It wasn’t all that long ago that documentaries were generally considered to be uncool. They were the grainy videos we watched in class when our teachers didn’t want to give a lesson. Or the boring, drawn-out history lessons our parents watched on PBS.
But we’ll let you in on a little secret — since the early 20th century, documentaries have actually been pretty awesome. And in recent years, they’ve gained a lot of traction among avid film fans and casual viewers alike. From informative features that focus on our health and well-being to stunning true crime explorations, documentaries have become a part of our cultural zeitgeist. And a growing number of platforms, from the big screen to Netflix, give us access to documentaries old and new, which only makes our craving for the genre all the more easy to satisfy.
Within the next year, dozens of documentaries will be released at film festivals, on premium and streaming platforms, and even in our local movie theaters. They’ll tell us real stories about terrible crimes, fascinating public figures, and the everyday moments that make up a person’s life. Here are five of the most anticipated documentaries set to be released in 2016.
1. Beware the Slender Man
Slenderman. The tall, faceless figure looks like something out of a horror movie — and has become a popular mythic figure in the corners of the Internet that love a good creepypasta now and again. He also made headlines in 2014 when two preteen girls blamed their attempt to murder a friend on him. The story was unnerving, because it served as an example of what happens when people take fiction a little bit too far. And now the details of their crime — and the mythology is the subject of Irene Taylor Brodsky’s new documentary, Beware the Slenderman. Like many other popular true crime documentaries, Brodsky’s film will focus not only on the act itself, but on the cultural phenomenon that is Slenderman, and how his popularity could have led two young girls to commit such a brutal act of violence. Beware the Slenderman set to screen at SXSW this weekend, but HBO has already snagged the rights to the film, and should be airing it some time this year.
On December 14, 2012, Adam Lanza murdered his mother, then shot his way into Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. Once inside, he killed 26 people inside the building — administrators, teachers, and 20 first grade students. It’s a day many of us won’t forget — and for weeks, news organizations flooded the small town. Then, they left. Newtown, Kim A. Snyder’s gripping documentary, shows us what happened after most of the news cameras left. The film mostly ignores the partisan fight over gun control that occurred in the wake of the shooting. Instead, it paints a portrait of a town in deep and unspeakable mourning — and provides a painful and intimate glimpse inside the lives of parents that lost children, first responders, and other community members. Newtown premiered at Sundance in January, where it received widespread praise from critics and viewers. It will be screening at several other film festivals this year, including SXSW.
There’s political scandal, and then there’s Weinergate. When former house representative Anthony Weiner was, um, exposed as a cheating husband and an illicit text aficionado in 2011, it seemed like his political career was over. His attempt at a comeback — via a run for New York City mayor in 2013 — is presented in Elyse Steinberg and Josh Kriegman’s raw and honest documentary, Weiner. The disgraced former representative and his wife, Huma Abedin, allowed the filmmakers full access to the behind-the-scenes workings of his mayoral campaign. So they were there to witness — and document — its spectacular implosion when more information about his private affairs came to light. Weiner won this year’s Sundance grand jury prize for U.S. Documentary. It will air on IFC’s Sundance Selects channel this summer before debuting on Showtime some time this fall.
4. Boom Bust Boom
It’s been lauded for its ability to explain the intricacies of economics to just about anyone. And it has puppets. Terry Jones — known for his work with Monty Python — gathered celebrities and economists for Boom Bust Boom, a documentary that gets to the heart of global financial systems and how we could improve them. And to make it a little bit more interesting, he often employs puppets to take over, both in explaining and illustrating the finer points of the film’s narrative. Unlike the myriad of other documentaries about economics, it’s designed to reflect not only on the current state of the world, but on past mistakes and the patterns that have emerged over time. Boom Bust Boom will be released on March 11, 2016.
5. Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures
He’s one of the most controversial photographers of all time. But despite Robert Mapplethorpe’s penchant for creating vibrant images of sadomasochism, sexuality, and the nude form, very few films have explored his life or his art. Robert Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures has been hailed as the most in-depth film about the photographer and his methodology. Filmmakers Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato never sugarcoat Mapplethorpe’s explicit subject matter — many of his most famous photos are on full display during the course of the documentary. Instead, they use his work to teach us about his creativity and the controversy he stoked with each new image he created. Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures will air on HBO on April 4, 2016.
Follow Katherine Webb on Twitter @katiedoubleyew.
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