Bots High - Joey Daoud (USA)
Aside from maybe Hugo, I'm not sure I had more sheer fun watching a film this year than this Florida Film Festival entry from director Joey Daoud. The energy for bot building that these South Florida high schoolers have is completely infectious, despite never having been a Battle Boys fan I found myself both deeply entertained and interested in the lives of these kids. I'd be hugely supportive of a sequel.
(Out on DVD.)
Senna - Asif Kapadia (USA/UK)
I'm not a racing fan, but there is something transcendent about the story of Ayrton Senna, the Brazilian racing star who died in a crash that he, doctor's day, would likely have survived if his head were a few millimeters to the right. It's a story of overcoming adversity, and a longstanding bitter rivalry with another racer, Alain Prost (the villain of the piece, though it should be said that he put up a lot of the cash for this film). More than that, it's done in a way I've never seen before. It is filled with new interviews shot just for this production, but there is not a single talking head. Everything is narrated over video footage of races, meetings, and down time. It's a truly great piece of work, one that I hope becomes a blueprint for future documentarians.
(Available on Netflix Instant.)
How to Die in Oregon - Peter Richardson (USA)
If anyone can watch this and still argue that the right to assisted suicide is a slippery slope to anything, I would have to argue that they are brain damaged. How to Die in Oregon is a harrowing document that successfully lays out the argument that people should be allowed to die however they chose. It has several threads to it -- including the fight to pass the Death with Dignity Act in Washington State -- but it is Cody Curtis's story that catches the attention most. Peter Richardson's camera follows Curtis's last year or so of life after being diagnosed with terminal cancer in an unflinching style, from doctor's visits, family time, good times, rough nights right through to end, when she is doing things and visiting people for the last time. Heartbreaking.
Chekhov For Children - Sasha Waters Freyer (USA)
Another entry from the Florida Film Festival this year that I loved, Sasha Waters Freyer's Chekhov for Children follows the story of Freyer's own grammar school class from P.S. 75 in 1970s New York that, with the help of one my favorite critic, Phillip Lopate, stage a juvy production of Uncle Vanya. Along with telling the story, she revisits Lopate and her classmates, including the boy who played Vanya, whom she had a crush on back then who is not doing so well these days. It's a great portrait of exuberant youth and how unfortunate it is to have to grow up.
Conan O'Brien Can't Stop - Rodman Flender (USA)
I'm really surprised to not see this mentioned in more end-of-year lists, but this sort of disappeared after a brief tour of the country over the summer. Conan is revealed to be both a comic genius and a bit of an insufferable dick in this tour film shot after his ouster at NBC. But, really, we already know that most comics are insufferable dicks and attention junkies, so it didn't do anything negative his reputation in my eyes. That's just the personality type it takes to be a comedian. I do like Conan, certainly more than Jay, but I'm not much of a late night fan. I always appreciate a behind the curtain look at people I admire though, so this was a great treat.
(Available on Netflix Instant.)