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The Best Documentaries of 2017

Written by on December 19, 2017 

Escapes (Michael Almereyda)

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Though 2017 was the year when Blade Runner 2049 reigned in film culture, another movie related to Ridley Scott’s sci-fi classic was even better and more insightful. Escapes, directed by Michael Almereyda, tells the story – or more accurately some of the many stories – of Blade Runner scribe, sometime actor, and all-around raconteur Hampton Fancher, who carved his own wild path through the landscape of New Hollywood. With a restless, constantly changing energy, no amount of self-reflection, and the best use of archival footage in conjunction with the weathered faces of the present this side of Twin Peaks: The Return, Escapes becomes a remarkably thrilling and moving experience. – Ryan S.

Ex Libris – The New York Public Library (Frederick Wiseman)

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Frederick Wiseman’s latest masterful dissection Ex Libris couldn’t be more blunt in its intentions. And yet, it still repeatedly finds generous new ways to reaffirm its central thesis. Over a Wiseman-standard three and a half hours, the genius octogenarian and a team of operators with exceptional instincts skim through a dizzying number of branches of the New York Public Library, touching on everything the system of libraries offer from expected civic resources like educational tools for unprivileged communities to the wealth of authors, musicians, and artists who speak nearly daily at its nearly hundred parts. But true to Wiseman’s style, the genius of the film is less its scope than its consistently rewarding patience. Sections are patience-testing – and become bizarrely funny when the camera moves to audience members falling asleep listening to the same speech – but they all accumulate into something larger than its parts. By the end, Ex Libris is less an argument for the library as a necessary public institution than an inherent reminder of its place in society as an essential hub for knowledge and human potential. – Mike S.

Faces Places (Agnès Varda and JR)

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A humble film sitting in the crossroads of age and youth, of fine art and a populist spirit. Co-directors and main subjects Agnès Varda and JR make for the most winning cinematic duo of the year as they embark on their road trip to learn people’s stories, and then capture slices of them to post on their places of work and life. It’s both a way for Varda to look back and a snapshot of modern France, a gently funny journey that accrues weight and significance as it goes on. – Dan S.

I Called Him Morgan (Kasper Collin)

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Jazz trumpeter Lee Morgan was known for creatively challenging the likes of Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis on stage with his style and intensity, a youthful performer who surprised audiences by playing with utter confidence and maturity. For a time, he was considered one of the most important jazz musicians alive. His wife, Helen Morgan, was a forceful woman, who attracted attention with her good looks and delectable cooking. Her home became a hang out spot for struggling New York musicians who needed a warm meal after a rough night performing in the clubs. Morgan and Helen fell in love, becoming quick partners. When Morgan fell into heroin addiction, Helen saved him, pushing her man into rehabilitation. And later, she killed him, shooting him in the chest as he stood on stage, clutching his trumpet. – Tony H. (full review)

In Transit (Albert Maysles, Lynn True, David Usui, Nelson Walker III, and Benjamin Wu)

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Ripe with rich source material each worthy of their own feature films, In Transit provides a glance into various lives and narratives. Some intersect and interact with each other, if only for a brief moment, others are singular: they opt to tell their story to us directly as we share an aural overview of a whole life, relationships, connections, missed opportunities and narratives yet to be written, each in transit. The final film by master vérité filmmaker Albert Maysles, the filmmaker and team (including co-directors Lynn True, Nelson Walker, David Usui, and Ben Wu) spend a few days aboard the Empire Builder, Amtrak’s long-distance line carrying passengers from the Midwest to the Northwest en route to Portland. – John F. (full review)

Jane (Brett Morgen)

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Even though now it’s almost impossible to think of a world in which Jane Goodall isn’t the preeminent primatologist, her notorious career could’ve been thwarted due to sexism. As a 27-year-old secretary with no college education, she “struck gold” when paleontologist Louis Leakey chose her to conduct research on chimpanzees in Tanzania. Leakey was looking for a fresh mind, unbiased by scientific knowledge, and Jane happened to be at the right place at the right time. More than five decades have passed since Goodall left for Africa and revolutionized the study of primates, and while her astonishing career and scientific breakthroughs are rightfully celebrated in Brett Morgen’s documentary Jane, more than being a standard biographical doc, the film serves as a cautionary tale against the perils of male chauvinism. – Jose S. (full review)

Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond – Featuring a Very Special, Contractually Obligated Mention of Tony Clifton (Chris Smith)

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I wouldn’t argue Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond is a great documentary, but it’s certainly an engrossing and mesmerizing ride. With a narrative consisting largely of footage shot on the set of Milos Forman’s Man on the Moon, which reveal Jim Carrey’s process of inhabiting comedian Andy Kaufman, whom he portrays in the 1999 film, those morbidly fascinating clips are intercut with contemporary interviews with Carrey, reflecting back on the era. According to Carrey, he was “not really on the planet” during shooting, always remaining in character as Kaufman or Tony Clifton, the abusive and foul-mouthed lounge club singer alter ego of the infamous comedian. Whether he’s testing Forman’s patience or hurling insults at pro wrestler/ co-star Jerry Lawler, Carrey is at his most wildly passionate and aggressively antisocial. The same could be said of the interviews with an older, bearded Carrey. While the majority of the documentary feels frustratingly one-sided and utterly circumspect, offering no contemporary perspective beyond the eccentric star’s own, it is impossible to look away from the ensuing chaos. Perhaps it’s no Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse, but Jim and Andy: The Great Beyond is a spellbinding portrait of the joys and horrors of filmmaking. – Tony H.

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