By The Playlist Staff | The Playlist November 7, 2013 at 1:31PM
A Chicago native, Steve James is as responsible as anyone for the mainstream success of the documentary: his first full feature, the epic "Hoop Dreams," was a genuine crossover hit, and one of the best-reviewed films of the 1990s (even winning a Best New Filmmaker award from the MTV Movie Awards, of all places). Soon after that film, he was snapped up for his Hollywood debut, a biopic of runner Steve Prefontaine.
Notable Documentaries: It's probably a bit overblown to call "Hoop Dreams" a game-changer of big-screen documentaries, but along with Errol Morris, it's James' film that really helped to bring the form closer to the mainstream, and it stands as a towering masterpiece of the form. Virtually everything James has touched in the non-fiction world has been hugely compelling, from "Stevie" to ESPN "30 for 30" entry "No Crossover: The Trial Of Allen Iverson," but 2011's "The Interrupters," another look at Chicago life, is right up there with "Hoop Dreams" as one of his finest achievements.
Notable Fiction Films: James has only stepped away from documentary three times, for a back-to-back run in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Of the trio, the only one to get a theatrical release was 1997's "Prefontaine," a biopic of long-distance runner Steve Prefontaine (Jared Leto) who died at the age of only 24. The film's not quite as interesting as Robert Towne's "Without Limits," which followed the same subject matter a year later, starring Billy Crudup in the lead role, and James' attempts to mix in documentary-style interviews is a bit botched, but it's a worthy attempt at drama. Two more sports dramas followed, both made for TV: "Passing Glory," starring Andre Braugher and Rip Torn, and the better "Joe and Max," about the friendship between African-American boxer Joe Louis and German heavyweight Max Schmeling.
Which Form Suits Him Better? Unquestionably, the documentary. James' fiction work is decent, and we'd like to see him turn his hand to something away from the sports genre he was initially pigeonholed in. But they're never more than decent, whereas he's never made a documentary that's really anything other than excellent. As such, we're eagerly anticipating his Roger Ebert documentary "Life Itself" when it arrives in 2014.
If any documentarian is truly at the coalface of the debate about documentary and reality, and how far, by simply choosing to tell a story in a certain way, the filmmaker influences, shapes and distorts the truth of that story, it’s probably Nick Broomfield. While starting off as a more traditional documentarian (filming in a less obtrusive, more outwardly “objective” style), Broomfield became so exasperated by the experiences both of Broadway musical doc “Driving Me Crazy” and being sued by Lily Tomlin over “Lily Tomlin” which she believed acted as a spoiler for the one-woman show it featured, that he started to insert himself directly into his films’ narratives. This meta edge, in which the film becomes as much about Broomfield and the making of the film as it does about the subject, has found many high-profile imitators, not least Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock. In recent years, however Broomfield has also proposed a new format, what he calls “direct cinema” which uses non-actors, who are often themselves involved or close to the events being portrayed, but in a scripted, albeit heavily improvised, film.
Notable Documentaries: Probably most famous in the U.S. is Broomfield’s “Kurt & Courtney,” which was the subject of an attempt at suppression by Courtney Love herself. “Soldier Girls” won Sundance in 1981, and other noteworthy docs include his diptych about Aileen Wuornos—“Aileen: The Selling of a Serial Killer,” and “Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer”—as well as films about Margaret Thatcher and Heidi Fleiss.
Notable Fiction Films: Broomfield really only has two to his name so far, but they are both exceptional. “Ghosts,” his first film to adhere to his “direct cinema” manifesto, is a wrenching and enraging account of the illegal immigrant issue in Britain as demonstrated by the tragedy in which 23 Chinese workers drowned while digging for cockles. He followed this with a deeply compelling account of the killing of 24 civilians in Haditha during the Iraq War, “Battle for Haditha,” which proved, unsurprisingly, far more divisive on release for its uncompromising depiction of the attack as an act of reprisal by U.S. forces.
Which Form Suits Him Better? Broomfield is a pioneer documentarian, no doubt, his legacy in that regard is assured and his confrontational, shock-tactic style has been profoundly influential. However of late it has felt a little like he may be tiring of the sound of his own exasperation, with the recent “Sarah Palin: You Betcha!” being one of his worst-received docs and feeling pretty rote by comparison with his usual firebrand approach. Word’s been quiet recently on his fully-fledged fiction adaptation “The Catastrophist,” which once had the eclectic cast of Steve Coogan, Stephen Dorff and rapper K’naan attached, but we’re certainly curious to see what a potentially energizing return to narrative filmmaking might produce.
One of the few film directors to become a true household name, it wasn't long after Spike Lee's 1986 feature debut "She's Gotta Have It" that he was adorning Nike adverts and becoming a fixture at Knicks game, even as his work became more and more accomplished. Lee came to documentary relatively late, with 1997's "4 Little Girls," but since then has made over a dozen non-fiction works (when you include concert and performance movies like "The Original Kings Of Comedy" and "Passing Strange," at least).
Notable Documentaries: Quality-wise, there's little to choose between the devastating "4 Little Girls," his documentary debut, and 2006's epic two-parter "When The Levees Broke: A Requiem In Four Acts." The former, rightly nominated for an Oscar, is an enormously powerful, enraging and compassionate story about the Ku Klux Klan bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963, which killed four young girls. The latter, which clocks in at over four hours (eight if you include the 2010 semi-sequel "If God Is Willing And Da Creek Don't Rise"), focuses on a more recent tragedy, Hurricane Katrina and the devastating effect it had on the city of New Orleans. Humane, but sharp, it remains the definitive cinematic take on Katrina to date.
Notable Fiction Films: Though there's a few other contenders for the greatest fiction work in Lee's catalogue ("Malcolm X," "25th Hour"), it has to be "Do The Right Thing" that wears the crown—Lee's third film, and one of the best American films of the 1980s. Set across a long, sweltering single Brooklyn day, which gradually becomes a ticking time-bomb of hate and misunderstanding, it's an incendiary piece of work that's also enormously funny and entertaining. For all the quality of Lee's other films, this is the most miraculous of them all.
Which Form Suits Him Better? We genuinely consider "Do The Right Thing" to be in our all-time top five, but Lee's fiction films can be wildly inconsistent: for every "25th Hour," there's a "She Hate Me." Whereas his documentary work is more consistently strong: even the more disposable likes of "Bad 25" are normally beautifully achieved. There's certainly an argument to be made that he's even more accomplished as a documentarian than as a feature director, but at the same time, we wouldn't want him to hang up his fiction hat any time soon.
When people talk about the tradition of British social realism in cinema, pretty much the first name they reach for is that of Ken Loach. An overtly left-wing filmmaker with an uncompromising and undimmed social agenda, Loach’s passion about current and historical issues from homelessness and poverty to colonialism and Thatcherism informs his body of work across both documentary and narrative formats. But while he’s probably more celebrated (he has a Palme d’Or, an Ecumenical Jury Prize and two Special Jury Prizes from Cannes over the years) for his fiction work, word is that after the currently shooting “Jimmy Hall,” he may retire from it altogether, possibly to concentrate more on documentaries. Maybe this is because, while he hardly seems it, Loach is 77, and in his words from our interview earlier this year, documentaries are “a lot easier. The alarm doesn’t have to go at 6 in the morning… doing an archive documentary is very civilized.”
Notable documentaries: Loach’s first documentary was also his first brush with controversy: he was hired by charity Save the Children to make 50-minute documentary “The Save the Children Fund Film.” However Loach was angered by the charity’s “neo-colonial attitude” and by some of the employees’ views on the parents of the poorest children, and produced a film that the fund not only refused to pay for, but tried to have destroyed. The resulting legal battle nearly bankrupted Loach’s fledgling Kestrel Films. In the '80s he experienced the suppression and/or censorship of several of his TV documentaries, including “Questions of Leadership” and miners’ strike doc “Which Side Are You On?” which was only aired after it won a major prize at the Berlinale. Most recently, Loach brought us “The Spirit of ‘45,” an archival/interview-based film about the establishment of the welfare state in Britain during the postwar reconstruction years.
Notable Fiction Films: “The Wind that Shakes the Barley” won Loach the Palme d’Or, and indeed, he’s often been successful at Cannes, where “Raining Stones,” “Land and Freedom” and “Hidden Agenda” were also honored. But 1969’s “Kes,” just his second film, was the one that established him and is still a benchmark movie in British cinema. Since then he’s been prolific, so everyone will have their personal favorites, but we’d have to number “Riff-Raff,” “Sweet Sixteen” and “My Name Is Joe” up there too, not least for the breakthrough roles they gave to actors like Peter Mullan and Martin Compston.
Which Format Suits Him Better? Loach’s work in both areas is never less than intelligent, convincing and passionately argued, but when he has put that fire in service of a narrative which a wider audience will experience, the results have often been exceptional. The specificity of his documentary subjects sometimes restricts their relevance (or a distributor’s idea of it, anyway) and their rather unadventurous format (talking heads/archive footage) often make them feel resolutely small-screen—in fairness the medium for which they are often designed. So we’re going to go with fiction, here, though we’ll take whatever Loach we can get.