I was a fan of Roger Ebert for about 15 years, read a few of his books (including his memoir) and followed his blog, so there isn’t much about him in Life Itself that I didn’t know already, apart from some very touching, candid scenes of him during the last four months of his life. But that’s okay.
I’m admittedly skeptical about a lot of animal-rights documentaries. I’m a meat-eater, and it feels hypocritical of me to choose to be outraged over the treatment of one animal while enjoying bacon.
Dir. Morgan Neville
(2013, PG-13, 91 minutes)
Watching 20 Feet from Stardom will make you wonder if the music industry is broken. The women profiled here could sing circles around most artists on the Billboard charts.
That’s the biggest takeaway from this very appealing music documentary by director Morgan Neville, which chronicles the lives and careers of background singers who have performed some of the best remembered vocals on tracks by the Rolling Stones, Ray Charles, Michael Jackson, and many more: It’s possible to become a headlining star with limited ability if you have a big enough ego, but it’s not possible to be a successful backup singer without talent, because it’s all about the voice, plain and simple.
Dir. Kristi Jacobson and Lori Silverbush
(2013, PG, 84 minutes)
A Place at the Table was not made explicitly as a follow-up to Food Inc., but it functions well as one. Food Inc., from 2009, explored how the food industry has transformed over the last 50 years, with big businesses promoting profits over safety and sustainability, and getting government subsidies that keep soft drinks more affordable than fruits and vegetables. While that film approached America’s food problem at an institutional level, A Place at the Table is more personal. By profiling a few individuals from diverse communities, directors Kristi Jacobson and Lori Silverbush empathetically illustrate how 50 million Americans are food insecure, even though the country produces more than enough food to feed every citizen. So what’s the problem?
Dir. Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady
(2012, Not Rated, 90 minutes)
Detropia is a film with more empathy than information. Telling the story of the rise and fall of Detroit, Michigan, as a center of American industry, it takes a narrow focus, observing the changes to the city through the eyes of select residents. But their points of view are limited, and though they often, quite reasonably, lament that something must be done to reverse their city’s decline, the film doesn’t offer enough insight into that decline or any possible solutions.
Dir. Dror Moreh
(2012, PG-13, 95 minutes)
I have not kept well informed about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Those times I have learned about the crisis have saddened me or hurt my head – or both. (Steven Spielberg‘s Munich is probably the best film I’ve seen addressing the hostility.) Dror Moreh‘s documentary The Gatekeepers does an excellent job of organizing and examining decades of violence, retaliation, and mutual bitterness that have consumed the region since the Israeli state was established after World War II.
Dir. Amy Berg
(2012, R, 147 minutes)
My primary concern about West of Memphis was whether it needed to be made at all. The great Paradise Lost films, spanning 1996 to 2011, covered the case of the West Memphis 3 as it happened; it is an essential portrait of the American justice system. The new film, directed by Amy Berg and produced by Peter Jackson, reiterates a lot of facts we’ve already heard, adding also the wisdom of hindsight; the second Paradise Lost film largely, and incorrectly, pointed to John Mark Byers as a possible suspect in 2000. This film also includes Byers, but not as a significant point of interest.
Dir. Alex Gibney
(2012, Not Rated, 106 minutes)
The child sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church has been well documented, though not discussed thoroughly enough in the years since the story exploded in the early 2000s, which is why Mea Maxima Culpa is still such a punch to the gut. The evidence is so clear: the Catholic leadership, to protect the reputation of the institution, sided with child rapists over their victims.
Dir. Steve James
(2011, Not Rated, 125 min)
It has long been a cliché that violence is a disease. The Interrupters, by Steve James (Hoop Dreams), uses that as a framework through which to examine the lives of young, mostly black boys and girls in the crime-ridden South Side of Chicago, and it proves to be more apt than just a metaphor or platitude. These children have a lower life expectancy. They expect to die as the result of street violence in a way someone might expect to die of cancer if he has a similar family history. It is passed down from generation to generation, but this is nurture, not nature. You’re trained from the day you’re born, if not by parents then by peers or by tragic experience, to expect violence and to employ it, sometimes preemptively, in your own defense. Pardon me an unlikely quote; in The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, Eowyn said: “… those who do not live by the sword can still die upon them.” So in a world where an honor student may fall as easily as a gangbanger, it’s understandable to want to make someone else a victim rather than to become one yourself.
Dir. Andrew Rossi
(2011, R, 91 min)
I love knowledge and thus have a great admiration for journalism, which at its best is the immune system of a free society. Its purpose it not only to pass along information but to verify it, filter it, and deliver it in its purest form. I was surprised when I read a recent opinion piece – from the New York Times, no less – questioning, and I quote, “whether and when New York Times news reporters should challenge ‘facts’ that are asserted by newsmakers they write about.” That sounds like a mechanic asking if it’s his job to check under the hood, or if he should instead hand the keys back to you and let you decide for yourself whether or not your car is safe to drive. The ditch you find yourself in will be the decision you’ve made … Read the rest of my review at Culturazzi.