The Best of Ken Burns

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For almost four decades, filmmaker Ken Burns has been making informative and entertaining documentary films that celebrate the different people, events, icons, and art forms that have made the United States of America a unique society in the world.

Burns’ films were a breakthrough for the genre. While history documentaries were seen by most people as dry and boring, Burns made the stories come to life with all the drama and emotion of a film—even if what was on screen was a grainy photograph. Through his signature use of pans, close-ups, emotional music (especially piano), and other filmmaking techniques, Burns brought character and life out of the past and made those old voices live again.

It’s also clear looking at his back catalog that Burns has a lot of respect for his audience. When he’s at his best, Burns simply lets the stories of the past play out with little bias or favor, giving all sides of an issue or event a fair shake. The audience is challenged to form their own opinions about the story, which makes the film so much more engaging and thought-provoking.

I credit Ken Burns with pouring some serious gasoline on the fire that was my passion for American history. I was a kid when I saw my first Ken Burns documentary series on PBS, and it captivated me from the start. The raw human emotion that came forth made me understand that history wasn’t just old photos and dates to memorize, but a collection of real human stories – good, bad, and in between.

Burns also heavily influenced the way I tell stories in my professional career in entertainment, and I always try to find ways of incorporating history into my projects.

Another aspect of Burns’ films that is well known is their length. Many of his works are highly detailed and consist of multiple episodes, running anywhere from four to nineteen hours. These massive lengths are often ridiculed, but I argue that they are entirely necessary to fully understand some of these complicated subjects. One comes out of these films with a new insight to history because of all the details.

My recent review of his latest film, Country Music, prompted me to think of other projects in his body of work that have impacted me and my outlook on history. With states and localities under various degrees of stay-at-home orders due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it may be a good time to dust off some of these old stories to pass the time. These films are the types of stories we could all use right now.

So here are my ten favorite Ken Burns films, along with where you can stream them at home.

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COUNTRY MUSIC – Humanity in Song

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I have been a big fan of documentarian Ken Burns for most of my life, and I credit some of his seminal works like The Civil War for getting me deeply interested in history. When Burns recounts straight history, without any kind of personal slant or agenda, he’s the best in the genre. His documentaries are long endeavors to be sure, but one feels closer to history after viewing them.

I’m happy to report that Country Music, Burns’ latest multi-hour documentary film, was indeed Burns at his best and was, therefore, one of his best works in recent years – and became one of my favorite films of 2019.

Like the music that it celebrated, Country Music was a simple story told in the most sincere way possible – highlighting the origins, highs, and lows of the industry and its artists and impresarios. There was laughter, tears, and lots of great stories about how this truly American art form has evolved over the course of a century. But the film’s greatest strength was highlighting country music’s greatest asset: its humanity.

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EXTRACTION – Machine Gun Jesus

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After conquering the box office with a one-two punch of Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame, Anthony and Joe Russo have been branching out beyond the superhero genre – bringing their brand of moviemaking to relatively smaller films.

One of these new films was just released on Netflix and stars MCU alum Chris Hemsworth in the lead. Extraction, which is produced by the Russos, is a pretty good action film in a genre that is too often in danger of growing stale with unrealistic violence and destruction porn. First-time director Sam Hargrave, who was a stunt coordinator on several MCU films, infused the film with excitement and urgency few films in the genre achieve.

What was particularly exciting to me was how much the film subtly embraces a key sub-genre of the action film and its more spiritual allusions.

SPOILERS AHEAD

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DUNKIRK – God Save the Brits

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World War II is one of my favorite historic eras and film genres. Perhaps it has been idealized too much in the recent past, but I believe it was a time when we saw humanity at its best and worst simultaneously. The worst represented by the German war machine that gave birth to the Holocaust. And the best with the sight of the brave men landing at Normandy under heavy gunfire – on their way to freeing on continent.

Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk brought to light an event of the Second World War which few Americans know about (it took place in 1940, before Pearl Harbor and America’s involvement) and did so in Nolan’s atypical auteur style. It combined one of my favorite directors with one of my favorite genres – making for exceptional storytelling.

This was not your dad’s World War II movie; it was something different: an arthouse blockbuster in the purest sense of the phrase. But an art-house that wasn’t self-important or self-indulgent. It was easy to understand, which was great considering the subject matter.

Dunkirk was the harrowing story of what was essentially a miracle – almost 400,000 men evacuated from France as enemy forces closed in on all sides. It captured what the British call the “Dunkirk spirit” that the British people developed after the evacuation and maintained for the duration of the war. So many things came together perfectly that I have no doubt in my mind that this was one of the Lord’s divine interventions that have been chronicled throughout history.

SPOILERS AHEAD.

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My Top Ten Films of 2019

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I’m a little late this year, but a lot has happened in the past few months, as you can imagine. Hoping to get back into writing more regularly.

2019 was a great year for movies – lots of exceptional titles that really captured my interest and imagination. Some enthralling, others inspirational. There was also a lot of triumphs of the craft itself, with filmmakers using unique means and techniques to tell their stories. And all of them had something profound to say about the Lord and His story.

There were also some really bad movies this year. And it pains me to say that some of these movies are in franchises that I have admired for a good chunk of my life.

So before we get to the triumphs of last year, let’s slog through the garbage of my Bottom Five of 2019 first.

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