While there were plenty of reasons to be glum about the state of nonfiction in 2008, it wasn't because of the level of filmmaking, which from almost every perspective was exceptional (funny that this seemed to be true in narrative as well - what was it in the water in 2005 and 2006?).
In composing a list of my 10 favorite nonfiction films of the year, I realized that the ten films that I name as honorable mentions could have easily have been a top 10 in another year. And that too would have been a more than decent year.
But the films I chose as the cream of the class of 2007 represent, to me, the creative courage of filmmakers using every tool at their disposal, telling true stories with an auteur's vision.
In alphabetical order, my ten favorite nonfiction films of 2007, were:
BILLY THE KID
Directed by Jennifer Venditti
More than any other film this year, BILLY THE KID proved that a compelling and enthralling nonfiction film need not be about war or politics or social justice. Turning her lens on a self-aware yet clearly challenged Maine teenager, novice filmmaker Jennifer Venditti creates a pure tale of adolescent alienation, love and the painful struggle to find your place in the world. A humanistic triumph, the audience first finds BILLY to be an eccentric, but by the end, he has become the superhero that he hopes to play in his future film appearances. With a gorgeous score by Christian Zucconi and Guy Blakeslee.
Directed by Brett Morgan
Brett Morgan brews together an unlikely concoction built of gorgeous 1968 archival footage (pity us all that two-plus decades of hideous videotape lay just around the corner), video-game styled animation set to decades old court transcripts and ‘90s-era rap-rock in creating a contemporary and compelling look at the politics of the late '60s. In telling the tale of activists thrown into a rigged justice system for “inciting violence” during the Democratic Convention of 1968, Morgan draws sly parallels between past and present without heavy-handed invocations of George Bush or Iraq. Morgan also deftly shows how nonfiction film can be created almost entirely within the post-house, with special recognition deserved by editor Stuart Levy.
HEAR AND NOW
Directed by Irene Taylor Brodsky
Aside from "the competition doc", is there a more eye-rolling, cringe-inducing nonfiction genre than “the movie about my parents”? So deep and multiple are the pitfalls, that when one succeeds, the praise is doubly meant. So it is with Brodsky, who gently and perceptively unfolds a film that is both memoir and psychological thriller. When her deaf parents decide to get cochlear implants so that they might be able to hear again, Brodsky reveals how such a choice is fraught with peril. What if the surgery is less successful for one parent than the other? What if much of the sound we encounter each day is merely noise? HEAR AND NOW shows how having good subjects - Brodsky’s parents’ story has a lot to say about what it has meant to be deaf in the second half of the 20th century – is crucially important in nonfiction, but the filmmaker's skill at showing us how we take sound for granted is what makes the film a real find.