ACADEMY AWARD NOMINATED 2022 Documentary Shorts

Documentaries are by far the most undersung filmmaking genre — no doc has ever won an Oscar for Best Picture — and short documentaries have the worst of the lot. Some of these filmmakers have spent years and years filming their subjects, then whittle their hundreds of hours of footage into a publicly-palatable half-hour. It’s a shame that the Academy are pushing this group of nominees to the sidelines for the 2022 broadcast because these filmmakers — even when they make something that doesn’t quite cohere — invest so much time and work and emotion and empathy into their subjects.

AUDIBLE

AUDIBLE is the latest from filmmaker Matthew Ogens, best known for his documentary CONFESSIONS OF A SUPERHERO which followed around a set of Los Angeles costumed superheroes, but it’s also produced by Peter Berg, of FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS fame. Like FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS, AUDIBLE focuses on a high school football team, but this is an all-deaf team from the Maryland School for the Deaf. While the doc dives into how they communicate on-and-off the field, it excels at emphasizing the empathy and a specific kind of bonding that is rarely found in even the closest of social groups. Its use of subtitles, and insistance on displaying them, is also worth banging the drums for.

LEAD ME HOME

From longtime documentary workers Pedro Kos and Jon Shenk, LEAD ME HOME is an affective look at the homeless situation in tech-boom cities, notably San Francisco and Oakland, where tent cities are now very visible, as captured by their drone footage and contrasted by all of the modern construction work.

One of the more heartbreaking stories is that of Patty, who solely has her dog to keep her sane and safe from an abusive partner, and there are a litany of publicly posted signs stating ‘No dogs allowed’ in any space she would otherwise be able to use to bide the night.

THE QUEEN OF BASKETBALL

“Have you ever heard of Lucy Harris?” That’s the question posited from Ben Proudfoot (THE OX) and it’s a good one, as she was a revolutionary basketball player in a pre-WNBA era. Presented in a very face-forward Errol Morris way, this is an effortlessly pleasing doc that imbues Harris’ charms while also detailing how limited options for sport careers were for women — honestly, still probably are — even those courted by the Jazz.

“Long and tall and that’s not all.”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nRGsgb4WOzw

THREE SONGS FOR BENAZIR

A disheartening, slightly faltering, look at Shaista, an under-educated Afghanistan trying to escape from the opium trade by enlisting in the army. While well-shot and well-shaped by Elizabeth and Gulistan Mirzaei, especially when it comes to capturing the surveillance state that Shaista percieves, it leaves you wanting something a bit more thanks to a rather perfunctory end. Sadly, sometimes that’s just how spending years with a subject will work out.

WHEN WE WERE BULLIES

The documentary that dares to ask the question: “What if bullies were the victims all along?”

It’s a doc from prolific short film director Jay Rosenblatt that wants to examine mob mentality, youths’ desire to fit in — even if it means violence — but instead pivots to slight interviews and then almost completely writes out the actual victim. The hand-crafted animations used to set, and reset, the tableau of the bullying incident that incited the impetus for the film inject some liveliness into the film, but then leans far too heavily on it.

Despite the Academy’s sidelining of these works, you can still see them in the theater, as these shorts are currently playing in the Chicagoland area at the WILMETTE THEATER, 1122 Central Ave, Wilmette, IL 60091, USA!

HOW TO WITH JOHN WILSON (2020+)

(HBO/HBO MAX) HOW TO WITH JOHN WILSON just wrapped its second season, but for the purposes of this recommendation, I will stick to the first season, solely because I’m a bit behind on the second season. (That said, the second season enlisted the skills of one of the best writerly documentarian of the current generation, Susan Orlean, so take that as a full-throated recommendation for skipping ahead if you’re impatient.)

John Wilson is an obsessive documentarian. He always has a camera in his hand and he’s always looking out for some oddity, searching for thirty-seconds of visual intrigue in New York City. However, he’s also capable of a meandering weaver of cultural insight.

Each episode of HOW TO WITH JOHN WILSON starts off with an innocuous ideal: “How to Make Small Talk”; “How to Improve Your Memory”; “How to Cover Your Furniture” but each episode is like a strange stream-of-consciousness/exquisite corpse-like tale where he wanders to a larger humanist insight. It’s funny, warm, smart, and occasionally scary. The season one finale, which saw him documenting the spread of COVID-19 via his Greek landlord was so heartwarming, while also being heartbreaking.

My wife asked me: “Is there a name for this sort of genre? Overly-sincere dudes examine the lives they witness around them?” I wished I could lay a name to the genre, but shows like these — NATHAN FOR YOU, JOE PERA TALKS WITH YOU, and HOW TO WITH JOHN WILSON, escape classification. We’re simply used to dude-based TV works as being meditations about cruelty, and I’m happy to see that we’re finally rounding the curve, that we’re seeing works about men questioning their world, reaching out, being empathic. It gives me hope and warms my cynical heart.

“You don’t always realize you’re in the middle of history until it’s over.”

JOY RIDE (2021)

(Cinemas/VOD) Sorry, I’m yet again putting the pause on horror posts. I simply loved this film — as you can probably tell by the wall of text — and wanted to boost it.

I’m always reluctant to post about films that folks can’t see — after all, I started these missives to suggest interesting works one could safely watch at home during the pandemic (which, duh, still isn’t over). That’s growing increasingly hard as Chicago’s film programmers and filmmakers have been working overtime to (safely) bring people back to theaters, including folks like Joe Swanberg — I’ll be talking about his contributions next week — and, of course, the Music Box, and they’re often able to bring in directors for screenings of their latest films that the directors have never seen with an audience.

This was the case for Bobcat Goldthwait’s JOY RIDE which, unfortunately, really isn’t available to publicly view yet. (I just slotted in VOD because it’ll be available that way eventually.) I attended the Chicago premiere tonight at the Music Box and director Goldthwait was there, as well as his dear friend and co-star Dana Gould.

I know most people only know Bobcat Goldthwait from the POLICE ACADEMY series, which is a shame because he took a quality left turn with his career and decided to start writing and directing weird little works, including GOD BLESS AMERICA, SLEEPING DOGS LIE, WORLD’S GREATEST DAD (starring his old friend Robin Williams). They’re all darkly comic and satirical pieces, but imbued with a sensitivity and humanity that’s often lacking in satire. Plus, he’s become a veteren director of comedy specials, and directed his own genre TV show MISFITS & MONSTERS. To top it off: he’s friends with Dana Gould.

I realize Dana Gould isn’t a household name, but he’s been involved with so many legendary comedic works over the years. He wrote more than a few THE SIMPSONS episodes; he’s penned for SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE; he was a performer on THE BEN STILLER SHOW; he did voice acting for Nicktoons’ DOUG — the list goes on-and-on. I caught the ensemble reading of PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE that he wrangled via this year’s streaming-and-cable-only TCM FEST 2021. While I was reading GLAMOUR GHOUL – THE PASSIONS AND PAIN OF THE REAL VAMPIRA, MAILA NURMI, I discovered that he was a good friend to Maila, and helped keep her alive and healthy many times.

With that out of the way, I can finally summarize the film: it’s two extraordinarily funny men taking a road trip, taking their show on the road, mostly reflecting and riffing on their lives and their friendship, both in the car to each other, and to an audience. It’s a fantastic take on a comedy special, and one that is both darkly hilarious, heart-warming, and emotional. It showcases these two men, one of which — Bobcat — has been an absolute asshole to many people and audiences in the past, and even to Dana — and Dana who has been a prickly, difficult person, but has also changed a great deal. They ruminate on their lives and you can hear and see in the way they act towards each other that they’ve learned and healed so much over time. That kind of raw male unburdening is rare to see on-screen.

Also: JOY RIDE is absolutely hilarious. The two of them are consummate storytellers, but they also love to work off of each other and egg each other on, and the editing is pitch-perfect. The film killed at the Music Box, absolutely killed. I’m an easy laugher, but the best works bring me to a rolling boil, and JOY RIDE managed to pace itself so exceptionally — even with the emotional moments — that by the end I was a giggly mess.

As mentioned in the preamble, this was Bobcat’s first time watching the film with an audience. Not to brag — well, maybe just a little — but Goldthwait (a new Chicago denizen) was sitting directly across the aisle from me in the theater, close enough to tap on the shoulder. I’d sneak a few looks at him from time-to-time, just to see how he was reacting because I was curious, and he was laughing a lot — well, as much as you could tell when everyone’s masked.

When Bobcat and Dana stepped onto the stage to discuss the film, Bobcat talked about how emotional it was sitting there watching the film, hearing everyone’s laughter, and how he loved laughing at his friend’s jokes. It was a sincere, pure moment. We’re all healing as we (hopefully) come to the end of this awful era, and seeing JOY RIDE under these circumstances was such an immensely enjoyable time, and I’m so happy I could see it with such giving artists.

Turner Classic Movies Film Festival: Part Two (2021)

The second part of highlights from this year’s TCM (virtual) Film Festival, this time focusing on ‘Classics Curated By TCM’ available to stream via HBO MAX.

It’s worth noting that I have no idea how long these will be available to stream. If I had to guess, I’d say they’ll be available until May 11th.

Full ‘Classics Curated By TCM’ HBO MAX lineup: https://filmfestival.tcm.com/on-hbomax/films-a-z/

BALL OF FIRE (1941): A lesser known Howard Hawks screwball classic, featuring Gary Cooper as a stodgy professor and Barbara Stanwyck as a nightclub singer in trouble with both the police and the mob. It’s classic TCM fare in that it airs rather regularly and I find it endless re-watchable. (If you don’t have HBO MAX, it’s also available via kanopy.)

THE DECLINE OF WESTERN CIVILIZATION (1981): Directed by Penelope Spheeris (BLACK SHEEP, WAYNE’S WORLD) not only is THE DECLINE OF WESTERN CIVILIZATION a great music doc about the Los Angeles punk scene of the late 70s/early 80s — including Black Flag, X, and Fear — but also a brilliant doc in general, one which resulted in two more iterations that are also worth your time.

HARLAN COUNTY USA (1976): Director Barbara Kopple’s in-depth look at striking Kentucky coal minors. It’s a classic, an important piece of American history. (I’ll note that it does run regularly on TCM and Criterion’s streaming service.)

THE MELIES MYSTERY (2020): A doc detailing the restoration of over half of silent film auteur Georges Méliès. I haven’t seen it, but can’t help but imagine any self-respecting film nerd wouldn’t want to watch it.

THE NAKED CITY (1948): Previously recommended! (Also, it’s easily available on any non-TCM fest day.)

SCARECROW (1973): This Jerry Schatzberg film is completely new to me — I’ve only see THE PANIC IN NEEDLE PARK — but it features Gene Hackman and Al Pacino as two misfits trekking across the U.S., so I doubt it’ll completely waste my time.

SO THIS IS PARIS (1926): Lubitch directed more than several handfuls of silent films before helming talkies such as NINOTCHKA and DESIGN FOR LIVING. While I’ve never seen it — I’m largely unfamiliar with Lubitch’s silent work — it’s a new restoration, heavily features folks dancing the Charleston, and Myrna Loy makes an appearance.

THE THIN MAN (1934): Previously recommended! (That said, if you’re pressed for time, it’s easy enough to watch any old day.)

TO SLEEP WITH ANGER (1990): Charles Burnett (whose first film is the the fantastic KILLER OF SHEEP) weaves this tale of an old acquaintance (Danny Glover) who pops back up in a family’s life and slyly disrupts them. It’s a remarkably surreal but grounded film, chock full of great little scenes, performances, and intriguing tracking work.

I hope some of you can catch these while you can, and that the next TCM Fest has both virtual and physical screenings!

Turner Classic Movies Film Fest: Part One (2021)

Turner Classic Movies’ annual film festival is virtual for the second year in a row. While last year it took place entirely on TCM’s cable channel, this year they’re also leveraging HBO MAX for ‘Classics Curated By TCM’. Unlike prior years, there’s no real theme, which is disappointing, and I think leads to a rather lackluster lineup, but your mileage may vary.

I thought I’d point out a few noteworthy pieces for TCM’s timed ‘screenings’ today, and HBO MAX’s offerings tomorrow:

‘Screening’ via TCM Full Schedule:

May 7th 1:30am EST: DOCTOR X (1932)

If I were smarter, I would have posted this earlier this week because this probably will have already aired by the time you read it, but it’s worth mentioning. The UCLA Film & TV Archive and The Film Foundation recently restored this two-color Technicolor marvel — similar to how they restored the previously recommended THE MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM (1933). Michael Curtiz also directed it (as he did WAX MUSEUM) and Fay Wray also appears in it, so you know it’ll be some top-notch classic horror.

May 7th 8pm EST: SF SKETCHFEST PRESENTS PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE TABLE READ – ADAPTED BY DANA GOULD (2021)

Comedic genius and horror film fan Dana Gould wrangled an all-star list of comedians including Maria Bamford, Bobcat Goldthwait, Oscar Nuñez, Bob Odenkirk, Janet Varney, Paul F. Tompkins, and more to perform his adaptation of PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE. Fun fact: Gould was good friends with Vampira (who barely but memorably appears in Woods original film) near the end of her life, and helped out of more than a few bad times.

May 8th 3:15am EST: let me come in (2021)

Bill Morrison (DAWSON CITY: FROZEN CITY) shaped this from the remains of the German silent film PAWNS OF PASSION (1928). While I haven’t seen this, I’m fascinated with it simply from a film history perspective and the fact that it’s managed by Morrison intrigues me even more.

May 8th 8am EST: I LOVE TROUBLE (1948)

I haven’t run the numbers, but it feels like there are fewer noirs in this fest than prior years, but this is one I’ve been meaning to watch for a while.

May 8th 11:45am EST: NICHOLS AND MAY: TAKE TWO (2021)

A new doc regarding the extremely influential comedic team of Mike Nichols and Elaine May. I’ve seen prior docs on ‘em, and yet I’m still making time for another.

May 8th 10pm EST: LADY SINGS THE BLUES (1972)

I’ve only read about this film in contrast to the recent Billie Holiday docudrama, and I know it takes wild liberties with her life, but are you going to pass up the chance to see Diana Ross, Billy Dee Williams, -and- Richard Pryor in the same film? (Yes, I know Ross and Williams were in MAHOGNY together.)

May 9th 4:15am EST: I KNOW WHERE I’M GOING! (1945)

Exactly the sort of fest film I’d attend without knowing anything but the basics. It’s a romance and it’s written and directed by legendary English filmmakers Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger.

Tomorrow: some HBO MAX TCM Fest recommendations.

THE DUST BOWL (2012)

(hoopla/VOD) When I first heard that Ken Burns was working on a documentary about the Dust Bowl, I was already neck-deep doing research for a very Dust Bowl-centric novel and I thought to myself: “Well, I might as well give up on it now, because soon there’ll be a storm of Dust Bowl novels and the market will be exhausted.’”

For whatever reason, that did not happen. (Also, while I did finish a very rough version of the novel, I ended up abandoning it as it deviated too far from what I wanted it to be.) When Burns’ THE DUST BOWL did come out, it didn’t have the buzz that his recent documentaries have had. Hell, I heard more people talking about Burns’ BASEBALL doc than THE DUST BOWL.

Ken Burns has always been able to turn what could be a dull American history lesson into something immensely watchable; dramatic, even. He even managed to make the story of the creation of the United States National Parks into a riveting six-part documentary series. However, the Dust Bowl itself, just on paper, reads like a horror story. It doesn’t necessary require Burns’ deft touch.

If you aren’t familiar with the Dust Bowl, it’s one of the earliest and one of the worst, man-made environmental tragedies ever. Basically, the US government had a ton of unworked land in the Plains and then handled out lots for folks to head west, to settle and farm. Families rushed out and overworked the land to the point where the soil ended up turning to dust. Then a severe drought arrived and, because nothing could grow, there was nothing to catch the wind in the plains. The winds stripped all of the newfound dust from the ground, causing the ‘dust storms’ that barreled over the lands. Oh, and all of this occurred during The Great Depression.

To be clear: we’re not talking about temporary tornados here; we’re talking about stories-high loads of dust covering the lands for days on end. Houses were literally buried in dust. Everything in your house was covered in dust. You ate and breathed dust. The dust chewed through everything, eroding wood, clothing; farm animals would suffocate on it; children spewed up dirt.

These storms lasted for a decade because, there was no way to stop them without rehabilitating the land and, because of the prolonged drought, that simply couldn’t be done, not the way the current farmers tended their lots. Those lands had literally became deserts. Everyone that had been lead out there by the government, told to farm away with abandon, were left with less than nothing. (Yes, this was definitely Burns’ attempt to bring attention to climate change.)

Burns has always been best at leveraging photos for visual props as opposed to film footage, as photos allow him to unfurl his trademark sense of fireside storytelling at his own pace, but there are more than enough snippets of environmental footage that really hammer home the scale, monstrosity, and devastation of the storms. Anyone could make an effective cautionary tale documentary from that footage because it’s that spectacularly unreal, and it encompasses everything about America at that point in time.

It’s also worth noting that, unlike many Burns’ docs, a number of those who lived through the Dust Bowl are still alive, so there are far more first-person accounts than you’d expect from a documentary of his. It’s an enthralling, often tragic documentary, one which captures the tension of how the US was handling the plains at that time.

I’d imagine the same reason why THE DUST BOWL didn’t gain traction like prior Burns documentaries is the same reason I never learned about the Dust Bowl until later in life. It’s the tale of an American failure on American land that was spearheaded by an American government and resulted in the ruin of many American families and individuals. It’s a man-made disaster that folks just want to sweep under the rug and, yeah, that doesn’t make for the coziest viewing, but it’s history worth knowing.

KATE PLAYS CHRISTINE (2016)

(hoopla/kanopy/VOD) Coincidentally, this was released in the same year as CHRISTINE, but by the radical documentarian Robert Greene, again about Christine Chubbuck.

While I dodged Christine’s life events in yesterday’s recommendation of CHRISTINE, I can’t do so here because it’s the crux of this documentary. So, if you’d planned on watching CHRISTINE, go ahead and do so before reading further.

I’ll wait.

Still waiting.

Pad, pad, padding the post.

Okay, ready?

While giving a news report on the local news network she worked for, Christine diverged from the report and said: “In keeping with Channel 40’s policy of bringing you the latest in ‘blood and guts’ and in living color, you are going to see another first—an on-the-air suicide.” She then shot herself in the head, and died shortly after.

While CHRISTINE is a fictionalized exploration of Chubbuck’s psyche, KATE PLAYS CHRISTINE sees Kate Lyn Sheil (previously mentioned: the STRANGE WEATHER music video, also of YOU’RE NEXT and SHE DIES TOMORROW, as well as previously recommended director Sophia Takal’s debut GREEN) doing research for the role of playing Christine Chubbuck.

If you aren’t familiar withe Robert Greene’s work, he plays with the nature of recreation in documentaries. His follow-up, BISBEE ’17, explicitly explores that as he enlists an entire town to recreate what becomes a xenophobic, union-busting exiling of denizens. As a fan of documentaries, I believe this sort of meta-exploration of the inherent exploitation of documentaries is important, but also potentially fraught with their own sort of problems.

That’s why, with KATE PLAYS CHRISTINE, Greene’s smartly — and just as potentially problematically — documentary puts it entirely on Shell’s shoulders, and — if what we’re shown is to be believed — really puts her through the wringer. Shell is recreating Christine, physically and mentally, and it takes its toll.

It’s worth nothing that KATE PLAYS CHRISTINE is partially constructed around the urban legend that Paddy Chayefsky’s NETWORK was inspired by Christine’s on-air suicide, which is complete and utter bullshit — Chayefsky had been workshopping NETWORK well before her suicide — but something Greene defends as “being not quite true seems completely appropriate.”

It’s also worth noting that the dramatic re-enactments are terribly scripted, feel stilted and, apart from a few scenes, probably should’ve been excised completely, even if they were intentionally mawkish. That seemingly undercuts all of the work that everyone — especially Sheil — has done, but I get the feeling Greene doesn’t care.

Before writing these two recommendations, I’d felt that KATE PLAYS CHRISTINE was the ‘better’ film versus CHRISTINE; it conceptually tackles more; it’s more artfully, abstractly constructed; the intent is to take a magnifying lens to why we want to examine this story. Today, I’m not so sure.

At the end of the day, it’s still just a bunch of dudes reappropriating Christine’s story for their own reasons, for reasons she Christine herself probably wouldn’t agree with, which seems like the biggest sin here. Fundamentally, this is a story about a woman trying to live the life she’d set out for herself. The fact that she lived in a masculine world of journalism, or that she killed herself in what would be considered a masculine way, shouldn’t require a masculine retelling, but instead we received two re-appropriations of the tale.

“You have to tell me why you want to see it. … Are you happy now?”

MR. SOUL! (2018)

(HBO MAX) I’m embarrassed that I was completely unaware of the existence of the Black variety TV show SOUL!, which ran from 1968 to 1973, a bit before my time. The show was an overstuffed marvel of wall-to-wall talent, featuring musicians, writers, and poets, and this documentary that extolls it is absolutely fascinating.

Despite the doc being named after the host of the show, Ellis Haizlip, and co-directed by his niece, it’s rather light on particulars about his life. Instead it focuses more on what he accomplished through the show than being a personal profile, which isn’t an admonishment, merely an observation.

Either way, be prepared to take notes while watching it, as there are a litany of acts and individuals noted in the doc that deserve your additional attention.

(Grateful to Damon Locks for posting about this doc, which I wouldn’t have otherwise seen.)

PATRICE O’NEAL: KILLING IS EASY (2021)

(Comedy Central/VOD) I revel in hearing comedians discussing their process, when they bomb, when they kill, what it took to get from the former to the latter, and Michael Bonfiglio’s examination of Patrice O’Neal, who passed in 2011, is an exceptional example of a documentary about a comedian that provides insight while pulling no punches.

The doc handles his backstory more in-depth than most comedian documentaries by having a fair amount of access to his childhood family, friends, even the headmaster of his high school. While his family and friends keep the majority of their remarks polite and affable, the comedians chosen for the doc, certainly do not. The comedians that appear are all ones that you’d recognize if you been paying attention to stand-up in the 90s (Colin Quinn, Denis Leary, Bill Burr, Jim Norton — a lot of TOUGH CROWD folks) and while they all respected his comedic skill, they make it very clear that O’Neal was an absolute asshole, and would double-down on bad engagement and bad opinions. Of course, they also hand wave a lot of that away as “truth telling”, but that’s a subject for another time.

It’s a surprisingly frank portrayal, especially given that comedian Von Decarlo, his fiancée, was the executive producer of the documentary. It’s also a welcome one, if the subject matter interests you and you can overlook the macho approach of much of the comedy.

80 BLOCKS FROM TIFFANY’S (1979)

(YouTube) A pointed documentary on the gangs of the South Bronx in the 70s by Gary Weis (who at the time was working with Albert Brooks on filmed SNL bits), inspired by the Esquire feature SAVAGE SKULLS.

While Weis often uncomfortably inserts his privileged white, outsider self into the interview room with his subjects, he doesn’t edit out the folks that call him out on his motives, and he does make an effort to dig into the personalities of those embroiled in gang life. The end result is a number of strange profile pieces and re-enactments that feel like an ill-fitting but important portrait of 70s New York City.

Sadly, the doc has only had the barest of releases — it was shot to fill time during a SNL summer hiatus only to be scrapped by NBC execs, then used as an educational film for a bit, then had a limited DVD print run over ten years ago — but you can view it (albeit with abrupt commercial interruptions) here: