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2016: A Year of Top Documentaries

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"When I watch a doc, at least once, I want my head to explode and my heart to feel. I want to see the world differently, know something I didn't know before. Engage me but most of all surprise me. Let there be an image, a person or a moment that never leaves." Academy Award winner Susan Sarandon sets the bar high when it comes to watching documentaries. Documentaries can be the most exciting of genres, when done right.

Here's a shortlist of recent documentaries that would definitely meet her standards and represent, in their various ways, the best this cinematic format has to offer.




Samantha Futerman is a young Asian-American actress and co-director of this film festival favorite, one of the most touching documentaries of recent years. Her film charts what happens when she is contacted via the internet by a French-Asian woman of similar age, Anaïs Bordier, whose physical resemblance to Samantha cannot be purely coincidental.

A tentative email correspondence leads eventually to a meeting in the flesh, at which it is established they might in fact be twin sisters, given up for adoption a quarter century ago, in South Korea. A DNA test confirms that this is indeed the case, and both women must come to terms with the history of their unlikely connection, and all the emotional upheaval it entails.

The heart of this film forms around the growing emotional bonds forged between the two sisters, who move from initial positions of mutual shock, through to acceptance, friendship and then finally love.

Their evolving relationship is sensitively explored through wide-ranging interviews with friends and extended family, and the end result is an affectionate and nuanced look at an emotive subject, and a truly humanistic film that speaks to the yearning for kinship that exists in all of us.


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Daniel Negreanu, or "RealKidPoker" as he is otherwise known to his legion of fans, is quite possibly the most charismatic personality on the world poker circuit right now. He's certainly the most successful.

Born in Canada, he shot to fame in 1998 when, at 23 years of age, he became the youngest player ever to win a bracelet at the Poker World Series. His career spans six World Series of Poker bracelets, and a further two World Poker titles. He sits at number one on the all-time worldwide tournament money list, with an impressive $32.4 million of prize winnings to his name, and was inducted into the Poker Hall of Fame in 2014.

Rather astonishingly, Kidpoker, produced by PokerStars and Francine Watson, is the first sports documentary to tackle the life and philosophy of the man behind the poker legend. With input from friends and fellow pro-players such as Phil Ivey, Antonio Esfandiari, Vanessa Selbst, and European Poker Tour creator John Duthie, and an insightful commentary from his brother Mike, this inspirational film maps the course of Negreanu's career from the early days of learning his craft in the gaming halls of his home town, to the glitz and glamour of competing in major Las Vegas tournaments.



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"Hello, little bonehead. I'll love you forever."

Laurie Anderson's fantastic cinematic essay probes the intermingled significance of love, death and language, and is couched as a fondly elegiac tribute to her dearly departed pet terrier Lolabelle.

As one might expect from a mixed-media artist of such international renown, there is much more to Heart of a Dog than its central premise. Taking the viewer on a gently meandering journey through shared memories and a series of illuminating video-diary-styled entries, the film blends 8mm home movie footage with snatches of Anderson's music, sketches and animations to pull together notions as diverse as data collection and surveillance culture, with personal meditations upon friendship and the myriad frailties of the human condition.

Grief is there, befitting the subject, but the film never stoops to the maudlin, and instead springboards from concept to concept, chaining a dream-like imagery from musings on what happens when a loved one is gone, and whether love ever really dies or is merely transferred to another locus in an infinite circle of rebirth.

There are no definitive answers to be had here, but plenty of questions, and it is this ambiguity that will linger in the mind of the viewer long after the final credits fade.



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Veteran German film-making auteur Werner Herzog has been shooting film classics and breathtaking documentaries for over fifty years, and is not above the occasional cameo Hollywood appearance. He is acclaimed for the moral scope he brings to the medium, in hypnotic arthouse films like Aguirre, Wrath of God, and Nosferatu the Vampyre, and in thoughtful documentaries such as Grizzly Man and Cave of Forgotten Dreams.

Lo and Behold, which premiered at the 2016 Sundance Festival, is the first time he has brought his dry analytical wit to bear upon the nature of the internet, and the vital but uncertain role it will play in humanity's future.

Over ten exploratory chapters which feature wide-ranging conversations with such luminaries as Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla Motors, and Bob Kahn, the American engineer behind the communications protocols at the heart of the internet, Herzog gets to the core issues and crafts a compelling story around them in a way that grips the attention for all of this documentary's 98 minute running time.

Unlike some of his earlier, more experimental offerings, the cinematography and style of this film is unadorned and briskly journalistic. Yet the end product is as exhilarating, whimsical and thought-provoking as any of previous canon.



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Thosten Schutte's choice to compile a documentary of Zappa based solely around existing footage of the subject himself pays off superbly. Over 98 minutes of the vibrant personality and musical genius that was Frank Zappa comes across undiluted by talking heads, unalloyed with tributes from family and friends.

It is Zappa as Zappa intended - simultaneously down-to-earth and wildly experimental, frank to the point of bluntness and yet disarmingly chatty and engaging. A straight-talking enigma who blazed an extraordinary musical trail right up until his death in 1993 and absolutely refused to take himself or his art seriously.

It is fitting then that Zappa left a legend and a mythos - and lots and lots of music. Eat That Question does an excellent job of providing hints as to why, without having to navigate a backstory that Zappa himself never deemed particularly relevant to his music-making.



These 5 extraordinary films are just the tip of the iceberg, a mere handful of what's available on streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon Video. With digital HD camera technology, it is cheaper than ever before to shoot watchable well-crafted documentary films on almost any conceivable subject, so watch this space; it will be intriguing to see what emerges to occupy it.

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