Christmas comes early for us documentary film lovers. There’s a sense of elation I feel each December when the Sundance Film Festival announces its January lineup. There’s so much promise: the selected films are like unopened presents. You can check out the full list here, but I want to take a closer peek at the ones that are at the top of my list. And there are quite a few. Ironically, while many have commented on how the narrative feature category represents a retrenching of the festival back to its more obscure, indie roots, in the non-fiction category, there is a collection of doc all-stars like I’ve ever never seen.
Let’s start with the superstars: Alex Gibney (Taxi to the Dark Side) turns his keen eye and prolific energy toward corrupt lobbyist Jack Abramoff in Casino Jack & The United States of Money. And one-time public school teacher Davis Guggenheim (An Inconvenient Truth) will be the latest to take on the public education system with Waiting for Superman.
And then there are the stars-in-the-making: Amir Bar-Lev bounces back from his My Kid Could Paint That with a very intriguing look at the U.S. cover-up of the death of an American celebsoldier in I’m Pat ___ Tillman. In the wake of Jon Krakauer‘s recent book, Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman, this is a must-see for how a doc can complement or do a book one better on the same subject. And then there’s the weird next subject for directors Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg: Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work. How did that happen? Stern and Sundberg are known for gritty tales of injustice (The Devil Came on Horseback, The Trials of Darryl Hunt). I had a nice long chat with Sundberg a while back and she had a number of possible upcoming films on her plate, but I don’t recall her mentioning this one. In fact, note to IMDB.com (if you don’t know it, check it out: it’s a great movie credits resource): it doesn’t list the Rivers doc for either Sundberg or Stern. Were they intentionally keeping this under wraps? Either way, get that fixed. I could call all of the above directors underdogs, but they’re really not, because they’ve had a lot of success already. I just think that their films have vastly underperformed in comparison to how they could have performed, through no fault of the filmmakers.
There’s also Jeffrey Blitz, who made the astoundingly good Spellbound, and then dabbled in fiction with the unsuccessful Rocket Science. At Sundance this year, he returns with Lucky, the story of what happens to people who win the lottery. This is probably the most exciting doc on the list for me, partly because of the director and subject, but also because I had met with Blitz a couple years ago when he was glumly wondering if this doc would ever make it to theaters. Well, it looks like it’s on its way now.
There are several more films I’m psyched to see — Laura Poitras‘ The Oath, journalist-turned-filmmaker Sebastian Junger‘s Restrepo, and Tamra Davis‘ Jean-Michel Basquit: The Radiant Child, among them — but I’ll end this gush on something completely different: a fictional non-fiction film. Howl, directed by doc directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman (The Celluloid Closet) is a retelling of the poet Allen Ginsberg‘s life. It certainly sounds promising to me.
Okay, I’m exhausted with anticipation. Wake me when these docs begin showing in 2010.