A riveting account that blends animation with suspenseful journalistic analysis, Austin filmmaker Keith Maitland’s documentary on sniper shootings is a reflective masterpiece of documentary storytelling. Rarely has rotoscoping technology been used in so gripping and effective a fashion as Maitland matches voiceovers from the actual survivors with younger portrayals of themselves, offering a first person perspective that’s at once chilling and artfully enticing.
When troubled 25-year-old Charles Whitman, the “Texas Tower Sniper” ascended to the top of the University of Texas Tower and opened fire on the innocents below he made history as the first mass school shooting in US history. Eschewing any form of exploitation, Maitland’s film incorporates stock footage, authentic testimony from survivors and key witnesses, resulting in what Variety describes as “a uniquely cinematic memorial” in one of the most essential American documentary films of 2016.
13. Fire at Sea
Italian documentarian Gianfranco Rosi accumulated a staggering and stunning catalogue of footage while on the Sicilian island of Lampedusa––during the 2015 European migrant crisis, no less––amidst many life-threatening Mediterranean crossings.
Situated 150 miles south of Sicily, Lampedusa became the noted port of call for countless African and Middle Eastern refugees and Rosi’s Golden Bear winner, while an 89th Academy Award nominee, is the kind of landmark and precedent-setting cinema that needs to reach the widest audiences possible.
Focusing on twelve-year-old boy from a local fishing family named Samuele, he and us by proxy, explore and attempts to gain mastery of the sea, eventually building a breathtakingly pragmatic portrait of the Lampedusan people and the troubling events that engulfs them. Shocking and imaginative, Fire at Sea is unforgettable nonfiction filmmaking at its best.
12. Operation Avalanche
Matt Johnson’s ambitious follow-up to his lively and provocative 2013 debut The Dirties, Operation Avalanche is a comic thriller dressed as a faux-documentary about an obsessed young man who gets in over his head. The film begins in 1967 as CIA Agent Matt Johnson (Johnson, of course) hatches a put-up job to fake the moon landing so that the USA will appear to beat the Ruskies in the space race.
What begins as mélange of Woody Allen’s Zelig and Alan Pakula’s The Parallax View with just a dash of Arrested Development absurdism spirals into some unexpected places and culminates in a dizzying car chase contained in a single muscular take (like a poor man’s Children of Men or a low-cost French Connection).
It’s easy to get swept up in Operation Avalanche, and it’s creative effects, DIY attitude and soaring scope is nothing short of inspirational. Not to be missed.
Canadian Inuk filmmaker Zacharias Kununk (Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner) returns to epic territory with this tale of revenge set in the icy arctic of the 1930s. Maliglutit, which means “searchers”, is inspired by John Ford’s 1956 classic of the Wild West, The Searchers. Both Ford and Kununk’s films cast an unconventional gaze upon violence and the fallout after unspeakable savagery.
An emotionally arduous journey with an unrelenting sense of urgency, Maliglutit is a showpiece from one of Canada’s most gifted filmmakers.
10. Baden Baden
First-time director Rachel Lang offers up a smart, assured, and artful first flight in the French-Belgian dramedy Baden Baden. Feeling very much in-the-moment from the very start, this film follows the ups and downs of Ana (Salomé Richard, wonderful), an independent and unfettered 26 year-old who feels somewhat out of place after spending the better part of a year abroad, now back in her home in Northern France. Full of contradictions yet undeniably charming, Ana is restless, lovelorn, temperamental, and entirely engaging.
A feminist fable about youth and yearning, the comedy is off-kilter, the experiences genuine, and the talent on display both in front of and behind the camera, nothing short of astonishing. This is a tiny treasure of a film with an unforced and friendly drawing power that’s impossible to resist, so don’t even try. You’re welcome.
9. De Palma
An absolutely riveting filmmaker portrait from Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow, De Palma is a candid, compelling, and frequently funny gab session with one of America’s greatest and often overlooked filmmakers, Brian De Palma. Accurately hailed by The Guardian as “a cinephile’s nirvana”, I proudly admit that I saw this film four times amidst a dazzling De Palma retrospective, and, truth be told, I can’t wait to watch it again.
In true anecdotist fashion, De Palma leads the viewer through his long, lustrous, rollercoaster-y career, ripping into his passions and fetishes, sharing his feverish affections for Hitchcock, genre-trappings, and technical derring do. Illuminating and pisstaking his way through cinephilia, De Palma gets into politicking, voyeurism, and good ol’ fashioned storytelling as he discusses his astonishing body of work, including wonderful asides and lore from classic films like Phantom of the Paradise, Carrie, Dressed to Kill, Blow Out, Scarface, and more. De Palma is a dazzling must-see affair for fans, and essential viewing for anyone even half serious about cinema.
8. Little Sister
Writer/director Zach Clark latest film, Little Sister, is a comedic melodrama with an irreverent spin. A deceptively light (or is it?) and likeable indie that’s overfull with witty aphorisms, sardonic interactions, and odd-yet-amiable characters that, like many films on this list, is destined for cult-like adoration.
Set in Brooklyn in 2008 we meet Colleen Lunsford (Addison Timlin), a young nun estranged from her family. Having received an email from her mother, Joani (Ally Sheedy), asking that she return home to Asheville, NC, because her brother has returned from the Iraq war, where he nearly died and is now disfigured.
Little Sister is a very confident and mature work from Clark, and the digressive plot strands are relishable, as are the laughs they implore. Even though there’s considerable tragedy in Little Sister; Joani is depressed and has survived several suicide attempts; Jacob (Brian Poulson), Colleen’s brother, is terribly deformed and hides away in the family’s guesthouse, when he does venture out he’s mistaken for a monster by a precocious brat; and Colleen herself is at a crossroads she seems ill-equipped to wander. And yet, Clark imbues these histrionic instances with a sense of fun and odd adulation, akin to vintage Hal Hartley.
For all the potentially loaded subject matter, Clark brilliantly displays a diligence to engage and elucidate without didacticism. Little Sister is a droll delight that charms and enchants both the head and the heart.