First things first: I finally saw Taxi to the Dark Side. A film that I’ve owned since late 2008 – and in fact the film that kicked off what has become an annual tradition on the blog, reviewing the year’s films. I’ve ended nearly every annual review since then with the guilty admission that I still hadn’t seen the film that kicked everything off. But no more! In another apparent developing tradition for me I squeezed a last documentary film in on New Years Eve to ensure I made my documentary target for that year. (Actually I squeezed in two, watching The Celluloid Closet in the morning and Taxi to the Dark Side in the evening.) Last year I decided to bump up my target from twelve feature-length documentaries to fifteen. And once again I made it! I’ve now entirely demolished my backlog of documentaries on DVD so that’s its own kind of victory.
Disappointingly only one of the documentaries I saw this year was a 2015 release (Very Semi-Serious), though a fair number of documentaries this year were released last year (Palio, The Damned: Don’t You Wish that We Were Dead, Last Days in Vietnam, Electric Boogaloo: The Cannon Films Story and Limited Partnership). I saw a smattering of really old documentaries. And by really old, I mean, silent documentaries from the days when cinema was still trying to figure out what documentaries were going to be and where the line between fact and fiction would be drawn. Nanook of the North and Häxan were both released in 1922 while Salt for Svanetia is from 1930. All three of them with new reimagined scores performed live. There were a smattering of ‘classic’ documentaries from the 80s and 90s (Burroughs, The Times of Harvey Milk and The Celluloid Closet) along with some more recent fare that I missed the first time round in the cinema (Being Elmo and Taxi to the Dark Side). There’s no real explanation for Circus Elephant Rampage other than it was in the Storyville strand and looked interesting.
There wasn’t really an overall theme to documentaries that I saw this year. (Other than, it was on and looked interesting.) Given my current location I think I’m going to have to accept that for the foreseeable future I’m just not going to get to see documentaries on their first release – my local arts cinema is really good about getting in a varied selection of documentaries, but the law of limited prints means that they don’t get them promptly. (Though they are much better attended than documentaries were in Stirling.) On the other hand, I heard very little about upcoming documentaries this year so I’m not really sure what I was actually missing this year.I know there was Citizen Four about Edward Snowden and his revelations but other than that, not so much. Most documentaries I was aware of small independent documentaries that I’m looking forward to arriving later this year, but the bigger ‘break-out’ documentaries have been fewer and further between this year than for many years.
The best documentaries I saw this year were Being Elmo (sweet, touching, gentle film about puppeteers and especially the very particular world of the puppeteers of the Jim Henson studios), Limited Partnership (a warm and heart-breaking film about one couple’s fight to have their marriage recognised) and Palio (fascinating, unsentimental and unsensational film about horse racing, corruption, greed and honour). An honourable mention for Taxi to the Dark Side, which was excellent, but I think it has lost a lot of its impact due to what we now know about the extent of the brutal shenanigans going on with rendition and ‘enhanced’ interrogation.
This year I plan to up my documentary viewing to 20 feature-length documentaries. As I have a clean slate on the documentary front I think that I’ll also go for a theme of seeing as many Oscar winning documentaries as I can and see if I can investigate what it is that makes a documentary award worthy.