The outstanding documentaries of the American Film Institute


One of the unexpected bonuses in the aftermath of covid-19 is the proliferation of virtual film festivals – letting you grab a bunch of firsts features in your living room, without having to deal with all the usual and pesky travel details. In turn, this allows critics to add new festivals in their regular rotation (like SXSW in March).

The American Film Institute festival, much like True / False (April), focuses entirely on the documentary form, but without the additional thematic mantra of the latter. This year, they’ve selected some 29 feature films amid a plethora of short films, many of which tour festivals as local premieres. Here are some of the other stars from the rest of the festival.

“Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain”: Maybe it was just that his blessing was kind of his curse as well.

This skinny, restless kid from Jersey was exceptionally good at almost everything he tried. He took a job as a dishwasher at a restaurant in New York City and became a chef; he wrote letters from Tokyo to a friend of his and became a New York Times bestselling author; he was asked to write a second book and during his travels he became a certified television star.

In his own words – and in Morgan Neville’s compelling documentary, the late Bourdain’s melodious baritone tells his own life story very often – his success happened almost literally overnight and changed his fortune forever. Soon he was traveling 250 days a year and reinventing himself on the fly. He divorced his 20-year-old wife, remarried, had a scandalous child, then divorced a second time in favor of Asia Argento, the Italian director (and daughter of legendary Italian horror author Dario Argento) , with whom he placed all of his obsessive care and trust only to be burnt to the ground when she pulled away from him.

Neville’s movie is a tragedy, of course, a tragedy we all know is coming (Bourdain hanged himself while he was on location for another shoot in 2018), but the film is also a almost classic description of the twisted alienating effect of fame and material success. In a revealing moment, not long after the success of his first set of travelogues, Bourdain speaks of “burning my past life”, as if that kind of reinvention wouldn’t lead to greater emotional dissociation. The film becomes an uplifting tale for anyone whose wildest dreams are somehow, almost magically, fulfilled and all at the same time.

For a lot of people, Bourdain had the best job imaginable – traveling to exotic places, eating everything, trying whatever is available, and getting richly paid for that privilege – but when you reach such great heights and you can’t still not feel better about yourself, or less existentially sad, you seemingly have nowhere to go. Perhaps it is an immense mercy that the vast majority of us never reach such greatness then, and can always assume that our depression and anxiety stem from this lack of fulfillment.

“Courtroom 3H”: The tumult of the family court is well represented in Antonio Mendez Esparza’s document, which covers a period of time in one of the courtrooms in Tallahassee, where the president of the court , an affable and gentle man, listens attentively to the case by case unfolds before him.

The film is divided into two parts. The first, dubbed “Hearings”, is a cavalcade of puzzling cases with demands for foster care or termination of parental rights amid a constant stream of unhappy people, many of whom are minority or low-income, caught up in social situations. negative cycles of abuse, and irresponsibility; they try to regain a minimum of control over their lives with regard to their children – many of whom have been cared for by well-meaning foster parents – and work with the parents to provide the best possible situation for these children. children, who are locked in an unfortunate stasis between caregivers and their own blood relatives.

Esparza films from a static camera base, occasionally swinging the single lens from part to part, and doesn’t separate these cases via edit points so it looks like a constant stream of complications and of disharmony.

In the second section, titled “Trial”, Esparza focuses on two separate cases. The first, “Elias”, is about a Venezuelan father, who is trying to get custody rights for his young son after the boy’s apparently abusive biological mother has already had his parental rights terminated. After being dragged away by the State Department – his initial visa application was denied – the father was eventually allowed entry into the United States but, in court, state attorneys were skeptical of his request for connection with his young son. should replace the boy’s foster family. In the second, an even more confusing mess, an aggressive mother asks the court to preserve her parental rights, even after a series of incidents with the case manager.

We see the resolution of both cases, but the second section seems somewhat arbitrary – there is nothing in these particular cases that suggests anything deeper or more iconic. Instead, there is the sense of desperate crushing of those complex and problematic dilemmas that overwhelm the courts, and leave states struggling to provide adequate support to this generation of at-risk children who have moved from situation to situation. as their struggling parents strive to improve their lives in the hope of winning them back.

“No Straight Lines: The Rise of Queer Comics”: The graphic novel’s financial redemptive power is well respected in Vivian Kleiman’s interesting, if somewhat fuzzy, history lesson on LGBT comics (and comics) at over the past five decades. In interviews with trailblazers such as lesbian columnist Mary Wings, gay writer / artist / editor Howard Cruse, late artist Jennifer Camper and, of course, the extraordinary Alison Bechdel, who has risen from the helm of a popular and captivating lesbian comic book to watch “), to a graphic novel (” Fun Home “) that landed on the New York Times bestseller list and made her one of the most popular figures. most popular and popular in the movement.

From the form’s earliest days in the ’60s, as an underground rebellion against the ridiculously conservative Comics Code Authority formed in the early’ 50s, gay-themed comics flourished in the ’70s and’ 80s with weekly tapes appearing. in alternative weeklies across the country. In the late 1990s, when the newspaper industry was ‘disrupted’ by the rise of the Internet, many artists turned to the longer and deeper graphic novel format – before Bechdel’s breakthrough. , Cruse released “Stuck Rubber Baby”, also heralded as a triumph of the nascent form – which allowed, as Bechdel puts it, more “literary” production and, therefore, more serious consideration from major critics. of books in the process.

Kleiman also spends a lot of time with other artists, such as Rupert Kinnard, a gay black artist whose car wreck has made him paraplegic (and whose subsequent recovery map, hand-drawn by several of his contemporaries). and sent by Bechdel, becomes the emotional crescendo of the film); as well as more contemporary transgender artists such as Dylan Edwards and Gaia WXYZ. Less a rigorous review than a celebration of form, Kleiman’s film, if nothing else, offers a treasure trove of options for those who wish to dig into the scene.

“The Lost Leonardo”: It’s sort of an almost perfect metaphor for a society in which the obscenely rich operate without regard to the rest of the planet that many of the world’s most transcendent art is possessed. by these oligarchs and mercenaries and locked in a warehouse in Freeport, inaccessible to anyone.

Andreas Koefoed’s astonishing film follows the almost far-fetched works of a single painting, “Salvator Mundi”, which may or may not have been rendered by Leonardo da Vinci, whom most art historians consider to be the greatest. artist of all time. Discovered by a self-proclaimed “sleeper hunter” in New Orleans in 2005 and purchased at the time for $ 1,175, the painting became famous, revered, and (somehow) authenticated over the next decade. point where it was auctioned off in 2017 for a record price of $ 450 million – naturally scooped up by Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Salman, whose rule over his country has been characterized by greed, disdain, cruelty and a mentality above the law which also led to the assassination of journalist Jamal Kashoggi.

Along the way, the painting was exhibited at the National Museum in London, decried by art critics as a fraud, hailed by Christie’s (the auction house that sold the painting to the prince) as the “Mona Lisa male “and the last opportunity to privately own one of the rarest works of art in the history of the world, and locked in a safe in an unknown location. It’s a twisted and complex story of greed, corruption, financial malfeasance and incredible pride, all of which point to the extreme depravity of the art world and how the rich take over our earthly treasures and amass them for themselves.

Ironically, in many of these cases, the wealthy owners of the art do not care at all about its sublime nature, but only treat it, like almost everything else, as an investment and a way to transfer huge amounts. of capital to a zero-rated and easily transportable object. That the painting is authentic – and the Louvre, perhaps the most prestigious and rigorous museum in the world, seemed to suggest so – becomes totally irrelevant. Real or not, it is now the most expensive and precious work of art in the history of the world, regardless of its authenticity and provenance. Perhaps it is an even better analogue.


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