A look at some of the year’s most noteworthy documentaries that are bound to get lost in the awards shuffle.
Every year during awards season, I constantly find myself somewhat falling behind when it comes to the documentary field. It’s not that there’s a shortage of contenders that are worth voting for. Plenty of documentaries have been given strong marketing pushes and enjoy modest theatrical runs, with some even breaking into the box-office top 10. I fall behind in making sure they cross my radar since my interests in this area of filmmaking have less to do with hype and more to do with the subject being captured. As a result of this, when voting time comes around, the titles I’m always pushing for in this category are little-known observational and informative takes on subjects I either thought I knew or knew almost nothing about.
So before the screeners for Moonage Daydream, Light & Magic, and Hallelujah get sent out, I thought I’d shine a small, yet glowing light on a trio of documentaries that have come out this year. They may not be at the forefront of awards circles, but each in their own way proves they deserve to be.
Hello, Bookstore– A.B. Zak’s film about Matthew Tannenbaum, the owner of a small town bookstore in upstate New York and his quest to keep his beloved shop afloat in the age of COVID, is pure catnip for book lovers and documentary fans alike. Tannenbaum proves the perfect subject for Zak to follow with his Walter Mitty-like spirit going up against the grim reality of COVID. The ups and downs of being a bookstore owner in a time when businesses are judged by their “essential” quality add plenty of watchability. But the film is at its best when just focusing on Tannenbaum in his element. Hearing him describe certain books and passages for the camera is so entrancing, it sometimes takes a minute to realize that he isn’t talking about his own life, signifying just how he’s absorbed so much of what he’s read. A timely film that’s underscored by its sheer beauty.
Bleeding Audio– For those into the underground music scene in the early 00s, it seemed like The Matches were always the band on the verge of breaking out until they eventually didn’t. Bleeding Audio tracks the genesis of this ska punk band, who revitalized the indie punk scene, scored a record deal, yet never found the success many felt they deserved. Bleeding Audio shows the brotherhood that can form within a band, especially one in a perpetual cycle of living by the seat of their pants as mainstream success eluded them. The film shows the pitfalls that exist within the music business, apart from the legendary industry sharks and charlatans, including the digital wave that changed the industry forever. Ultimately though, Bleeding Audio is a testament to the drive, ambition, belief, and lifelong bond between a band that lasts.
Fiddler’s Journey to the Big Screen– Cinephiles love when their favorite classics are given the documentary treatment, which is why director Daniel Raim’s film will not be short of admirers. This tribute to 1971’s Fiddler on the Roof hits all the right notes when it comes to telling the story of how such a beloved film was made. Hearing interviewees talk about the care and craftsmanship that went into the movie and how everyone within the cast and crew understood what it represented comes through beautifully. Fiddler’s Journey also provides a great examination of Norman Jewison as a filmmaker. Not content with providing just a standard resume rundown, Raim goes deeper, exploring the director’s passion and connection to the Jewish culture. Most moving of all is how the documentary shows what a profound experience making the film was for all involved. A real must for any fan of the classic cinema retrospective.
I feel I should clarify that I don’t mean to dismiss the beauty and impact of a film like Moonage Daydream or any of the other titles that have emerged as top contenders in this awards season. I hope that those and other titles worthy of such glowing attention (as well as accolades) also get their due. Besides the three I’ve highlighted in this piece, other early-in-the-year efforts such as Lucy and Desi and Dear Mr. Brody also prove themselves to be just as deserving of end-of-year prizes because of how they delve into their subjects with true objectivity and curiosity. No matter how they’re seen, or what gongs they take home, each title represents the continuously evolving state of documentary filmmaking in both subjects and perspectives.
Hello Bookstore, Bleeding Audio and Fiddler’s Journey to the Big Screen are all available on Blu-Ray and DVD from Kino Lorber.