Batman & Bill” (2017, Hulu) is about the fight to correct one of the great injustices of early comic book history – the omission of “Batman” co-creator Bill Finger’s name alongside Bob Kane’s. The documentary weaves from tragedy to fun to hopelessness to delight, avoiding that grim feeling found in most chronicles of injustice, while also contrasting the sweat-shop work process of the 1940s comic industry against this new age when writers are known and celebrated.
If you’re a fan of superheroes thanks to the 2010s cinema boom and are curious about their history in comics, “Superheroes: A Never-Ending Battle” (2013), a three-part PBS documentary, is a nice overview. Hosted by Liev Schreiber (Sabretooth in the “Wolverine” films), it’s aimed at a wide audience in a somewhat academic tone, but I – as a mid-level superhero/comics fan – learned several tidbits and had fun watching it.
The Oscars are expanding the 2020 movie year by two months in order for more films to get released and compete for statuettes. That’s a smart move, but on Dec. 31, I’m happy to make my year-end list and say good riddance to this year of the pandemic and all it wrought – including the push-back of many films to 2021 and the beginning of the end of cinemas. But we’re not tossing out the movies with the year itself, because enough good ones took the financial risk of coming straight to our home theaters. These were my 10 favorites:
Class Action Park” (HBO Max) is a schizophrenic documentary, but unavoidably so. It chronicles New Jersey’s Action Park, a theme park of dangerous water rides, motor cars and mini motorboats that existed from 1978-96 and clearly could never exist again. Documentarians Seth Porges and Chris Charles Scott III bounce back and forth between gleeful descriptions of the rides and much more sobering facts, ranging from park owner Eugene Mulvihill’s corruption to a teen’s death from a head injury.
Scrolling through options under a “David Mamet” search on my Roku, “Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay” (2012) comes up a lot. (It’s currently available for free with ads on Vudu.) It’s only tangential to Mamet, who is one of the interview subjects in the documentary. But Jay (1946-2018), like Mamet, is fascinating to listen to when he talks about his craft, so this will likely be of interest to both Mamet fans and magic fans.
Season 1 of the documentary “Making a Murderer” was a cultural phenomenon when it premiered in December 2015. Everyone was talking about it, so it was something I had to watch. The series is very one-sided, siding with the accused, claiming he is innocent, and the show-makers do an incredible job of convincing the viewer. The show itself is really addictive as each of the 10 episodes is presented in a way that there are cliffhangers – a certain piece of evidence found or a break in the case, for example.
Demon House” – from Zak Bagans, host of TV’s “Ghost Adventures” — purports to chronicle a haunted house in Gary, Ind., but it ends up being a pseudo-documentary that makes me question the genre’s value. The film, which had a video-on-demand release earlier this year and is now streaming on Amazon Prime, delivers a decently scary vibe for a while, but I eventually became suspicious that this was a fictional movie rather than the documentary it claims to be, and was more likely to laugh than cower from that point forward.
Score: A Film Music Documentary” almost seems like it’s cheating. Its score – by the very definition of the subject matter – is the greatest music cues from the history of film. And inevitably, that is a percentage of the doc’s appeal. But this is also an accessible 90-minute history lesson that vastly increased my knowledge of the topic while keeping me glued to the screen. It proves learning can be fun.