There are many more that could’ve easily made it on this list, but here are the 15 documentaries that have affected me most.
Dir. by Albert Maysles, David Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin
The Maysles brothers are two of the finest, most dedicated documentarians who’ve ever lived. They’ve contributed plenty of fantastic films to the art form, but none have hit quite as hard as Gimme Shelter, which chronicles the colossal cluster fuck that was the Altamont Free Concert. Altamont was pitched as a West Coast Woodstock. Ike and Tina Turner, Jefferson Airplane, and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, were all set to perform, with The Rolling Stones acting as headliner. But from the moment The Rolling Stones landed at the venue, all hell broke loose.
Infamous biker gang, the Hells Angels, were there to act as security for The Rolling Stones (the gang says The Stones hired them for protection, the band denies this), and when a concert attendee drew a pistol in the middle of The Stones’ set, a Hells Angels member stabbed him to death.
Now, I don’t know what’s more impressive: the fact that the Maysles brothers had the fortitude to chronicle the event, or that they caught everything I’ve described (and much, much more) on camera. Altamont was certainly no Woodstock, and Gimme Shelter is clear evidence as to why.
14. When We Were Kings (1996)
Dir. by Leon Gast
Leon Gast’s When We Were Kings is an epic, live capture of one of the most famous boxing fights in history, The Rumble in the Jungle. In chronicling the famed bout between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman, Gast interviewed a number of people associated with each fighter, as well as boxing experts and witnesses of the actual event.
The film was shot almost entirely in 1974, but spent decades tangled in ridiculous lawsuits. No matter. When it finally saw the light of day, it was deservedly rewarded with the Oscar for Best Documentary. To put it another way: I’m a huge fan of boxing, and the first time I watched When We Were Kings, I realized I knew next to nothing about the sweet science of the sport. Boxing fan or not, When We Were Kings is a real powerhouse.
13. Deliver Us From Evil (2006)
Dir. by Amy Berg
The main subject of Deliver Us From Evil is Oliver O’Grady, a priest who casually admits to raping and molesting hundreds of children while he was a priest in America. At the time of Berg’s interviews, O’Grady was walking around Ireland a free man. Strolling past playgrounds, sitting in churches, contemplating. In addition to these interviews, Berg speaks with several of O’Grady’s victims, many of whom have lived extremely troubled lives as a result of the abuse they endured.
Again, Deliver Us From Evil isn’t for the faint of heart, but it is a masterfully constructed documentary that will get you fuming.
12. The Cove (2009)
Dir. by Louie Psihoyos
I’ll never forget the first time I saw Louie Psihoyos’ The Cove. It was the final film I saw at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival. It had won top documentary honors the day before, and buzz was brewing. I had recently become involved in animal rights activism, and The Cove sounded like something that may anger and inspire me. So I sat. I sat and watched as several Japanese men slaughtered hundreds of innocent dolphins for no apparent reason. I sat and watched as the Japanese government tried to cover it up. I sat and watched as a few brave people tried to expose these misdeeds. And I sat and watched and cried as activist Ric O’Barry strapped a screen to his chest, displaying the carnage for all the world to see.
I sat and I watched and I emerged from that screening a changed man. My personal beliefs on the subject of animal rights haven’t been the same since.
11. The Times of Harvey Milk (1984)
Dir. by Rob Epstein
A good friend of mine recently watched Gus Van Sant’s Milk for the first time. She was very taken with the film, and I asked her specifically what she thought of the scene in which thousands of people march on the streets of San Francisco as a way to honor the recently slain Harvey Milk. She said she thought the scene was emotional, and was impressed by the number of apparent extras it took to film it. I told her that the scene was entirely real, borrowed directly from the frames of The Times of Harvey Milk. My friend was speechless, which mirrors my sentiment everytime I watch this documentary.
10. Encounters at the End of the World (2007)
Dir. by Werner Herzog
In all honestly, the bulk of the list could be dominated with Werner Herzog documentaries. I had a very difficult time narrowing it down to just one, but I finally decided on the G-rated Encounters at the End of the World. I respect the hell out of Herzog for traveling to Antarctica for no other reason than to interview the kinds of people who fascinate him. The kinds of people who would leave a life as a renowned doctor or scientist, to live in the middle of nowhere and serve ice cream. The kinds of people who fled political persecution years ago, and still can’t form coherent words to talk about it.
Encounters at the End of the World may be Herzog’s most beautiful film, for many reasons. And believe me, the man has made many.
9. Night and Fog (1955)
Dir. by Alain Resnais
Night and Fog is a film of juxtaposition. The film opens with a series of color shots of lush fields. Blue skies and green grass, while whimsical music plays over the soundtrack. Then, without warning, Resnais cuts to black and white photos and film footage of the Holocaust. Its planning, preparation, and dreadful execution.
Part of the mastery of this film is that it doesn’t force its information on us, as if to say “Look at this, now. Be on our side.” Rather, it simply presents us with photographical facts and asks us to, “Look at this, now.”
8. Burden of Dreams (1982)
Dir. by Les Blank
Burden of Dreams is the best film about the making of a film that has ever existed. It is a 95-minute document of the hell Werner Herzog went through to make his masterpiece, Fitzcarraldo in early ‘80s. How Herzog kept the South American natives happy with food, shelter, and women. How Herzog battled his star, Klaus Kinski, on a daily basis, which resulted in each man vowing to kill the other. And, most notably, how Herzog actually facilitated the pulling of a massive boat over a large mountain. To watch Burden of Dreams is to watch a genius filmmaker at the end of his rope. Most anyone would’ve given up, but, as Herzog says, “It’s faith that moves mountains.”
7. Hoop Dreams (1994)
Dir. by Steve James
Similar to Gimme Shelter, a lot of the credit for Steve James’ Hoop Dreams is dependent on luck, as in, James was in the right place at the right time, and captured a great story. Thing is, James made it his job to be in the right place at the right time for five years. That’s how long he followed two high school basketball prodigies around, in hopes of chronicling the rise of the next Michael Jordan.
But here’s the thing: Hoop Dreams chronicles real life. This isn’t a fairy tale where the inner city kid with the neglectful parents makes the final shot in the championship game, gets a college scholarship, and ends up being a star in the NBA. Hoop Dreams is real life, in all its devastation. The movie is three hours long but could be even longer. It’s as brutal a depiction of urban America as I’ve seen.
6. Shoah (1985)
Dir. by Claude Lanzmann
What can I say about Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah that the film doesn’t already say for itself? Perhaps it’s best to describe the film technically as a means of proving its worth. Shoah is a nine-hour documentary about the Holocaust, presented in six different languages, comprised almost entirely of present-day interviews from people who were there. It will take you a very long time to finish the film (in addition to a laborious running time, this isn’t exactly easy subject material), but once it’s done, I promise you will be a better person for having seen it. And there certainly are not too many films I can say that about.
5. Capturing the Friedmans (2003)
Dir. by Andrew Jarecki
Capturing the Friedmans started off as a short documentary about clowns. Andrew Jarecki was making a film about New York’s most popular clowns, and David Friedman’s name was always chief among them. Shortly into interviewing David, Jarecki sensed that his subject was hiding something about this past. Jarecki got David to elaborate, the result of which was compelling and haunting.
The film is a detailed chronicling of the Friedmans, a well-to-do family from Great Neck, New York, whose patriarch, Arnold, and youngest son, Jesse, were arrested for multiple sexual abuse charges. The ingenuity of the film is that you never really know who to believe. Every Friedman is caught in a lie at some point in the film, but, occasionally, the police and prosecutors on the case don’t present their information as open-and-closed either. Everytime I watch this film, I come away with a new understanding of what I think happened, which is surely its point.
On a personal note, seeing Capturing the Friedmans for the first time was one of the most intense movie going experiences I’ve ever had. I went to an independent theater in Washington, D.C. and marveled at what I was seeing. I noted that I was then the same age as Jesse was during his trial. That put Jesse’s story into some sort of odd perspective for me, in a way I can’t fully explain. Simply put: I was a casual viewer of documentaries before Capturing the Friedmans, but once I saw this film, the art form came alive for me.
4. The Up Series (1964-2012)
Dir. by Paul Almond (Seven Up!) and Michael Apted (14 Up-56 Up)
The most impressive undertaking of any director on this list (or any list, for that matter) is Michael Apted’s decades-long dedication to his Up Series. In 1964, a television station picked a handful of young children to interview. The kids were asked what they wanted to do, who they wanted to be, and so on. Seven years later, an assistant on that film, Michael Apted, interviewed the same kids, who were now 14 years old. And every seven years since, Apted has found the same people and interviewed them about their lives.
The result is a series of films (eight in total now) that belong in a time capsule. Literally watching people grow before your very eyes is impressive enough, but the fact that their stories make for such captivating cinema is truly a marvelous feat.
If I were to pick a best film of the bunch, it would be 28 Up (but last year’s 56 Up was damn fine as well). If you’ve never seen any of these films, don’t let the undertaking of watching all eight intimidate you. Apted and his team go to great lengths to catch the viewer up on every interviewee. He seamlessly mixes in clips from other installments, so you never feel lost. In short, you will have a perfectly good experience watching only 56 Up (which is now on Netflix Instant). But if you want to watch them all, I certainly won’t talk you out of it.
3. Titicut Follies (1967)
Dir. by Frederick Wiseman
In the late 1960s, a man with no films to his name asked permission to document inside the walls of Bridgewater State Hospital, a facility for the criminally insane in Massachusetts. That man, Frederick Wiseman, was given unprecedented access to film whatever he wanted, which still baffles me to this day.
You see, the shit Wiseman gets on film is utterly mortifying. He documents guards ceaselessly beating, berating, force feeding and victimizing inmates of the facility. At times, the guards are clearly enjoying the abuse they inflict on the people they’re suppose to care for.
After Wiseman released his film, he was sued many times over by several different people and organizations, but to no avail. The fact that people were pissed that Wiseman captured what happened doesn’t mean it didn’t happen to begin with. Titicut Follies is a great film, but just be warned, you cannot unsee some of the things in this movie.
2. The Thin Blue Line (1988)
Dir. by Errol Morris
Errol Morris’ The Thin Blue Line is a film about circumstance. About he-said, she-said. About I’m right and you’re wrong. In late November 1976, a Dallas police officer was shot dead during a routine traffic stop. The police acted quickly, ultimately gathering two suspects, Randall Adams and David Harris. Adams was subsequently charged with the murder and sentenced to death. Case closed.
But not for Morris, a man whose films are powerful as a direct result of his journalistic research. Morris interviewed Adams and Harris exhaustively, as well as a number of people involved with the case. He even included stylish reenactments of the crime (which ultimately made the film ineligible for Oscar competition) that captured various points of view based on various testimonies.
I don’t want to fully divulge what the film reveals, but just know that The Thin Blue Line is filmmaking at its most necessary. It proves that film is far beyond a medium of entertainment. Film has meaning, it has purpose, and The Thin Blue Line is an inarguable case to that point.
1. Blood of the Beasts (1949)
Dir. by Georges Franju
A funny thing happened when I posted my Top 10 Films of All Time last year. Most of the movies on my list were well known. Some are more popular than others, but most were easily identifiable. Save the obscure, black and white, short French film, Blood of the Beasts. In that post, I described the personal impact Franju’s film had on me. I talked about seeing it at an impressionable age, and being angered by what it depicts. I spoke of how the film altered my view of what I ate and how I ate it, and how I have lived that way ever since.
The funny thing was that, after my post, a handful of people felt compelled to watch the film, which you can easily find on YouTube. No one got it. No one understood why Blood of the Beasts spoke to me the way it did, or how it could possibly have changed my life. People appreciated the film and what it stood for, but no one got it.
The thing is, I would never expect for someone else to have the same reaction to any film as I do. Ever. What we bring to a film is life experience, which is different for everyone. Some people watch Blood of the Beasts and see gruesome trash, others see a life-altering film that will stay with them forever. That’s the power of cinema.
Click here for more lists from And So it Begins, including: