Best of the 2020 DOC NYC Film Festival

BELUSHI, directed by R.J Cutler (Michael Gold, via Showtime)

The upside for the downtrodden, due to the pandemic, is that one can view the best of film from the comfort of a desk chair or couch in one’s home. The nation’s largest documentary film festival, DOC NYC, has once again provided some of the top documentary features of the year, including many available via cable or online in the coming weeks.

Zappa/dir. Alex Winter

Alex Winter, given full access to the voluminous archives of musician-composer-producer-activist and inimitable iconoclast Frank Zappa, has fashioned a long overdue feature that does well in covering his wide range of music and activities. From his growing up near dangerous chemicals on the grounds of Maryland’s Edgewood Arsenal to his final triumph, a series of concerts in the Czech Republic, where his music had inspired resistance against the Soviet occupation, the film honors Zappa’s remarkable legacy of inventiveness, humor and advocacy. (Launches November 27)

Belushi/R.J. Cutler

John Belushi, at 30, hit the trifecta, with Saturday Night Live on TV, Animal House on film and the record The Blues Brothers with Dan Aykroyd. His downfall, then, is seen as even more tragic. Cutler balances Belushi’s talent with not only his disproportionate intake of food, alcohol and drugs but also the comedian’s inability to find a balance in his personal life after he burst onto the scene in a raucous, charming and unforgettable manner. (Launches Nov. 22 on Showtime)

My Psychedelic Love Story/Errol Morris

With much of the quirkiness of Morris’s outlandishly fun Tabloid, this doc follows the life of Joanna Harcourt-Smith whose love affair with LSD guru Timothy Leary took place after he had escaped from prison. In addition to the wildly entertaining sex, drugs and radical politics of the time, Morris wisely explores the deeper question of whether Harcourt-Smith herself was an unwitting plant who helped authorities eventually apprehend Leary. (Late 2020 on Showtime).

The Mystery of D.B. Cooper/John Dower

The unidentified but brilliant ransomer who in 1971 parachuted from a commercial airliner with $200,000 and was never found again has been the subject of other projects. But Dower not only fills in details from eyewitnesses, he also explores plausible theories as to who D.B. Cooper was and what his anonymous life might have been like after he succeeded with one of the most sensational robberies of all time. (Launches Nov. 25 on HBO)

40 Years A Prisoner/Tommy Oliver

DOC NYC had a triumvirate of films that addressed severe problems, past and present, with US policing and the most emotionally intense was that from Oliver. He covered the racism of Philadelphia’s Frank Rizzo and his police force, which perpetrated two brutal attacks on the MOVE collective. His main subject, Mike Africa, Jr., worked tirelessly for the eventual release of his parents, unfairly charged with the murder of a policeman, almost certainly killed by friendly fire. It is the kind of documentary that inspires and infuriates with sure-handedness and precision. (Launches Dec. 8 on HBO)

Blue Code of Silence/Magnus Skatfvold, Greg Mallozzi

Bob Leuci, a corrupt NYPD cop on the take, made a rare and dangerous decision in the 70s: He turned informant against his fellow officers, inevitably taking down the dirtiest unit of policemen in New York City. The film’s particular strength is showing the blunt, colorful opinions of those who hail Leuci as a hero and those demonize him as a snitch, making clear the challenges today of correcting police abuses.

A Cops and Robbers Story/Ilinca Calugareanu

A very different take on policing is found in Calugareanu’s investigation of Corey Pegues, a former member of the 1980s Supreme Team gang in New York. He leaves the criminal life, moving up the ranks of the NYPD, until, after 21 years of impeccable service, Pegues’s former criminal life is discovered and he suffers the condemnation of many in the force, although his fellow gang members are more forgiving of his decision.

Crutch/Sachi Cunningham, Vayabobo

An exhilarating recounting of the artistry of Bill Shannon, whose revolutionary incorporation of his crutches in breakdancing speaks to ingenuity and rising beyond disability. The routines are stunning but so is Shannon’s controversial street theatre approach to engaging strangers who see him fall in public without realizing it is a ruse to change their perceptions and attention toward those less fortunate than them.

Kings of Capitol Hill/Mor Loushy

For 60 years, the Israeli lobby AIPAC has funneled money to both Democrats and Republicans, as the largest purchaser of US arms. However, Loushy’s film importantly shows the cracks in the veneer of AIPAC as a new and influential group of politicians, some of whom ran for President, now demand of AIPAC a discussion of a state for the Palestinians, prompting Israeli accusations of anti-Semitism.

’Til Kingdom Come/Maya Zinshtein

A fitting companion piece to Kings of Capitol Hill, Zinshtein examines the seemingly impossible and strange bedfellows of the Israeli right and US Christian fundamentalists, both of whom give financial and moral support to each other, for entirely different reasons. It’s ideologically the Rapture in Israel versus expansion of Jewish settlements, prompting more Palestinian protest.

Mayor/David Osit

The third documentary on the Middle East ably depicts the daily life and concerns of the Palestinians, seen through the lens of Musa Haddid, the venerable mayor of Ramallah. While Israeli soldiers and rock throwing youth are seen on the fringes of the film, Osit’s work makes plain the other challenges of the occupied, including issues with sewage and transportation.

The Last Out/Sami Khan, Michael Gassert

A warm and ultimately heart-breaking narrative follows three young Cuban men who hope to gain permanent residence in the US by breaking into major league baseball. A questionable sports agent in Costa Rica is the gatekeeper for these charming yet naïve young men. Their separation from their families, as well as one intense attempt to sneak over the border, make this a memorable entry in the canon of docs on immigration.

Television Event/Jeff Daniels

Daniels, with this powerful remembrance of the ABC movie The Day After, takes on the highly volatile topic of nuclear war, seen through the eyes of those in Lawrence, Kansas. Daniels reveals what a challenge airing the film was for exec Brandon Stoddard, the visceral reaction of 100 million viewers and the surprising change it engendered in Ronald Reagan, who had been engaged in 1983 in a Cold War of weapons buildup, until The Day After reminded the population that no one wins a nuclear war.

Truth to Power: Barbara Lee Speaks for Me/Abby Ginzberg

Representative Barbara Lee of Northern California was the only dissenting voice in Congress after the 9–11 attacks prompted a furious Washington, DC with granting George W. Bush unlimited power to wage war. By following her career, Ginzberg faultlessly shows Lee’s commitment to racial justice and economic opportunity, commented upon by no less than the late civil rights icon, John Lewis. Lee set a standard for another Oakland area politician — Vice President-elect Kamala Harris.

TELEVISION EVENT, directed by Jeff Daniels

Author, screenwriter, journalist, playwright, literary consultant. Books include REVOLUTION’S END and BECOMING JIMI HENDRIX.

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