Arriving roughly a month after the comparatively pared-down meals of the New York Film Festival, DOC NYC (which runs today through November 16) feels like an invitation to a table-breaking Thanksgiving dinner: more offerings than you can possibly consume, constituting a spread that’s overwhelming in its sheer volume. Now in its eighth year, the documentary festival — the largest of its kind in America — features a staggering 111 feature-length nonfiction films among its 250-plus total movies and events. (A refreshing non-participant in the derby of premiere-craving bragging rights typical of the fall festival circuit, DOC NYC reserves its exclusives — 23 world premieres and 23 U.S. premieres in the 2017 slate — for movies that would never be seen at the likes of Toronto or Venice.) With a selection of that size, the options are unsurprisingly diverse: explorations of global issues, intimate character portraits, science explainers, true-crime investigations, celebrity profiles, snapshots of New York City. Several rock stars of nonfiction cinema are accounted for, in new films by Joe Berlinger, Barbara Kopple, Sam Pollard, and Chris Smith; there’s also the debut (in full) of Errol Morris’s new six-part Netflix series, Wormwood. But the real thrill at a festival of this magnitude is discovering an unknown director, with a thrilling story to tell, and a new way to tell it. The Voice previewed a number of the titles on offer; here are a selection of the standouts — along with one notice of a movie to avoid.
The Final Year
The first post-opening-credits image of Greg Barker’s festival opener is a simple one: the sturdy doors of the West Wing closing. At its best, the film that follows conveys the emotional charge of sneaking past that barrier for a behind-the-scenes look-around. Barker focuses on the last twelve months of the Obama administration, paying particular attention to its foreign policy team, who treat that last stretch as a ticking-clock framework during which to square away lots of unfinished business. Barker starts in January 2016, with the Iran nuclear deal, and tracks through the rest of that year: the trouble with Syria, the concerns of climate change, that goddamn election, and, finally, one last trip to Greece, the birthplace of democracy. Much gets left out (including anything that complicates the movie’s glowing portraiture of the former president), but it’s a valuable picture nonetheless, capturing not just the professionalism of this diplomatic work but also the humanity — and even a bit of the clumsiness, too.
November 9, 7 p.m. and 7:30 p.m., SVA Theatre
12th and Clairmount
The nostalgic home movies and pleasant voice-over memories that open this examination of the 1967 Detroit riots feel like a momentary salve — and they are. Their warmth is quickly undercut by the blunt force of what comes next, sounds and images of the event in question: a bungled arrest (at an after-hours spot at the intersection named in the title) that prompted five days of protest, fires, and looting and left 43 people dead. Using news footage, contemporaneous interviews, police dispatch tapes, and present-day audio commentary, director-editor Brian Kaufman weaves together the historical record that led to that fraught moment — the impact of the city’s highway; “block-busting” and shifting neighborhoods; fissures in the community — with a run-up of the uprising itself. But the film doesn’t end when the riot does: Kaufman explores both the psychological implications and the direct aftermath, particularly as it relates to the Detroit Police Department’s notorious STRESS unit, an aggressively anti-crime inner-city initiative that, in many ways, deserves a troubling documentary of its own.
November 16, 9:30 p.m., Cinepolis Chelsea
A Murder in Mansfield
We’ve grown so accustomed to the “innocent man, wrongly accused” narrative of true-crime documentaries that the familiar opening scenes of Barbara Kopple’s latest, concerning the 1989 trial of Dr. John Boyle — who was convicted of murdering his wife, Noreen — seem like they must be setting the stage for something more complicated. And, indeed, there is no real question of guilt here: Boyle did it, obviously and sloppily. Kopple is interested, rather, in the couple’s son, Collier, eleven years old at the time of the event. Now a filmmaker on a “quest to heal myself,” Collier returns to his Ohio community, revisiting places and people and asking some hard questions. Mansfield explores the kind of long-term emotional fallout that’s rarely considered by films in this mode; Collier digs up memories both affectionate and painful, subjects himself to intense therapy, and comes face-to-face with his imprisoned father to ask him, at long last, “So, what happened?” Some of the filmmaking is surprisingly dodgy coming from Kopple (Harlan County, USA) — the reliance on fade-outs and cross-fades is strangely amateurish — but there’s no denying the power of that reunion scene, one in which we have to just sit with those two men, without the luxury of easy answers or easy outs.
November 12, 7:45 p.m., Cinepolis Chelsea
The Beatles, Hippies and Hell’s Angels: Inside the Crazy World of Apple
It’s not unreasonable to ask what, at this point, we can possibly learn from a new documentary about the Beatles. (Ron Howard’s recent Eight Days a Week delivered a firm “Not much!” to that query.) Director Ben Lewis is well aware he’s treading covered territory: He even opens his film with the standard screaming-girls and waving-at-the-airport images, as the narrator, Peter Coyote, muses, “This is probably the way you’d expect a Beatles film to begin.” But the pair are working a mostly unexplored angle of the Beatles’ story: The group’s establishment, from a normal-looking office on a refined block of Saville Row, of the full-on lifestyle provider Apple Corps Ltd., which created not just music and film material, but also clothes, hair, art, and electronics. It was an emblem of a new kind of business model (a “hippie corporation”) and an attitude not all that different from the one parroted by today’s start-ups: “This isn’t a job,” Apple Corps’s employees were told. “It’s a place to enjoy yourselves.” By focusing solely on the Fab Four’s workplace, Lewis ends up with a clever cross between The Beatles Anthology and The Office. There are a few dead ends, and the use of Coyote as a narrator, interview subject, and participant is a miscalculation. But the well-selected covers, archival footage, and Yellow Submarine–style animation are playfully engaging.
November 14, 9:15 p.m.; November 15, 12:30 p.m.; both IFC Center
David Bowie: The Last Five Years
“I would love to feel that what I did actually changed the fabric of music,” David Bowie says, with typical understatement, over footage of the vigils and makeshift memorials that followed his unexpected death, in January 2016. But Bowie knew his end was coming, and he spent the final half-decade of his life in a race with his own mortality, attempting to conclude his career on his own terms. In that time, he produced two albums and a stage play, much of the works reckoning, in one way or another, with the death he saw approaching. But ignore the title: This film is not just about those years, because it can’t be — everything Bowie did was the culmination of what came before. So director Francis Whately dips back, using the distant past to explain, or at least contextualize, the more recent one. This wildly effective approach helps underscore the film’s real takeaway: that, quite literally until his death (which came two days after the release of his final album), this artist was still experimenting, still evolving, and still smashing expectations.
November 10, 9:15 p.m., SVA Theatre
Behind the Curtain: Todrick Hall
Few phrases in entertainment public relations are as overworked as “YouTube sensation,” but it’s an apt description of former American Idol contestant and occasional Broadway player Todrick Hall, who’s become something of a mini-mogul on the ’Tube, crafting elaborate viral music videos for his original songs. His work celebrates inclusion and acceptance, which has endeared him to young people, and they, in turn, are clearly the force that keeps him going. Katherine Fairfax Wright’s fly-on-the-wall portrait captures him putting together (in about a month’s time) an entire record, a complementary visual album, and an extravagantly theatrical tour. Hall can come off as mildly pretentious or self-important, but he works hard, leaves it all on the stage, and comes up with a product that’s genuinely impressive. Wright’s structure smoothly blends the performances with the biography — wisely, since the artist himself puts so much of his life into his songs. This is, all told, a fascinating peek at an entire corner of the entertainment industry a lot of us know next to nothing about.
November 12, 3:45 p.m., SVA Theatre
Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond — Featuring a Very Special, Contractually Obligated Mention of Tony Clifton
When Jim Carrey was cast as gonzo comic icon Andy Kaufman in Milos Forman’s 1999 biopic, Man on the Moon, the actor asked Universal to forgo the usual on-set video crew, requesting that documentarian (and Kaufman’s significant other) Lynne Margulies and Kaufman’s pal Bob Zmuda shoot the production instead. That footage has been in storage for nearly twenty years now; Universal’s explanation for burying it, we’re told, is, “We don’t want people to think Jim’s an asshole.” It’s a valid concern, though less in the archival clips than in the current interviews, where Carrey’s freshman-philosophy-seminar patter grows tiresome fast. (He recalls, straight-faced, how he “communicated telepathically” with Andy to hone the performance.) But he does work his way around to some genuine insights about the psychological desire to please, and director Chris Smith (American Movie), for his part, savvily structures his film as a biography of Carrey’s and Kaufman’s parallel lives, one attempting — not always successfully — to emulate the other, particularly with regard to the sticky wicket of mainstream success. And the on-set footage is enlightening, looking past the mystique of Method performance to the annoyances of dealing with it, in little ways, on a day-to-day basis.
November 11, 6:30 p.m., SVA Theatre
“You can’t possibly get all this into one documentary!” Larry Cohen insists, in the midst of one of the many frisky, candid, uproarious anecdotes relayed here by the exploitation filmmaker responsible for such mini-classics as Black Caesar, It’s Alive, and Q: The Winged Serpent. Director Steve Mitchell interviews the usual suspects — Joe Dante, John Landis, Mick Garris, Rick Baker, Fred Williamson — who share rich insider folklore of Cohen’s guerrilla tactics and not-entirely-reliable memory, allowing them to slyly contradict their subject (“That’s a Larry myth!” Williamson insists, of one oft-told tale). Even though he lets the movie run a bit long (at 109 minutes), Mitchell still leaves stretches of Cohen’s life frustratingly unexplained. But you can’t help but take an immediate shine to Cohen, not only for his stubbornness and tenacity, but for his old-fashioned showman’s instinct: to entertain the audience, no matter how limited his resources.
November 13, 9 p.m., Cinepolis Chelsea
Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood
Scotty Bowers ran a gas station in Hollywood, back in what is commonly referred to as that town’s (and its key industry’s) “Golden Age.” But Bowers wasn’t just selling regular and diesel: This “gentleman hustler” had a stable of young men on hand for sexual services, often rendered for film stars who had to keep such preferences on the down-low. Bowers first told his story in his memoir Full Service, gleefully telling tales and dropping names; Matt Tyrnauer’s companion film takes a step back, and, in doing so, gets to have it both ways: delighting in the dishing and revelations, while voicing legitimate concerns about privacy and legacy. The balance is, perhaps inevitably, a little out of whack, and it’s tough to tell where Tyrnauer wants us to land on some of the seamier aspects of Bowers’s story. But the man is a compelling subject, cheerfully vulgar and utterly unapologetic, and he sure can spin a good yarn.
November 11, 3:45 p.m., SVA Theatre
Vigilante: The Incredible True Story of Curtis Sliwa and the Guardian Angels
It’s a little strange to see a New York documentary festival present a straight-up hagiography of Curtis Sliwa, the (to put it politely) controversial figure who founded and ran the Guardian Angels, a citizen’s group patrolling the streets and trains in the late Seventies and early Eighties. His is a complicated legacy; the collective was targeted by the NYPD and the mayor, Ed Koch, while Sliwa has made the case that his Angels played some part in the city’s eventual turnaround on crime. But they were also unchecked cowboys and would-be cops who peddled nonsense — as with, for example, Sliwa’s own confessions of staged rescues and a kidnapping hoax. Sadly, that tension isn’t explored here at all. Sliwa is the only person director David Wexler bothers to interview, save for brief testimonials by his mother and prepubescent son at a birthday party and equally glowing endorsements from randos on the streets of New York. By letting his subject tell his own story, Wexler leaves out anything and everything that doesn’t lionize him. This man could have been the focus of a challenging, thorny documentary; instead, he’s the subject of this one.
November 12, 9:15 p.m., SVA Theatre; November 15, 2:45 p.m., IFC Center