5 fresh documentaries to troll Netflix or your local indie movie theater for
While the narrative features screened at SXSW face an uncertain future, the prospects are much brighter for the documentaries on the 2018 slate. They may not show up in theaters, but nonfiction has become such a staple of streaming services, most of the following should be available for viewing in your home sooner than later. (In fact, one doc screened this year, Take Your Pills, is already streaming on Netflix.) Here are five to watch for.
Science Fair — In the tradition of Spellbound, the documentary about the National Spelling Bee that played SXSW back in 2002, this film by Christina Costantini and Darren Foster acquaints us with a global cross-section of young hopeful participants in the annual International Science and Engineering Fair. The competitive aspect of these efforts is a tried-and-true narrative driver that still works because viewers will inevitably develop their own rooting interests, from the Muslim girl attending a sports-focused South Dakota high school to the team of science bros who provide most of the comic relief. It’s a nonparticipant, the fierce and devoted schoolteacher Dr. McCalla, who nearly steals the show, but the whole endeavor is imbued with the inspiration and optimism we sorely need in these science-denying times.
If I Leave Here Tomorrow — Is there any life remaining in the rockumentary or have all the bones been picked clean? Judging from this engaging take on the Lynyrd Skynyrd legend from Stephen Kijack (Scott Walker: 30 Century Man), we can’t stick a fork in the genre quite yet. If I Leave Here Tomorrow doesn’t reinvent the six-string by any means, but it’s an evocative look at the brief heyday of the band many of the talking head participants are eager to bestow with the title of America’s greatest. “Free Bird” gets its due beyond its status as a perennial rock concert punchline, and the complicated feelings that birthed “Sweet Home Alabama” are given a hearing (although curiously there’s no mention of the time Neil Young joined the band onstage to perform it). Not everyone will buy the belated mea culpas for the Confederate flag-emblazoned Southern Rock imagery (the record label is blamed at one point), and there’s no way to ask Ronnie Van Zant or the other two band members who died in a plane crash on October 20, 1977. Still, the clips of classic hits and deep cuts alike confirm that Van Zant had the best advice when it comes to this film and Skynyrd alike: “Turn it up.”
More Human Than Human – The pluses and perils of robotics and artificial intelligence have been science fiction fodder for decades, but as the Black Mirror future becomes more of a present-day reality, expect to see more and more documentaries probing the practical and moral concerns associated with our new digital and mechanical pals (and hopefully not overlords). More Human Than Human is more of a visual essay from longtime Austin filmmaker Tommy Pallotta and co-director Femke Wolting than a nuts-and-bolts exploration of where we are now and how we got here. The film jumps around a variety of related topics, from a chatbot designed to replicate a dead lover’s texts to the surveillance aspects of social media, without delving too deeply into any of them, and builds to a robot-as-filmmaker conclusion that’s somehow both unsettling and underwhelming. This is a genial enough overview of recent developments, but it only skims the surface.
Bill Murray Stories: Life Lessons Learned from a Mythical Man — One reason director Tommy Avallone’s film drew such formidable crowds at SXSW is the entire purpose for the documentary’s existence: You never know where and when Bill Murray is going to show up. In a way it makes sense that Murray never materialized at any of the screenings; that would have been too obvious. (Instead the Groundhog Day actor was spotted at a local watering hole after SXSW had already drawn to a close.) Murray is not an active participant in the documentary either, but there’s plenty of found footage of him popping up at house parties to wash dishes or play drums, and at bars to indiscriminately pour drinks for adoring fans. Avallone’s efforts to weave these anecdotes into a larger philosophy achieve mixed results, and his (thankfully limited) onscreen presence can be grating, but the humor and warmth of the individuals relating their Bill Murray stories makes for a breezy hour and change.
Chef Flynn — If the prospect of sitting through a documentary on the “Justin Bieber of food” has you choking on your hors d’oeuvres, well, that’s entirely understandable. Drawing heavily on home movies shot by the title subject’s filmmaker mother Meg, Cameron Yates’ film about teen chef sensation Flynn McGarry is firmly on the side of the prodigy even as it (somewhat grudgingly) acknowledges the criticisms that have come his way. At times reminiscent of Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, the film traces Flynn’s ascent from a prepubescent preparing dinner parties thrown for family and friends to older teen serving as guest chef for pop-ups at prestigious New York eateries, as well as his sometimes fraught relationship with a mother who has put her own ambitions on hold to help him realize his dreams. It’s clear that Flynn has worked very hard and has culinary talent to spare, but what’s not addressed enough in the film is the privilege that has allowed him to let those talents flourish. As such, it’s a fluffier piece than it might have been had alternate viewpoints been taken more seriously.