“Still,” “American Symphony,” “1619,” Ross McElwee Winners at Critics Choice Documentary Awards

Posted on November 13, 2023 at 12:50 pm

Copyright Apple 2023

I am so honored to be a voting member of the Critics Choice Documentary Awards committee, though the choices are all so outstanding it is difficult to choose between them. Last night, the awards went to many of my favorites from this year, including “Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie,” which won best feature, best director, best editing, best biographical film, and best narration, by Fox himself. Director Davis Guggenheim and editor Michael Harte made exceptional use of their subject’s extensive archive not just to illustrate but to comment on and illuminate Fox’s story. At the ceremony, the Pennebaker Award was presented to acclaimed documentarian Ross McElwee. The award, formerly known as the Critics Choice Lifetime Achievement Award, is named in honor of D A Pennebaker, a past winner. It was presented to Kopple by Chris Hegedus, Pennebaker’s long-time collaborator and widow.

Nominees and winners of the Eighth Annual Critics Choice Documentary Awards

Best Documentary Feature

“20 Days in Mariupol” (PBS)

“American Symphony” (Netflix)

“Beyond Utopia” (Roadside Attractions)

“The Deepest Breath” (Netflix)

“The Eternal Memory” (MTV Documentary Films)

“Judy Blume Forever” (Amazon Studios)

“Kokomo City” (Magnolia Pictures)

“The Mission” (National Geographic)

“Stamped from the Beginning” (Netflix)

WINNER “Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie” (Apple TV+)

Best Director

Maite Alberdi – “The Eternal Memory” (MTV Documentary Films)

Madeleine Gavin – “Beyond Utopia” (Roadside Attractions)

WINNER Davis Guggenheim – “Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie” (Apple TV+)

Matthew Heineman – “American Symphony” (Netflix)

Amanda McBaine, Jesse Moss – “The Mission” (National Geographic)

Steve McQueen – “Occupied City” (A24)

First Documentary Feature

WINNER “20 Days in Mariupol” (PBS)

“26.2 to Life” (Film Halau)

“Bad Press” (Oklafilm)

“Bobi Wine: The People’s President” (National Geographic)

“Kokomo City” (Magnolia Pictures)

“Orlando, My Political Biography” (Sideshow)

“Smoke Sauna Sisterhood” (Greenwich Entertainment)

“The Thief Collector” (FilmRise)


WINNER Tim Cragg – “The Deepest Breath” (Netflix)

Tony Hardmon, Matthew Heineman, Thorsten Thielow – “American Symphony” (Netflix)

Lennert Hillege – “Occupied City” (A24)

Franz Lustig – “Anselm” (Sideshow)

D. Smith – “Kokomo City” (Magnolia Pictures)

Toby Strong, James Boon, Bob Poole, Neil Fairlie, Wim Vorster, Joshua Tarr, Pete Allibone, Neil Harvey,

Andreas Knausenberger – “Secrets of the Elephants” (National Geographic)


Sammy Dane, Jim Hession, Matthew Heineman, Fernando Villegas – “American Symphony” (Netflix)

Madeleine Gavin – “Beyond Utopia” (Roadside Attractions)

WINNER Michael Harte – “Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie” (Apple TV+)

Michelle Mizner – “20 Days in Mariupol” (PBS)

D. Smith – “Kokomo City” (Magnolia Pictures)

Aaron Wickenden – “The Mission” (National Geographic)


WINNER Jon Batiste – “American Symphony” (Netflix)

Danny Bensi & Saunder Jurriaans – “The Mission” (National Geographic)

Nainita Desai – “The Deepest Breath” (Netflix)

Philip Glass, Paul Leonard-Morgan – “The Pigeon Tunnel” (Apple TV+)

Katya Richardson & Kris Bowers – “The Last Repair Shop” (Breakwater Studios)

D. Smith – “Kokomo City” (Magnolia Pictures)


“20 Days in Mariupol” (PBS) – Written and Performed by Mstyslav Chernov

“32 Sounds” (Abramorama) – Written and Performed by Sam Green

“The Disappearance of Shere Hite” (IFC Films) – Written by Nicole Newnham, Performed by Dakota Johnson

“John Lennon: Murder Without a Trial” (Apple TV+) — Written by TBD, Performed by Kiefer Sutherland

“Secrets of the Elephants” (National Geographic) – Written by Martin Williams, Performed by Natalie Portman

WINNER “Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie” (Apple TV+) – Written and Performed by Michael J. Fox

Archival Documentary

“Being Mary Tyler Moore” (HBO)

“The Disappearance of Shere Hite” (IFC Films)

“It Ain’t Over” (Sony Pictures Classics)

“JFK: One Day in America” (National Geographic)

“The Lady Bird Diaries” (Hulu)

“The League” (Magnolia Pictures)

Historical Documentary

“The 1619 Project” (Hulu/Onyx Collective)

WINNER “JFK: One Day in America” (National Geographic)

“The Lady Bird Diaries” (Hulu)

“Lakota Nation vs. United States” (IFC Films)

“The League” (Magnolia Pictures)

“Occupied City” (A24)

“Stamped from the Beginning” (Netflix)

Biographical Documentary

“Being Mary Tyler Moore” (HBO)

“The Disappearance of Shere Hite” (IFC Films)

“Going to Mars: The Nikki Giovanni Project” (HBO)

“Judy Blume Forever” (Amazon Studios)

“Pretty Baby: Brooke Shields” (Hulu)

“Sly” (Netflix)

WINNER “Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie” (Apple TV+)

Music Documentary

WINNER “American Symphony” (Netflix)

“Carlos” (Sony Pictures Classics)

“Ladies First: A Story of Women in Hip-Hop” (Netflix)

“Little Richard: I Am Everything” (Magnolia Pictures/CNN Films)

“Love to Love You, Donna Summer” (HBO)

“Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour” (AMC Theatres)

“What the Hell Happened to Blood, Sweat & Tears?” (Abramorama)

Political Documentary

WINNER “20 Days in Mariupol” (PBS)

“Beyond Utopia” (Roadside Attractions)

“Bobi Wine: The People’s President” (National Geographic)

“Deadlocked: How America Shaped the Supreme Court” (Showtime)

“Every Body” (Focus Features)

“Lakota Nation vs. United States” (IFC Films)

“Silver Dollar Road” (Amazon MGM Studios)

Science/Nature Documentary

“32 Sounds” (Abramorama)

“Between Earth & Sky” (PBS)

“Life on Our Planet” (Netflix)

“Path of the Panther” (National Geographic)

“Poisoned: The Dirty Truth About Your Food” (Netflix)

WINNER “Secrets of the Elephants” (National Geographic)

“Wild Beauty: Mustang Spirit of the West” (Gravitas Ventures)

Sport Documentary 

“Black Ice” (Roadside Attractions)

“BS High” (HBO)

WINNER “The Deepest Breath” (Netflix)

“It Ain’t Over” (Sony Pictures Classics)

“The League” (Magnolia Pictures)

“Reggie” (Amazon Studios)

“Stephen Curry: Underrated” (Apple TV+)

“Welcome to Wrexham” (FX)

True Crime Documentary

“Burden of Proof” (HBO)

“The Jewel Thief” (Hulu)

WINNER (Tie) “John Lennon: Murder Without a Trial” (Apple TV+)

“Murdaugh Murders: A Southern Scandal” (Netflix)

WINNER (Tie) “Telemarketers” (HBO)

“The Thief Collector” (FilmRise)

“Victim/Suspect” (Netflix)

Short Documentary

“The ABCs of Book Banning” (MTV Documentary Films)

“The Barber of Little Rock” (Story Syndicate)

“Between Earth & Sky” (PBS)

“Keys to the City” (New Yorker)

WINNER “The Last Repair Shop” (Breakwater Studios)

“Last Song From Kabul” (MTV Documentary Films)

Limited Documentary Series

WINNER “The 1619 Project” (Hulu/Onyx Collective)

“Big Vape: The Rise and Fall of Juul” (Netflix)

“Deadlocked: How America Shaped the Supreme Court” (Showtime)

“JFK: One Day in America” (National Geographic)

“John Lennon: Murder Without a Trial” (Apple TV+)

“Secrets of the Elephants” (National Geographic)

“Shiny Happy People” (Amazon Studios)

“Telemarketers” (HBO)

Ongoing Documentary Series

WINNER “30 for 30” (ESPN)

“Frontline” (PBS)

“Murdaugh Murders: A Southern Scandal” (Netflix)


“Trafficked with Mariana van Zeller” (National Geographic)

“Welcome to Wrexham” (FX)

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Awards Documentary

For Father’s Day: Documentarians Make Movies About Their Own Fathers

Posted on June 16, 2023 at 3:03 pm

Copyright Asset 1999
Once you’ve watched the feature films with the most memorable fathers, take a look at these documentaries from a small but impressive sub-genre, movies made by directors about their own real-life fathers, mostly famous, some contentious or sorrowful, all thoughtful and illuminating, reflecting one of what can be life’s most complicated and freighted relationships.

Tell Them Who You Are: Oscar-winning cinematographer Haskell Wexler is profiled by his son, Mark. In one memorable scene, the elder Wexler tries to direct his son. It does not go well.

Five Wives, Three Secretaries, and Me Tessa Blake tells the story of her father and, as the title indicates, eight of the women in his life. By the way, those wives all get along together just fine.

Quincy: One of the most talented musicians and producers of the last half-century is profiled by his daughter, writer/actress Rashida Jones.

My Architect: the son of Louis Kahn explores his father’s legacy. Roger Ebert wrote, “The movie begins as the story of a son searching for his father, and ends as the story of the father searching for himself.”

The Man Nobody Knew: The life of CIA spymaster William Colby is explored by his son. He was controversial in life, revealing abuses by his agency including assassination plots, and his son’t suggestion here that his death was a suicide is still being debated.

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Lily Topples the World

Posted on September 1, 2021 at 4:36 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: 4th - 6th Grade
MPAA Rating: Not rated
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: References to the stresses of international adoption
Diversity Issues: A theme of he movie
Date Released to Theaters: August 28, 2021

Copyright 2021 Discovery+
Sometimes everything comes down to a struggle between order and chaos. Lily Hevesh’s constructions made of dominoes are both, in the tradition of Tibetan monks making intricate sand Mandelas and then wiping them away, or artist Andy Goldsworthy making art from ice knowing it will melt. She spends hours, even days assembling her dominos so that the audience, in person or through her popular YouTube channel, can watch them fall down. This film gives us a chance to see the story behind the scenes of her colorful kinetic creations, with over a billion views, and to ponder all of the elements that make the assembly of thousands of dominoes the place where she feels safest and most herself.

Lily Hevesh was born in China and made available for adoption there, likely due to the country’s one-child policy. Her mother tells us she had some abandonment issues as a young child. When she was very young, she discovered a deep love for creating extended, complex designs with dominoes, and then knocking them down. When she arrived at Rensselaer Polytechnic institute as a freshman, no one knew that she was an internationally renowned “domino artist,” and the only one at the top level who was female. Her nom de domino is Hevesh5, the five standing for her family, her parents and two siblings.

This documentary follows Hevesh as she makes the difficult decision to drop out of college to follow her dream and as that dream unfolds, not with the precision and predictability of what she calls “beautifully intricate chain reactions.” But that’s the difference between dominos and dreams. Hevesh’s biggest dream is to have her own line of brightly colored plastic dominoes that meet her exacting specifications for better stability, texture, and satisfying clink when they get knocked over.

There really is something mesmerizing about watching hundreds of thousands of precisely placed plastic pieces fall down. And Hevesh’s designs are undeniably works of both art and engineering, some of them including Rube Goldberg-style contraptions. Her work comes to the attention of social media and Hollywood, and we see a gigantic installation she does for Jimmy Fallon and her red carpet appearance for “Collateral Beauty,” where she created an on-screen domino set-up for star Will Smith. (In an interview with me, the screenwriter for that film compared the dominoes to Buddhist mandalas.)

Director Jeremy Workman is unobtrusive, letting Lily tell her own story, letting her show us her passion, dedication, and vulnerability. Her work is stunning. But the more important message of the film is that each of us should find something that inspires and centers us as much as dominoes do for Hevesh5.

Parents should know that this film includes discussion of international adoption and the impact it has on a child who might feel abandoned. We also see Lily Hevesh dealing with stress.

Family discussion: Why do you think Lily loves dominoes so much? Which is your favorite of her installations? Why do people like to see them fall down?

If you like this, try: Lily Hevesh’s videos on YouTube — and try to make your own build and collapse installation.

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AWFJ Movie of the Week Documentary movie review Movies -- format Movies -- Reviews

Short Films from Harvard Law Students Illuminate Issues of Justice — and Injustice

Posted on June 28, 2021 at 6:02 am

The law can be viewed as a menacing force to intimidate and coerce. But what happens when the law is challenged to right a wrong or create constructive change? Led by Harvard Law School Professor Martha Minow and producer Joseph Tovares, twelve Harvard Law students set out to explore that intersection in LEGAL LENS, premiering Monday, June 28 on WORLD Channel’s LOCAL, USA with additional, exclusive shorts on YouTube. Through five short films featuring captivating profiles and passionate characters, the series examines how laws and regulations can either disrupt lives or lead to positive shifts, depending on how they are interpreted or contested.

“I’ve often thought it may seem strange, but that the closest activity to law, and law practice, is documentary filmmaking, because in a similar, maybe surprising way, we have to deal with the actual reality. This is not fiction. And at the same time, no one would deny there’s a shaping, there’s a choice-making, there’s a set of selection decisions,” Minow says.

The similarities between studying law and creating documentary films may not be obvious, like Minow suggests, but consider the larger themes of both: Lawyers craft stories to win their cases; documentarians lead viewers through a focused narrative to bring attention to an issue.

But more than the industries’ parallels, it’s about the reach film has when compared to law, says Kenyan LL.M. student Zamzam Mohammed, who worked to shine a light on pregnancy discrimination in the workplace. She believes the medium can raise a new kind of awareness: “You can have a case in court, and only very few people would actually be able to understand what’s going on. But then when you have a film, anybody can watch a film on the subway, you can watch it when you’re cooking dinner. And so I think it’s something that helps people understand in a way that is clear for them,” she said.

David Benger, one of a team of students who focused on prison reform, found that documentary fit in seamlessly with his mission as a lawyer: to create broader awareness that, in turn, facilitates change. “I think we, as lawyers, try to convince people, not only that we’re right, but that people should care about what we have to say. And I think filmmaking is an extremely useful tool for helping people invest emotionally in real problems that other people have,” he said.

Starting the conversation, even if it seems like no substantial progress is being made, is half the battle, says LL.M. student Adam Posluns.

“Litigation doesn’t always have to be about big victories in court…Sometimes that change can happen just by initiating lawsuits, just by starting the litigation,” he said. “Because even if you don’t win, and sometimes you won’t win for various reasons…it can get other people to see that they can also litigate these issues. They don’t have to wait for their governments to come along.”

Law, these students agree, may seem straightforward on paper, but when film becomes an element, seeing the human stories behind those laws creates an expanded consciousness and adds a new angle to the purpose of law, offering insight that may otherwise be lost.

“Narrative storytelling, especially documentary storytelling, can help lawyers do their job better and remember that this is about people. I think the thing I hate the most is when people say, ‘Oh, let’s not focus on the facts. Let’s just focus on the law,’” said Elisabeth Mabus, J.D student from Jackson, Mississippi. “The facts are the people. And the facts are the people that the law impacts. And we cannot lose sight of that.”

The umbrella of human rights is what led Minow’s class to their underlying theme: home, and how the law can have such an effect on a person’s sense of it.

“Sometimes we forget the stories behind these legal cases, or don’t pay as much attention to stories behind these legal cases we read. We go straight to the legal issue. We go to the legal arguments, principles, but it’s a gentle reminder that behind every case there’s a human story…win or lose, there’s always that human story,” Daren Zhang, California J.D student, said.

Within these five films, the stories ultimately lead back to what makes a home, and how the idea of home, that basic and fundamental right, is challenged when human rights are threatened. According to Posluns, that was the driving force behind these stories. “I think people felt that human rights were being put on the back burner, that they’re being disregarded rather than championed…That human rights had become more bargaining chips in transactions rather than something to be fought for and to be championed around the world,” he said.

By looking at issues like climate change, immigration and gentrification through a legal lens, these future lawyers began to see their profession differently. By embarking on a mission to represent their characters (Lisa Newman, a working mother; Doris Landaverde, an 18-year Temporary Protected Status holder; Damali Vidot, an unassuming but confident community leader) justly and effectively, opinions on what practicing law means began to evolve.

Kevin Patumwat, a J.D student from Bangkok, Thailand, shared how the project underscored the role of ineffective lawyering: “I think this project really drove home the importance of how lawyers need to be able to use the knowledge, use the resources they have, and really more effectively advocate for the people who they’re advocating for.”

“Ultimately when you care about an issue and you want to tell a story about an issue, there’s a great deal of value in having many different tools in your toolbox for how to tell that story and how to make people care and that this may not be a part of their direct lived experience, but it’s something they should care about,” Benger echoed.

By shifting the gaze of litigation onto honest, human stories, LEGAL LENS offers a glimpse into how there is still room for change in the way law is interpreted and enacted.

“In a lot of our national conversations, I think we focus so much on the things that divide us. We forget often how much we have in common. And we forget to see all the things that unite us,” Boston, Massachusetts J.D student Tianhao He said. “Even though the films in this series all touch on different issue areas with different characters in different parts of life, I think we do see these universal themes. These universal themes of yearning for belonging, of the struggle and also the joys of building home in America.”

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Courtroom Documentary

Summer of Soul (…Or When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)

Posted on June 24, 2021 at 8:00 am

Lowest Recommended Age: 4th - 6th Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for brief drug material, some disturbing images, and smoking
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Brief drug material
Violence/ Scariness: Archival images of violence
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: June 25, 2021

Copyright 2021 Hulu
It felt like the United States had never been more angry and divided. Protests over the treatment of Black Americans erupted into riots. Not last year; this was just over half a century ago, in 1969. The same summer that an outdoor music festival near Woodstock New York became a cultural icon in part because everything went wrong and in part because it was the subject of an Oscar-winning documentary, there was a festival in Harlem of equal star power and impact on the community. But it was all but forgotten because unlike Woodstock, pretty much everything went right, because it was spread out over the whole summer, because the concert footage was hidden away in a basement for five decades, and because the performers and the audience were Black.

And now Questlove, whose expansive knowledge of music is is reflected in his work with The Roots on the Tonight Show and his book Music is History has combined the archival footage with contemporary interviews in directing (as Ahmir-Khalib Thompson) “Summer of Soul,” which deserves to be every bit the cultural touchstone of the other big concert of the year.

There’s even some overlap. Sly and the Family Stone, whose “I Want to Take You Higher” is a highlight of “Woodstock,” is every bit as incendiary in this film as well, though one participant jokes that Sly was so unreliable that you could not be sure he was coming on stage even after his name was announced. The sheer variety is pure joy and every performance is thrilling, from the Edwin Hawkins Singers to Mahalia Jackson to Hugh Masekela and Nina Simone, blues legend B.B. King to supper club legend Abbey Lincoln. David Ruffin of The Temptations shows up as a solo singer. A 19-year-old Stevie Wonder! Gladys Knight and the Pips! The just-breaking-through Fifth Dimension performs in bright yellow shirts with orange fringed vests. They talk about how their pop sound made audiences think they were white and when some discovered that they were not, accused them of being “not Black enough.” Sweetly, they say it meant the world to them to be welcomed by the audience in Harlem.

Questlove/Thompson skillfully blends the archival footage to include the recollections of those who were there with historical context and contemporary perspective. I would happily watch an entire documentary about the host and promoter, night club singer Tony Lawrence, and learn more about how it all came together. Most moving are the comments about how much it meant to the community, especially the people who were there as performers and audience members. The pure joy that radiates from the venue, those on stage and those who were listening, some grilling chicken, some hanging from the trees to get a better view, is like a jolt of optimism and a powerful reminder of the power of music to bring people together.

Parents should know there is some historical footage with violent images and a drug reference, along with some strong language and smoking.

Family discussion: Which was your favorite performance and why? Could an event like this free concert series happen today?

If you like this, try: “Woodstock,” “What Happened, Miss Simone?” the “1971” series about the music of that transitional moment, and another recently restored concert film from archival footage, “Amazing Grace,” with Aretha Franklin

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Documentary movie review Movies -- format Movies -- Reviews Musical Race and Diversity
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