport. Simply a wonderful documentary! 
 


Unprecedented: The 2000 Presidential Election (2002)
This documentary alone is indisputable proof of the buying of the Presidency during the 2000 presidential election that lead to George W. Bush's victory over former Vice President Al Gore. However, to say that Bush's camp got away with an illegal rigging is too cut and dry. Gore's camp decided to not follow the law of the land by not following through with what should have been done and what the law says to do: a recount. This documentary may be considered as a false "conspiracy" by some, but the facts that are presented -- and can be proven through research -- prove this documentary's validity. The U.S. Supreme Court failed to follow the law and allowed an unprecedented miscarriage of justice not just to the country but specifically to the people of Florida, 175,000 U.S. citizens whose votes were never even counted. People were outraged at the slightest hint of the possibility of voter fraud in the 2012 presidential election, but, for some reason, this injustice continues to be overlooked and ignored. Imagine if you went to vote and yours was not counted? Or if you meant to vote for another candidate but the wrong one was counted? How would you feel?


Vietnam in HD (2011)
Another History Channel documentary knocks it out of the park. The channel had already been known for their WWII in HD, but this one surpasses that one because of the sole reason that the veterans whose narration and letters are reenacted by famous Hollywood actors (i.e., Edward BurnsArmie Hammer, Dean Cain, Zachary Levi, James Marsden, Blair Underwood, Tempestt Bledsoe and Jennifer Love Hewitt) merge into the actual veterans voices through their onscreen interviews. Getting to see the vets and feel their pain and victory resonates through this mini-series. This non-partisan documentary shows through archival footage and interviews every experience the American soldier went through during that tumultuous time, including dealing with the anti-war movement back home and the hidden enemy overseas. 
 


The War (2007)
Legendary documentary filmmaker Ken Burns' monumental work is this PBS mini-series documentary about World War II. Interviewing veterans, family members and friends, this series is the be-all, end-all of documentaries on WWII. There are no images too grisly for this seven-part series, and the voice actors deliver the actual people's voices without pretense but a subtle honesty. This is a wonderful tribute to the generation who lived this life, and unabashedly gave of themselves for their country and the world. Be sure to look out for WWII vet Sidney Phillips being interviewed; he would go on to be interviewed and portrayed in Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks' HBO 2010 mini-series The Pacific.


What Really Happened: Inside the Twin Towers (2006)
Discovery Channel's originally titled documentary 9/11: The Twin Towers -- or simply Inside the Twin Towers -- was renamed to this current title and released as a docudrama, telling true events with major actors reenacting what occurred within the Twin Towers from the time the first plane hit to the collapse of both buildings. Similar to the History Channel's Countdown to Ground Zero, both films are good, but Discovery's film has better acting and pacing, while also doing a better job at relating the true terror and inspiring hope of that day to the audience. Also well done is the injection of the actual survivors and family members as they recall the events seen on screen, and the injection of actual video footage in with the reenactment footage. This documentary is the closest adaptation to Jim Dwyer's 2005 masterpiece 102 Minutes: The Untold Story of the Fight to Survive Inside the Twin Towers (as seen in the fan-made trailer below) -- an essential book that should be mandatory reading for every public school student and American, for that matter.


Why We Fight (2005)
This documentary focuses on the military-industrial complex, a term coined by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, and how it has achieved exactly what he warned the American people about when he gave his farewell speech in January 1961. This bi-partisan film features interviews from Senator John McCain, Gore Vidal, Richard Perle, Chalmers Johnson, Bill Kristol, and Eisenhower's son, John, all speaking on the history of warfare in the U.S. Also featured are a handful of U.S. citizens and their role in America's wars -- past and present. This film is an important part of history, whether military or political, and examines the financial motivation for war. Another must-see!


Wings For Wheels: The Making of Born To Run (2005)
To say I'm a huge Bruce Springsteen fan is an understatement. So it should be no surprise this documentary on the making of one of the best rock albums of all time is on this list. Wings for Wheels is a documentary included on the 30th anniversary re-issue of Springsteen's classic "Born to Run" album. If you are a fan of Springsteen or someone who even simply likes his music and thinks it's "OK," watch this documentary to get an all-access into how the album was created and glimpse into the torturous just-over-14-months it took to make the album! It's all here -- from Springsteen's songwriting and conceptualization to the recording and release of the album. Plus, a tour of Springsteen's hometown by the man himself, giving insight into his thoughts and feelings at the time of his making the album. For another good treat, check out Springsteen's latest 2010 documentary The Promise: The Making of "Darkness" on the Edge of Town. They are great precursors to what I'm sure will be a successful documentary Springsteen & I, due out July 2013.

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