Side by Side (***½)


If you love the movies, you owe it to yourself to see ‘Side by Side’. This documentary on the past, present, and future of cinema filtered aptly through the lens of the celluloid vs. digital debate is engrossing, entertaining, and vital. Somehow, filmmaker Christopher Kenneally and producer/interviewer/narrator Keanu Reeves manage to not make this project too inside baseball for the layman or laywoman, but at the same time it gets into the details in such a way that even experts won’t be bored. Digital and photochemical filmmaking have their passionate defenders, and the documentary gives both of them equal time. Reeves actually spends most of the time playing devil’s advocate (an amusing coincidence, no?) with A-list directors and cinematographers (plus some editors, studio executives, and businessmen working on the cameras being debated about), leading the doc to actually be the rare breed that isn’t advocating for one side or the other. Shooting on film is romanticized to a degree, but its limitations are made clear. Shooting digitally is presented as the wave of the future here today, but also not without some huge issues that detract from it. This is the type of thing every film school student should see in a 101 class, but moreover every film lover should see. It’s informative, but it’s also a lot of fun. Anyone who’s had the film vs. digital argument will adore what’s going on here. I can’t see anybody who enjoys film not enjoying this documentary, and that’s a rare statement.

At the beginning, Kenneally and Reeves trace the origins of celluloid as the means of making a movie. They then move into the beginnings of the digital movement, which is where things are taken up a notch. We begin seeing the back and forth about the positives and negatives of each format. Big time celluloid fans like Christopher Nolan and Wally Pfister explain why it’s their first and only love, while the likes of James Cameron, Danny Boyle, Anthony Dod Mantle, David Fincher, and Robert Rodriguez wax poetic on the brave new world that is shooting in a digital format. Equal time is given to both points of view, with Reeves trying to get more and more out of the artists, though it’s clear that digital is in the majority at this point, though the minority is plenty vocal. Plenty of filmmakers interviewed are right in the middle, and I think that’s exactly what the documentary is getting at. We’re at a unique time where one format is kind of transitioning away from the norm and the other is only gaining more and more steam, but right now both are being utilized by people at the apex of their craft. The most beautiful examples of both formats are shown in all of their glory, and honestly…they both look perfect to me, a sentiment that I’m not alone in sharing.

In terms of the people that Keanu Reeves sits down with, it’s really a who’s who of the industry. Just a sampling of the interview subjects finds the likes of Dion Beebe, Danny Boyle, James Cameron, Anthony Dod Mantle, Lena Dunham, David Fincher, Greta Gerwig, Richard Linklater, George Lucas, David Lynch, Christopher Nolan, Wally Pfister, Dick Pope, Robert Rodriguez, Tom Rothman, Joel Schumacher, Martin Scorsese, Steven Soderbergh, Lars von Trier, the Wachowskis, and Vilmos Zsigmond, among countless others. Just getting to listen to them is a treat, and for me Boyle, Cameron, and Fincher were the absolute highlights. Fincher especially was someone I could listen to go on and on. He should really do more interviews, as he’s as entertaining a subject as the film has. Reeves does a nice job himself, though once or twice he comes off a little stiff and too Keanu-like with his voice-over narration. A small quibble, but it’s there for me.

Christopher Kenneally is a writer/director first really getting his feet wet with filmmaking, but he’s at least got an aptitude for documentary filmmaking if this flick is any indication. The selection of interview subjects is terrific, and the clips used to highlight each medium is perfect (a combination of older works and examples of hits from last year and earlier this year that make use of both forms of shooting). About the only time that Kenneally might threaten to loose newbies during the nearly 100 minute running time is in the minutia of the different cameras, but a junkie like me loved learning more about them, especially the new Red cameras. This was obviously a passion project for Keanu Reeves, and he picked the right person to helm it. I’m curious to see if they plan a follow up at any point in the future, as they bring up some very salient points about what the industry could look like in a decade or two.

I really can’t say enough about ‘Side by Side’. It’s a great conversation starter and quite simply the best documentary I’ve seen so far in 2012. I have my doubts that the Academy will be interested in nominating it this year, but I’ll be crossing my fingers, assuming it meets the eligibility requirements and all that jazz. If you have even a passing interest in the subject matter, you really can’t miss this flick, and honestly it should already sound irresistible to you. So many scholarly articles have been written on celluloid vs. digital (with tons more still to come, obviously), but seeing a film on it is such an interesting way to have the debate come alive. I highly recommend seeing ‘Side by Side’ as soon as you can. It’s pretty much a must see!

Thoughts? Discuss in the comments!