"Bigger and here to stay, DOC NYC returns for its second year to spread the gospel of nonfiction, showcasing 52 features in what's becoming the city's mainstream fall complement to MOMA's more international and experimental Documentary Fortnight," writes Nicolas Rapold in the Voice. "Boldface names Werner Herzog, Barbara Kopple, and Jonathan Demme come bearing new work; anticipated favorites such as The Island President and an Eames doc will be rolled out; a memorial tribute to the late Richard Leacock burnishes another vérité legend; and a host of often issue-oriented other films await presumably sympathetic perusal."
The festival opens this evening with Into the Abyss, "Herzog's best documentary in many years," at least for Amy Taubin, writing for Artforum. "Herzog's subject is state-mandated execution, which he addresses via a case of triple homicide that took place in Conroe, Texas…. The movie is all the more haunting for being so straightforward in its narrative organization, visual composition, and method of address. It's hardly news that Herzog is not a conventional documentarian; so-called objective journalism is never an option for him. He opens this depiction of a death penalty case by stating openly that he is against the death penalty. While the release of Into the Abyss follows hard on the execution of the likely innocent Troy Davis, Herzog's position is not founded on the possibility that the criminal justice system can make mistakes. 'A state should not be allowed — under any circumstance — to execute anyone for any reason,' he says, adding that, as a German, he is acutely conscious of the barbaric extermination of six million Jews by the Nazi state." Earlier: Reviews from Telluride and Toronto.
"There are countless stories to tell about those affected by Hurricane Katrina," writes Keith Uhlich in Time Out New York's overview of DOC NYC. "Jonathan Demme's moving and intimate [I'm Carolyn Parker: The Good, the Mad and the Beautiful] zeroes in on one particularly soulful example: Carolyn Parker, a Lower Ninth Ward resident whose home was gutted by the storm but remained standing, much like its vivacious owner. Chronicling various visits with the Parkers between 2006 and 2010, the film follows the family's attempt to rebuild the decaying structure and their own devastated spirits. Katrina docs are a dime a dozen, but this one's a cut above the rest due to the ever-empathetic Demme's ability to unearth and showcase the uniquely human qualities of each person he encounters."
Among the docs Melissa Silvestri reviews at Cinespect are two by Richard Leacock, The Chair (1962), "a feature about lawyer Louis Nizer's fight to save his client Paul Crump from the electric chair, and The Children Were Watching (1960), a made-for-ABC-TV short about school integration in New Orleans. The Chair is gripping with courtroom drama and a sense of dread, while The Children Were Watching shakes audiences to the bones with the absolute hatred and steadfast prejudice spewed out of ordinary people due to social changes."
On Friday, DOC NYC screens On Being There with Richard Leacock, a work-in-progress in which "Jane Weiner draws upon footage that she’s shot over 38 years of Leacock's encounters with Henri Langlois, Chris Marker, Jonas Mekas, Ed Pincus, and others. Leacock reflects on his lifelong quest to capture a sense of 'being there' and on his work with collaborators such as Robert Flaherty, Robert Drew, and DA Pennebaker. The film includes footage from his classic films and never-before-seen segments from his personal archives." Related browsing: RichardLeacock.com.
Updates: Writing for Filmmaker, Lauren Wissot notes that "while I was ultimately able to catch a great number of DOC NYC's engaging selections, from Nelson George and Diane Paragas's Brooklyn Boheme, which uses famous talking heads – including Spike Lee, Chris Rock, Rosie Perez and Branford Marsalis – to make the case for Brooklyn's Fort Greene section being the closest thing the late 20th century had to the Harlem Renaissance; to Gwenaëlle Gobé's This Space Available (inspired by the director's father's book, Emotional Branding — author Marc Gobé also serves as co-producer), which delves into the controversy surrounding the 'visual pollution' caused by billboards and other forms of out-of-control advertising; to Jon Shenk's TIFF-hit The Island President, which follows the Obama-charismatic President Mohamed Nasheed of the Maldives as he fights to save his country before climate change turns it into a 21st century Atlantis, only a handful of films stuck with me for days afterwards. But interestingly, I found my reaction had less to do with a dearth of strong subject matter than with most of these directors' country of origin. Indeed, as I watched American film after American film I couldn't help but be reminded of something Eva Mulvad, the Danish director behind The Good Life, said when I interviewed her after her 'modern day Grey Gardens' premiered at Tribeca. I wondered why the Danes' docs were so riveting compared with my nation's nonfiction flicks. She chalked it up to her filmmaking community's use of fiction techniques to tell their real-life stories, whereas the Brits stay firmly focused on themes and the Americans love their talking heads."
Angelina Maccarone's Charlotte Rampling: The Look opens at Lincoln Plaza on Friday, but tomorrow (Thursday), the director and her subject will be on hand for a special screening at DOC NYC. "'A self-portrait through others,' as it's subtitled, this conversational hall of mirrors never takes its microscope off the 65-year-old actress Charlotte Rampling, ruminating freely on beauty, acting, sensuality, being photographed, and 'what's behind the eyes,'" writes Michael Atkinson in the Voice. "Less famed as a thespian over the decades than as an icy 60s–70s icon, jet-set provocateur, and basilisk glower-puss, Rampling seemed ill-used by filmmakers until the new millennium, when she emerged from a middle-aged struggle with depression (practically prophesied in Woody Allen's Stardust Memories) and turned into one of Europe's great aging lionesses." Keith Uhlich in Time Out New York: "She's the perfect confluence of brains and beauty, and it's a pleasure to be in her company." More from Melissa Anderson (Artforum), Tim Grierson, Stephen Holden (NYT), Louis Jordan (House Next Door), Noel Murray (AV Club, B-) and Carlos J Segura (Cinespect). Earlier: a few reviews from Cannes. Gary Kramer talks with Rampling herself for Slant.
Updates, 11/3: "Undefeated follows a North Memphis high school's 2009-10 football team overcoming years of losses, a lack of funding and general institutional disregard," writes Vadim Rizov at GreenCine Daily. "One of many post-Hoop Dreams docs, Undefeated uses sports drama as a pretext for examining young men counting on professional athletics to save their lives."
Kenji Fujishima at the House Next Door: "Kumaré does for organized religion what Undefeated isn't quite willing to do with the 'religion' of football: prods it, examines it, and considers various perspectives…. Suggesting an unholy mix of Morgan Spurlock and Sacha Baron Cohen in his approach, Vikram Gandhi, the film's 'star' and director, essentially creates a whole new religion using our increasing national obsession with yoga as a springboard." He "decides to remake himself as a 'guru,' create his own practices, and spread his 'teachings' to an array of people in Phoenix, Arizona…. But then, a funny thing happens the longer he keeps up this charade: He actually starts to care about the people he's duping."
Cinespect posts another roundup, this one from Daniel James Scott: "In the history of Mexican cinema, Calderón is a family name that evokes a mixed response. On the one hand, it was responsible for Mexico's first grand movie palaces that played its first commercial hits. On the other, it evokes the scandalous, cabaret-set films (known as ficheras) that arguably tarnished the Mexican film industry. In Perdida ('Lost in Time'), director Viviana García Besné explores her distant relation to the family of entrepreneurs without whom she — and possibly other Mexican filmmakers — wouldn't be making movies."
Update, 11/4: Nick Schager at the House Next Door on Into the Abyss: "Though Herzog unquestionably weaves a tapestry of suffering that speaks to the intense effect violence has on victims, victimizers, and helpless bystanders, his latest, without an engaging series of contentions, too often feels as if it's simply wallowing in grief and misery. That's most true during its voyeuristic crime-scene photo sequences, especially when Herzog lingers on the image of Sandra Stotler's leg underwater in the lake where her body was dumped, a moment that aims to express the arbitrary madness and sheer callousness with which life is often treated, and yet instead comes off as borderline-unseemly gawking. Like much of the film, it's a scene that searches for truth about the mundane evil of men's hearts and the justice systems that seek to regulate them, only to come across as a half-formed bid for profundity."
Updates, 11/9: Variety's Gordon Cox reports that Grover Babcock and Blue Hadaegh's Scenes of a Crime has won the grand jury prize in the Viewfinders category, "focused on films with distinct directorial voices." A Viewfinders special jury prize goes to Dan Lindsay and TJ Martin's Undefeated. "In the New York-centric Metropolis section, the grand jury laurel went to Corinne van der Borch's Girl with Black Balloons, about a reclusive artist living at the Chelsea Hotel. Special jury award went to Laura Brownson and Beth Levison's Lemon, about spoken-word artist Lemon Andersen. Bess Kargman's ballet-world doc First Position, picked up for release by Sundance Selects, nabbed the fest's audience award."
At the House Next Door, Kenji Fujishima reviews a program of shorts, Views on Japan, that "includes two short subjects, Davina Pardo's Minka and Lucy Walker's The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom. If nothing else, both films provoke us to consider the value of immersing oneself in an outsider's perspective on a particular culture."
Update, 11/10: For Filmmaker, Daniel James Scott interviews festival directors Thom Powers and Raphaela Neihausen.
Image: Richard Leacock, by John Ross © Richard Leacock/Canary Banana Films. Earlier: "Richard Leacock, 1921-2011." For news and tips throughout the day every day, follow @thedailyMUBI on Twitter and/or the RSS feed.