Each week we bring you our top three picks for the best new movies in to go see theaters over the weekend. This week the most critically acclaimed new films are all very well-received documentaries about a variety of interesting subjects. As Hollywood continues to shove out some blockbuster sequels — Terminator Genisys, Magic Mike XXL — you’d be better off going to see one of these three movies, which will not only draw you in with compelling storytelling but also have you leaving the theater actually having learned something.
1. Cartel Land
Cartel Land is a documentary exploring the activities of two different anti-drug vigilante groups. The Autodefensas are a group in the state of Michoacán led by the surgeon Dr. José Manuel Mireles Valverde. They have banded together to fight violence with violence and drive the cartels out of their home. Director Matthew Heineman films them in gunfights with the cartels, capturing men alive, and even torturing and interrogating members. For all the moral issues involved with these vigilantes essentially engaging in their own war against the cartels, it’s well known how corrupt and inefficient the Mexican government has been in dealing with the cartels and that these people are fighting for their own lives as drug running has left them raped, robbed, and murdered for years. Heineman also shows how careless the cartels themselves are, interviewing a group making crystal meth who know exactly how much damage their activities will cause.
Then we cut up north, on the U.S. side of the border, to a man named Tim “Nailer” Foley who heads his own extremist vigilante group called the Arizona Border Recon composed of a bunch of white racists bound together by the thought that Mexican cartel members are going to sneak into America and kill us all, or at least take our jobs. They patrol a section of the Arizona border known as “Cocaine Alley” ostensibly to stop drug trafficking. Though Foley’s group and the Autodefensas seem to be fighting the same enemy, if a member of the Autodefensas tried to cross that border or simply engage with one of Foley’s men, they’d likely be treated just like a cartel drug-runner. This is a film about a breakdown in order, failed institutions, and how different good and evil can look depending which side you’re on. Cartel Land was a prize winner at Sundance and has a 95% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
Despite only having released two albums before her untimely death at the rock-star appropriate age of 27, Amy Winehouse is considered one of the greatest musical talents of her generation and is considered to have had one of the most distinctive singing voices of all time. Asif Kapadia’s documentary had unprecedented access to Amy’s family and friends as well as home video footage from her early years and it received raves after premiering at Cannes. This is considered to be the most tender and realistic portrayal of Winehouse’s life we’ve gotten so far, since her tabloid destruction and then rock star mythologization after her death. But the film hasn’t been without controversy, as Winehouse’s father (the father of the famous “Daddy’s Girl” tattoo) has publicly denounced it for portraying him in an unfavorable light and even placing some of the blame for her demons, and public meltdowns, on him.
The movie follows her life, exploring how her talent and voice was able to cross boundaries between genres and generations. Her destructive impulses and lack of control sometimes made her music and performances more compelling, as if watching someone teeter on a razor’s edge. But she quickly tipped off, her drug habit spiralling out of control unbelievably fast with the help of her husband Blake Fielder-Civil. The horrible paparazzi photos of a woman clearly in need of help, bruised and battered with white powder hanging out of her nose, were splashed everywhere. She was eventually found dead of alcohol poisoning and joined the “27 club” of legendary musicians who all self-destructed at that age. Amy looks at the relationship between art and celebrity as well as the deadly power of addiction. The film has a 98% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
3. Mala Mala
This documentary looks at the lives of transgender individuals living in Puerto Rico. With all the talk about trans rights and trans people in the media lately with figures like Caitlyn Jenner and the show Transparent, it’s certainly a timely topic. Trans people in the U.S. still face plenty of misunderstanding and discrimination, but elsewhere in the world things can be even worse. The movie looks at individuals from very different walks of life, from drag queens and prostitutes to lawyers and activists and small business owners, as they fight to achieve their personal vision of selfhood. The film also documents the historical ups and downs trans rights have gone through in Puerto Rico, from a law passed banning housing and job discrimination based on gender identity to the fact that the only subject transitioning from female to male in the film can’t access the proper medical resources for his transition in the country. This is a good chance to get educated about the struggles for trans rights people are facing both in the U.S. and other parts of the world. Mala Mala has an 89% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
Follow Jacqueline on Twitter @Jacqui_WSCS