Documentaries rarely get as much mainstream play as their fictional Hollywood counterparts. But any filmgoer paying attention to the cinematic landscape over the past few years can attest that we're in the middle of a documentary renaissance. Last year, there were so many worthy, powerful documentaries released that several of the year's best films didn't even make it into the Academy Awards' Best Documentary category.
Fortunately, 2014 has been just as loaded with riches. Every year, the American Film Institute's AFI Docs festival in Washington, D.C., offers a wide-ranging look at the documentary landscape. Here, five documentaries you should keep an eye out for in the months ahead:
1. Life Itself
What it is: Twenty years after film critic Roger Ebert helped to launch director Steve James' career by championing his 1994 documentary classic Hoop Dreams, James turns his lens toward Ebert himself. In a documentary loosely based on Ebert's memoir of the same name, James follows Ebert from boyhood to the Chicago Sun-Times to his beloved, nationally syndicated show with Gene Siskel — and finally, to the hospital where he spent much of the end of his life.
Why you should care: I knew, going in, that I was hopelessly biased in Life Itself's favor. Like many critics, I owe much of my early education in cinema to Roger Ebert, and he still serves as a major source of inspiration. A two-hour documentary about his life and legacy couldn't really be more in my wheelhouse.
That said: if you're not already a fan, Life Itself will almost certainly make you one. Ebert lived a remarkable life, and Life Itself sketches it with vigor, splicing Ebert's written recollections with a series of interviews with his friends, his colleagues, and his beloved wife Chaz. Apart from the conspicuous absence of Richard Roeper, Life Itself offers an exhaustive look at Ebert's life: the highs (winning the Pulitzer, working with Siskel, meeting Chaz) and the lows (Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, alcoholism, and the deeply frustrating series of medical setbacks at the end of his life).
At a post-screening Q&A, Steve James described Ebert's commitment to the kind of warts-and-all documentary that he, as a critic, preferred to see. The result ensures that this documentary is more than a mere hagiography: it's a humane, three-dimensional picture of an extraordinary life.
Where you can see it: Life Itself will be released in select theaters and on VOD on July 4. It will also air on CNN later this year.
What it is: Actress tells the story of Brandy Burre, a onetime supporting player on HBO's The Wire who took a break from acting to raise her children. Eight years later, she's struggling to mount a comeback.
Why you should care: Burre had a plum supporting role on The Wire, appearing in 15 episodes over the series' run. But Actress fascinatingly chronicles just how pitiless acting can be even after you've acquired a modicum of success. Burre is a fascinating figure: charismatic, likable, and vulnerable, but frustratingly narcissistic, putting her own needs and desires first in a way that Hollywood all but requires. (An early scene, where she skips her young daughter's birthday to catch an audition, sets the stage.)
Between a series of eerie, stagey slow-motion shots depicting Burre's day-to-day reality, Actress provides a fascinating glimpse at the nasty side of Hollywood — an industry that can be unapologetically cruel to those who people it. ("Teeth. Can you make them less snaggly?" reads one note on an old headshot of Burre.) But Actress also demonstrates how actors are forced to pitilessly appraise their own opportunities and flaws: "I will probably play the bitchy, over-the-hill girlfriend. That's my role," says the 39-year-old Burre, flatly, at one point. Burre may never be a star, but thanks to Actress, she's the protagonist in at least one riveting film.
Where you can see it: Actress will be released theatrically sometime this fall.
3. 112 Weddings
What it is: Twenty years ago, documentarian Doug Block took a side gig as a wedding videographer to make some extra cash. After realizing that the wedding stories he chronicled might lead to a fascinating story in their own right, he revisits the couples five, 10, or even 20 years after their marriages to see how they're doing today.
Why you should care: Much has been written about the state of marriage in America, but few have explored it with as much casual intimacy as Block manages to evoke in 112 Weddings. Block gets to explore the full range of marital outcomes: happiness, malaise, disease, divorce, and everything in between. The obvious warmth between Block and his subjects pays off: by and large, the documentary's participants speak with impressive candor, explaining the ways in which their relationships have surprised or disappointed them since the moment they walked away from the altar.
112 Weddings raises more questions about modern marriage than it answers, and it would have been nice if Block had made a more concentrated effort to tackle them. But there's a fundamental poignancy to the way Block assembles the footage: images of young couples, carefree on their wedding nights, giving way to interviews with their older, wiser, and generally more troubled older selves. That juxtaposition alone is powerful enough to make 112 Weddings a must-see documentary.
Where you can see it: 112 Weddings will premiere on HBO on Monday, June 30.
4. An Honest Liar
What it is: The winner of this year's AFI Docs Audience Award, An Honest Liar chronicles the life of James Randi, a magician who spent much of his career debunking those who claimed to have genuine psychic or spiritual powers.
Why you should care: What An Honest Liar lacks in depth, it makes up for in entertainment. Decades of practiced showmanship have turned James Randi into a charming and charismatic figure — and even at age 85, he has lost none of his spark. An Honest Liar offers the chance to hang out with him for 90 minutes, and that's an invitation well worth taking.
At its most entertaining, An Honest Liar plays out like a real-life variation of Ocean's Eleven. Randi recruits a team of fellow skeptics to help him shut down the operations of men like Uri Geller, a spoon-bender who claimed to have genuine psychic powers, and Peter Popoff, a televangelist who convinced his parishioners he could hear the word of God. Decades later, their recollections are fascinating — particularly because, despite the mountains of evidence against them, Geller and Popoff managed to retain their devoted followings.
An Honest Liar attempts to parallel Randi's lifelong devotion to uncovering the truth with a later revelation about his longtime partner, Jose Luis Alvarez — but the connection doesn't quite work. (It could, and perhaps should, have been expanded into a documentary of its own.) Still, this is an enjoyable and engaging introduction to an idiosyncratic man.
Where you can see it: Blu-Ray, DVD, and digital downloads of An Honest Liar can be purchased at the film's official website.
5. Holbrook/Twain: An American Odyssey
What it is: Hal Holbrook has spent the past 60 years playing Mark Twain on stage in Mark Twain Tonight!, which is likely the longest-running one-man show in American history. Holbrook/Twain follows Holbrook, now 89, as he takes his show on the road once again.
Why you should care: At its most basic level, Holbrook/Twain offers a valuable portrait of one of America's most storied actors at the top of his craft. Holbrook has always been an actor's actor, and major talents like Sean Penn, Cherry Jones, and Emile Hirsch line up to offer their enthusiastic praises for his work. Anyone interested in the art of acting will be fascinated by Holbrook's method, as he carefully tweaks and modulates his performance each night.
But the documentary also spends plenty of time on Holbrook's personal life. His remembrances of his late wife Dixie Carter are particularly heart-wrenching: "Wherever she was, there was Eden," he quotes from Twain, before breaking down in tears. What most impresses about Holbrook/Twain — and about Holbrook himself — is its continuing dedication to exploring Holbrook's life without any sentimentality. Holbrook cuts a sympathetic figure, but the documentary doesn't flinch at the uglier truths of his life. His son is interviewed, and he paints a fairly damning picture of a man who prioritized his career on the road over his family, resulting in an all but fatherless childhood that left some deep wounds. Like Twain himself, Hal Holbrook is far too complex to be captured in a single documentary — but Holbrook/Twain somehow manages to create a deeply compelling portrait of both men.
Where you can see it: Holbrook/Twain: An American Odyssey hasn't been picked up for distribution (but someone definitely should).