Best of the 2021 DOC NYC Festival

As the largest documentary film festival in the United States, DOC NYC, concluding November 28 online, is presenting among its 120 feature films 32 world premieres and 34 US premieres. A selection of stellar work, from both established and newer filmmakers follows:

YOUNG PLATO

Dir: Neasa Ní Chianáin, Declan McGrath

(Ireland/UK/ France/ Belgium)

This wrenching but inevitably uplifting, touching doc follows a progressive headmaster at a Catholic boys school in a troubled Belfast neighborhood. Mister McArevey must negotiate the poverty and violence of certain boys with both understanding and, surprisingly, the tenets of Greek philosophy to guide them away from a dark historic past.

KURT VONNEGUT: UNSTUCK IN TIME

Dir. Robert B. Weide, Don Argott (USA)

Weide, drawing on his decades-long relationship with literary icon Vonnegut, codirects this highly personal portrait with Argott (The Art of the Steal). The long anticipated world premiere has both Vonnegut’s quirky humor and tragic past on display, admirably getting inside his psyche and showing why generations of readers have loved both his startling imagination and prose accessibility.

THE MOLE

Dir: Mads Brügger (Denmark/Norway)

Filmed over ten years, this doc follows an alleged Scandinavian follower of North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, who penetrates the deepest recesses of the military apparatus to secretly film a multinational plot regarding weapons and drugs. It plays out like the tautest of thrillers, revealing how dangerous Pyongyang is to the world community.

TRY HARDER!

Dir: Debbie Lum (USA)

At Lowell High School, top-ranked in San Francisco, gifted students face the inability to get into preferred universities because of quotas and prohibitive expenses. Lum mines much humor and energy from her subjects, their various ethnic backgrounds and how they face the pressures of an uncertain future.

WHO WE ARE: A CHRONICLE OF RACISM IN AMERICA (FIGHT THE POWER)

Dir: Emily Kunstler, Sarah Kunstler (USA)

Winner of the SXSW Audience Award, Who We Are is guided by ACLU attorney Jeffrey Robinson, whose interviews, travels and personal stories delineate the US history of anti-Black racism. The filmmaking sisters manage to both educate and emotionally impact the viewer, abetted by the marvel that is Robinson.

ROADRUNNER: A FILM ABOUT ANTHONY BOURDAIN
Dir: Morgan Neville (USA)

Oscar winner director Neville digs deep into chef/writer/TV personality Bourdain whose ability to connect with people in his world travels is juxtaposed with a strong self-doubt and eventual suicidal ideation. Neville wisely shows Bourdain’s impact on a large circle of friends, devastated by his sudden end.

SUMMER OF SOUL (…OR, WHEN THE REVOLUTION COULD NOT BE TELEVISED)
Dir: Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson (USA)

Questlove’s directorial debut highlights the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival. The Grand Jury and Audience Prize winner at Sundance boasts thrilling, well-shot performances including Sly and the Family Stone, Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight and gospel legend Mahalia Jackson joined at the last moment by a young Mavis Staples. A welcome addition to the pantheon of great music on film.

F@CK THIS JOB

Dir. Vera Krichevskaya (UK/Germany)

Natasha Sindeeva starts Dozhd, the only independent TV station in Russia. But taking on, with charm and naiveté, the war in Ukraine and Navalny’s anti-corruption investigations takes a toll, as Vladimir Putin’s regime constantly threatens her idealistic, democratic team. A remarkable ten-year journey is encapsulated by the talented Krichevskaya.

DEAN MARTIN: KING OF COOL

Dir. Tom Donahue (USA)

Dean Martin’s laid-back charm as a singer and actor is contrasted with his family and personal struggles (notably with Jerry Lewis, his once beloved partner). Donahue’s complex film biography is filled with sharp observations and delightful clips that show a gifted but lackadaisical entertainer who sometimes would rather play golf than rehearse.

PUNCH 9 FOR HAROLD WASHINGTON

Dir: Joe Winston (USA)

A stirring tribute to Chicago’s first African American mayor, Harold Washington, and how his 1983 election victory took on a Democratic “machine” riddled with corruption and failed promises for minorities and the working class. Winston shows how Washington’s multiethnic administration paved the way for countless Black politicians, locally and nationally.

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Brad Schreiber

Brad Schreiber

Author, screenwriter, journalist, playwright, literary consultant. Books include REVOLUTION’S END and BECOMING JIMI HENDRIX. http://brashcyber.com