One person’s dream is another person’s nightmare—like, say, walking across a tightrope strung 1,350 feet above the ground. That said, there’s something compelling about someone doggedly working toward a dream that seems implausible, impossible or just plain crazy. If the dream comes true, so much the better.
In 1974, high-wire walker Philippe Petit fulfilled a longstanding dream by sneaking into New York’s World Trade Center, stringing a cable between the tops of the two towers, and—with almost unfathomable guts—walking across it without a net. The man is clearly a nut, but he’s also a great storyteller with a heck of a story, and Man on Wire gives him a chance to tell it. Petit’s stunt was both an engineering challenge and a test of, well, a test of something that most of us don’t possess in this much quantity. Filmmaker James Marsh uses standard documentary techniques, combining new interviews with a satisfying pile of footage and photographs, but his film has the suspense of a caper movie. The title comes from the report written by a police officer who was more than a little uncertain about how to respond to the audacity on display. —Robert Davis
Director Lauren Greenfield only meant to take a few pictures of a very wealthy family in the midst of all their opulence. Her subjects were the Siegels—the self-made billionaire, the trophy wife, the eight not-as-maladjusted-as-you-might-think children, the monochromatic menagerie of animals. But once the family began opening up about their lives, the woman behind the camera decided to stick around a little while longer, positing that there might be more to this story than just infinity symbols for account balances. Her perseverance resulted in The Queen of Versailles, an alternately hilarious and heart-wrenching cautionary tale about the excesses of the American dream. —Tyler Chase
Directed by David Gelb, Jiro Dreams of Sushi is a documentary about one of the greatest masters of the culinary world whom no one has ever heard of. This man is 85-year-old sushi shokunin (Japanese artisan), Jiro Ono, who runs a 10-seat, sushi-only restaurant called Sukiyabashi Jiro located in a Tokyo subway station. The film is shot mainly on a Red One camera, giving the close-ups of the sushi and the shokunin’s hands at work an incredible clarity and crispness that makes this documentary feel all the more real. Although Jiro’s work is ostensibly the focus of the documentary, the film is really propelled by the story of his relationship with his two sons; the youngest of whom has started his own restaurant, and the oldest of whom, at the age of fifty, continues to work with his father, training to one day take over his restaurant. Jiro Dreams of Sushi is a beautifully filmed documentary about a father and his sons who have devoted their lives to the pursuit of the perfect piece of sushi. —Emily Kirkpatrick
Everyone loves a story in which a likable underdog triumphs and finds success; it’s a formula that’s been proven to be a hit with film audiences over and over again. The latest example of this is the story of Arnel Pineda, who was plucked out of obscurity from his life playing in cover bands in the Philippines to become the new frontman of Journey. Ramona S. Diaz’s documentary, which played at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2012, offers an engaging, sweeping overview of Pineda’s story, which is buoyed by the cheesy but classic sounds of Journey and Pineda’s soft-spoken, humble charm. Without either of these elements, Everyman’s Journey would be a far less interesting film. —Jonah Flicker
Laura Dekker, age 14, decides she will become the youngest female to ever complete a solo sailing voyage around the world. As far as one-line documentary premises go, that’s about as compelling as it gets. Which doesn’t mean that director Jillian Schlesinger had an easy task at hand; on the contrary, the magnitude of Dekker’s story presented some serious challenges. How do you condense a two-year voyage into an 80-minute film? That solved, you face the more pressing issue of making something very small into something very big—most of Laura’s journey was routine, even boring. How to dramatize the tedium? The answer, if it could be boiled down to a word, would be “humanity.” Dekker is a remarkable, charismatic girl, a fact that should be obvious by the sheer adventurous size of her undertaking. —Shane Ryan