Casting a spell

This otherwise dim movie year has offered some spectacular documentaries. The subjects have ranged from the wonders of nature (Winged Migration), the efforts of a sculptor to create an evanescent art (Rivers and Tides) and a quest to locate a vanished author (Stone Reader) to a scuttled movie project (Lost in La Mancha) and the disintegration of a Long Island family (Capturing the Friedmans). These movies have supplied the visceral excitement, emotional complexity and visual splendor that most commercial releases have lacked.

Another documentary that's more charming than any romantic comedy you're likely to see this summer and more suspenseful than any of the action blockbusters is Jeffrey Blitz's Spellbound, about middle-schoolers competing in the 1999 Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee, held over two days in Washington, D.C. That year 249 children qualified for the bee, an annual event since 1925.


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