Movie and television critics have been rounding up their favorite films of 2018, and talking about what they think might win a little gold statuette in 2019. For me, some of the best things I have seen this year have been documentaries, ranging from lovingly crafted war remembrances to a look at the future of immersive art.
Here are my three favorites from 2018:
Peter Jackson produced and directed this look inside the lives of the British soldiers in World War I, coinciding with the 100th anniversary of the end of the Great War, and it was incredible. I would even go as far to say it was the best documentary film made last year, and certainly one of the best on World War I of all time.
The beginning of this film was interesting enough, sharing some of the human experience of those getting ready to set off to fight in the Great War. But when the story of the battlefield experiences morphed from "old footage" to a full-color look at 100 years ago as if it were yesterday, it gave me chills. It was beautiful, horrifying, and heartbreaking, and completely real. Jackson's use of voice actors, sound effects, and clear, high-definition color gave me an entirely new appreciation for those who served in World War I.
Jackson may best be known for bringing fantasy worlds to life, but now he can add to his credit the ability to take the audience closer to the past than they have ever been. I cannot say enough great things about Jackson's achievement here, except that I hope everyone interested in history or the human experience gets to see this. If you weren't able to catch it during its limited run in American theaters last year, another showing is planned in January by popular demand.
I've been an admirer of the Meow Wolf's blending of contemporary and folk art, multi-media high-tech know-how, and immersive storytelling since my family and I visited their "Glitteropolis" exhibit back in 2011 at the NMSU Art Gallery. In 2017, we were finally able to visit their first permanent immersive experience, "House of Eternal Return" (you can see some of our experience for a post I did in GeekMom).
Since then, the Santa Fe-based Meow Wolf has exploded like giant fireworks, with new (and completely different) experiences planned for other cities. They have hosted a scavenger hunt at SXSW in Austin, and have new immersive exhibits coming this year with Area 15 in Las Vegas, as well as their first ride-through attraction "Kaleidoscape" at Denver's Elitch Gardens Theme and Water Park. More Meow Wolf experiences are in the works in 2020 in Denver, and just this month they announced plans for permanent Washington, D.C. installation in 2022.
They have even influenced other creative collectives to create similar immersive exhibits. How did all this happen? Well, take some of the most creative artistic types around, put them together with a shared goal, some financial support from a wealthy (and also exceptionally creative) fan, George R. R. Martin, add a dose of marketing know-how and, dare I say it, capitalism. Create a product that people want and love and it will thrive. This award-winning piece shows the inspirations, failures, successes, and the crazily varied mix of individuals behind their rise from a group of creative minds to a multi-million dollar corporation.
I have to admit my bias on this one. I love Michael Palin and his travels, and would drink up whatever travel special he offers me, even if it is just a trip to a gas station in Muncie, Indiana. Palin has spent more than three decades making friends with everyone in the world, one person at a time.
His travels have taken him from the freezing South Pole to the middle of the Sahara, and he has shown a talent for listening to people and learning about their worlds, all while making the viewer feel like they are traveling along with a close friend.
North Korea, however, isn't known for its openness to the outside world, and his visit to this country was tightly guarded and restricted. Somehow, Palin still managed to show the beauty of the people living within its borders, without giving a false impression that everything is perfect there. Palin comes across in his travels as such a likeable, genuine spirit who is rarely if ever flustered. When he was trying to discuss how we in the West have the freedom to criticize our leaders to one of his guides, it was the closest I have ever seen him to getting frustrated by the answers he received. Yet, he kept it friendly and positive as only Palin can.
This two-part documentary mini-series first aired on British television, but thanks to National Geographic, is was available for viewing in the United States in September. Hopefully, there will be more opportunities to see it.
What I most enjoyed about this was seeing Palin, who turned 75 on this past venture, still finding something new to learn and experience. As of this year, Mr. Palin can now officially be referred to as Sir Michael Palin, but those of us who have vicariously traveled with him from the beginning already know he is the king of travel specials.
With the awards season for film and television fast approaching, don't forget the documentaries, and let there be more wonderful stories to tell in this format in 2019.