What to Watch: 'Going Clear,' 'Hunting Ground' and 13 Other Oscar-Shortlisted Documentaries

7:00 AM 12/11/2015

by Gregg Kilday

Amy Winehouse to Nina Simone, Pakistan to the Sudan: This year's crop captures life's highs (Himalayas) and lows (campus rape) — with a splash of politics (Michael Moore's 'Where to Invade Next').

Courtesy of Sundance International Film Festival
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    Amy

    Director: Asif Kapadia

    AP Images

    BOX OFFICE: $8.4 million domestic

    AVAILABLE: iTunes, VOD, DVD, theaters

    The breakout documentary of the year, about the late Amy Winehouse’s creativity as well as her struggle with success and addiction, has been named best doc by critics’ groups from Boston to Los Angeles. While the singer’s family initially cooperated, they dismissed the film as “misleading” shortly before its Cannes debut, but Kapadia countered that it’s “honest and truthful to Amy.”

    From THR's Review: "British director Asif Kapadia’s respectful documentary portrait reminds us that the self-destructive London singer was supremely talented, explosively charismatic, but dangerously ill-equipped for the superstar fame that came with her 20-million-selling breakthrough album Back to Black."

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    Best of Enemies

    Directors: Robert Gordon, Morgan Neville

    Courtesy of Sundance International Film Festival

    BOX OFFICE: $893,000

    AVAILABLE: VOD, iTunes, DVD, theaters

    Neville, an Oscar winner for 2013’s 20 Feet From Stardom, and Gordon recount the heated 1968 televised debates between conservative William F. Buckley and liberal Gore Vidal. Neville, who once worked for Vidal as a fact-checker, says, “This seemed like the ultimate cautionary tale of what media can do when it goes wrong.”

    From THR's Review: "For American viewers of an intellectual/historical persuasion, there could scarcely be any documentary more enticing, scintillating and downright fascinating than Best of Enemies. A sort of brainy equivalent of the Ali-Frazier boxing matches of the same general era, the televised debates between William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal during the two national political conventions in the convulsive year of 1968 comprised a watershed event in several ways, all of which are reflected in this outstanding documentary that will prove riveting both to those who have general memories of watching the broadcasts at the time and to younger political buffs who may never before have seen these titans of articulation and elocution in action."

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    Cartel Land

    Director: Matthew Heineman

    'Cartel Land,' Courtesy of Sundance International Film Festival

    BOX OFFICE: $704,000

    AVAILABLE: iTunes

    A double-prize winner at this year’s Sundance — it scored a special jury prize and best doc director honors — the film, with some peril to the filmmakers, follows vigilante groups battling drug cartels on both sides of the Arizona/Mexico border.

    From THR's Review: "Viewers might alter their leanings after watching this stark and scary documentary about the two vigilante groups. Their fights are last-ditch reactions to governmental failure to protect citizens from the cartels, both in the United States and Mexico. It’s pretty clear here who the good guys are."

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    Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief

    Director: Alex Gibney

    Courtesy of Sundance International Film Festival

    BOX OFFICE: N/A

    AVAILABLE: HBO, iTunes, DVD

    Working from Lawrence Wright’s book of the same name, Gibney, an Oscar winner for 2007’s Taxi to the Dark Side, explores the rise of Scientology and questions the methods it uses to exert a hold over its believers — especially in Hollywood. For him, he says, it was “a kind of journey into understanding that all of us can fall into a belief system that suddenly persuades us to do things that we might otherwise find appalling.”

    From THR's Review: "Gibney provides an authoritative overview of Scientology's history, beliefs and organizational structure, drawn from testimony from some of its most prominent survivors and critics. Supplemented by rare archival footage, almost entirely deployed under the copyright terms of fair use when no news agencies or rights holders agreed to cooperate, the film is an accessible, one-stop shop that will comprehensively counter apathy from viewers who might consider the organization nothing more than a bunch of harmless kooks who believe in mumbo jumbo about intergalactic overlord Xenu and volcanoes.”

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    He Named Me Malala

    Director: Davis Guggenheim

    Courtesy of Fox Searchlight

    BOX OFFICE: $2.6 million

    AVAILABLE: theaters, iTunes, DVD Dec. 15 

    “I thought about my own daughters,” Guggenheim, who earned the doc feature Oscar for 2006’s An Inconvenient Truth, says of the audience he had in mind for his new film, a portrait of young Pakistani activist Malala Yousafzai and her relationship with her father, Zia, who gave her a love of education.

    From THR's Review: "Many people know the basic elements of the story of Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani teenager who was the youngest person ever to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. But He Named Me Malala retells that story in a deft and affecting way. Director Davis Guggenheim, who made the Oscar-winning An Inconvenient Truth and the controversial Waiting for Superman, does some of his most heartfelt work in this tribute to Malala and her entire family.”

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    Heart of a Dog

    Director: Laurie Anderson

    Courtesy of FilmsWeLike

    BOX OFFICE: $196,000

    AVAILABLE: theaters

    Anderson, the composer and performer, insists her film isn’t, strictly speaking, a “documentary” but more of a “personal essay film.” It is, she explains, “a bunch of ideas about how you see and remember. I use myself in it, but it’s not like get- ting to know me and my dog!”

    From THR's Review: "Heart of a Dog is an impressionistic meditation on death and its prelude by a thoughtful, free-ranging, highly idiosyncratic artist who enjoyed a very deep relationship with her dog. Laurie Anderson’s return to feature-length filmmaking for the first time since Home of the Brave in 1986 has the effect of watching a thrown stone bouncing many times along the surface of the water; its frequent insights and clever creative formulations are often pleasing to behold, but they’re all glancing and quickly replaced by something another.”

     
     
     
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    The Hunting Ground

    Director: Kirby Dick

    Courtesy of Radius-TWC

    BOX OFFICE: $406,000

    AVAILABLE: iTunes, DVD

    The film, which received a high-profile Nov. 22 airing on CNN, is not just an exposé about sexual assaults on American college campuses. It’s also something of a call to arms and has screened at hundreds of colleges, universities and the White House.

    From THR's Review: "Dick and his producer Amy Ziering set themselves the ambitious quest of creating a documentary that limns a bigger picture, creating a unifying narrative that makes some kind of larger public sense of what seems on the surface like a series of disparate, intensely private experiences. The result is a shocking but ultimately galvanizing work of reportage that meets the same high standard of their previous collaboration, The Invisible War, about sexual assault in the military.”

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    Listen to Me Marlon

    Director: Stevan Riley

    Courtesy of Sundance International Film Festival

    BOX OFFICE: $426,000

    AVAILABLE: Showtime 

    Marlon Brando speaks for himself in the new film from Riley, who just won a prize for best writing at the International Documentary Association Awards. Seeking to make a film about the late actor, the director hit pay dirt when the Brando estate allowed him to look through personal effects and he discovered hours of videotapes. “Brando’s self-hypnosis tapes,” he explains, “ended up providing the title of the film.”

    From THR's Review: "Marlon Brando reveals himself posthumously as he never publicly did in life in the remarkable documentary Listen to Me Marlon. Making marvelously creative use of a stash of audio recordings the actor privately made plus a striking amount of unfamiliar and never-before-seen photos and film footage, British documentarian Stevan Riley delivers an enthrallingly intimate look at the brilliant, troubled and always charismatic screen legend.”

     

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    The Look of Silence

    Director: Joshua Oppenheimer

    Courtesy of Drafthouse Films and Participant Media

    BOX OFFICE: $109,000

    AVAILABLE: iTunes

    In a follow-up to his 2012 doc The Act of Killing, which was itself Oscar nominated, Oppenheimer returns to the subject of the Indonesia genocide of the 1960s, focusing on one man determined to confront his brother’s killers. It just won the IDA’s top prize.

    From THR's Review: “Every bit as frank and shocking as last year’s The Act of Killing, Joshua Oppenheimer’s groundbreaking documentary about the men behind the brutal murder of some one million Indonesians in the mid-sixties in the name of a Communist purge, The Look of Silence is perhaps even more riveting for focusing on one man’s personal search for answers as he bravely confronts his brother’s killers.”

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    Meru

    Directors: Jimmy Chin, Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi

    Courtesy of Sundance International Film Festival

    BOX OFFICE: $2.3 million

    AVAILABLE: iTunes, VOD, DVD

    When Chin, who had shot footage during two climbs on the vertiginous Himalayan peak of the title, turned to Vasarhelyi to help him shape it into a film, she had no expectation that they’d fall in love and get married. “I don’t regret it,” she laughs. “Our working relationship is actually quite special.” Their collaboration also led to the documentary audience award at Sundance.

    From THR's Review: “A high-tech, high-octane, high-fiving addition to the venerable "mountain film" subgenre, Meru is an engaging and cumulatively exhilarating debut from wife-and-husband team Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin. Chronicling the highly personable Chin's agonizing attempts to scale one of the world's cruelest summits — along with fellow elite-level daredevils Conrad Anker and Renan Ozturk — this gleamingly slick affair successfully caters both to extreme-sports devotees and also those who don't know their crampons from their pitons.”

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    3 1/2 Minutes, Ten Bullets

    Director: Marc Silver

    Courtesy of Sundance International Film Festival

    BOX OFFICE: $30,000

    AVAILABLE: HBO 

    On Nov. 23, 2012, in Jacksonville, Fla., Michael David Dunn shot and killed a black 17-year-old, Jordan Davis, after objecting to the music that Davis was playing. Silver’s doc, which received a special jury prize at Sundance, revisits the case, for which Dunn was found guilty of murder.

    From THR's Review: “It was known as the “Loud Music Trial,” but centered on Florida’s controversial “Stand Your Ground” law.  In this horrific case, a middle-aged white male shot and killed a black teenager during a gas-station parking lot confrontation… It’s sobering and heart-wrenching. There are no bad people in this story; there are differing viewpoints, in part shaped by different ages and cultures. Ultimately, it all comes down to a horrific 3/12 seconds in the lives of people out on an otherwise pleasant Sunday afternoon.”

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    We Come as Friends

    Director: Hubert Sauper

    BOX OFFICE: $51,000

    AVAILABLE: theaters 

    A Sundance and Berlin Film Festival prize winner, the film takes viewers on a tour, guided by Austrian director Sauper, through South Sudan, where post-colonial forces seek to exploit the natural riches.

    From THR's Review: “The director had no idea whether the country would even come into existence when he started working on what would become this film six years ago, but the footage he has accumulated over that time, superbly edited together, makes it seem almost inevitable from the start even as it becomes increasingly clear that, now that the nation does exist, there are only more, not less, problems to solve.”

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    What Happened, Miss Simone?

    Director: Liz Garbus

    Courtesy of Sundance International Film Festival

    BOX OFFICE: N/A

    AVAILABLE: Netflix 

    Garbus compares assembling the footage for her film about the life and times of singer Nina Simone to “a worldwide scavenger hunt,” given that Simone’s unique and often tempestuous career ranged from jazz to gospel and became interwoven with the civil rights movement of the 1960s, leading to the singer’s self-exile in Europe.

    From THR's Review:What Happened, Miss Simone does its job well, proving especially treasurable for its wealth of rare archive film footage and audio material that captures Simone’s fierce talent, fiery temperament and fragile mental health. But it is unlikely to be ranked up there with the best music-themed bio-docs, such as Martin Scorsese’s authoritative study of Bob Dylan, No Direction Home, Charlotte Zwerin’s Thelonious Monk: Straight, No Chaser, or Kevin Macdonald’s Marley, which admittedly mostly unfold on a broader scale.”

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    Where to Invade Next

    Director: Michael Moore

    Courtesy of Dog Eat Dog Films

    BOX OFFICE: N/A

    AVAILABLE: in theaters Dec. 23 

    Moore travels around Europe to spotlight progressive policies that he’d like to see the U.S. adopt. Although he admits the film is “subversive,” he insists he’s “not angry.” But he’s still fighting battles, most recently with the MPAA, which insisted on giving the film an R rating.

    From THR's Review: “Fans accustomed to his harsh critiques of health care, the educational system and gun control in the U.S. may be a little surprised, but not disappointed, at this almost happy film full of LOL moments. Instead of ranting over the conspicuous social failings he sees in the U.S.A., he humorously finds solutions to its ills by “invading” various countries and bringing back the victor’s spoils, which are simply other people’s good ideas.”

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    Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom

    Director: Evgeny Afineevsky

    Arturas Morozovas/Netflix

    BOX OFFICE: N/A

    AVAILABLE: Netflix 

    Winner of the documentary audience award at this year’s Toronto Film Festival, this plunges right into the protests that drove Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych from office.

    From THR's Review:Winter on Fire, which has its world premiere in Venice, will be of special interest to European audiences, but Netflix is betting that Americans will also respond to the urgency in director Evgeny Afineevsky’s film about recent rebellion in Ukraine. Although the film might have benefited from a deeper investigation of the background to the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, the vivid scenes of protest in the capital city of Kiev supply undeniable power.”

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