The following list, which was selected and compiled by Video Librarian staff, honors the 25 best new documentaries that were reviewed in the magazine and online during calendar year 2018. Unless otherwise noted, the titles listed here are available from most distributors.
78/52: Hitchcock’s Shower Scene
(Shout! Factory, 92 min., Blu-ray/DVD Combo: $29.99)
Director Alexandre O. Philippe’s insightful documentary focuses on the infamous shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. (VL-7/18)
Abacus: Small Enough to Jail
Filmmaker Steve James’s PBS-aired Frontline documentary centers on the family-owned Abacus Bank, founded to cater to NYC’s Chinese-American community by Thomas Sung, whose American Dream became a nightmare when the bank was the only financial institution to face criminal charges in the wake of the 2008 economic meltdown. (VL-1/18)
Director Greg Kohs’s documentary on the ancient Chinese board game Go follows a nail-biting competition between the titular Google-owned DeepMind company’s artificial intelligence program and Go master Lee Sedol. (VL-9/18)
The Art of the Shine
Filmmaker Stacey Tenenbaum’s unusual PBS-aired documentary looks at the archaic world of the shoe shiner, from Mexican male shoe shiners so embarrassed by their “lowly” status that they cover their faces with ski masks to a suit-wearing Japanese artisan. (VL Online-8/18)
(Kino Lorber, 92 min., DVD: $29.95)
Director Peter Nicks’s documentary centers on the police department in Oakland, CA, which has a history of community relations problems, but also employs law enforcement officers who are trying to do their finest. (VL-3/18)
The Freedom to Marry
Offering tribute to same-sex marriage activist Evan Wolfson, the title of Eddie Rosenstein’s documentary refers to the political advocacy nonprofit group founded by Wolfson and to its ultimately successful mission to ensure that gay and lesbian couples were able to receive marriage equality under U.S. law. (VL-7/18)
From This Day Forward
Filmmaker Sharon Shattuck’s documentary explores the familial ramifications when a loved one is transgender, focusing close to home on the story of how her father Michael’s—now Trisha—revelation that she is transgender has affected their family over decades. (VL-1/18)
Germans & Jews
(First Run Features, 76 min., in English & German w/English subtitles, DVD: $24.95)
Filmmaker Janina Quint’s thoughtful documentary examines Germany’s obligation to reflect upon and remember its responsibility for the Holocaust. (VL-1/18)
Harold and Lillian: A Hollywood Love Story
(Kino Lorber, 94 min., DVD: $29.99, Blu-ray: $34.99)
Hollywood art director and storyboard artist Harold Michelson and his wife Lillian—who ran a Hollywood research library that was an essential resource for hundreds of productions—are the subject of this affectionate documentary from filmmaker Daniel Raim. (VL-1/18)
(Oscilloscope, 109 min., DVD: $34.99, Blu-ray: $39.99)
Filmmaker Eugene Jarecki’s cinematic essay argues that the life and death of Elvis Presley can serve as a fitting metaphor for the original promise and sad decline of America, as Jarecki traverses America in a vintage Rolls Royce once owned by Presley. (VL-9/18)
Love & Bananas
Actress Ashley Bell directs and appears in this emotionally-charged documentary about the sad state of the Asian elephant, helping renowned conservationist Sangdeaun Lek Chailert transport a 70-year-old partially blind elephant to the latter’s sanctuary in Thailand. (VL-11/18)
Filmmaker Ema Ryan Yamazaki’s documentary about the authors of the famed picture book series featuring mischief-making monkey Curious George tells the story of the German-Jewish married writing team of Hans and Margret Rey. (VL-1/18)
(FilmRise/MVD, 94 min., DVD: $19.95, Blu-ray: $24.95)
Filmmaker Ramona S. Diaz’s cinema vérité documentary immerses viewers in the controlled chaos of Manila’s Dr. Jose Fabella Memorial Hospital—the busiest maternity clinic in the world—which treats hundreds of young Filipino women struggling with poverty, a cultural bias toward large families, and lack of birth control. (VL-1/18)
The New Radical
Filmmaker Adam Bhala Lough’s documentary turns the spotlight on a new breed of radical who gravitates to the extreme right, including Cody Wilson, who invented a plastic gun that can be made on a 3D printer. (VL-5/18)
(Passion River, 83 min., DVD: $24.95 [w/PPR: $95: high schools and public libraries; $350: colleges and universities from Ro*co Films Educational, www.rocoeducational.com])
Filmmaker Kim A. Snyder’s poignant documentary examines the painful aftermath of the 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT. (VL-5/18)
(First Run Features, 105 min., DVD: $24.95)
Shot over a period of eight years from 2008-16, filmmaker Jonathan Olshefski’s documentary follows the musical background, trials, and triumphs of North Philadelphia’s tight-knit Rainey family, a hardworking African American household living in an impoverished community. (VL-5/18)
(Magnolia, 98 min., DVD: $26.99, Blu-ray: $29.99 [w/PPR: $95: high schools and public libraries; $350: colleges and universities from Ro*co Films Educational, www.rocoeducational.com])
This laudatory documentary from directors Betsy West and Julie Cohen chronicles the life and career of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, an unlikely trendsetter and icon. (VL-9/18)
The Reluctant Radical
(Collective Eye [www.collectiveeye.org], 77 min., DVD: $50 [$125 w/PPR]: public libraries; $295 w/PPR: colleges & universities)
Shocked at the lack of action being taken against the fossil fuel industry, global warming activist Ken Ward participates in “monkey wrench” sabotage and public protests that ultimately put him on trial in this inspiring documentary from director Lindsey Grayzel. (VL-9/18)
Restless Creature: Wendy Whelan
(Kino Lorber, 93 min., DVD: $29.95)
Filmmakers Linda Saffire and Adam Schlesinger’s documentary serves up a bittersweet portrait of prima ballerina Wendy Whelan, who danced with the New York City Ballet for three decades before retiring in 2014. (VL-1/18)
(Film Platform [www.filmplatform.net], 101 min., in English, French, Romanian, Spanish & Wolof w/English subtitles, DVD: $300)
The subjects of filmmaker Fernand Melgar’s cinema vérité documentary try each night to gain entrance to a shelter in Lausanne, Switzerland, where the demand for beds is so great that jostling for spots can lead to heated scuffles. (VL-1/18)
(Grasshopper, 91 min., DVD: $29.99, Blu-ray: $34.99 [$99.95: public libraries; $375: colleges & universities w/PPR from www.grasshopperfilm.com])
Filmmakers Chris Shellen and Jeff Malmberg’s documentary visits the Tuscan village of Monticchiello—population: 136—which each year stages a play in a tradition dating back to the 1940s. (VL-5/18)
Take My Nose…Please!
Filmmaker Joan Kron’s lively documentary centers on female comedians, plastic surgery, and the demands on women in show business to fit a certain ideal of beauty. (VL-7/18)
Three Identical Strangers
(Universal, 97 min., DVD: $22.99, Blu-ray: $29.99)
Filmmaker Tim Wardle’s mind-boggling documentary tells the story of three stranger brothers who discovered that they were identical triplets separated at birth, became a media sensation, and then found out they were part of a sinister psychological experiment. (VL-11/18)
Won’t You Be My Neighbor?
(Universal, 95 min., DVD: $29.98, Blu-ray: $27.99)
Morgan Neville’s uplifting documentary about the man behind-the-scenes of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood centers on Fred Rogers (1928-2003), who worked to instill in young viewers a sense of self-worth that he believed was fundamental to growing up. (VL-9/18)
Filmmakers Jairus McLeary and Gethin Aldous’s documentary trains the camera on male convicts at California’s Folsom State Prison who gather in long-running therapy groups to talk about their dads and more. (VL-5/18)
The 41st National Media Market and Conference (aka NMM, the Market) will open on Sunday, October 20, 2019 and run four days in Austin, TX at the Embassy Suites Austin Central. The nonprofit boutique event is the only one dedicated to bringing together librarians who collect and manage film with film distributors, streaming platforms, and other media companies for commerce and sharing knowledge. “This will be the Market’s first time in Austin,” stated NMM Chair and Marketing Coordinator Jeff Tamblyn “and everyone on our board of directors—comprised of librarians and exhibitors—is excited to make the trip. Austin’s position as a hub for independent film makes this a special opportunity for us.” The Market serves librarians, educators, and other attendees who license content and contract services and technology, providing what most regard as a uniquely collegial atmosphere. Known for its active social life, NMM also organizes evening activities that bring attendees together with vendors for fun and networking. Their newest side-project, the Academic Libraries Video Trust (ALVT), has also drawn attention by creating a cooperative, cloud-based repository of digital files from VHS-based content that qualifies for copying under Section 108 of U.S. Copyright Law. Originally funded by the late deg farrelly, a highly respected media librarian, ALVT will hold a users’ group session annually at the Market, beginning in Austin. “We’ll announce the details shortly,” said Tamblyn, “but librarians from ALVT member institutions are going to qualify for significant registration discounts to this year’s Market.” Whole-event passes to NMM will sell for $349, and for $249 during the Early-Bird registration period, and include a welcome reception, buffet lunches, all professional development sessions, every conference social event, and access to exhibitor suites. Further information and a complete schedule of events will be posted as it becomes available at nmm.net. Interested potential exhibitors and attendees are welcome to contact NMM Chair Jeff Tamblyn at firstname.lastname@example.org or 913-219-6533.
On December 11, Shout! Factory will release the ultra high-definition documentary We, The Marines (4K/Blu-ray Combo: $29.99) in a 4K UHD, Blu-ray, and digital copy set. Narrated by Academy Award-winning actor and former Marine Gene Hackman, the film takes viewers on an action-packed adventure into the unparalleled experience of becoming and serving as a member of the U.S. Marine Corps. Offering an unforgettable glimpse into the first-hand experiences of America’s USMC and what it takes to become the men and women who honor and defend our country, We, The Marines is directed by acclaimed filmmaker Greg MacGillivray, produced in association with the Marine Corps Heritage Foundation, and presented by the Boeing Company. We, the Marines was originally produced for permanent exhibition in the giant-screen Medal of Honor Theater at the National Museum of the Marine Corps.
The Criterion Collection’s February slate kicks off February 5 with Ingmar Bergman’s 1968 Shame (DVD: $29.95, Blu-ray: $39.95), an examination of the violent legacy of World War II and a scathing response to the escalation of the conflict in Vietnam that stars Max von Sydow and Liv Ullmann as musicians living in quiet retreat on a remote island farm. Coming February 12 is the home video debut of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Oscar-nominated 1960 courtroom thriller La verité (DVD: $29.95, Blu-ray: $39.95), in which the troubled Dominique Marceau (Brigitte Bardot) comes to bohemian Paris to escape the suffocation of provincial life, only to wind up in a courtroom, accused of a terrible crime: the murder of her lover (Sami Frey). Also slated for February 12 is Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s monumental 15-hour 1980 drama Berlin Alexanderplatz (Blu-ray: 4 discs, $99.95), based on Alfred Döblin’s great modernist novel, following the hulking, childlike ex-convict Franz Biberkopf (Günter Lamprecht) as he attempts to “become an honest soul” amid the corrosive urban landscape of Weimar-era Germany. Arriving February 19 is Luchino Visconti’s 1971 Death in Venice (DVD: 2 discs, $29.95; Blu-ray: $39.95), the Italian master’s lush adaptation of Thomas Mann’s novella starring Dirk Bogarde in a devastating performance as a fastidious composer reeling from a disastrous concert who becomes infatuated—even obsessed—with a young boy. And on February 26, Charles Burnett will join the Criterion Collection with his 1970 masterpiece To Sleep with Anger (DVD: $29.95, Blu-ray: $39.95), starring a magnetic Danny Glover as an enigmatic Southern drifter who arrives out of the blue on the South Central Los Angeles doorstep of his old friends and turns a seemingly peaceful household upside down.
Kino Classics is proud to announce the upcoming release of Pioneers: First Women Filmmakers (DVD: 6 discs, $79.95; Blu-ray: 6 discs, $99.95), slated for November 20. Curated by Shelley Stamp (author of Lois Weber in Early Hollywood) and executive produced by Illeana Douglas, the collection celebrates the ground-breaking early female directors of American cinema who helped shape the language of film. Funded by a successful Kickstarter campaign, the program continues the legacy begun by Pioneers of African-American Cinema, equally ambitious in scale, and every bit as historically significant. Presented in association with the Library of Congress (and drawing from the collections of other world-renowned film archives), Pioneers: First Women Filmmakers is the largest commercially-released video collection of films by women directors, focusing on American films made between 1911 and 1929—a crucial chapter of our cultural history. Featuring 2K and 4K restorations of more than 50 films, including features, shorts and fragments, this collection contains over 25 hours of material, not only showcasing the work of these underappreciated filmmakers, but also illuminating the gradual changes in how women directors were perceived (and treated) by the Hollywood establishment. Included are films by such pioneering filmmakers as Ruth Ann Baldwin, Grace Cunard, Alice Guy-Blaché, Zora Neale Hurston Lois Weber, Marion E. Wong, and many more. Bonus features include an 80-page booklet (with essays and photos), interviews with historians and archivists, and audio commentaries for select films.
PBS Distribution has announced the upcoming release of Frontline: Trump’s Showdown (DVD: $24.99), slated for December 11. For months, special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigations into Russian interference in the 2016 election and President Donald Trump’s fury over it have dominated the news headlines. Now, it has grown to threaten Trump’s presidency. Underscoring several key moments and tracing the dramatic events that have led the White House and the nation to the brink of what could become a Constitutional crisis, this two-hour documentary begins with the president elect’s meeting with the leaders of the intelligence community just before his inauguration. In the meeting, senior officials warned Trump that Russia interfered in the 2016 election. At the end of the meeting, FBI Director James Comey privately shared with Trump details of a secret “dossier” of unverified and potentially compromising material–an encounter the President would come to see as a “shakedown” (according to J.D. Gordon, one of Trump’s closest campaign advisers). Trump’s Showdown draws on more than 60 in-depth interviews with former leaders of U.S. intelligence agencies, Trump advisers, attorneys, authors, and journalists.
Director Greta Schiller is releasing No Dinosaurs in Heaven (DVD: $29.95), slated for release on December 4. Combining an examination of the problem posed by creationists who earn science education degrees only to advocate anti-scientific beliefs in the classroom and a visually stunning raft trip down the Grand Canyon, led by Dr. Eugenie Scott, that debunks creationist explanations for its formation, this 2010 documentary exposes the fallacies in the “debate,” manufactured by anti-science forces, that creationism is a valid scientific alternative to evolution. Emmy Award-winning director and science educator Schiller uses her own experience—along with a graduate school biology professor who refused to teach evolution—to expose the insidious effect that so-called “creationist science” has had on science education, intelligently arguing that public education must steadfastly resist the encroachment of religion in the form of anti-evolution creationism, and that science literacy is crucial to a healthy democracy.
First Run Features will release TVTV: Video Revolutionaries (DVD: $24.99) on November 20. Featuring Bill Murray, John Belushi, Lily Tomlin, Hunter Thompson, Steven Spielberg, Bob Dylan, Goldie Hawn, and others, TVTV: Video Revolutionaries provides an insider’s look at Top Value Television, a collective of video makers who in the early 1970s took the brand-new portable video camera and went out to document the world. In those days, the three TV networks used giant studio cameras, and people weren’t used to having a Portapak stuck in their face. Since there were no rules about how to use it, the new video journalists made format-bending satirical shows about whatever struck their fancy—from the ‘72 Republican convention to an expose of a 15-year-old new-age guru to crashing the Dallas Cowboys’ Super Bowl party. Directed by TVTV alum Paul Goldsmith, the film is like opening a treasure chest into the ’70s, filled with cultural and political events captured by now-iconic personalities who were then just beginning their climb to stardom.
Armageddon has never been so darkly funny as in The Atomic Café (DVD: $24.95, Blu-ray: $29.95), slated for release on December 4 from Kino Classics. Co-directed by Kevin Rafferty and Jayne Loader, the 1982 cult classic juxtaposes Cold War history, propaganda, music, and culture, seamlessly crafted from government-produced educational and training films, newsreels, and advertisements. Taken together, these sources cheerily instruct the public on how to live in the Atomic Age, how to survive a nuclear attack, and how to fight and win a nuclear war. Returning to home video in a sparkling 4K digital restoration created by IndieCollect, The Atomic Cafe is an absurdist blast from the past that would be downright laughable if it weren’t so eerily relevant to our saber-rattling present. Bonus features include selected government propaganda films, a Filmwax radio interview with the filmmakers, and audio excerpts from Loader’s CD-ROM “Public Shelter.”
Magnolia Home Entertainment is releasing the documentary Love, Gilda (DVD: $26.98) on January 1. In her own words, comedienne Gilda Radner (1946-89) reflects on her life and career in director Lisa D’Apolito’s documentary, which incorporates Radner’s recently discovered audiotapes and rare home movies. Radner was one of the original cast members of Saturday Night Live, where she created and portrayed now-classic comic characters such as Roseanne Roseannadanna, Emily Litella, and Lisa Loopner. She quickly rose to meteoric fame in television, movies, and on Broadway. Working with the Radner Estate, D’Apolito unearthed a collection of diaries and personal audio and videotapes documenting her childhood, comedy career, life with husband Gene Wilder, and struggle with cancer. Also including interviews with Chevy Chase, Laraine Newman, Paul Shaffer, Martin Short, SNL creator-producer Lorne Michaels, Broadway composer Stephen Schwartz, and others, the film features diaries read by modern-day comedians who were inspired by Gilda, including Bill Hader, Amy Poehler, and Maya Rudolph.