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David Attenborough: A Life on Our Planet

David Attenborough, who has been studying, filming, and telling stories about the planet and its inhabitants for many, many decades now, reflects on his life’s work in meeting head-on the impending crisis of the Holocene: Climate change and its acceleration caused by humans. Throughout the film that parallels his journeys and his fascination with nature, he marks various decades with three basic statistics: Population; Atmospheric Carbon PPM; and percentage of the world that is wilderness. Human’s footprint is unmistakable, and he projects what will happen over the next 80 years (much of which is already happening today). Attenborough does provide …

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My Octopus Teacher

This documentary follows a year in the life of Craig Foster. Having run against some difficult times, he takes to the snorkeling in the kelp beds of South Africa and befriends an octopus. Through the course of the year, Foster puts together a beautiful collage of life in the kelp beds while researching the life of the octopus. It felt a bit strange sometimes, as it seemed sometimes that the attachment was a bit closer than it should have been, almost romantic, but what stands out is the depiction of the cycle of life Foster captures with his lens. The …

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Time

This documentary is about Fox Rich, who spends 20 years working to free her husband Rob for a bank robbery both of them committed. I really loved this film for several reasons. First, it is not your standard false conviction story; in this particular case, both of them admitted to doing it, but while Fox spent almost 5 years in prison, Rob was sentenced to 60 years initially without the possibility of parole. And the film doesn’t really spend a lot of time focused on that fight; rather, it is more about Fox and her 6 boys who she raised …

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A Most Beautiful Thing

This documentary follows a group of Black men from West Chicago who, in the 1990s, were the first all-Black crew team in the US. Narrated by Common and overlayed with a hip-hop soundtrack, the film follows the men who rowed during that first year that crew was offered at Manley High School and their lives that have taken each of them down different paths. The strength of the documentary is how it explores the family and community context in which all of these men came of age, communities that were dominated by gangs, and the expectation that boys join gangs. …

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No Direction Home

Martin Scorsese made this film about the early years of Bob Dylan’s career. With the benefit (or not, in some cases) from Dylan’s own reflections, Scorcese examines the cultural waves that were occurring on which Dylan rode to success – the folk music scene, the civil rights movement, rock and roll music, beat poets, the New York art scene. For me, this was where Scorsese worked his best magic. There are lots of still shots of the young Dylan as well as video footage of him and others, such as Joan Baez, Maria Muldaur, and others who rose to fame …

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Bruce Springsteen’s Letter to You

This film is a companion piece to Springsteen’s new album, Letter to You. It is partly an extended music video that shows Springsteen and the E Street Band playing many of the songs on the album, but it also is a documentary in which Springsteen looks back on his life, his early influences, and the periods in his life that inspired his current work. I really enjoyed how the concept worked. The film is all shot in black and white, and some of the images are incredibly beautiful to look at. I love the almost poetic reflections that he narrates …

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Dick Johnson is Dead

Dick Johnson is coming toward the end of his life, and he is beginning to suffer dementia. His daughter (the director, Kirsten Johnson) decides to stage a number of different kinds of deaths and after-life experiences to help both of them to deal with the double loss they both know is coming – the actual end of life but also the “loss” that comes with dementia. It is a really unusual kind of documentary, but one that when it works, it works very well. It is at times very funny in the ways Kirsten stages his death and he goes …

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The Social Dilemma

This part documentary, part dramatization piece examines the impact that social media is having on us and on our society. The documentary piece consists of a lot of talking heads, former executives, and designers for the major tech platforms such as Facebook, Google, Instagram, Twitter, and others. These are (mostly) young people who have been on the inside of the strategies to grow the social media empires. The dramatization, which I particularly liked, uses a family of varying levels of technology adoption and three humans who are acting as the information signals that are sent to us from AI computers …

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What Happened Miss Simone?

Nina Simone wanted to be the first classical pianist to play Carnegie Hall, but events in her life were such that she started playing in jazz clubs and developed a long career as a singer and songwriter. The film reviews her life, through interviews with her daughter, ex-husband, and her lead guitarist, among others, as well as through her diary writings and recorded interviews. I think what is most fascinating and makes the film completely worth it is the concert footage. You get to hear a lot of the songs that made her famous as she sang them in various …

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Crip Camp

Beginning in the early 1950s, Camp Jened, in upstate New York, was a place where teenagers with disabilities could go and experience, many for the first time, a place where they could be teenagers and live freely with people like them with disabilities. In the late ’60s and early ’70s, the camp was run by hippies, so there were a lot of freedoms provided that the kids did not get elsewhere. Many of these summer campers ended up migrating to the Center for Independent Living in Berkeley, an innovative center focused on providing services to the disabled. It was here …

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