There's a reason that us critics tend to hold certain films in excessive regard -- because after seeing hundreds and hundreds of them every year, to champion one or two or a dozen across those fifty-two weeks is a chance to bring attention to something that deserves it, something distinctly non-mediocre and perhaps unconventional.
Dear Zachary: a letter to a son about his father falls into that category. Erik praised it effusively from its Slamdance premiere and beyond; soon joining his ranks would be Monika; and it currently lingers second to only one on my own tentative top ten list for 2008. We get it. According to Rotten Tomatoes, 33 out of 34 critics get it. In fact, it seems like the only ones who don't get it just happen to make up the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
The AMPAS documentary voting committee, like its oft-derided foreign language committee, narrow down their eligible titles by processes that elude me at the moment (my skepticism would likely hold firm regardless of explanation). At any rate, there's always likely to be some film that somebody holds dear left behind. But as far as this year's list is concerned, we have some usual suspects -- namely, Werner Herzog (Encounters at the End of the World) and Errol Morris (Standard Operating Procedure) -- and all your expected issue movies -- Trouble the Water is about the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, At the Death House Door concerns the death penalty, I.O.U.S.A. faces our nation's debt dilemma -- but that's five out of fifteen I can vouch for.
Actually, make that six. Man on Wire is also quite high on my best-of list at the moment, and it still stands as Rotten Tomatoes' Best-Reviewed Film of All Time (that's doc or otherwise, my friends). Okay, seven: In a Dream is a well-made portrait of a troubled family, but frankly, it's no Dear Zachary... For me, that's what it boils down to. I recognize three of the remaining titles by name alone, leaving five that are completely brand-spanking new to me. Hey, they could each and every one of them be brilliant, but if that were the case, then surely, I might've heard of them in the past eleven months.
Now, Pete Hammond may be able to spew forth hyperbole like nobody's business, but when grown men are left sobbing wrecks (myself included), and when they can then each openly state to the world, with no small amount of conviction:
- "one of the best documentaries I have ever watched in my entire life" (Erik Davis)
- "Dear Zachary will move you. It will make you question your faith in the world. But it will also introduce you to some of the most inspiring, strong, and caring people to ever grace the big screen." (Monika Bartyzel)
- "one of the best documentaries you will see and it may actually be the best that I've EVER seen" (Erik Childress)
- "a tough film, one that left me a wreck and is guaranteed to put you through an emotional wringer, but that shouldn't keep you from seeing it... manages to find hope in the most awful of situations, that connects directly to your humanity" (Devin Faraci)
- "as emotionally devastating as any film, fiction or non-, released this year" (Nick Schager)
- "a film that nobody should ever feel forced to make, but just about everybody should see" (Chris Barsanti)
Folks, please: do everything you can to avoid reading much into the story of Dear Zachary... itself (there's a reason I haven't linked to either the IMDb page or David Edelstein's review) until you can catch it for yourself.
For those readers not in New York, Los Angeles, or any of the select markets in which the film is making the rounds (that would be Portland, OR; Nashville, TN; Santa Fe, NM; and San Jose, CA), you can catch what is truly the Best Documentary Feature of the year on MSNBC starting December 7th.