This is a near perfect documentary. Between this and Tim's Vermeer (which technically counts as a 2013 documentary), Jodorowsky's Dune and The Galapagos Affair, the documentaries are kicking butt already in 2014.
This is an oral history/investigative documentary looking into the life of Vivian Maier. Who's Vivian Maier? Well, that's what makes this achievement all the greater. You've never heard of her (well, probably not yet at this point in time) and so it's up to documentarian John Maloof to: explain who she is; explain why we should care.
Maloof stumbled on this adventure a few years ago (2006 or 2007) when, in looking for vintage photos for a book, he won a chest full of negatives at an auction. Thousands of pictures, mostly undeveloped, spanning decades. He immediately went and located the other two chests that hadn't been won, and found himself in possession of tens of thousands (ultimately around 150,000!) of photos and negatives all taken by this person, Vivian Maier, who apparently took some delight in being mysterious and coming up with creative spellings for her name.
I'm no photography expert, but these photos—at least the ones shown in the movie—are as good as any I've ever seen.
Maloof embarks on two projects. The first is discovering who she is or was, which might largely be considered finished by this documentary; the second is getting her life's work recognition. Her photographs are extremely popular (per the movie, and per my own eyeballs, which found them wonderful even as photography is not something that usually grabs me) but he must navigate the artifices of the art community, which is traditionally more interested in politics and protecting their phony-baloney jobs.
The film may help there, however, too, for she is a compelling character: Secretive in the extreme, managing to take all these pictures with none of her families ever really putting together the scope of her activities. Quirky, funny, eccentric, but also cruel and brooding and a hoarder and, in the end, of questionable sanity.
Recalling the three-point system for evaluating docs:
1) Subject Matter: It's always great to have a documentary about subject matter you wouldn't think much of, or you wouldn't think would grab you, only to have it grab you. That Maier was genius makes for more important subject matter than you might have thought going in, and that she was so human make for more compelling subject matter than perhaps expected.
2) Presentation: Maloof, with assistance from Charlie Siskel (Bowling for Columbine, Religulous), does an expert job telling the story plainly with most of the Maier info coming from her now grown (and aged) charges. An oral history, mostly, with Maloof providing clues that he sussed out on his own. But mostly, he lets the "kids" stories stand as a testament to the person.
3) Spin: Maloof is obviously sympathetic, as well as a big booster of Maier's art, but he doesn't let that turn this movie into a hagiography. He lets the darkness and tragedy come through—though without letting that swamp the positive aspects of the story.
The whole thing is jam-packed into 80 minutes with zero padding and yet still not feeling rushed. Of all the ways this story could've gone, when you think about the most likely ending: That Maier's photos are destroyed and her story not known, it's easy to feel a sense of wonder that this treasure trove should fall into the hands of a dedicated archivist.
Then it becomes easy to wonder if there are other Vivian Maiers out there, whose genius have gone into the furnace or landfill, never to be found.
I only wished The Old Man had been around to see it. He loved photography.