As we anxiously awaited voter count updates this week, it’s been hard to tear ourselves away from news networks and programs. Some of us have tried to forget about politics and the woes of our world by watching mindless comedies and drama (Emily in Paris anyone?). But less empty, more educational entertainment can really help put the current chaos into perspective. From explorations on voting, Trump, Covid 19 and social media’s power to non-political nostalgia-focused chronicles, our critics review a slew of documentaries (both new and that you might have missed) worth the screen time.
1. All In (Prime)
2. Unfit (Prime)
3. The Accidental President (VOD)
4. The Way I See it (VOD)
5. The Social Dilemma (Netflix)
All of the above are great but if you only watch one, we recommend All In, which outlines the roots of voter suppression in heart-breaking detail. Produced by Stacey Abrams, the former gubernatorial candidate who is currently being credited with helping flip Georgia blue, the doc covers her personal history and our country’s history of keeping black, brown and poor people from voting to maintain the white status quo. Abrams’ own Georgia race was directly affected by the issues explored here, but the discussion and history lesson this film provides was surely a factor in the changes we saw in her state, and other states during the presidential election, highlighting just how important the right to vote is, and giving many people in this country the encouragement they needed to fight.
Unfit covers what anyone with eyes and ears already knows- Donald Trump has some serious mental problems, while The Accidental President explores how the crazy idea for his campaign for President began in the first place. The Way I See It is a loving tribute to the office of the presidency through the eyes of Barack Obama and Ronald Reagan-era White House photographer Pete Souza, which similarly shows how Trump has hurt the legacy of the office. And finally, The Social Dilemma is a terrifying look at just how powerful social media has become in our society. Featuring a mix of talking heads and dramatic segments that illustrate how Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and the rest have made us slaves to our devices, the film reveals how these platforms influence us in ways we don’t even understand and how the focus on “like”-driven validation has led to depression, inadequacy and division in our country.
5. Totally Under Control (Hulu)
In the most urgent film of his brilliant career, documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room) goes deep on a story each of us know intimately — the mad tale of the Trump administration’s negligent response to the coronavirus. Artfully collating what must have been a mountain of news footage, Gibney and co-directors Ophelia Harutyunyan and Suzanne Hillinger begin by contrasting South Korea’s response to the first Covid cases with America’s reaction, or lack of one. It’s simple: South Korea’s leaders made a plan. America’s president went golfing.
Gibney and his team intersperse their ongoing news reel with fresh interviews with those who experienced first-hand how little the president and his men cared. There are dozens of witnesses here, including whistleblowers Rick Bright and Max Kennedy, as well as doctors with harrowing stories of supply shortages and death.
I can’t shake the emotion in Mike Bowen, a medical supply executive who spent the last 13 years warning the CDC and government officials (including the Obama administration) that America was headed for an N95 mask shortage of crisis proportions. No one listened. A still furious Bowen chokes up as he recalls the desperate pleading emails he began to receive in the spring from nurses, patients, and terrified nursing home residents. Couldn’t he send a mask? Bowen couldn’t help them, a fact that clearly haunts his days. President Trump, meanwhile, sleeps like a baby. (Chuck Wilson)
6. Time (Prime)
“This wasn’t the year, but next year is the year,” Fox Rich, an African American woman from Louisiana, promises herself and her six sons each time 12 months pass without her husband Robert being freed from his insanely excessive 60-year prison term. (He robbed a credit union.) In this transcendent documentary, director Garret Bradley follows Fox and her six sons as they work each day to both get Robert paroled and grow their lives in ways that will make him proud.
The daily lives of Fox and her kids are complex — work and school and endless calls to courthouse clerks — but what lifts Time to the stratosphere is home video footage Fox shot over the course of 20 years. Meant as a living family album for Robert, the brilliantly edited black-and-white footage captures birthday parties, carnival rides, first days of school, and all the other milestones, major and minor, of six boys growing. “Yo, Pops, this is me,” one of the boys says, speaking into the camera. “This is myself.”
As a counterpoint, in matching black-and-white, Bradley films the family in present day. The twins are headed to college and Fox is continuing her passionate advocacy against the mass incarceration of Black men. The family is busy but the core mission — freeing Robert — is the central focus of each day and every passing minute.
When Fox calls the courthouse to see if the judge has ruled on Robert’s latest appeal, she’s put on hold for a very long time, but Bradley doesn’t cut away. We’re made to wait for that court clerk along with Fox, and the son leaning his head against the wall, as if he’s both hoping and not hoping. In this exquisite film, sure to be classic, prison time has a palpable weight, for the person inside and the loved ones who stand beyond its walls, waiting. (Chuck Wilson)
7. Dick Johnson is Dead (Netflix)
How do we die? How do we mourn? How do we accept a loved one’s death before it happens, especially if they are our parents? These are just a few of the issues that writer/director/producer Kirsten Johnson takes on in her sometimes elegiac yet often hilarious documentary Dick Johnson is Dead.
When the documentary opens, Kristen’s father agrees to move into her apartment. In the scene, we learn two important things about Dick Johnson: one is that–like his wife before him– he is beginning to deal with dementia. The other is that he’s a great dad, and he’s game for his daughter’s ideas about the movie she’s making about him and his eventual death. Those ideas include: Hiring stuntmen to act out various scenarios in which Dick is killed in an accident, like falling on the sidewalk; portraying Dick in heaven, where he’s reunited with his wife, showered with confetti, and miraculously has his deformed feet healed by Jesus; and staging a funeral for Dick to watch from a hidden room.
Dick Johnson is Dead is a death notice in birthday card font, a farewell full of hugs, smiles, cake and confetti. It’s a movie about living in the moment that cherishes every second of its screen time, probably because Kristen cherishes every second she has with Dick. While facing death, Dick asks why Kristen doesn’t make fiction movies, “where the big bucks are.” “Because life is so much more fascinating,” she replies. This wild, wondrous and whimsical documentary celebrates life. (Asher Luberto)
8. The Last Blockbuster (Laemmle Virtual Theater Oct. 12)
Sure, you still have your Blockbuster video rental card. Check your desk. Or the underwear drawer. Then head to Bend, Oregon, where the last Blockbuster in the known universe is open for business. Not even Covid has deterred manager Sandi Harding and her staff from keeping alive the grand tradition of leaving the house to score entertainment.
For this charming documentary, director Taylor Morden, who lives in Bend, began filming the store in 2017 and kept on filming as the Alaska Blockbuster John Oliver championed on his HBO show closed, leaving the Bend location to go it alone. Since there’s no longer a corporate pipeline for product, Sandi heads each week to Target to buy new release DVDs. In her spare time, she crochets blue and yellow ski caps to sell at the register. She’s a superhero.
Innovative in its use of customer data and barcode scanners, Blockbuster was a sensation when the first one opened in 1985. Some 9000 stores quickly followed but so did a messy series of corporate acquisitions, all of which Morden and writer Zeke Kamm detail via archival news footage playing on an old-fashioned TV sitting on the store floor. Spoiler: it wasn’t Netflix’s fault.
There are testimonials to the glories of the video store age from famous nerds such as Kevin Smith, Ione Skye, , Jamie Kennedy, and Bend film critic, Jared Rasic, who happily reenacts his walk from his home to the store. Since there’s only so much that can be said on the subject at hand, these folks end up repeating themselves, more than once, but hey, this is a nice little doc about a fondly remembered video store. Profundity not required. (Chuck Wilson)
9. Class Action Park (HBO Max)
Back in 1978, Action Park opened its doors to the New Jersey masses, much to the delight of rowdy teens (and to the horror of local hospital workers) in the town of Vernon. Featuring water slides, go-karts, cliff diving, and more, the amusement park had a “do-it-yourself” attitude in which people would “take part in the action.” And by action, it would mean crippling injuries and possible death.
Class Action Park is an HBO Max documentary about the infamous theme park Action Park, AKA “Traction Park” or “Class Action Park,” where it built a reputation on its body count rather than any of its attractions. The documentary features one-time teen employees and park guests who recall fondly the injuries and scars they received as a result of the Alpine slides and unsafe swimming conditions. Although YouTube channel Defunctland covered the subject of Action Park in some detail, the feature length documentary goes takes a deep dive into the water park, including the flawed design of the park, the terrible rides, the recipe for disaster that was created, and the inevitable tragedies that it caused.
Leaning more towards Stephen King than Walt Disney for inspiration, Action Park quickly found its place in infamy due to the “holy shit” nature of its rides. Viewers watch incredulously as people describe the Cannonball Loop waterslide, which was designed with no concern for the human body. Other “attractions” offered by the amusement playland included metal tanks that launched fiery projectiles, snake-infested waters for speed boating, wasp and bee nests that welcomed riders at the bottom of slides, and a deadly wave pool that caused multiple drownings every day of its operation.
Class Action Park is a compelling doc that perfectly captures the horror of the park’s existence blended with the fond recollections of those who survived its attractions. The doc focuses on New Jersey residents as they wax poetic on the injuries they received, describing a variable Pleasure Island-situation that was produced due to a deadly combo of booze, dangerous rides, and no adult supervision.In the end, Class Action Park is a romp down a memory lane lined with tacks. A summer of fun for some, and the result of flayed flesh for others, Class Action Park is a tale of survival, remembrance, and one of the most compelling documentaries of 2020. (Erin Maxwell)