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December 19, 2011


There is a moment in Werner Herzog's Encounters at the End of the World where Herzog explains that, when he was seeking financing for the film, he warned people that it would not be a "fluffy" production like March of the Penguins, and indeed I thought there could hardly be a more heartbreaking scene than that of a bewildered young penguin who suddenly turns the wrong direction and runs with determination, not toward the sea, but toward a mountain of ice and certain death. That is until I saw Dereck Joubert's The Last Lions. If you have ever doubted that animals have emotions, I defy you to watch  the scene of a mother's grief in this stunning documentary. It will haunt you forever and brings me to tears even as I write. Filmed in the Okavango Delta in Botswana, just north of South Africa, this beautiful film, though it never says so, is a plea to us -- while our population continues to encroach upon others' habitats, while we lurch headlong in our pursuit of fossil fuels (with zany ideas like the Keystone XL pipeline for crude tar, hydraulic fracturing and deep sea drilling) -- to step back and come to the realization of the irreparable devastation we are wantonly wreaking.

Pom Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold is Morgan Spurlock's latest assault on contemporary capitalism. I once read a review of a Michael Moore film in which the critic belittled it as a polemic. But polemic is what Moore does, and Spurlock, too, though a bit more self-effacingly. The documentary is meant to be a product about products, and explores the reasoning and justifications that go into product placement decisions.

The inspiration for Robert Redford's The Horse Whisperer is Buck Brannaman, the subject of Cindy Meehl's debut film Buck. Brannaman grew up performing, with  his brother, trick rope routines from the age of three, in an act promoted by their brute of a father. Finding himself without direction in his early 20s, Buck encountered Ray Hunt and his teacher, Tom Dorrance, the pioneers of natural horsemanship, a method of training horses, as opposed to breaking them, that focuses on creating a bond of trust rather than a breaking into submission. The philosophy struck a chord with the young man who himself had suffered relentless abuse. There are moments when Meehl's inexperience as a filmmaker shows, but watching Buck and his horse move as one is a dance you will not soon forget.

Page One: Inside The New York Times (2010) is not simply about The New York Times but about the future of print news media as a whole. Michael Kinsley, who is not one of the Times' regular movie critics, reviewed Andrew Rossi's film and found it a "mess," "[flitting] from topic to topic, character to character, explaining almost nothing." I don't agree. The film's primary voice is Times reporter David Carr, for whom Kinsley has unveiled contempt. I liked Carr's prickly personality, and his unbridled enthusiasm for the paper he serves. I was especially glad to see the point made that without what used to be called a paper of record, most internet news outlets would have no source for their stories.

In his feature directorial debut the actor Michael Rapaport documents the hip-hop group Quest through interviews with Q-Tip, Phife Dawg and others. Beats, Rhymes & Life: A Tribe Called Quest examines the group's inception, arc, and decline and its pioneering use of sampling. Quest, along with Jungle Brothers and De La Soul, was instrumental in Native Tongues, a movement noted for Afrocentric lyrics and its eschewal of the negative language and themes favored by most hip-hop artists of the time.

Project Nim is not the tour de force that Robert Marsh's 2008 Man on Wire was. That film documented the life of Philippe Petit and found its culminating moment on the morning of August 7, 1974, when the tightrope walker stepped out of the as yet unfinished World Trade Center Towers and held spectators captive as he danced back and forth on a metal cable strung between them. Nim explores the strange life of  the chimpanzee who became part of Columbia professor Herbert Terrace's experiment to attempt to teach the primate human language. Moreso, it is a film about humans whose arrogance seems to imbue them with an almost limitless ability to torment even fellow creatures whom they love.

Charlie Minn's 8 Murders a Day is an indictment of Mexican President Felipe Calderón's decision in 2006 to enact a military campaign against two warring drug cartels in Juarez that resulted in more than 3,000 dead in 2010 alone, which Minn sees as "the extermination of the poor." The central point of the film can be summed up by one of the many people Minn interviews. Charles Bowden bluntly remarks, "This is a fake war -- unless you’re a corpse.”

Crime After Crime tells the shameful story of Deborah Peagler and how the Califormia Criminal "Justice" system maneuvered the law to keep her in prison. It is also producer, director and editor Yoav Potash's moving account of the two lawyers who launch an eight year pro bono defense to free her. The lawyers, Nadia Costa and Joshua Safran, met Deborah at the point at which she had already served 20 years of a 25-years-to-life sentence for involvement in the 1982 murder of a pathologically abusive boyfriend. When they  finally triumph and win her release, she has been diagnosed with terminal cancer. One of Deborah's daughters was present at the screening I attended -- with only two other people. She is travelling with the film to champion the cause for the thousands and thousands of others unjustly held in U.S. prisons. At least the three of us who saw the film in San Antonio are more enlightened than we were before seeing the story of this stoic and dignified woman.

Using archival footage of Formula One races and family movies, Asif Kapadia’s Senna is a loving portrait of arguably the greatest racecar driver ever to have lived. Ayrton Senna was virtually unknown when he came from behind to finish second in the 1984 Monaco Grand Prix. In 1988 in Japan, he won the first of three Formula One world championships, moving from 16th to first. In an uncanny feat of will he won his home Grand Prix of Brazil. With the car stuck in sixth gear, Senna had to strain every muscle of his body to manage the car and push it on. He died in a crash while leading the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix, the last driver to die in Formula One. The film also chronicles the bitter rivalry between Senna and Frenchman Alain Prost, who had been the reigning champion.

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