2017 is starting off with a documentary bang with one of the most anticipated cultural events of an otherwise daunting year is a nonfiction film: HBO’s airing of Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds. The film appears to be a loving portrait of the very close mother-daughter stars of the big screen who just passed away within a day of each other. They are getting some flack but I don’t begrudge HBO for pushing the airing from Mother’s Day to now. It’s what people want to see.
What else does 2017 have in store for us? Sundance is the big premiere venue for many of the biggest documentaries of the year, and this festival is no exception. The An Inconvenient Truth sequel opening Sundance is a follow-up to the 20-year-old film that really pushed climate change (and its star, Al Gore) to the center of the cultural conversation. Paramount Pictures will release the film in theaters later this year, where it’s bound to strike a nerve with our new president, whose past comments indicate climate change denial.
Sundance is drowning in hot docs of which I’ll highlight just five here:
Director Kitty Green has a unique way of depicting the real world; by using local casting calls to embody the facts and myths surrounding the never-resolved killing of JonBenét Ramsey. This looks to be a little bit Kate Plays Christine, a little bit The Act of Killing, which is to say, all hybrid. The film just got picked up by Netflix for distribution later this year.
City of Ghosts
For those of us who were blown away by Matthew Heineman’s Cartel Land, his moving from Mexican drug cartels to the ISIS heartland promises more seering, vérité action.
Director Pamela Yates tells the history of Guatemala in a chronicle of oppression and resilience that might also indicate a glimmer of hope in the resistance of the Mayan people.
Long Strange Trip
Directed by the Bay Area’s Amir Bar-Lev, this looks to be a definitive documentary on the band The Grateful Dead and its cultural impact. Whoa, I’m getting a contact high just writing about it.
Yance Ford tells the devastating story of the killing of her brother in a film that aims to unravel the truth, cast light on the injustice and struggle through grief.
As strong as Sundance’s slate may be, there is plenty else out there. Take Slamdance, which may play in its shadows, but I am happy to see it’ll be showing Hotel Coolgardie, a compelling vérité film about the clash of genders and cultures when young European women bartend at a roughneck bar in Australia. I’m not sure if it’s locked down distribution yet.
There are plenty of documentaries that played the 2016 festival circuit, now coming down the pike, most notably three docs focused on fascinating figures; I Am Not Your Negro (February 3), David Lynch: The Art Life (March 31) and Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent (TBD), all well worth seeing.
And animal lovers won’t be disappointed. First, there’s Kedi (February 10), a meditative film about the lives of seven cats in Istanbul. Disneynature will also be returning with its semi-regular big nature film, this time Born in China (April 21), which focuses on the lives of three animal families — that of a panda, a monkey and a snow leopard.
Three of the biggest documentaries set for 2017 don’t have release dates yet but be ready to feast your eyes and ears on biopics on Prince and Whitney Houston, the latter of which is directed by the sublime Kevin Macdonald. And, still alive and also very much a legend; chimp champion Jane Goodall will be getting an epic treatment by Brett Morgen, who is using several talents from his stellar Montage of Heck team, as well as an original score by Philip Glass. That, I have to see.
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