Tag Archives: documentaries



The new documentary about Amy Winehouse, Amyis devastating. Whether or not you were a fan of Winehouse’s music, it’s hard not to be moved by this film, directed by Asif Kapadia (Senna). It chronicles the singer’s rise to superstardom as well as her roller coaster struggles with drug and alcohol addiction, eating disorders and other destructive behavior which ultimately led to her tragic death-by-alcohol-poisoning in 2011.

Amy is a powerful, haunting picture of what sin does to all of us: It destroys. It undermines our gifts. It stubbornly refuses to go away. The movie shows the various “good,” “bad,” and “really, really bad” periods in Amy’s life circa 2001-2011, which more or less correspond with periods of drug/alcohol addiction and stints of rehab or relative sobriety. It’s amazing to see how her physical appearance, speech, and ability to be creative change dramatically with the ups and downs of her addictive struggles. It’s painful to watch Amy at times start to move away from destructive behavior and make better choices, only to have it all undermined by relapses and returns to the people and pleasures that destroy her. If ever there was a movie that showcases the ugliness of what sin does in our lives and how hard it is to escape its grasp on our own merits, it is Amy. 

The film is also a pretty damning critique of the friends, family, boyfriends, managers, executives, journalists and fans who enable Amy’s self-destruction by standing by and saying nothing (while taking pictures and/or making money off her). Some of them are better than others, but for the most part the people in Amy’s life don’t have the courage to call a spade a spade. Some of the saddest moments in the film show her father downplaying the need for Amy to go to rehab (tragically this episode inspired her #1 hit song “Rehab”: I ain’t got the time and if my daddy thinks I’m fine…). Or her mother downplaying the gravity of bulimia. Or managers booking shows for Amy at the height of her addiction struggles. Or anyone in her life refusing to keep Amy far away from her drug-pushing disaster of a boyfriend Blake Fielder. This is not to say that Amy is not herself also to blame; it’s just to acknowledge that individuals are embedded within communities who shape them for good and for ill, communities who ought not sit idly by when sin does its destructive thing.

The film made me think about how increasingly unwilling most people in our society are to talk about sin, let alone know it when they see it. Because we are so afraid of being intolerant or judgmental (vices that are worse than just about anything in our to-each-their-own #CallMeCaitlyn world), we find it unfathomable to tell another person that what they are doing is wrong, even if we know deeply and without a doubt that it is. Amy shows the pitiful fruit of a society that is impotent to help sinners because it has bought into the notion that tolerance is the highest love. It also shows the ramifications of the pervasive sense (even amongst many Christians) that brokenness is the most authentic thing and the source of all good art. One of the tragic meta themes of Amy is the suggestion that her timeless voice and raw lyrics stemmed from and were spurred on by her demons, that art and brokenness depend on one another. This may be partially true, but abandoning someone to ruin is never justifiable, even for the greatest art. We should all wish to have rather had a healthy and alive Amy who was boring than a dead-at-27 Amy who lives on in art films and the annals of pop.

Best Documentaries of 2012

My best films list will be finished early next week (still a few films to see!) but I’ll go ahead and list my picks for the five best documentaries of the year. Many of these are available on Netflix Instant, and I heartily recommend them to you.

5) Indie Game: The Movie (dir. Lisanne Pajot and James Swirsky): Anyone who says that videogames are not a valid artform needs to see this film, which follows a handful of independent videogame developers as they work to complete and release their games to the world. The characters in the film are gamer nerd hipsters and the games they create are as eccentric and edgy as they are. The film is concise, funny, endearing and informative — everything a good documentary should be.

4) Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry (dir. Alison Klayman): This portrait of Chinese contemporary artist and activist Ai Weiwei is absolutely fascinating. I love profiles of artists, because they are usually quite colorful and complex personalities. But Weiwei’s story is interesting not only for all the typical “artist” reasons, but because of the Chinese political/cultural context against which his art and persona are set. His activism (largely organized via social media) is given as much attention in the film as his art, but it all works together to paint a compelling picture of the paradoxes that characterize contemporary Chinese life.

3) The Queen of Versailles (dir. Lauren Greenfield): A fabulously wealthy owner of a vacation rental business and his large family are building a massive mansion in Orlando, Florida — it will be the largest single family home in America, in fact. Midway through construction, however, the 2008 financial crash happens and the bottom drops out of their real estate business. This film depicts the hilarious and sometimes sad adjustments the family must make when money suddenly becomes tight and life as “the 1%” falls apart as they know it.

2) Undefeated (dir. Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin): Essentially a documentary version of the latter seasons of Friday Night Lights, this Oscar-nominated film follows the 2009 football season of Manassas High School in North Memphis, a school more familiar with metal detectors and juvenile detention than with winning football games. The narratives of Coach Bill Courtney and a handful of players he shapes and mentors are utterly compelling and emotionally wrenching. It’s a hard film to watch with dry eyes. (my review)

1) The Imposter (dir. Bart Layton): A thirteen-year-old boy in Texas disappears in 1994. Three years later, in 1997, he apparently shows up in Spain. His family goes to meet him and bring him back to the states, convinced that he is indeed their long-lost son (even though he looks vastly different). But he isn’t. This unsettling documentary depicts a stranger-than-fiction story of identity theft, breached security, and (most disturbingly) one family’s willful self-deception. It’s a brilliant mystery story packed with excellent tension and intriguing characters.

Honorable Mention: The Invisible War, Head Games, 30 for 30: There’s No Place Like Home