Review: Best

A mostly successful portrait of the Norther Irish footballer explores his explosive sporting highs and dark personal lows.

Hailing from Belfast, he crossed the Irish sea and was playing for Matt Busby‘s Manchester United by the age of 17.

Then began a dizzy spell of sumptuous football: an FA Cup win for the club in 1963, two First Division titles in 1965 and 1967 either side of a famous performance in 1966 away to Lisbon’s Benfica, and then a dramatic European Cup win in 1968, again against the aforementioned Portuguese powerhouse.

Ironically, this win marked a gradual decline for both club and player as United did not win a league title for another 25 years and would only regain the European Cup in 1999.

As for Best, he would endure a shattering descent into depression and alcoholism, with parts of the British press painting him into a corner as a celebrity party animal.

He later said: “The whole thing became a total nightmare”

Although director Daniel Gordon adopts a mostly chronological approach, he doesn’t shy away from the pain of his private life that continued to dog him as he became a wandering footballer for hire in the USA and around the world during the 1970s and 80s.

Among a raft of smoothly edited archive footage, there are some key interviews woven throughout: a sad lament from close United teammate Paddy Crerand, plus testimony from former wives Angie and Alex, who reveal the tumult of living with Best.

The film doesn’t really go far enough in exploring the full extent of the physical and mental abuse he reportedly inflicted on them, but still deserves praise for getting them in front of the camera to broach the subject.

At the time of his death in 2005, Best was a forlorn figure who had undergone a liver transplant and yet still continued to drink.

One might have thought there was not much more to say about George Best. But for veteran observers or newcomers to his life and career, this is a solid place to start.

> Find out more about George Best at Wikipedia
> Buy the film on DVD or Blu-ray at Amazon UK

Sight & Sound’s Greatest Documentaries List

Sight and Sound Doc Poll

Sight and Sound have recently released the results of a poll of critics and filmmakers to find the greatest documentaries of all time.

The Critics’ Top 10 documentaries are:

1. Man with a Movie Camera, dir. Dziga Vertov (USSR 1929)

2. Shoah, dir. Claude Lanzmann (France 1985)

3. Sans soleil, dir. Chris Marker (France 1982)

4. Night and Fog, dir. Alain Resnais (France 1955)

5. The Thin Blue Line, dir. Errol Morris (USA 1989)

6. Chronicle of a Summer, dir. Jean Rouch & Edgar Morin (France 1961)

7. Nanook of the North, dir. Robert Flaherty (USA 1922)

8. The Gleaners and I, dir. Agnès Varda (France 2000)

9. Dont Look Back, dir. D.A. Pennebaker (USA 1967)

10. Grey Gardens, dir. Albert and David Maysles, Ellen Hovde and Muffie Meyer (USA 1975)

The poll report is released in the September edition of Sight & Sound published today, Friday 1st August.

The full lists of all the votes received and films nominated will be available online from 14th August.

You can join in the debate at Twitter using the hashtag #BestDocsEver.

> Sight and Sound
> More on documentary film at Wikipedia

DVD: My Voyage to Italy

Martin Scorsese’s classic 1999 documentary on Italian cinema gets a welcome release on DVD this month.

In addition to being one of the great directors of his generation, Scorsese has long been a passionate advocate for cinema itself by making documentaries and helping create the World Cinema Foundation.

In 1995 he made the four hour A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies, which examined key films up to 1969, focusing on directors such as D.W. Griffith, Charlie Chaplin, Orson Welles, Elia Kazan, Nicholas Ray and Stanley Kubrick.

Four years later he took a similar journey into the heart of Italian cinema and explored the films which had such an effect on him and his relatives growing up in New York.

Scorsese was born to parents who both worked in the Garment district and his father’s parents had emigrated from the province of Palermo in Sicily.

As a boy his parents and older brother would take him to the movies but he would also catch Italian films of the post-war era on the emerging medium of television.

In those days television was still in its infancy and the fledgling stations needed programming which they often filled with Italian movies.

As sets were quite rare, relatives and friends would gather round to watch films in his family apartment in 253 Elizabeth Street.

It was whilst watching movies dealing with the pain of post-war Italy that Scorsese saw his grandparents (who hardly spoke English) powerfully affected by what was on screen.

In that was born a desire to see more Italian cinema and this four hour documentary charts the landmark films and directors of that era, including Vittorio de Sica, Luchino Visconti, Federico Fellini, Roberto Rosselini and Michelangelo Antonioni.

Scorsese introduces various segments and through judicious use of clips and an informed, eloquent voiceover takes us on a journey of the following films:

Given his wealth of knowledge and infectious passion, just watching this DVD is like attending a the best film class you never had and it’s worth remembering that after attending NYU, Scorsese remained there as a teaching assistant and eventually a professor of Film.

Incidentally, amongst his students at this time was a young Oliver Stone, who may have been an influence on the central character of Taxi Driver (1976).

He knows what he’s talking about and gives precise, eloquent descriptions of each movie, using his years of experience in front of a screen as well as behind the camera.

Part of what makes My Voyage to Italy so special is that Scorsese brings the same passion and intelligence to describing these films as to those he has made.

Unlike some directors, he’s always retained his enthusiasm as a viewer which triggered his desire to make films.

There are numerous astute observations laced throughout, including:

  • How Rome, Open City (1945) essentially led to the birth of Italian neo-realism
  • The impact of L’Amore (1948) on US cinema after it led to a key Supreme Court decision which stated film was a form of artistic expression protected by the First Amendment
  • The influence of Chaplin on Vittorio De Sica’s Umberto D (1952)
  • How a complex shot of a controversial battle in Luscio Visconti’s Senso (1954) led to the studio burning the negative elements of those scenes
  • How the term ‘paparazzi‘ became a popular term after the name of a character in La Dolce Vita (1960)
  • The slow burn appeal of Journey to Italy (1954) and how it was championed by French New Wave directors such as Godard and Truffaut.
  • The elliptical appeal of L’avventura (1960) and Antonioni’s precise use of the frame
  • The dream-like appeal of Fellini’s (1963) which is like a ‘visual stream of consciousness that keeps the audience in a constant state of surprise’ and how it is the ‘purest expression of love for the cinema’ that Scorsese knows of.

These films might seem to some like ancient cinematic history, but their treatment of social issues have a new relevance in the current recession as people struggle with harsh economic conditions.

Modern versions of the young boy in Germany, Year Zero, the father and son in Bicycle Thieves and the lonely old man in Umberto D can probably be found in any modern city just some of the characters struggling to survive in a cruel world.

But most of all this is 246 minutes of one of the great US directors imparting his passion about some of the most important films of the 20th century.

If you care about the medium, then it is an essential purchase.

My Voyage to Italy is released on DVD by Mr Bongo Films on September 26th

> Buy My Voyage to Italy on DVD from Amazon UK
> Find out more about Italian neo-realism at Green Cine
> Martin Scorsese at Wikipedia
> Scorsese talking about the documentary on Charlie Rose in 1999

Senna

Asif Kapadia’s documentary about the life and career of Ayrton Senna is a riveting portrait of the F1 driver.

Using only archive footage alongside voiceover contributions from those who knew and wrote about him, it constructs a compelling story of a sporting icon.

Beginning with his early career in Europe, it charts his rapid ascent to Formula One where he joined the McLaren team in the late 1980s and quickly established himself as a precocious rival to reigning world champion Alain Prost.

Exploring his extraordinary feats on the track and the joy his three world titles brought to his native Brazil, it then covers his tragic early death at the San Marino Grand Prix in 1994.

With judicious use of archive footage, which really comes alive on the big screen, it also covers the murkier politics off the track with former FIA boss Jean-Marie Balestre coming across as another rival to be beaten.

Although this will be devoured by motor racing fans, it also works as a fascinating introduction for those who know little or nothing about Senna and his impact on the sport.

Part of what makes it so exciting is his life story, which whilst not a rags-to-riches tale (he was from a wealthy Brazilian family), feels like the subject of an epic novel filled with memorable touches.

His iconic yellow helmet, loving and devoted parents, faith in God, millions he donated to charity, glamorous girlfriends and the driving skills which established him as one of the greatest racing drivers of all time are just some of the rich details which make up the story.

The film contains many of his greatest moments: his amazing F1 debut at Monaco in 1984; his victory at the 1988 Japanese Grand Prix to clinch his first world title and his electrifying win at the Brazilian Grand Prix in 1991.

Assembled from hours of footage from various broadcasters and the F1 archives, the editing is frequently inspired, providing an unusual level of excitement for a documentary.

At one point we see some especially prophetic comments from Prost (“Ayrton Senna has a small problem, he thinks he can’t kill himself because he believes in God and I think that is very dangerous for other drivers”) as well as footage from family home videos.

Some of the internal F1 videos of driver meetings are an eye-opening glimpse into the world of a dangerous sport and Senna’s pleas for more safety add to the tragic irony of his untimely demise.

There are also astute voiceover contributions from journalist Richard Williams, F1 doctor Sid Watkins and racing commentators Galvão Bueno and John Bisignano which explain and illuminate his impact on the sport and his home country.

For director Asif Kapadia this marks a change from his previous feature films (such as The Warrior and Far North) but he seems to have a natural feel for the drama of real life and of the intense highs which sport can deliver to both participants and fans.

A subtle but atmospheric use of music augments the film nicely and the use of internal F1 footage of the drivers observing the horrific accidents during that fateful weekend in 1994 brings a new perspective to what would be a turning point the sport as a whole, as major safety changes were brought in following the crash that killed Senna and Roland Ratzenberger.

Although the exact cause of Senna’s crash at Imola still remains a mystery, it seems an unlikely confluence of events was ultimately to blame: the new rules imposed on the Williams car that season, an engineering fault, a previous crash at the start of the race and bad luck in how the car actually crashed on impact.

On paper this might sound like a film just for devoted F1 fans, but perhaps its greatest achievement lies in how it not only makes the races truly thrilling but finds universality in the details of a sportsman’s life.

After scoring major buzz at Sundance earlier this year, Universal and Working Title will be quietly confident that it finds a deserving audience hungry for engaging factual entertainment.

With the summer movie season fuelled by comic book fantasy, Senna provides a welcome injection of real-life drama and excitement.

> Official site
> Find out more about Ayrton Senna at Wikipedia
> Follow Asif Kapadia on Twitter
> Follow the film on Facebook and Twitter

Best Documentary Short list Announced

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences have announced the 15 films which will compete for the Documentary Feature category at this year’s Oscars.

The Documentary branch of the academy viewed all the eligible documentaries for the preliminary round of voting and members will now select the five nominees from among the 15 titles below.

The films are listed in alphabetical order by title, along with their director and production company:

The major omissions would appear to be Tabloid (Dir. Errol Morris), Cave of Forgotten Dreams (Dir. Werner Herzog) and Last Train Home (Dir. Lixin Fan).

The nominations are announced live on Tuesday, 25th January and the Oscars themselves follow on Sunday 27th February at the Kodak Theatre.

> Official site for the Oscars
> Previous winners for Best Documentary at Wikipedia