A lot of factors have fueled the ascendance and acceptance of documentaries in recent years, but entertainment value is near the top of the list. Forget those ponderous educational films you were forced to watch in school. Nowadays, the average doc boasts weirdly fascinating characters, a narrative trajectory, eye-pleasing camerawork, snazzy editing and wall-to-wall music.
More documentaries than you would imagine chart a course between reality TV (without the cynically manufactured drama) and Hollywood movies (ditto the skillfully contrived melodrama). They seek to amuse intelligent people, while providing the recommended daily amount of fiber.
That said, I’m surprised that this year’s Doc Stories (Nov. 2-5 at the Vogue) is so tilted toward pop culture subjects and away from social issues. Portraits of Kubrick aide Leon Vitali (Filmworker) and ace tennis coach Nick Bolletierri (Love Means Zero) dot the lineup, along with Rebecca Miller’s study of her father (Arthur Miller: Writer) and Voyeur, which digs into the sensational tales that Colorado motel owner Gerald Foos peddled to author Gay Talese.
Adding to the pop/celebrity vibe, the SFFILM series opens with the first half of Rolling Stone: Stories from the Edge, Alex Gibney’s two-part history of Jann Wenner’s San Francisco-centered rock ‘n’ roll baby. (There had better be a segment devoted to the late, great Ralph J. Gleason.) On the back end, the weekend wraps with Chris Smith’s obsessive immersion in Andy Kaufman, Jim Carrey and Man on the Moon, entitled Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond—Featuring a Very Special, Contractually Obligated Mention of Tony Clifton.
All of these films are well made and raise important themes — from journalistic integrity to the cost of uncompromising artistry to the price of loyalty. Most of the filmmakers are scheduled to attend, and they will surely expound on their docs’ loftier aspirations. But a couple other films may resonate with moviegoers the longest, because their stakes are so high: Sonja Sohn’s Baltimore Rising documents the aftermath of Freddie Gray’s death in police custody, while Greg Barker’s The Final Year follows President Barack Obama’s foreign policy triad of Samantha Power, John Kerry and Ben Rhodes. It’s hard to top real-world drama with global consequences.