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The 10 Best Documentaries of 2016

14 February 2017 | Features, Film Lists | by Justin Gunterman

5. Weiner

weiner

Why the hell does Anthony Weiner keep sending pictures of his junk to people? Well, 2016’s Weiner doesn’t exactly answer that question, but it gives you enough material for you to come to your own conclusion. Weiner is a surprisingly unbiased look into the life of a man who plenty of people have come to ridicule.

The former US representative went from a well-respected dude to one of the most disliked politicians in the United States. He wasn’t looked down on because of his politics. The hatred stemmed from his frequent insistence on sending naked pictures to any woman with a cell phone.

The movie mostly looks at Anthony Weiner’s campaign for the Mayor of New York City two years after the first scandal. Were people able to give him a second chance? How was the scandal treated in political discussions? Don’t worry, those questions are addressed early on in the movie. Even if Weiner doesn’t answer the more complex questions, the questions that are answered in the film come together to create a fascinating story.

Aside from sheer entertainment value, it’s also an interesting psychological study. It’ll have you wondering why he keeps getting himself into trouble when he knows the consequences. At the same, you may also wonder why nobody will give him a chance to talk about his political opinions. Are people able to forgive? Are people able to change? Given the fairly neutral stance taken by the filmmakers, you won’t get a direct answer to those kinds of questions either.

The good news is that the ambiguity is part of the charm. Lord knows this movie is more charming than it has any right to be. That aspect of the film is precisely why it’s so irresistible. As a documentary, Weiner may not have the strongest voice, but it has plenty of information and plenty of heart.

 

4. 13th

13th

Ava DuVernay’s latest movie feels like the logical next step after the critically acclaimed Selma. This Netflix original documentary takes a look into the racial inequality that’s present in the American prison system.

The movie essentially compares prison to slavery. It states that while slavery was outlawed thanks to the 13th amendment, the United States has still found a way to harbor African American citizens. This isn’t a point that everyone will agree with, but this is a movie that never pretends to be politically neutral.

While it’s obvious what side the filmmakers are on, that doesn’t mean that the movie is lacking in evidence to support the claim.. The facts are hard-hitting, the interviews are enlightening, and the statistics are surprising. DuVernay compiles more than enough research to get her point across. As with all documentaries, it’s likely that there is some exaggeration, but a majority of the points made during the movie are accurate. DuVernay and company know their stuff, and they make it a point to prove that.

13th isn’t just great because it’s one of the most high profile documentaries of last year. It’s simply a great movie, period. Political affiliation aside, people owe it to themselves to watch it.

 

3. Gleason

Gleason

Gleason is not an easy movie to sit through. It’s possibly one of the most gut-wrenching movies you’ll ever see. Former football player Steve Gleason first learned he had a fatal illness roughly six years ago. Gleason walks you through five years of the titular star’s battle with ALS. For two hours, the viewer is tasked with watching Steve Gleason’s body slowly shut down. It’s a gruelling two hours, but it’s also inspirational.

Gleason rarely deviates from documentary conventions, so if you’re looking for something more unique, this isn’t the movie for you. It’s hard to complain about the more traditional filmmaking approach when the movie more than makes up for it in other areas. Gleason isn’t successful because it’s groundbreaking. It’s successful because it’s gushing with emotional resonance.

Gleason will make you feel a range of emotions. You’ll cry (no matter how hard you try not to), you’ll laugh, and you’ll cheer. It’s easy to feel heartbroken after the credits roll, but keep in mind that Gleason wants viewers to feel hopeful as well. Steve Gleason has gone through hell, but his resilience is commendable. During some of the most tragic moments, you’ll see him bounce back. It seems as if that’s how he wants his viewers to feel as well. He’s not asking for your sympathy. He’s asking for your courage.

This movie will destroy you. In terms of how soul crushingly devastating it is, it’s like Terms of Endearment, The Green Mile, and Grave of the Fireflies all rolled into one. It’s more than just a tearjerker though. It’s a movie with a powerful message, a likable man, and a surprisingly optimistic attitude.

 

2. OJ: Made in America

O.J. Made in America – Ezra Edelman

If 2016 taught us anything, it’s that people still care about the OJ Simpson trial. With The People v OJ Simpson and this 8 hour documentary both earning heaps of praise, it seems that the OJ trial is still a giant mystery. While Ryan Murphy’s miniseries chose to focus specifically on the trial, OJ: Made in America focuses on Simpson’s entire life. You’ll learn more about his football career, his family life, and even the events that took place after the conclusion of the murder trial.

Was this more broad approach successful? Absolutely. OJ: Made in America works so well because it allows the viewer to look into what events molded OJ Simpson. What caused the once highly-respected superstar to fall? The documentary puts two factors front and center. According to OJ: Made in America, racial tension and superstardom ultimately got to Simpson. His “nice guy” persona slowly started to dwindle as he grew more famous and cops grew more brutal.

Focusing largely on those two things allowed for the broader time span to feel focused. OJ: Made in America never feels like it’s overstaying its welcome. Despite the incredibly lengthy runtime, there isn’t a second wasted. If you’re not learning about new facts about his life, you’re forming opinions on why he threw his career away.

Thanks to a limited cinematic release, this miniseries has been able to compete in both television categories and film categories at various award shows. As a result, it has ended up taking home countless “Best Documentary” awards. With most pundit’s having it pegged as the Oscar frontrunner, it’s looking like OJ: Made in America will continue to earn the recognition it deserves.

 

1. Tower

Tower

Tower is as innovative as it is devastating. More importantly, its release is as timely as ever. The movie revolves around what is described as America’s first school shooting. All the way back in 1966, a gunman climbed to the top of a clock tower at the University of Texas and essentially held the campus hostage for a little less than an hour.

Armed with a high-power rifle, Charles Whitman went on to kill over a dozen people on the school’s campus. If you’re looking for a documentary that describes the killer’s motive, you may be better off tuning into the Investigation Discovery channel. Tower isn’t about the killer. It’s about the victims.

Using archival footage and rotoscopic animation, Tower takes viewers back to the traumatic summer day that has stuck with the victims over fifty years later. Testimonies are read aloud by actors and actresses in the backdrop of animated scenes that depict the harrowing event. The decision to animate the story using actors could have been a bad move, but Tower tackles the material in a way that’s both sensitive and informative. The animation is more than just a gimmick. It’s also an insightful way to tell a fascinating story.

The animation is a nice touch, but it’s not the primary reason to watch Tower. Tower is a daring and intimate look into the victims of a shooter. With so many documentaries glorifying the killer, it’s rewarding to see a movie that puts the primary focus on the victims. Tower will surprise you. It will inform you. Most importantly though, it will stick with you.

Author Bio: Justin is a paraprofessional teaching assistant and full-time film enthusiast with a degree in English. When he’s not writing about films, he’s probably watching them in his spare time.

 

 

 

 

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  • Nick Botton

    The Amanda Knox documentary definitely takes her side, and ignores A LOT of the facts. The only new thing it brought to the table was her “perspective” on the whole ordeal, and the documentary basically revolves around it.

  • andyklimactic

    TOWER is so fucking good. Extremely powerful.