Shepard & Dark
Shepard & Dark

This may be the best of times and the worst of times for nonfiction filmmaking. For every breakthrough like The Act of Killing, at least a dozen documentaries pass through town that are formless, dry, or so narrowly focused that they alienate all but the sorts of people they depict. Docs at the Box, the Music Box’s first-ever documentary festival, collects 11 new nonfiction films; one hopes they’ll have more in common with Killing than with such recent nonmovies as Somm, which plays like a feature-length reality-TV pilot, and Money for Nothing, which reminded me of a PowerPoint presentation. Some of the films promise formal experimentation: Our Nixon was assembled from home movies shot by former White House aides, whereas Smash & Grab: The Story of the Pink Panthers makes extensive use of animation. Others trade in star power, looking at Bettie Page, Muhammad Ali, Bikini Kill lead singer Kathleen Hanna, and talk-show host Morton Downey Jr. Ben Sachs

Anita: Speaking Truth to Power Freida Lee Mock, an Oscar winner for Maya Lin: A Clear Strong Vision (1994), directed this profile of Anita Hill, who accused Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment during his confirmation hearings for the Supreme Court. 95 min. Sun 10/6, 1:30 PM.

Bettie Page Reveals All The famous pinup model narrates this 2012 feature by Mark Mori; among the other talking heads are Hugh Hefner, Naomi Campbell, and Mamie Van Doren. R, 101 min. Sun 10/6, 3:30 PM, and Tue 10/8, 9:30 PM.

Evocateur: The Morton Downey Jr. Movie Blame it on Mort the Mouth: according to this bewilderingly nostalgic documentary, the current nadir of American public discourse can be traced to Morton Downey Jr., the bombastic conservative broadcaster whose syndicated TV show was short-lived (1987-’89) but influential. Downey was confrontational, profane, unapologetically sexist, and sometimes physically abusive, much to the delight of his rabid studio audience, which New York’s then mayor Ed Koch called “a lynch mob.” Assorted celebrities and Downey’s producers offer some insights, but the movie dwells too long on a group of worshipful former audience members—presumably because filmmakers Seth Kramer, Daniel A. Miller, and Jeremy Newberger were once fanboys themselves. R, 90 min. —Andrea Gronvall Tue 10/8, 7:30 PM.

Free the Mind Directed by Phie Ambo, this slight but intriguing documentary looks at recent advances in nonpharmacological treatment of neurological disorders. Ambo follows three people—two veterans of the war in Afghanistan who suffer from PTSD and a preschool boy with ADHD and a crippling fear of elevators—as they work with doctors to overcome their conditions without prescription drugs. A wealth of information is sufficiently articulated, though the film’s greatest strength is Ambo’s compassion toward the subjects. Despite the difficult personal questions she poses, even the most emotionally charged moments feel cathartic rather than exploitative, which is rare for documentaries dealing with mental illness. 75 min. Drew Hunt Thu 10/10, 7:30 PM.

Informant In 2005, Brandon Darby was prominent in the anarchist community, organizing grassroots relief efforts for victims of Hurricane Katrina; today he’s a paid speaker on the Tea Party circuit; and for a while in between, he served as an FBI informant, helping to indict several younger activists who had looked up to him. Jamie Meltzer (Welcome to Nollywood), who directed this documentary portrait of Darby, relies a bit too heavily on Errol Morris-like stylization, but his megalomaniacal subject is fascinating all the same. The movie is less valuable for its political insight than for its psychological curiosity—the more it reveals about Darby, the more mysterious he seems. Ben Sachs 82 min. Fri 10/4, 9:40 PM; Sun 10/6, 5:45 PM; and Wed 10/9, 7:30 PM.

Plimpton! Starring George Plimpton as Himself Amateur, dilettante, prototypical DIY-er—all these terms might describe George Plimpton, though he called himself a participatory journalist. Descended from prominent east-coast families, he had an extraordinary intellect and an unbridled curiosity that led him into some undignified pursuits. His years editing the eclectic literary journal the Paris Review provided the springboard for a series of articles and books chronicling his misadventures as an unqualified rookie in baseball, football, hockey, and golf. (He later branched out as a circus trapeze artist and a percussionist for the New York Philharmonic, where he tried Leonard Bernstein’s patience.) Documentary makers Tom Bean and Luke Poling, aided by a trove of Plimpton’s recorded interviews and speeches, reveal the complex man behind the clown. —Andrea Gronvall 87 min. Sat 10/5, 2 PM, and Mon 10/7, 5:30 PM.

Our Nixon Super-8 home movies shot by the president’s aides constitute much of this experimental documentary about the Nixon White House. Penny Lane directed. 84 min. Tue 10/8, 5:30 PM, and Thu 10/10, 9:45 PM.

The Punk Singer Kathleen Hanna, lead singer of the “riot grrrl” band Bikini Kill and then Le Tigre, is the subject of this feature by Sini Anderson. Sun 10/6, 7:45 PM, and Wed 10/9, 9:30 PM.

Shepard & Dark Timing is everything: filmmaker Treva Wurmfeld set out to document the 50-year friendship between playwright Sam Shepard and writer-archivist Johnny Dark, and wound up recording its breakdown. Shepard is a restless traveler and moody drinker, whereas Dark is a mellow stoner who sticks to home. They lived together for over a decade, when Shepard was married to Dark’s stepdaughter, O-Lan, and remained friends even after the playwright left her for Jessica Lange. His relationship with Lange now ended, Shepard is shown living in a motel and angling to sell his and Dark’s massive collection of correspondence, photos, and home movies for a book deal. The stress of their reunion yields fascinating insights into Shepard’s work. —Andrea Gronvall 89 min. Sat 10/5, 4:30 PM; Mon 10/7, 7:30 PM; and Wed 10/9, 5:30 PM.

Smash & Grab: The Story of the Pink Panthers The international network of diamond thieves explored by this British documentary calls to mind the shadowy organizations of Fritz Lang thrillers. “The Pink Panthers,” a European group responsible for jewelry store robberies all over the world, lack any clear organizational structure and regularly assume false identities. Most of them have been apprehended after decades of evading arrest. Two of those still at large provide commentary here, and to protect their anonymity, director Havana Marking presents them in the form of animated characters—a clever but flashy idea that’s characteristic of her general approach. This is entertaining as true-crime storytelling, though somewhat shallow when it gets into heavier subject matter, like ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia or present-day atrocities in diamond-rich African countries. Ben Sachs 93 min. Sun 10/6, 9:45 PM; Mon 10/7, 9:30 PM; and Thu 10/10, 5:30 PM.

The Trials of Muhammad Ali Bill Siegel (The Weather Underground) directed this Kartemquin Films documentary about Ali’s life as a political figure. 86 min. Sat 10/5, 7 PM.