Best of 2012: Feature Films and Documentaries

Our final list lets you take a break from all that reading. Find out what our DVD selector Kate thinks are the best and brightest from 2012.

Feature Film and Mini-Series

The Raid: Redemption
An astonishing action film – and when I say action, I mean non-stop “how-did-they-think-of –so many ways -to-fight” action – and it was made impressively on a shoestring budget. The story is creative, but it’s the fighting that will keep you watching. Be sure to watch the special features included in the DVD, as well.

A presentation of the 1994 Rwandan genocide told from a personal level in a way that demonstrates the devastatingly simple and direct consequences of our actions. Though I am familiar with this time in Rwandan history, this film made me understand the conflict as if I were “on the ground.”

This year marked the 100th anniversary of the Titanic sinking. This is an engaging, award-winning mini-series about that ill-fated voyage.

Mysteries of Lisbon
An adaptation from the book and an epic in the true meaning of the word, this a wonderfully detailed treatment of the unfamiliar world of 19th century Portuguese royalty, a story that stretches across three generations. The acting is superb, with many in the cast speaking three different languages. The cinematography is rich with an incredible number of filming locations. A true work of art!


Woman with the Five Elephants
This amazing Kiev-born woman, Svetlana Geier, has accomplished a 20-year, mind-boggling project of re-translating five Dostoevsky novels that she calls “The Five Elephants.” This film tells the story of her life as a literary translator, giving us insight into her painstaking process and also into her life as Russian exile in Germany.

Corman’s World
A tribute to Roger Corman, a filmmaker you may never heard of but who nevertheless is one of the most influential Hollywood personalities. He’s not only launched many an acting and directorial career (Jack Nicholson, Robert DeNiro, Dennis Hopper, Martin Scorsese, James Cameron, Sylvester Stallone, Ron Howard…), but he has also changed the shape of filmmaking in many, many ways.

Into the Abyss: a Tale of Death, a Tale of Life
In 2001 a young man, his friend, and his mother were murdered, apparently because the killers wanted the red Camaro in the garage. One of the killers is on death row; the other is serving a life sentence. Werner Herzog’s characteristic documentary does an admirable job demonstrating the “anguish and absurdity” of killing, “wanton or sanctioned” without being preachy – it’s “rigorously humane…” (quotes from the 11/10/11 New York Times review).

The War Room
President Clinton’s 1992 election campaign concept, dubbed the “war room,” was innovative and set the standard for campaigns to come. In 1992, the Internet was new and had a profound impact on the way the war room functioned. For some, nothing could be more boring than the thought of a documentary about a political campaign, but this is not only a trip back in time, it conveys the intensity of the campaign process and the thrill of the win.

For a full list of all the 2012 staff picks, click here.


We Like Sportz (and we don’t care who knows)

I’ve played sports for much of my life but I would not consider myself a “jock”. That’s one of the reasons the above-referenced Lonely Island lyric, from the album Incredibad, cracks me up every time I hear it (the visual is even funnier, watch the video here). I’m not a sports fan, but I love a good game. And so I love a good sports film.

Most people are familiar with the classic sports films such as The Bad News Bears, Field of Dreams, Miracle, The Natural, Hoop Dreams, maybe even the more recent films The Fighter and Million Dollar Baby. I’ve seen The Hustler and Raging Bull on some lists of great sports films, but I myself would not deign to pigeon-hole them as sports film…but I digress.

There are three sports documentaries that have been released within the last 5 years or so that you may have missed, and are well-worth a watch.

My favorite of the three is the documentary Harvard Beats Yale 29-29. The film contains a  fascinating amount of original footage depicting the drama of a notorious 1968 football game, played in the midst of anti-war conflict, resulting in a headline from which the film title is drawn. I loved this film partly because it gave me insight into the culture of the two schools  (who knew that Harvard considers themselves a working class school, in opposition to Yale’s school of bluebloods?) and the it’s-a-small-world insight into George W. Bush, Al Gore, and Tommy Lee Jones’ backgrounds; but there’s plenty of other drama to the story to keep you interested.

Close behind Harvard Beats Yale is a local story, a documentary about the intense rivalry between Seattle’s Garfield and Roosevelt Girls Basketball teams titled The Heart of the Game. This movie is at once inspirational, sad, heart-pumping, maddening and reflective.

The third is a film I’d only recently become aware of called Senna. Senna, a well-to-do Brazilian, was/is a legend in Formula One racing. If I’ve started to lose you here, I understand – but try to hang on. This documentary is about old-school car racing, when driver skill (and not vehicle technology) made all the difference in a race. The footage is all original, from the 1970’s and 1980’s, and the filmmakers do a fantastic job illuminating the tension amongst Senna and his career-long arch nemesis Alain Prost. Huge egos battling each other… and battling it out at alarming speeds – it’s incredible to watch.

As any fan of sports film knows, most great sports films are about so much more than the sport they portray. Many tackle complex social issues that incorporate socio-economics, race, and gender. Sadly, many good films are made and never make it to distribution. One such film that I had the opportunity to see  is a 2001 documentary Rocks with Wings, about a girls basketball team in Shiprock, NM. The team is made up of Navajo girls, and their coach is a black 24-year-old male. If you ever have a chance to see it, I recommend it!


Free Film Screening: Vietnam War Documentaries

Helicopter in Vietnam

Vietnam 1965, courtesy National Archives

On Sunday, May 2 at 2 p.m., two Vietnam War-era documentaries will be shown at the Everett Public Library Main Library auditorium as part of The Big Read program featuring The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien’s fictional account of the Vietnam War. These films and their creation and distribution are a part, perhaps less well known, of the story of United States involvement in Vietnam.

 Night of the Dragon, released in 1966, and Vietnam! Vietnam!, completed in 1968 and released in 1971, were produced and distributed by the United States Information Agency.

USIA was an independent agency within the executive branch of the federal government that existed from 1953 to 1999. Part of the mission of USIA was to explain and support American foreign policy and promote U.S. national interests through overseas information programs. These two films, narrated by Charlton Heston, were part of a USIA attempt to explain and justify U.S. involvement in Vietnam to the rest of the world.

Neither of these films could be shown in the United States at the time they were released. Until 1990, federal law prohibited films produced by the USIA to be shown in the United States unless a special exemption was made by Congress for a particular film. Congress was reluctant to have USIA information efforts directed at American citizens.

USIA distributed its films to foreign cinemas and world leaders, and showed them in USIA libraries around the world. While Night of the Dragon was shown widely abroad, Vietnam! Vietnam! was given very little exposure. By the time it was ready for distribution in 1971, U.S. foreign policy and the military and political situation had changed and the film was not considered helpful.

A word of warning about these films – there are some graphic scenes in each that may be considered disturbing – this screening is meant for adult audiences.


Happy Viewing

February to me means it’s time to get ready for the Everett Women’s Film Festival. I’m a long time film fan, and in the interest of full disclosure I will tell you that I am a Festival volunteer. Many of my festival favorites have become part of the collection of the Everett Public Library, which means you can enjoy them whether you’re able to attend the event or not. I’ve selected just a few of my very favorite films to whet your appetite.

Seattle filmmaker Francine Strickwerda’s mother died from breast cancer when she was a child. Her family never discussed the subject, leaving her with a fear of these most obvious of female body parts. Busting Out, a film by turns funny and heartbreaking, explores America’s obsession with breasts as well as the grim reality of breast cancer, and is Strickwerda’s attempt to lay her personal demons to rest.

I’m not a sports fan, but Ward Serrill’s The Heart of the Game won my heart.  Serrill follows the Roosevelt High School girls’ basketball team, including their amazing coach Bill Resler as well as their star player Darnellia Russell, through six tumultuous seasons. Another great sports film for non-fans is A Hero for Daisy, which documents Olympic medalist Chris Ernst and her college rowing crew’s battle to force Yale University to provide equal facilities for female athletes. I would rate A Hero for Daisy as required viewing for young sports enthusiasts.

If you are a mother, or if you have a mother—and that’s all of us, right?—The Story of Mothers and Daughters is worth a look. Catherine Ryan and Gary Weimberg explore this often complicated relationship, minus the sentimentality that creeps into Mother’s Day cards. 

Death comes for us all, but most of us never imagine our lives ending with a home funeral. Elizabeth Westrate’s Family Undertaking introduces us to several families who decided to do it themselves, finding a meaning in death they believe is lost when we turn our loved ones over to the funeral industry. Despite its rather dire subject, this film is thought-provoking and heart-warming—and sometimes even funny.

I’ll leave you with one final recommendation, and it’s a film by Coline Serreau (yes, it has subtitles—but you won’t mind). Chaos, the funny, action-packed tale of an unhappy French wife who ends up the unlikely ally of a young prostitute seeking to escape the criminals who force her to work for them, received a standing ovation from festival attendees.