The following list covers a wide range of subject matter and represents the pinnacle of 2016 productions. Several selections touch upon the cultural zeitgeist, confronting issues that have dominated the recent news (and feature mature content). Three acclaimed picture books were naturals for animated adaptations. It was a particularly strong year for material raising drug abuse awareness. While there may be a sense of doom and gloom in the documentaries about the threats to endangered species, the first program on the list will leave viewers hopeful and moved.
A visually ah-inspiring edition to the “Nature” series, the winning Animal Reunions (PBS; Gr 4 Up) answers the question, can animals feel affection toward humans they haven’t seen in years? It also spotlights rescuers who have raised orphaned elephants, chimpanzees, and gorillas before returning them to the wild. Interviews with scientists (including primatologist Jane Goodall), authors, and caregivers provide the facts, but the creatures steal the show, and it’s true, elephants don’t forget.
The frank behind-the-scenes documentary Becoming Bulletproof (Tugg Edu; Gr 9 Up) celebrates what it describes as “extreme diversity.” Zeno Mountain Farms, a nonprofit film camp, cast young adults with disabilities—such as cerebral palsy and Down syndrome—to act in a Western (the result: Bulletproof Jackson). The film tears down barriers, and through the actors’ participation in the project, they take a stand on inclusiveness in pop culture. Through the in-depth profiles, the film “fosters understanding of those with differences and promotes empathy,” according to SLJ’s review (6/15).
Investigative journalism at its more startling, Blood Lions: Bred for the Bullet (PBS; Gr 9 Up) takes viewers to the underground hunting industry in South Africa, where lions are bred and hunted for sport in so-called sanctuaries; hunters pay operators thousands for a guaranteed kill. The film explores how breeders exploit legal loopholes (such as private property laws), while environmentalist Ian Michler goes undercover, leading to fraught confrontations. Documentary film at its most probing.
Perhaps the strongest blend of the factual and painfully personal this year was Chasing It (Dreamscape; Gr 9 Up), which focuses on the huge increase in heroin and opiate use in the last decade, especially among teens. Medical experts provide statistics and information about physiology to explain why heroin is so addictive, while recovering addicts from various socioeconomic backgrounds offer an upfront and clear-eyed view of recovery in a work that’s intense, involving, and an urgent call for advocacy.
A smooth and buoyant jazz score accompanies CJ and his Nana’s midday bus ride through town. Matt de la Peña’s picture book Last Stop on Market Street (Dreamscape; K-Gr 3) celebrates the pleasures of observation, and his award-winning title is an ideal candidate for a DVD translation, in which viewers will peruse Christian Robinson’s layered cityscapes and the diverse passengers riding along with the boy, all exuding personality. Viewers become immersed in CJ’s world, making the tale even more intimate and the viewing experience just as lovely as the picture book.
The tough-talking, thought-provoking documentary The Mask You Live In (Virgil Films; Gr 9 Up) takes as its launching point a quote by George Orwell: “He wears a mask, and his face grows to fit it.” The dense subject matter breaks down the social constructs and stereotypes of hypermasculinity, the negation of what’s perceived as feminine, and the use of language, among many topics deconstructed, with particular emphasis on the transition from child to preadolescent. This conversation starter offers plenty of entry points for self-reflection.
In many ways, the DVD treatment of Mélanie Watt’s absurdist Scaredy Squirrel at Night (Weston Woods; PreS-Gr 3) has more tricks up its sleeve than the original picture book. Anxious Scaredy Squirrel doesn’t want to risk having a bad dream about ghosts, bats, or polka-dot monsters, so he plans to stay awake, every single night. The score by Scotty Huff—from a lullaby to a Law & Order–style theme—and the kaleidoscopic animation contribute to this playful romp. Pure fun.
Silly and savvy, That Is NOT a Good Idea! (Weston Woods; PreS-Gr 3) is another stellar adaptation and presentation. After all, it’s based on Mo Willems’s whimsical tribute to silent movies, complete with title cards, an accompanying ragtime piano, and melodrama as devious Hungry Fox (boo, hiss) plots his next meal: the gullible Plumb Goose. With a bonus feature, “Team Mo,” on how the author/illustrator and his collaborators put it all together, this disc is a must-have for Willems fans.
Although it features footage of frisky foragers frolicking, Threatened: The Controversial Struggle of the Southern Sea Otter (The Video Project; Gr 7 Up) has a more serious agenda in mind: to determine the cause of the high mortality rate among these marine mammals off the coast of California. The 41-minute film makes a strong connection to varied areas of curricula: marine biology, environmental studies, public policy, and investigative journalism.
Emily Lindin was sexually bullied at age 11. Now an adult, she has founded the UnSlut Project, bringing its message of self-empowerment in the timely UnSlut: A Documentary Film (Tugg Edu; Gr 9 Up). This 40-minute candid eye-opener on sexual assault and bullying also defangs the word slut. By having both adults (including Samantha Gailey Gainer, of the Roman Polanski rape case) and teens share their experiences, the piece challenges how female sexuality is viewed, whether in schools, social media, or in the culture at large.