Sundance 2009: Eleven Documentaries to Wrestle With

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Thriller in Manila

Thriller in Manila

With Frontline-seriousness Thriller in Manila reveals that Muhammad Ali resorted to some nasty trash talking before his historic bouts with Joe Frazier. That meany. Ali has since retracted some of his harsher, race-related comments, but Frazier maintains his bitterness, and it's clearly on display in this documentary that tries to reflect his point of view of the legendary rivalry, not Ali's. Director John Dower gets a lot of mileage out of Ali's offensive remarks, but the film finds its footing in the last half hour with a brilliant, prismatic, nail-biting account of the match in Manila. The film is more nuanced and exciting than When We Were Kings (as I'm told the fight itself was — I'm not a boxing fan, myself), and knowing how angry Frazier was, and still is, about the things Ali said helps explain the psychology in the ring.

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 O'er the Land

O'er the Land

I'm not familiar with Deborah Stratman's work, but this short feature made me curious to seek it out. More like an avant-garde meditation than a traditional documentary, the film weaves a rumbling portrait of militarized culture in America. It's not polemical or didactic, but Stratman offers up plenty of food for thought when she follows a train of thought, visually, from the story of Col. William Rankin, an Air Force pilot who survived a fall from his plane through a thunderstorm, to revolutionary war reenactments in the woods like the ones where Rankin landed, to marching bands, to football games, to fireman climbing into hazmat suits, to border patrol officers scouring the land for tracks, to firing ranges, to flame-thrower ranges ... and eventually back to Rankin.

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 Over the Hills and Far Away

Over the Hills and Far Away

The parents of an autistic boy living in Texas decided to take him on a trip across Mongolia to pay visits to shamans who live in remote regions, hoping that the ceremonies, or perhaps the long trip on horseback, would do some good for their son. Filmmaker Michel Orion Scott captures the family's adventure, but he's an all but invisible presence; the boy's father, Rupert, is the voice of the film, talking often to the camera about his hopes and reservations, which come in waves. I have mixed feelings about the trip, but the film does convey something of the roller-coaster that many parents of autists experience regularly, riding from hope to despair and back again, even if it's usually on the way to the grocery store instead of a trek across Mongolia.

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 Reporter

Reporter

Eric Daniel Metzgar's portrait of Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Nicholas Kristof does an excellent job of provoking questions about the nature and duty of journalism. See my earlier comments here.

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 We Live in Public

We Live in Public

Ondi Timinoer's latest film, the winner of the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, paints a dubious portrait of entrepreneur Josh Harris as a visionary, but it's an exceptional document of the Internet boom in miniature. See my earlier comments here.

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 It Might Get Loud

It Might Get Loud
The aforementioned Mr. Guggenheim, director of An Inconvenient Truth, returned to Sundance himself this year with a film that brings together Jimmy Page, The Edge, and Jack White to talk guitars. I might have hoped for a little more chemistry among the three, but it's fun to see them talk about their careers, anyway. See my earlier comments here. See more of our Sundance coverage here.

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