Bad times make for good documentaries.
Some of the year’s best films look back at times that were at least as bad as today, such as Stanley Nelson’s shocking “Attica,” about the 1971 prison uprising. Some look back and find inspiration, like Todd Haynes’s “Velvet Underground” about the dark, short-lived, but hugely influential rock ‘n’ roll band. And documentaries about other artists — “Val,” “Introducing, Selma Blair,” and “Paper & Glue” — show how suffering can be transformed into creations that make the world a better place.
Here are ten of the year’s best nonfiction films, listed in alphabetical order.
Attica One of the country’s most heinous massacres occurred on Sept. 9, 1971, when inmates at New York’s Attica Correctional Facility rebelled against intolerable conditions. As seen in Stanley Nelson’s deft and horrifying assemblage of archival material and present-day interviews, the rioters took 39 guards hostage and issued a list of demands.
Negotiations went on for four days. But upon the suggestion of President Richard Nixon, Governor Nelson Rockefeller unleashed the police and prison guards massed at the gates, who descended on the unarmed, mostly Black prisoners. In the subsequent shoot-out, they killed nine hostages and 29 prisoners.
No one was prosecuted for the killings, and Rockefeller was later appointed Gerald Ford’s vice president.
Available on Showtime. Go to www.sho.com/titles/3472216/attica.
Faya Dayi Jessica Beshir’s otherworldly debut features the poor and oppressed of Ethiopia who escape their misery either by seeking refuge in Europe or by chewing khat, an addictive plant that induces euphoria. They also grow and harvest the drug, thus producing the opium of the people with their own labor.
Beshir shoots their daily lives in a moody monochrome, with a rhythmic pacing, elegant imagery, and elliptical narrative that evokes both their pain and the seductive derangement of a treacherous drug once reserved for religious rituals.
Available on the Criterion Channel. Go to www.criterionchannel.com/videos/faya-dayi.
In the Same Breath Chinese-born Nanfu Wang’s film opens amid the futuristic light show that was New Year’s Eve 2020 in Wuhan. But interrupting the celebrations are reports from state-run news media of people being punished for “spreading rumors about an unknown pneumonia.”
So began COVID-19 as China’s attempt to hide the outbreak resulted in a plague that has since killed millions. But Wang’s film is not so much about the virus as it is about how governments manipulate the truth, playing with the lives of their citizens to maintain power. It is a pattern, as Wang makes clear, repeated in this country and with perhaps a more pernicious impact, as cynical powers manipulate the ignorant, turning them against their best interests and undermining the health of the American people and of democracy itself.
Available on HBO. Go to www.hbo.com/documentaries/in-the-same-breath.
Introducing Selma Blair The actress established herself as a scene stealer and a performer to watch in such comedies as “Cruel Intentions” (1999) and “Legally Blonde” (2001) and in the superhero movie “Hellboy” (2004).
So where is she now? Rachel Fleit’s documentary opens with Blair delivering a hilarious monologue that involves tiny rubber hands and a Norma Desmond turban. Then Blair slows down and her words become unintelligible. “This is what happens that I don’t want people to see,” she says.
But she does let people see, and Fleit records with wrenching intimacy Blair’s struggle with multiple sclerosis, which she was diagnosed with in 2018. By going public, Blair hopes to provide a positive example for other sufferers and also become a positive example for herself. Poignant, funny, but never sentimental, Fleit’s film shows how to confront hardship with courage, hope, and a sense of humor.
Available on discovery+. Go to www.discovery.com/shows/introducing-selma-blair.
Listening to Kenny G Kenneth Gorelick, the saxophonist better known as Kenny G, is the best-selling instrumental artist of all time. Also perhaps the most hated by jazz critics and scholars. The subject of Penny Lane’s playful and incisive documentary has also given the world a new musical genre, Smooth Jazz, now a fixture in waiting rooms and Chinese shopping malls.
The purists interviewed by Lane roll their eyes at the music, but Lane pushes them to explain why their taste is better than that of the masses. The way Kenny G tell it, his hard work, practice, and generosity to audiences more than make up for the manufactured quality of his product, a process he demonstrates in the studio, where he makes edits even on individual notes. As in her previous films “Hail Satan?” (2019) and “Nuts!” (2019), Lane takes a seemingly trivial topic and turns it into something provocative and profound.
Available on HBO Max. Go to bit.ly/3Grqp2b.
Ostrov — Lost Island This desolate patch of land is the setting for Svetlana Rodina and Laurent Stoop’s immersive, observational documentary. Ostrov flourished in the days of the Soviet Union. Now the inhabitants have been forgotten and live in a Mad Max-like wasteland of dust, abandoned buildings, and rusting machinery.
Here Ivan survives by illegally fishing sturgeon, a protected species near extinction, and risking apprehension by Coast Guard cutters and police patrols. That is the only attention the islanders get from the current regime, though Ivan waits for a reply to letters he has written to Vladimir Putin, in whom he has complete faith. Meanwhile, Ivan’s wife drinks herself into oblivion, and his teenage children wonder how they can escape. A surreal panorama of poverty, absurdity, and Beckett-like pathos, the film might be glimpse into a future awaiting us all.
For screening information go to www.taskovskifilms.com/film/ostrov-lost-island.
Paper & Glue In this uplifting and delightful film, French photographer and installation artist JR (co-director with the late Agnès Varda of “Faces Places,” 2017) does what he does best — photograph ordinary people in their environment, enlarge the pictures into multi-story murals, and post them in places that elevate his subjects and highlight their plight.
He travels to sites of hardship and injustice, including a supermax US prison, a community in a violent Rio de Janeiro favela, a Mexican community near the border wall, and a class for artists in a Parisian slum. He also relates his own story of how he rose from hard times, flaunting the law as a graffiti artist, to his present status as a unique activist seeking social justice. The film asks if art can change the world. Watch it and see if it changes you.
Available on MSNBC On Demand. Go to.nbc.com/paper-glue/video/paper-glue/8000005142.
Procession In Robert Greene’s wrenching exercise in the healing power of film, six middle-aged men in Missouri who were sexually assaulted by priests when they were children re-enact their trauma. Denied justice, still damaged by their experience, infuriated by the complicity of the church hierarchy, they see this as their last hope for consolation.
Greene works with a drama therapist to assist the men in creating their own scenarios; and in some of them they play the perpetrators. Their grief and rage threaten to break through the artifice, but the men persevere. Like the Passion plays of medieval times, these ritualistic re-creations seek to bring peace to the sufferers and engender awareness and compassion in the viewer.
Available on Netflix. Go to www.netflix.com/watch/81513706?source=imdb.
Val Like Selma Blair, Val Kilmer in Leo Scott and Ting Poo’s compelling portrait invites the viewer to enter his world. The glory days are gone when he starred in films like “Top Gun” (1986), “The Doors” (1991), and “Heat” (1995), when he made the phrase “I’ll be your huckleberry” a mantra in “Tombstone” (1993) and held his own against Nicolas Cage and an iguana in Werner Herzog’s “Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans” (2009). Now he is a 60-something wizened cancer survivor who vomits into a trash barrel while signing autographs at a fan convention.
Kilmer has kept a meticulous and antic video record of his 40-year career, thousands of hours of footage which the filmmakers integrate artfully with an intimate account of his present circumstances. It’s a kaleidoscopic montage of a life and a whirlwind tour of an era in Hollywood history, demonstrating that Kilmer’s greatest role might have been himself.
Available on Amazon Prime Video. Go to www.amazon.com/Val-Kilmer/dp/B09888KKZK.
The Velvet Underground. After offbeat fictional biopics about a David Bowie-ish glam-rock star (“Velvet Goldmine,” 1998) and Bob Dylan (“I’m Not There,” 2007), Todd Haynes turns to nonfiction to unravel the mystery of the Velvet Underground, the short-lived but vastly influential 1960s band that got the would-be cool kids in my Jesuit high school to hum “Heroin” in the cafeteria.
Few clips of the band’s performances survive, but Haynes turns that to his advantage, cutting together the existing archival footage, stills, interviews, and ephemera into a pulsating, split-screen collage backed by the band’s sui generis renderings of “Venus in Furs,” “I’m Waiting for My Man,” “All Tomorrow’s Parties,” and others. Haynes also evokes the artistic crucible of that era in New York, when the intersection of Lou Reed, John Cale, Maureen Tucker, and Nico forged a band that released only four albums and might have saved the life of rock ‘n’ roll.
Available on Apple TV+. Go to apple.co/3DTHpwn.
Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.