Street photography, industrial design, the power of technology, the future of journalism are just some of the themes explored by filmmakers in 2011, a spectacular year for documentaries released in theatres.
Here is my top ten.
1. Bill Cunningham New York
Director: Richard Press
Richard Press' charming portrait of octogenarian New York Times photographer and cool hunter ante-litteram Bill Cunningham is especially apropos in the age of street photography blogs (e.g. The Sartorialist) and tumblrs. But this documentary is more about cultural anthropology and social dynamics than fashion. Bill Cunningham chronicles the ordinary and extraordinary styles of urban dwellers, reminding us that sidewalks are much more exciting than the grotesque catwalks of Milan and Paris. A true masterpiece.
2. Eames: The Architect and the Painter
Director: Richard Press
Charles and Ray, America's most influential industrial designers, achieved an iconic status in America history. Otherwise said, the Eames were a killer combo. Among his fans is Ice Cube, who studied architecture in college. This fascinating documentary - narrated by the ubiquitous multi-tasker James Franco - will surely fascinate the readers of WIRED magazine as it discusses, among other things, the fruitful Eames-IBM connection. The couple's creative work for the computer company includes the marvelous pavilion of the 1964 World's Fair in New York City and a 1958 animated cartoon illustrating the joys of the information age. Unmissable.
3. El Bulli: Cooking in Progress
Director: Gereon Wetzel
This in-depth investigation of superstar Spanish chef Ferran Adrià and his restaurant El Bulli — consistently voted the world's best — is a true eye-opener. German filmmaker Gereon Wetzel followsthe creative staff of this avant-garde machine-a-manger during their annual retreat and extended beta testing session. The fusion of culinary science and gastronomic technology culminates with a visual feast. If there's a movie that would have benefitted from Sensorama and/or Smellovision is El Bulli: Cooking in Progress. My full review available here (in Italian).
4. The Interrupters
Director: Steve James
Steve James (Hoop Dreams) and Alex Kotlowitz's The Interrupters tells a moving story of three Violence Interrupters who try to protect their Chicago communities from the violence they once employed. Q. Is there a cure to urban violence? The director suggests that the only way to stop the spread of this infectious disease is to inhibit the virus itself. Largely ignored by the Academy, this documentary should really go viral.
Director: Gary Hustwit
The third installment of Gary Hustwit’s design trilogy - which includes Helvetica and Objectified - Urbanized focuses on the design of cities, exploring the issues and strategies behind urban design. The documentary features interviews with some of the world’s most respected architects, planners, policymakers, builders, and thinkers. The failures of uber-modernist Brasilia are juxtaposed to the success of bike-friendly Bogota. And who knew that movable chairs and parklets could dramatically improve the quality of life? Interestingly, although the documentary opens with Rome's Piazza di Spagna, not a single Italian city or architect is featured in this 86 minute journey into the world of contemporary urbanism - when it comes to city planning, "innovation" and "Italy" seem to be mutually exclusive. Highly recommended to fans of SimCity, avid readers of Richard Florida's Who's Your City?, and disciples of Jane Jacobs.
6. Detroit Wild City
Director: Florent Tillon
Complementary to Urbanized, Detroit Wild City centers on a specific urban environment. French filmmaker Florent Tillon chronicles the rise and fall of Michigan's ex-metropolis. Compiling historical footage and interviews with the city's residents, this meditative documentary illustrates the collapse of America's car capital and its evolution, or, rather, devolution. A once prosperous city has now become a post-apocalyptic ghost town but also a playground for experimental and alternative urban lifestyles ("Self-organizing urbanism," to use an expression used by an urban planner featured inUrbanized). As Rick Prelinger noted in his review, "[Detroit Wild City] suggests that while macronarratives may help us understand the past, micronarratives will describe the future." Lyotard was right, after all.
7. Page One: Inside the New York Times
Director: Andrew Rossi
The decline of print newspapers does not necessarily imply that journalism itself is dead. Au contraire. Andrew Rossi's penetrating look at the Gray Lady's recent developments shows how technology is drastically redefining the function and shape of news, but it also reminds us that true talent - embodied in iconic figures like maverick reporter David Carr - can hardly be reproduced by algorithms and feed aggregators.
8. Bobby Fischer Against the World
Director: Liz Garbus
Produced by HBO and directed by Liz Garbus, Bobby Fischer Against the World explores the enigmatic life of chess maestro Bobby Fischer by cleverly juxtaposing archival footage and old photographs with interviews with friends and colleagues. The legendary 1972 match between Fischer and Boris Spassky is the centerpiece of Garbus' tale. Chess becomes a metaphor of the games played on the global chessboard by the likes of Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger, and Leonid Brezhnev. The Cold War as the ultimate strategy game. Last but not least, Bobby Fischer Against the World is particularly relevant today that computers rule the world of chess competitions - or, better, teams of men using computers. If you can't beat them, join them.
Director: Asif Kapadia
An outstanding portrait of Brazilian Formula One racing driver Ayrton Senna, who won the F1 world championship three times before his death at age 34. Asif Kapadia tells a story where charisma, skill, and technology are inextricably connected using only archival footage. The epic battle between Senna and French World Champion Alain Prost is one of the greatest narratives of the 1980s. Visually speaking, the onboard cameras produce incredible sensation of speed and tension. This is the ultimate videogame. A racing game with real life consequences.
10. Connected: An Autobiography About Love, Death & Technology
Director: Tiffany Shlain
From the founder of the Webby Awards, Tiffany Shlain, comes a documentary about the intended and unintended consequences of technology in the 21st century. Although pedantic, dogmatic, naively optimistic and overly simplistic at times, Connected is nonetheless interesting. Alas, this examination of the meaning of social, technical, and cultural connectedness celebrates the so-called "cognitive surplus" described by Clay Shirky but ignores the kinds of technological loneliness discussed by MIT professor Sherry Turkle. Aside from these flaws, what I really appreciated about Connected is its hybrid distribution approach." (Matteo Bittanti, WIRED)