Still from Manakama, Directed by Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez and produced by Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab.

This Friday, the New York Film Festival kicks off with Captain Phillips, a splashy feature film starring Tom Hanks. It’s the true story of a cargo ship captain who was taken captive by Somali Pirates. The film is directed by the exceptional Paul Greengrass, who has built his career on making fictionalized adaptations of real life, or what I’d call heightened reality films.

That’s the big ticket draw for audiences. In the nonfiction film category, I’d highly recommend American Promise, a documentary that isn’t as mainstream and commercial, but that follows a familiar arc that should attract viewers, especially in New York City; it covers 14 years in the lives of two African-American boys, as they navigate the trials and tribulation of going through the private school system. It will make you think, cry, as it digs deep toward the experience of what it’s like to go through those precious years in a particularly challenging environment.

But the NYFF has always been a festival for the most erudite, hard-thinking filmgoers looking for a challenge, and it won’t disappoint that core following this year. Here are the five bold and ambitious nonfiction gems I most look forward to seeing…

Particle Fever
When a physicist becomes a filmmaker, what do you get? A documentary about the mammoth super-collider in Switzerland, where scientists are trying to recreate the conditions that immediately followed the Big Bang. Director Mark Levinson has woven this work into what they label as an “epic adventure,” which might sound like hogwash, but the fact that it won the Audience Award at Sheffield Doc/Fest, and that they have Hollywood’s legendary editor Walter Murch (Apocalypse Now, The English Patient) on board, gives me great hope. The film has a strong teaser on YouTube, which had me at the word, “symmetries.”

The Convergence Series
As part of the festival’s approach to storytelling and technology, this series brings together a variety of out-there projects that incorporate a lot of documentary material. Most compelling is The Empire Project, an interactive attempt to understand Dutch colonialism, which was discussed earlier here on the POV blog. I am also very interested in No More Road Trips, a compilation of thousands of home movies where the audience is asked to provide the narrative.

Produced by Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab (Sweetgrass, Leviathan), this documentary was shot entirely within a cable car that carries people up and down from a temple on a mountain in Nepal. There are eleven shots that last the entire ride. This could be either what my friend Holly Millea used to call “snore pie with yawn sauce” or the most earth-shattering experience of your life. Considering the Lab’s previous successes, I’m betting on the latter.

Fred Wiseman talks
On Sunday, documentary legend Wiseman talks about his work, which spans from Titicut Follies to this year’s At Berkeley, which also plays the festival. I’m not saying this is going to blow your mind, but we should all listen and learn from the master.

How Democracy Works
Filmmakers Michael Camerini and Shari Robertson set out to make a film about immigration reform in 2000. Instead, they came up with 12 films, and the festival is showing 10 of them (the others are still in production). These two directors aren’t exactly household names, and the subject matter is critically important but not quite dominating everyone’s Twitter feed, so the strength of the material is going to have to be stellar. From a programming perspective, this is what I’d call going “all-in.”

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Tom Roston
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He is a former Premiere magazine senior editor, who graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom's freelance work has appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, The Hollywood Reporter and other publications. He has written several Kindle Singles, including the bestselling Kindle Singles Interview: Ken Burns. Tom's current list of favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi by Godfrey Reggio; 2. Hoop Dreams by Steve James; 3.Stories We Tell by Sarah Polley; 4.Crumb by Terry Zwigoff; 5. Montage of Heck by Brett Morgen