17 March 2022)
As I said earlier, I love
documentaries. In roughly alphabetical order, here are the rest
of my current favorites: (The first part is
IF A TREE FALLS: A STORY
OF THE EARTH LIBERATION FRONT (2011). What do
committed environmentalists do when they feel government and
industry are, and always will, ignoring them?
A small few took radical action, using arson as their weapon and
to spread their message.
The film spends too much time, I thought, on one of them, but
still serves us well and is, I thought, balanced to both sides.
Almost no one -- certainly not the Seattle police -- come off
well. Especially not the "terrorists," especially not the one
who turned the rest in.
A good vehicle to discuss with your children: "Can something be
both wrong and right?" "Who decides, and how?" "When does civil
disobedience turn into anarchy?" "Was the Boston Tea Party
terrorism?" And so on.
This is the most understandable, even enjoyable (?),
explanation I think we'll get for the Great Recession. And
that's even if it never mentions the government's pressure on
banks to relax mortgage lending standards.
Our government is the only agency big enough to take on the
financial sector, but as the film shows, the financial sector
owns the government.
Let's dust off the tumbrels.
IN THE SHADOW OF THE
STARS (1991). Unless you have a visceral animosity to
opera, give this film a try. I think you'll be captured by the
humanity (and humor) in this little gem.
If only the movie had been filmed in a year when the SF Opera
was doing more Puccini, Rossini, Mozart, Bizet or Verdi. Then,
like the arias, it would have been magical.
IT'S HARD BEING LOVED BY
JERKS (2008). The French satirical magazine
Charlie Hebdo is sued by French Islamic organizations for
printing some of the Danish newspaper cartoons deemed to be
insulting to Islam and Mohammed.
of speech is a noble principle but trickier than it appears. Can
we shout "Fire!" in a crowded theater? Can the press print
anything? What if it's false? Where does your opinion to speak
your mind end, and my feelings toward what you say begin? Are
hurt feelings enough to deny your freedom to speak your mind?
And, not incidentally, what about Islam and its countless acts
of terrorism in the past few decades?
What about religion altogether? Does it get a free pass from
satire? Even from vitriol?
This is a film for those of us who treasure the liberty of a
free press and the ability to speak our minds without fear.
If you're reading this in America, do you remember seeing
the 12 cartoons in a local newspaper or the evening news? Not
me. It's hard not to think we were cowed into submission by the
fear of being called Islamaphobes or the fear of bombs.
As that's what happened to Charlie Hebdo. This film
covers the trial held in 2008, and it was in 2015 that the
magazine's office was bombed, killing twelve.
JEWS AND BASEBALL: AN
AMERICAN LOVE STORY
Baseball has always been my favorite sport, and now I better
Not to mention, it was great learning more about
Hank Greenberg, Sandy Koufax, and other Jewish ball players.
For fans of both baseball and history.
(2013). In the 1970s, an avant-garde film director
decides to make his version of "Dune," a famous science fiction
book he's never read. Some hugely talented visual artists sign
on. Salvador Dali, Orson Welles and Mick Jagger will act. Pink
Floyd will write the music.
We haven't seen this film, have we.
The reason to watch this documentary is not to learn about "the
greatest film that never got made." It's to enjoy meeting an
uncompromising artist, one whose intensity and passion are
invigorating, even if he is a little "full" of himself.
JONESTOWN: THE LIFE AND DEATH OF PEOPLES TEMPLE (2006). Those of
us in the late 1970s, will never forget the almost one
thousand souls perishing in the jungle, having drunk poisoned "kool-aid," some willingly,
most not, following the lead of their
crazed leader, Jim Jones.
This film tells the story well, and
should be viewed by all teens before leaving the nest. So many
(But this single film can't possibly convey
all, or even the most important, lessons of Jonestown. Two books
to recommend: "The Road to Jonestown," by Jeff Guinn, and 2)
"Seductive Poison," by Deborah Layton.)
(2011). We probably know they're brothers from Ukraine, and both
were heavyweight boxing champions at one time. What I didn't
know was that both have PhDs and speak four languages.
Like all great sports films, more than just about sports.
Worth the price of the film, I thought, were the closing
credits with Vitali cutting his son's hair in the house. The boy
is silent if not sullen. When the haircut is over and he walks
away, Vitali says with a proud laugh, just as we would, "That's
10 or 15 euros we just saved!"
Vikram, from New Jersey, decides to become a yoga, from India.
It's interesting that this film follows right after
Fortunately, Vikram is not Jones, and the results are far more
At times hilarious, at times touching, Kumare is
especially for those into spirtuality or psychology.
HOME (2009). It's China's coastal cities that make all the
stuff we buy. Their factories are a home (little more than a
bed) and a salary for their employees, most who came from the
inner country to support children and parents left behind.
The train in the title is about these 120 million workers trying
to return to their families every New Year's Day. This alone
makes the film worth watching, a needed reminder to us in the
West how fortunate we are.
But the film becomes poignant beyond words as it follows a
husband and wife who left the village years ago, leaving their
children to be raised by the grandparents. This part of the film
is for all of us who were ever teenagers, or the parents of one.
About lottery winners and how they handled
their good fortune.
Fascinating film. It's not really about the
money, it's about what we do with it. And what it does to us.
Great "cast," wonderful editing, no
Two years ago, at age 70 and no longer in the work force, I
chose improving my chess game (from abysmal all the way up to
mediocre) as one of my personal goals.
I've now studied a half dozen books and try to play a daily game
So I can appreciate how hard it is to play the game well, and
that this is a fine documentary.
We see film of Magnus as a child and a teen, at
home and at school as well as at a chessboard.
You might also enjoy a 60 Minutes segment on Magnus:
LANDSCAPES (2006). This documentary will sear
indelible images on our mind.
Filmed mostly in China (also in Bangladesh), we see factories of
unimaginable size, assembly line workers doing detailed and
repetitive tasks, women and children picking through debris for
the few scraps it may yield.
There's more, but you have to see it for yourself.
I don't remember any voice over. All I remember are astonishing
images, one after the other.
MR WARMTH: DON RICKLES (2007).
Funny, sure, but also touching, and
left me with a lot of admiration for the old man.
Plenty of film
clips to bring back memories.
April 6, 2017: Rest in Peace, Mr Rickles.
MEDIEVAL LIVES (2004).
Terry Jones, of Monty Python fame,
seems to enjoy history. He certainly helps us enjoy it,
especially this little known part.
The 2-disc set also
includes a long segment on an entirely different subject, the
gladiators of ancient Rome, and it's similarly fascinating.
MY ARCHITECT: A SON'S
JOURNEY (2003). I signed this film out of the library simply
because I love and admire great architecture.
Little did I expect that Louis Kahn, the 20th century titan, had
a personal life as fascinating as his magnificent concrete and
A film for all of us, especially those of us who are sons,
fathers or husbands.
MY KID COULD PAINT THAT
(2007). On the surface, a simple story of a
4-year-old child who produces quite interesting paintings that
thousands of dollars.
Was she really the artist or did she get help from her father?
While that may be interesting, what makes the film important,
what gives it it's raison d'Ítre is in helping us
consider "what is art" and "why does a can of soup signed by
Andy Warhol sell for millions?"
Unfortunate the great song
"In the Gallery," by
Mark Knopfler, wasn't in the sound track.
(The DVD's extra features are not to be missed.)
Typically having the best
photography, my favorites (in chronological order) are:
BBC's HUMAN PLANET should have
been wonderful but was a disappointment (for me if not most
see my 2-star review at Amazon.com).
Great photography, and could be a
springboard for important discussions with your children.
NATURE OF SEX
From the wonderful series, NATURE, on
PBS, "...spans the globe to illustrate how an astonishing
diversity of life forms find their mates and conceive, raise,
and protect their offspring." To include human life forms, of
course. The older I get, the more I see how much of our behavior
is innate, shared with other primates, indeed with other animals.
NOTE BY NOTE: The
Making of Steinway L1037 (2007). A
unique film, letting me wallow in my loves of both music and
working with wood. We follow the building of a Steinway grand
piano, serial number L1037, in its New York City factory over
the course of almost a full year.
The factory is a throwback to work
places before robotics and automation. Its workers may never
have sat in Carnegie Hall, but it's obvious they're craftsmen in
their own part of the building process.
Also fascinating are the many and lengthy Extras: profiles of
some of the guest musicians, and performances by them on
THE QUEEN OF VERSAILLES
(2012). As an American, I cringe for what this film
tells the rest of the world about us. We seem to have become a
This film is a microcosm of the Great Recession as seen from one
family. One most unusual family.
Guaranteed to spark many good discussions with your own family
over the dinner table.
THE RESTLESS CONSCIENCE:
RESISTANCE TO HITLER WITHIN GERMANY 1933-1945 (1992).
Gives us some hope for humanity as we learn of moral, ethical Germans deeply opposed to Hitler.
Attempts to assassinate him were futile (and, if it may be said without
dishonoring the plotters, amateurish). A film to be watched
whenever feeling mankind is utterly despicable.
THE ROLLING STONES:
CROSSFIRE HURRICANE (2013). If given only two hours
to describe the world's greatest rock and roll band -- obviously
not possible -- no one could do it better than this.
"Live," the memoir by Keith Richards, prompted me to look for
the Rolling Stones on video. Of the five films I watched this
weekend, Crossfire was by bar the best.
How did it happen that a "lout" (Richards) and a "fop" (Jagger)
would write so many great songs? Not that they had a need to
express themselves. No, their manager told them the band
couldn't succeed if they kept singing songs written by others.
And what songs they wrote. "Satisfaction." "Paint It Black."
"Sympathy for the Devil." "Gimme Shelter." "Street Fighting
Man." "Under Cover of the Night." "Start Me Up." "Brown Sugar."
"Tumbling Dice." And, of course, "It's Only Rock 'n Roll (But I
like It)." These are just my favorites that come to mind; so
SIDE BY SIDE
(2012). Through interviews with great directors and
cinematographers, we learn about the ongoing transformation from
film (analog) to digital in movies. It mostly discusses the
cameras, but also the editing, projecting and special effects of
It may be of interest only to those of us who are both technical
geeks and movie lovers, but that describes me perfectly.
On the other hand, a film critic said of it, "An absolute
must-see for anyone who loves movies."
I found it fascinating.
SIX DAYS IN JUNE
(2007). About Israel's rout of the Arab armies in 1967. As
balanced as reasonably possible, though definitely not from an
Arab perspective. (Then again, the Arab perspective is that
Israel be obliterated.)
(Though I did not fight in this war, I tried
to, changing my life. My college grades were awful, but back
then there were no computer systems
providing grades to draft boards. To leave the country with a
student deferment, one had to first report to the local draft
board. A little old lady went to a filing cabinet, pulled out my
file, looked at it and said, "My, my. You haven't been doing too
well in class, young man. I'm afraid you can't leave the
country. In fact, you can expect to be drafted
soon." I entered the US Army in September 1967, four months
later. It ended up being the best thing that could have happened
to me, I know now, but if I were the reflective type, I would
wonder how my life would have turned out if I had gone to Israel
after all. Certainly my wife and children and career would not
be the same.)
The documentary has many brief interviews with participants of
the war, in both the Arab and Israeli military. There are clips
of the Arab and Israeli leaders, military and civilian. (I was
astonished to learn that Yitzchak Rabin, the Israeli Chief of
Staff, had a nervous breakdown days before the start of the war.
The annihilation of your country can do that.) We see Arab and Jewish
citizens dancing in the streets, the former at the imminent
obliteration of Israel, the latter at their having been saved
Especially for those who have ever served in the military, this
documentary is for anyone wanting to better understand the
Middle East today. Because this war still impacts us decades
A SMALL ACT
Filmed mostly in Kenya, this film uses superb editing to support
its message: small acts of kindness can ripple far beyond where
I can't think of a better film to watch with young American
teens. It has so many teaching points. Some photos are grisly;
your younger children might better wait a few years. I could be
over-protective, your call.
(2007). This isn't a movie about surfing. Surfing is just the
curtain at the back of the stage. This is a movie about a
family, parents Dorian and
Juliette Paskowitz and their nine children, living over the
years in three different used 24-ft RVs. Note: not camping.
It's easy to admit
Dorian is a far better man than me - mentally, physically,
morally, sexually. He followed his passions in ways I can't
begin to match.
But I'm not sure even he would say he was a
The film caught Dorian, in the twilight of his life, when his
mental stability seemed off balance. He says and does things
without regard for others.
The film doesn't devote nearly enough time on Dorian's wife, the
mother of all those children, whose role in the family had to
have been as important as her husband's.
I wish the film's editing had been better, sons shouting into
microphones taking up far too much time, but it's still worth watching,
and for parents, young and old, sure to spark contemplation.
THEY CAME TO PLAY
Some of the 2007 Van
Cliburn Competition pianists were filmed and interviewed. The
It doesn't matter if you
don't much care for the piano or for classical music. This movie
is really about people. And about our dreams.
(2013). A marvelous mashup of art, science and technology
by a multi-talented genius living in, of all places, San
Antonio, my home town.
Some art lovers will doubtless feel disconsolate finding
their own genius, Vermeer, reduced to a "mere" technician. Of
course he was much more than that, and the film never tries to
minimize his achievements.
F*ck is uttered twice in the film, unfortunately. One would
say "so what." I say "Why wasn't it edited out? Why can't we
share this movie with our children as examples of art, heart,
hard work and science being able to accomplish?"
Otherwise, a masterpiece. Like Tim's Vermeer.
Up / 7 Plus Seven / 21 Up / 28 Up / 35 Up / 42 Up)
started as a one-program show, to take a cross-section of twenty
7-year-old children in 1963 Great Britain, show them at school
and home, and ask them mostly the same questions.
The children came from varied social classes, and their
personalities often reflected their roots.
What makes this series a classic -- in my opinion, the
greatest documentary ever made, even with its flaws -- is that
Michael Apted returned to fourteen of the children every seven
years thereafter, showing us how they changed, or didn't, as
they became adults.
I watched all the programs during one weekend in 2014. I'm
sure I'll do the same seven years from now, should I still be
alive, and every seven years thereafter.
WARS - TILES AND TRIBULATIONS ON THE SCRABBLE GAME CIRCUIT
(2005). For Scrabble lovers everywhere,
we're brought a level of play we (me, anyway) never knew existed.
Caution, some rough language before you let your small children
Environmental Road Trip (2011). Three friends take
one year to visit 50 states, seeking environmental issues to
Yes, sometimes silly or superficial, but in the end a great
introduction for young people to environmentalism. Some might
wish more time had been given to the many issues, but that would
require hours and hours in a multi-disc set.
Finally, to wrap it all up, is
Art of Documentary
which features fascinating moments
from interviews with some of the creators in this genre.
No, this is "finally," a brilliant series of spoofs and
parodies of documentaries or TV programs called
(2015). Fred Armison and Bill Hader, of Saturday Night Live
fame, write and act in almost every episode. Seth Meyers, also
from SNL, contributes much excellent writing.
We wouldn't expect the audience for 1) parodies of 2)
documentaries to be that big, but we'd never know that watching
these. The production values, the attention to detail,
everything about this series is first rate.
Those of us who love documentaries -- and if you've read this
far, that probably includes you, too -- will enjoy
Documentary Now all the more.
Please scroll up and
to the left for more choices in Deserted Island Movies.