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Mike's 10 Best Documentaries of 2016

Here are my 10 best documentaries of 2016 (in no particular order):

1).  Tower (2016)

Photo courtesy of Kino Lober

Fifty years ago a man rode the elevator to the 27th floor of the University of Texas Tower and opened fire, killing 16 people and wounding 32 others. This film doesn't tell his story but the story of the people on the ground, some of which risked their lives to help others. The film uses rotoscoping animation and actors to retell in a documentary format this harrowing day in American history. This engrossing film is as suspenseful as any big, edge of your seat Hollywood suspense film. The animation is distinctive and really helps the storytelling. This is one of the best films of the year and should not be missed. "Tower" Website

2).  Breaking a Monster (2015)

Breaking a monster
Photo courtesy of Abramorama

Documentary about three 13-year-old boys who form a Metal band, get discovered playing on the streets of New York, and, within a year, are on the bill of big outdoor concerts. Documentary about three 13-year-old boys who form a Metal band called "Unlocking the Truth," get discovered playing on the streets of New York, and, within a year, are on the bill of big outdoor concerts.  This is an entertaining film that follows the trials and tribulations of three teen boys dealing with school, girls and video games while trying to become rock stars. We get to the see the band perform live at concerts, and we see them record their first single. The most interesting aspect of the film is how their manager (who created Welcome Back Kotter and discovered the Jonas Brothers) tries to keep them focused on music, not on what normal kids are interested in. The band becomes disillusioned when the record company is slow to get them into the studio, and we get to see the kids act out a bit. The film does get you to worry about the kids and if they are being taken for a ride. And, oh, by the way, the kids can actually play music! "Breaking a Monster" Website

3).  Tickled  (2016)

Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

Filmmaker David Farrier delves into the mysterious world of competitive endurance tickling.  This film starts out very light and funny but, in an instant, it becomes dark and full of intrigue. I won't go into details; I'll just tell you the story gets more intriguing as the film delves into the tickling world (it's weirder than you can imagine). It's full of twists and turns that's better than most Hollywood dramas. Farrier tells the tale with a deft touch and builds the tension until the surprising ending. This is one of the better documentaries of the year and well worth the price of admission. "Tickled" Website

4).  Life Animated  (2016)

Photo courtesy of The Orchard

Owen Suskind was an average, fun-loving little boy until at age three he developed autism and fell in a shell. No matter what or how his loving parents interacted with him, he remained in a cocoon of silence. Owen's father, Ron, started watching Walt Disney animated movies with him and suddenly, Owen was talking and interacting with his parents through his knowledge of the Disney movies. The film follows Owen as he moves out on his own, where he gets a job, an apartment and a girlfriend. This is a beautiful film that is heartfelt and will pull on your heartstrings. It's an amazing story, made even more remarkable that Disney allowed the filmmaker to use clips and images from the Disney catalog. This film gives proof that movies do more than just entertain, they sometimes give hope and meaning to our lives. "Life, Animated" Website

5).  We Are X (2016)

Photo courtesy of Drafthouse Films

Documentary about the legendary band X Japan. Little known in the U.S., X Japan has sold over 30 million singles, and albums combined and have fans around the world including KISS, Stan Lee, and even the Japanese Emperor. Known for their legendary concerts, the documentary tells the band's exhilarating, tumultuous and unimaginable history over the past three decades––persevering through personal, physical and spiritual heartache––the film culminates with preparations for their breathtaking reunion concert at New York's legendary Madison Square Garden. This is a fascinating movie about a band that very few of us in America know about. The story of the band is unbelievable, so much so, that if you made it into a drama, no one would believe it could happen. The film is filled with concert performances that make you want to see the band in person.  It's a riveting and engaging film about an outlandish group of musicians that make stunning shows. "We are X" Website

6).  Command and Control (2016)

Photo courtesy of American Experience Films

During the 60's and 70's, the arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union was growing at a phenomenal pace. Nuclear missiles were placed in silos all across the world, including right here in the U. S. Robert Kenner, who in 2010 brought us the Oscar-nominated documentary Food, Inc., brings us a new scary and sobering documentary, Command and Control.  The film takes place at a United States Air Force missile launch facility just outside Damascus, Arkansas (50 miles from Little Rock) in September of 1980. Using reenactments, actual footage from the event and modern day interviews with the participants, the film looks at how a simple accident almost caused the detonation of a nuclear warhead on top of the largest missile in the US. Arsenal, the Titan II, an explosion that probably would have wiped out most of the Arkansas's population.  There is more tension in this film than most Hollywood thrillers, and you will wonder how this could ever happen. It's a chilling look at an accident that was waiting to happen. What I took away from this film is respect and admiration for the very young men who risked their lives to protect ours. "Command and Control" Website

7).  Zero Days  (2016)

Zero Days
Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

The documentary explores the scary world of malware software that is threatening to shut down the inter-structure of the world.  When you watch this film, you will be at times frustrated, angry and downright scared. Filmmaker Alex Gibney presents the information about "Stuxnet" in tidbits, bringing the mystery to a full and complete tension-filled reveal that just might have your jaw on the floor. He crafts this film as if we are on a spy mission with him, delving into topics we could get in trouble investigating. A few times during the movie I worried about Gibney, wondering if he was pushing this subject too far. Would he end up like some of the people in the film, mysteriously dying in car bombs or disappearing into the mist, like a John Le Carre novel? While not one of Alex Gibney's best, "Zero Days" is an important film that will be the subject of much discussion by the media and its audience. Just be warned, after seeing this movie, you may invest in new antivirus software because you are going to get a little paranoid at the end. "Zero Days" Website

Mike's long form review of "Zero Days"

8).  De Palma  (2016)

Photo courtesy of A24

This is a documentary about the writer and director, Brian De Palma, who directed some of the greatest films of the Twentieth century including Carrie and The Untouchables.  I have never been a big fan of Brian De Palma's movies, though I do like The Untouchables and Sisters is one of my Forgotten Films, but I enjoyed this documentary and found it fascinating as De Palma goes through his entire career. He is extremely frank and probably hurts quite a few filmmakers and especially, some actors feelings. De Palma has always been accused of ripping off the work of Alfred Hitchcock, and in this film, he basically says, "yeah, so what?" The film goes back and explores this concept throughout his career, and we do see how much he was influenced by Hitchcock, especially what many consider his masterpiece, Vertigo. I have much more respect for De Palma and his craft because he never sold out to Hollywood but always stayed true to his work. Even if you aren't a movie buff, you will thoroughly enjoy this documentary about a fascinating man who loved his work. "De Palma" Website

9).  Weiner  (2016)

Weiner 1sh
Photo courtesy of IFC Films

Documentary on disgraced New York Congressman Anthony Weiner's campaign for mayor of NYC.  Weiner was a fast-rising Democratic congressman who was brought down by a texting scandal in 2011 that was fodder for late night talk show hosts. This is a fascinating film that is, at times, hilarious, cringe-worthy, and, very often sad. Right from the start the filmmakers are given access that no other politician would allow. While Anthony Weiner is the front and center character of the film, the far more fascinating person in the film is Huma Abedin, Weiner's wife. When the film opens, the husband and wife are playing with their child, but there is almost no interaction between Anthony and Huma. Most of the conversations that they have on camera are short and one-sided with Anthony doing most of the talking.  It's a brilliant film that even the filmmakers are amazed at the amount of access they have gotten. Near the end of the film, one of the filmmakers asks Weiner off camera, "Why did you let us film this?" Weiner doesn't have an answer, and we don't either, but we get a movie that is mesmerizing to watch. "Weiner" Website

Mike's long form review of "Weiner"

10).  The Eagle Huntress (2016)

Photo courtesy of Sony Picture Classics

Documentary that follows a 13-year-old Mongolian girl named Aisholpan, as she trains to be the first female eagle hunter. The cinematography of this film is striking and remarkable as time after time we see scenes of ravishing beauty that at the same time are overwhelmingly isolated, as Aisholpan and her family seem to be the only people on that planet. The scenes of Aisholpan and her father traveling across snow-packed mountains and frozen streams are both beautiful and terrifying as you wonder if they will ever make it back alive to their home and family. The Eagle Huntress is a film filled with bravery, determination and the human spirit filled with confidence that nothing can stop someone who knows she will succeed. That Aisholpan succeeds is not the question, its how well this 13-year-old girl does might surprise you, and then again, once you get to know her, it just might meet your expectations for her. "The Eagle Huntress" Website

Mike's long form review of "The Eagle Huntress"



Films that almost made it on the list:  Dark Horse, Presenting Princess Shaw, Eat That Question: Frank Zappa in His Own Words, Author: the JT Leroy Story, City of Gold, O.J.: Made in America, The Witness, I Am Not Your Negro, Miss Sharon Jones, 13th.

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