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Essential Viewing: Best Documentaries of 2013 (part one)

16 December 2013 7:15 PM, PST | SoundOnSight | See recent SoundOnSight news »

Documentaries have come a long way in the past 20 years, especially in the last decade. Documentary film has developed into a popular and visible form of entertainment, while having a bigger effect on society, usually addressing important issues with the goal of informing the public and pushing for social change. Ten years ago, it was more difficult to name 10 “great” documentaries released in one single year. Oh, how times have changed. There are so many incredible docs released each year – most never released wide – that it is impossible to catch up with each – but we try our best here at Sound On Sight. The following is a list of recent documentaries recommended most by our staff. It was hard to choose between the many great docs released this year, but we decided to narrow it down to a list of 10, based on what received the most votes from our end-year »

- Ricky

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‘Hours’ is an occasionally effective final film for Paul Walker

15 December 2013 8:25 PM, PST | SoundOnSight | See recent SoundOnSight news »

Hours

Written and directed by Eric Heisserer

USA, 2013

One of the most impressive things about the career of the late Paul Walker is that once the Fast and Furious money started arriving in earnest after the fourth entry in that series, he was a strong supporter of independent film. In 2013, Walker executive-produced two films so small in scale that they would qualify as impossible to get made without him on board. The first, Vehicle 19, is an innovative little action picture that is well deserving of an iTines rental. The other, Walker’s final completed film Hours, works better as a character study than as a thriller, but deserves commendation for its ambition.

Hours opens with its worst scene, as Nolan Hayes (Walker) learns that his wife Abigail (Genesis Rodriguez) died while giving birth prematurely to their daughter during Hurricane Katrina. Walker’s “I’m in denial!” acting is terrible, »

- Mark Young

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‘Inside Llewyn Davis’ ranks among the Coen Brothers’ best work

7 December 2013 10:11 PM, PST | SoundOnSight | See recent SoundOnSight news »

Inside Llewyn Davis

Written and directed by Joel & Ethan Coen

USA, 2013

The folk music scene in New York City in the 1960s produced a legend in Bob Dylan, but he wasn’t first. It had been a fad for some time before him, enough that record labels and radio stations had already taken note. It’s entirely possible that there was a Dylan before Dylan, a great talent who didn’t find his opportunity or his audience. The Coen Brothers’ new film Inside Llewyn Davis posits the existence of such a man, and he may well be the most interesting character they’ve ever created.

Oscar Issac plays Llewyn Davis, who is bouncing from friend’s couch to friend’s couch while singing for practically nothing in local coffee shops and collecting no royalties on his records from his agent. He’s in the shadow of a much more commercial »

- Mark Young

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‘Catching Fire’ is as smart and idealistic as any blockbuster this year

23 November 2013 8:54 AM, PST | SoundOnSight | See recent SoundOnSight news »

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

Written by Simon Beaufoy and Michael Arndt

Directed by Francis Lawrence

USA, 2013

If there is one theme to take away from The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, it is the utter demolition of the concept of the happy ending. None of the surviving characters from The Hunger Games has had the happy ending of the first film persist for them, and none can foresee a happy ending to the events portrayed here. In fact, much of the film’s message is based on the idea that happy endings exist simply to make the audience content in the face of real-world horrors. And yet, the film is able to carve out a romantic and idealistic space in its world for these characters, achieving far beyond the simple financial goals of the studio sequel.

Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) start the film bearing the »

- Mark Young

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‘Dear Mr. Watterson’ has too much adoration and not enough exploration

17 November 2013 8:06 PM, PST | SoundOnSight | See recent SoundOnSight news »

Dear Mr. Watterson

Directed by Joel Allen Schroeder

USA, 2013

Joel Allen Schroeder’s documentary Dear Mr. Watterson is billed as “An Exploration of ‘Calvin and Hobbes,’” but it might be better described as an adoration of the famed newspaper comic. Not only does every person who appears in the film love “Calvin and Hobbes,” but they love it above all other examples of the form, and view it as the most formative part of their lives. “Calvin and Hobbes” is a masterful work, so the adoration is well-deserved, but such an outpouring of love makes for an uninteresting documentary.

Rather like the odious Salinger from earlier this year, Schroeder has the problem that his author is reclusive in the extreme (in fact, Watterson might be more antisocial than J.D. Salinger was). So he deserves credit, at least, for getting everything right that Salinger got wrong. This picture is not at all oppressive with its adoration, »

- Mark Young

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‘The Armstrong Lie’ has exhaustive reporting, but its emotions fall flat

8 November 2013 10:57 PM, PST | SoundOnSight | See recent SoundOnSight news »

The Armstrong Lie

Written and directed by Alex Gibney

USA, 2013

“I gotta win this fuckin’ race,” Lance Armstrong said in his hotel room in 2009, a moment captured on camera and edited into director Alex Gibney’s newest documentary, The Armstrong Lie. Gibney’s voice can then be heard off-camera, his tone agreeable. “My whole documentary is counting on you,” he says. In that moment the audience can see everything behind this picture: what brought these two men together, what lies they were telling to each other and themselves, and why it would take 4 more years for the entire story to be told. And yet, the movie as a whole reveals very little.

Gibney’s original plan was to cover Armstrong’s return to the Tour de France cycling race in 2009, 4 years after Armstrong had won the last of his seven consecutive Tours. Armstrong, whose entire career had been plagued by accusations of doping, »

- Mark Young

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‘Bad Grandpa’ is a little bit slapdash and a little bit dangerous

27 October 2013 8:56 PM, PDT | SoundOnSight | See recent SoundOnSight news »

Jackass Presents Bad Grandpa

Written by Spike Jonze, Johnny Knoxville, and Jeff Tremaine

Directed by Jeff Tremaine

USA, 2013

“You can get away with a lotta stuff. You just gotta try.” That line from Jackass Presents Bad Grandpa is not only an adequate description of the movie itself, but will one day serve as a fine epitaph for its star, Johnny Knoxville. Ever since the creation of the TV series Jackass, Knoxville’s career has enjoyed the most success when he has tried to get away with things most people would never consider. So it goes with Bad Grandpa: the most daring stunts draw the biggest laughs, but the movie is not always as daring as it wishes it was.

The premise has been tried before in previous Jackass films: Knoxville, hiding behind old-man makeup, goes out into the general populace as senior citizen Irving Zisman. As Zisman, he can »

- Mark Young

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‘Escape From Tomorrow’ is a bizarre, unforgettable spin on the Disney fantasy

11 October 2013 7:21 PM, PDT | SoundOnSight | See recent SoundOnSight news »

Escape From Tomorrow

Written and directed by Randy Moore

USA, 2013

Imagine the pressure that comes with being the Happiest Place on Earth, for fifty thousand people every day, from 1971 until a time unforeseeable. If you work there, you have to be happy. If you visit there, you’ll be treated like there’s something wrong with you if you’re not happy. And if you take your kids there, you may well be defining the standard by which they will measure happiness and nostalgia for the remainder of their lives. It’s too much pressure for any human to handle. Inevitably, the facade will crack, and out of one of those cracks has oozed the unforgettably bizarre film Escape From Tomorrow.

Writer/director Randy Moore has said in interviews that the idea for the film came from visiting his divorced father as a boy in Orlando. Distanced from his children »

- Mark Young

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Nyff 2013: ‘12 Years a Slave’ is a heart-shattering masterpiece

7 October 2013 10:08 PM, PDT | SoundOnSight | See recent SoundOnSight news »

12 Years a Slave

Written by John Ridley

Directed by Steve McQueen

USA, 2013

British artist-turned-film-director Steve McQueen has said in interviews that he wanted to make a movie about slavery in America for some time; he was just searching for the right story. He’s found it in 12 Years a Slave, the 1853 book by Solomon Northrup, a free black man from upstate New York who was kidnapped out of his career as a successful violinist and sold into bondage.

In the film, Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is first owned by the benevolent William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), but spends the lion’s share of the film as the property of the sadistic “breaker” Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender). The screenplay by John Ridley (a former television writer and film critic who wrote the underrated movies Red Tails and Undercover Brother) understands that it’s not merely the violence or the master’s rape of »

- Mark Young

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Nyff 2013: Steve Coogan revisits his most famous character in ‘Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa’

6 October 2013 10:05 PM, PDT | SoundOnSight | See recent SoundOnSight news »

Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa

Written by Neil Gibbons, Rob Gibbons, Steve Coogan, Armando Iannucci, and Peter Baynham

Directed by Declan Lowney

UK, 2013

The subtitle for the new film Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa is intentionally, comically irrelevant. Movie posters can be found on the Internet promoting equally nonsense subtitles such as Gunbird and Hectic Danger Day, in keeping with the overblown confidence of the title character. The comically self-centered Partridge was first played by Steve Coogan about 20 years ago as a sports reporter on the BBC news parody program On the Hour, and has bounced around from parody news to sitcom to web-only video series before finally arriving on the big screen. Though Alan Partridge has found its way to American shores as part of the New York Film Festival, it compromises nothing for American audiences. This is among the most British of British comedies.

At the start of the film, »

- Mark Young

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Nyff 2013: ‘American Promise’ is not an unbiased documentary, but demands to be seen nonetheless

5 October 2013 7:36 PM, PDT | SoundOnSight | See recent SoundOnSight news »

American Promise

Directed by Joe Brewster and Michele Stephenson

USA, 2013

In 2000, Joe Brewster and Michele Stephenson had a simple idea: document the education of their son Idris on film. They were planning to enter him into New York City’s prestigious Dalton School, and Dalton was planning to dedicate itself anew to creating a more diverse learning environment (Idris is black, and Dalton had an overwhelmingly white student body). They selected several other students on the same path, and intended to document them all, but only one other stayed attached to the project all the way through to his high school graduation: Idris’ friend Seun “Shay” Summers (who is also black). The finished movie that tells their story is American Promise, and it demands to be seen.

There are two things one might expect a story such as this: adorable precociousness when the boys are young, and tear-jerking parent/child moments when they are older. »

- Mark Young

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‘The Summit’ has considerable power, but limits itself in the end

3 October 2013 9:58 PM, PDT | SoundOnSight | See recent SoundOnSight news »

The Summit

Directed by Nick Ryan

United Kingdom and Sweden, 2013

The new mountain-climbing documentary The Summit has a few talking-head interviews, but is mostly dominated by dramatic re-enactments, much like the superb 2003 climbing doc Touching the Void. That’s really the best way to tell a story that takes place on the side of a mountain: talking heads or still photographs cannot deliver the pain of frostbite or the oxygen-depriving atmosphere inside the “death zone” above 8,000 meters. But where Touching the Void was very much about the isolation and loneliness of enduring the elements atop a mountain, The Summit explores how too many people can wreck the delicate process of climbing, and how they can obscure the truth of disaster and survival.

In 2008, a group of 25 climbers belonging to several international teams attempted to summit K2. K2 is known as the “Savage Mountain” (among many other nicknames) because one out »

- Mark Young

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Remembering Elmore Leonard: ‘Stick’ is fine pop entertainment

30 September 2013 9:43 PM, PDT | SoundOnSight | See recent SoundOnSight news »

Stick

Written by Elmore Leonard and Joseph Stinson

Directed by Burt Reynolds

USA, 1985

Part of the reason that Elmore Leonard’s novels got turned into movies so often is that it was so easy to write the screenplays. Entire scenes full of Leonard’s trademark crackling dialogue would go, verbatim, into films like Get Shorty and Out of Sight. But that wasn’t true for the 1990s only. Leonard’s stellar 1983 novel Stick was turned into a movie as well, a film which served as popular entertainment as much as the films came a decade later. Where Get Shorty was 1995’s Travolta movie, Stick was 1985’s Burt Reynolds movie, and every bit as fun.

Reynolds plays Ernest “Stick” Stickley, a just-out-of-prison car thief who wanders into Miami and finds himself caught between a local drug kingpin (Castulo Guerra) and a bumbling financial planner (George Segal). Also of note: a pre- »

- Mark Young

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‘The Family’ has its moments, but is never superlative

17 September 2013 7:40 PM, PDT | SoundOnSight | See recent SoundOnSight news »

The Family

Written by Tonino Benacquista, Luc Besson, and Michael Caleo

Directed by Luc Besson

USA/France, 2013

The famed French director Luc Besson hasn’t directed a film with a wide American release since the historic bomb The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc in 1999. In the interim, he has written and produced a number of highly successful films including The Transporter, Taken, and District B13, and he’s directed a few French films that haven’t come across the pond, but The Family is his first attempt at  directing an English-language film in almost 15 years. He’s still got it to some degree, for The Family is acceptably entertaining, but it’s not even close to Besson’s biggest hits from the past.

The titular family is the Manzoni organized crime clan, who enter into witness protection and became the Blakes: father Fred (Robert de Niro), mother Maggie »

- Mark Young

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‘Blue Caprice’ is a moody, lyrical examination of mass murder

14 September 2013 10:44 AM, PDT | SoundOnSight | See recent SoundOnSight news »

Blue Caprice

Written by R.F.I. Porto

Directed by Alexandre Moors

USA, 2013

When making a fictional film about a horrific real-life event, the trap is in explanations. Everyone from politicians to part-time Wikipedia editors has already had their chance to weigh in on the cause of the event, and everyone who cares to have an opinion will likely have formed theirs well before the movie opens. Explaining the tragedy for them will not do; they key instead is to turn the participants, who have not been much more than booking photos in a news report for most of the audience, into fully realized human beings.

Accordingly, Alexandre Moors’ debut feature Blue Caprice is at its weakest when it applies any explanation to the story of John Allen Muhammed (Isaiah Washington) and Lee Boyd Malvo (Tequan Richmond), the two men who murdered ten people in a series of sniper-style attacks in the Washington, »

- Mark Young

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‘Winnie Mandela’ is a strange mix of two flawed stories

7 September 2013 11:52 AM, PDT | SoundOnSight | See recent SoundOnSight news »

Winnie Mandela

Written by Darrell Roodt and Andre Pieterse

Directed by Darrell Roodt

Canada/South Africa, 2011

Darrell Roodt’s film Winnie Mandela is an oddity. It’s almost trying to be two movies squeezed into the running time of one: first, a typical biography of the “Mother of the Nation” of South Africa; later, a dark and ambiguous look at some of the horrible things that Winnie Mandela was accused of doing while her husband Nelson served a 27-year prison sentence. Both movies have good intentions but both are also heavily flawed, with awkward tonal shifts and misuse of fine actors. There will be better movies this fall, and worse ones, but no movie this season will be quite so strange.

Roodt (a South African director responsible for the well-received Sarafina! and the vile Dangerous Ground) recruited Academy-recognized talent for this joint Canadian/South African production: Oscar winner Jennifer Hudson »

- Mark Young

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‘The World’s End’ is more than just a Pegg/Wright hits collection

22 August 2013 10:49 PM, PDT | SoundOnSight | See recent SoundOnSight news »

The World’s End

Written by Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright

Directed by Edgar Wright                                  United Kingdom, 2013

Without much fanfare, Edgar Wright has molded himself into one of the best action directors in the world. Shaun of the Dead had many effective moments of zombie slaughter, and, with Hot Fuzz, Wright matured into someone who could simultaneously parody Michael Bay and deliver Bay-type material more effectively than the man himself. The third film in Wright’s so-called Cornetto trilogy of films made with actors Nick Frost and Simon Pegg, The World’s End, goes even further. It becomes a sharp and riveting action-comedy that has few peers in the last decade.

Pegg’s Gary King was the leader of a circle of five high school friends, who departed secondary education with a legendary pub crawl back in 1990. Twenty years later, Gary re-assembles the old gang, including his one-time best bud »

- Mark Young

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‘Short Term 12′ is a work of winning sincerity

22 August 2013 9:46 AM, PDT | SoundOnSight | See recent SoundOnSight news »

Short Term 12

Written and Directed by Destin Daniel Cretton USA, 2013

The most difficult part of making a movie about troubled teenagers is authenticity. With inferior films of this type, either the teenagers won’t seem particularly troubled, or the adults’ attempts to help them will seem insincere and ineffective. Destin Daniel Cretton’s new effort Short Term 12 developed sizable buzz at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year as a film that evades those traps and provides a convincing vision inside a group home. Sundance buzz is not always justified, but in this case, the film more than exceeds whatever the Park City, Utah audiences might have said about it.

Brie Larson (21 Jump Street, The United States of Tara) plays Grace, the supervisor of unit 12 in short-term group housing for at-risk teenagers. She has to break in a new staff member, Nate (Rami Malek), but otherwise there is »

- Mark Young

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‘Prince Avalanche’ is a funny, moody look at men in limbo

8 August 2013 10:45 PM, PDT | SoundOnSight | See recent SoundOnSight news »

Prince Avalanche

USA, 2013

Written and directed by David Gordon Green

David Gordon Green says that he was inspired to make his most recent film, Prince Avalanche, after shooting a Super Bowl commercial for Chrysler that featured Clint Eastwood. His crew was about ten men, with not much star power (Eastwood isn’t on screen for two-thirds of it), and it was shockingly easy for Green considering how much money Chrysler was willing to put at stake. Prince Avalanche is similar, a film so easygoing and simple that it seems to have required no effort at all, but which never seems lazy.

In the wake of a Texas wildfire in 1988, Alvin (Paul Rudd) and Lance (Emile Hirsch) are road workers in the damaged land, replacing road signs and re-painting the central divider line along a highway running through it. It’s quiet, isolated work, which doesn’t jibe with Lance’s wild-child personality. »

- Mark Young

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‘Elysium’ sometimes succeeds, but more often disappoints

8 August 2013 10:39 PM, PDT | SoundOnSight | See recent SoundOnSight news »

Elysium

USA, 2013

Written and directed by Neill Blomkamp

A title card at the start of Neill Blomkamp’s second feature, Elysium, informs viewers that in its not-too-distant future the Earth has become unlivable, and that her richest residents fled the planet to preserve their way of life. Nothing wrong with that, except for the fact that the film’s next ten minutes consist of images of an unlivable Earth, whose richest residents have fled to an orbital platform to preserve their way of life. That’s the sort of film Elysium is: for as smart as its premise may be, and as smart as its director is, it doesn’t seem to think its audience is very bright.

Matt Damon plays Max, a reformed criminal who is working his life away, trying to save up enough money to move to the titular space station, where the air is clean and »

- Mark Young

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