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Doc Talk: Oscar short-list shortcomings; doomsday scenarios

Mayor Martin J. Walsh at the Greater Boston Food Bank, as seen in Fred Wiseman's documentary "City Hall."
Mayor Martin J. Walsh at the Greater Boston Food Bank, as seen in Fred Wiseman's documentary "City Hall."Courtesy of Zipporah Films Inc.

The competition may be tough, but leaving Fred Wiseman’s “City Hall” out of the best documentary Oscar short list is unforgivable. Sorry, his 2017 honorary award doesn’t cut it.

That aside, the documentary committee acquitted itself decently, which is probably not so great an accomplishment given the bounty to choose from (238 documentaries qualified for Oscar consideration this year, breaking the previous record of 170). Those that made the cut and received nominations are: “All In: The Fight for Democracy,” “Boys State,” “Collective,” “Crip Camp,” “Dick Johnson Is Dead,” “Gunda,” “MLK/FBI,” “The Mole Agent,” “My Octopus Teacher,” “Notturno,” “The Painter and the Thief,” “76 Days,” “Time,” “The Truffle Hunters,” and “Welcome to Chechnya.”


Of those chosen, if I were to eliminate five, I would pick “The Painter and the Thief” (I’m probably alone in this, but I found the manipulation of the subjects dishonest); “The Mole Agent” (likewise); “The Truffle Hunters” (it reminded me of last year’s nominee, “Honeyland,” not one of my favorites); “Dick Johnson Is Dead” (so am I after such an unpopular opinion, though I loved Kirsten Johnson’s 2016 documentary “Cameraperson”); “Notturno” (a worthy subject but lacking the focus and subtlety of Gianfranco Rosi’s previous film, 2016′s “Fire at Sea”).

I would replace those, with “City Hall” and the following four:

Swedish artist Hilma Af Klint
Swedish artist Hilma Af KlintCourtesy Kino Lorber

“Beyond the Visible — Hilma Af Klint” The title artist of Halina Dyrschka’s film, like the visionary poet William Blake, sought to attain the ineffable and transcendent in her work. Her mandala-like, eerily hued paintings — tranquil, radiant, and uncanny — show that she might well have achieved that. Dyrschka also reaffirms this long-overlooked Swede as one of the great 20th-century artists whose abstract paintings predated those of Wassily Kandinsky and who influenced Klee, Mondrian, and Warhol. A mystic drawing on sources ranging from Madame Blavatsky to Albert Einstein, af Klint’s giant canvases and smaller works are intimate, intense, monumental, and hauntingly universal.


“Beyond the Visible — Hilma Af Klint” is available as a DVD ($11.97) or on Blu-ray ($17.99) from Kino Lorber, where it can also be accessed digitally. Other platforms include Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, and Vudu. Go to kinolorber.com/product/beyond-the-visible-hilma-af-klint-dvd.

“Feels Good Man” Pepe the Frog wasn’t always the loathsome mascot of the alt right. Conceived as a laid-back, innocent, scatological character by the laid-back, innocent, and scatological cartoonist Matt Furie, he was stolen by the likes of Alex Jones and Richard Spencer, who twisted Pepe into a hateful meme that was retweeted by then-President Trump. Directors Arthur Jones and Giorgio Angelini follow Furie’s fortunes as he struggles to regain control of his creation, a dismaying descent into ideological muck lightened by the filmmakers’ mordant whimsy and some puckish animation. An entertaining, if dismaying, glimpse at the workings of the hatemongers on the right.

“Feels Good Man” can be streamed on the PBS video app and on demand. Go to www.pbs.org/independentlens/films/feels-good-man or linktr.ee/feelsgoodmanfilm.

Ramallah Mayor Musa Hadid, in "Mayor."
Ramallah Mayor Musa Hadid, in "Mayor."Handout

“Mayor” This gently absurdist and moving documentary would make for a great double feature with “City Hall,” though Marty Walsh never had to deal with rioters clashing with the Israeli army on his doorstep. Musa Hadid, the Christian mayor of Ramallah, the ad hoc capital of the Palestinian people, wanted to rebrand his city, changing its image as a backwater to that of a vibrant cultural and economic hub. The filmmaker David Osit wryly and empathetically observes the meetings where the mayor and his staff hash out novel initiatives: A new city motto? A catchy logo? They build a fountain in the city hall square and put on an elaborate Christmas tree-lighting with carols, a light show, and rappelling Santas. Both prove to be triumphs. But all is for naught as President Trump decides to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, outraging Palestinians and inciting violence.


“Mayor” can be streamed at Film Forum at Home. Go to filmforum.org/film/mayor.

“White Noise” Some have given Daniel Lombroso’s lacerating portrait of entitled, smug, cynical right-wing demagogues Richard Spencer, Mike Cernovich, and Lauren Southern a bad rap because they think it glorifies its subjects, or at least gives them unneeded attention. It also humanizes them, which makes them pitiful as well as malignant. Like “Feels Good Man,” the film provides insight into the inner workings of hate-mongering opportunists and the baleful influence of the Internet.

And who knows, maybe “City Hall” will be nominated for best picture.

“White Noise” can be streamed on Amazon Prime Video, Apple TV, Google, and Vimeo On Demand. Go to www.theatlantic.com/white-noise-movie. “City Hall” can be streamed at the Coolidge Corner Virtual Screening Room, PBS, and the PBS Video App. Go to coolidge.org/films/city-hall, www.pbs.org/show/city-hall, or watch.eventive.org/cityhall.

A scene from "Crestone."
A scene from "Crestone."Marnie Ellen Hertzler

End of the world as we know it

Two inventive documentary/fiction hybrids from young filmmakers confront the pending apocalypse with few if any special effects but with beguiling images, philosophical enigmas, and cryptic characters,


Marnie Ellen Hertzler’s meditative and dreamlike “Crestone” (2019) establishes its ambiguous doomsday mood with a music video featuring intimidating figures in masks wielding weapons and flipping a bird to the camera. “This is a film about the end of the world,” Hetzler says in voice-over.

In the Colorado desert town of Crestone, a tribe of young people find shelter in abandoned buildings, scavenge from nearby ruins, grow pot, smoke weed, paint images of the giant bunny from “Donnie Darko” (2001), engage in gladiatorial exercises, and also make impressive rap videos for Soundcloud, which they send out to whatever exists beyond their bubble. Smoke from wildfires fill the air. A stranger passes on a bicycle and onto an empty highway through a wilderness in flames.

“Crestone” can be streamed beginning Feb. 12 at the Brattle Brattlite virtual screening room. Go to www.brattlefilm.org.

A scene from "Truth or Consequences."
A scene from "Truth or Consequences."Hannah Jayanti

Sometime in the future in the title town of Hannah Jayanti’s self-described “speculative documentary” “Truth or Consequences” (2020), a spaceport launches rockets bearing passengers away from our dying world and on to other planets. But those who remain behind have neither the wherewithal to buy a $250,000 ticket nor the will to leave. They include, among others, an older woman who is a former circus worker with a traumatic past, a 30-something woman who is trapped in her dead-end hometown because she is afraid of flying, and a codger who has turned his property into a rabbit warren of junk scavenged from the desert. With passages that drift off into a polarized, ghostly mode created by manipulated photogrammetry, this documentary hybrid evokes such disparate films as “La Jetée” (1962) and “WALL-E” (2008).


“Truth or Consequences” can be streamed at the Boston SciFi Film Festival until Feb. 15. Go to www.bostonscifi.com/schedule-sf46/2021/2/11/truth-or-consequences.

Peter Keough can be reached at petervkeough@gmail.com.