Thursday, September 1, 2011

20 Documentaries to (Really) See Before You Die

Documentaries are my favorite genre of films.  No question.  (Note: I pay no attention to the uninformed notions that every foreign film should be categorized under a sole genre.) So when I heard about Current TV’s list of 50 Documentaries to See Before You Die, I was immediately excited. 

Now, normally I’d dive off into a rant injected with inspired sarcasm and playful mockery, but fair being fair… Current TV’s list isn’t all that bad.  Sure, most of the movies seem to be on the list simply due to their popularity, and there are, of course, a few puzzling inclusions (Catfish… really?), but ultimately, what’s on the list isn’t nearly as noteworthy as what was left off. 

So for our purposes, I’m presenting two lists: the 10 best docs Current TV included, and 10 great docs they left off.  Both lists will be cataloged chronologically and will (hopefully) be immensely enjoyed by documentary enthusiasts and fanatics of cinema alike.

The 10 Best Documentaries from the Current TV list
The Thin Blue Line (1998) [ranked 2nd by Current TV]
Many people are making comparisons between what the Paradise Lost documentaries did for the West Memphis Three and what The Thin Blue Line did for Randall Adams.  In the late ‘70s, Adams was falsely convicted of murdering a police officer, 12 years and one Errol Morris documentary later, he was freed.  Nevermind that Adams ultimately sued Morris for the rights to his story; it’s all in the game.

Crumb (1994) [ranked 15th by Current TV]
At their best, documentaries find a subject so candid and willing to divulge secrets, that the result is utterly stupefying. Robert Crumb, and several members of his family, have no qualms about telling Terry Zwigoff, and his audience, why he is the way he is.  The result is equal parts shocking, hilarious and utterly heartbreaking.

Hoop Dreams (1994) [ranked 1st by Current TV]
Often ranked first among all the films of the documentary genre, Hoop Dreams is the end result of a white dude who followed two Michael Jordon-type prodigies around for four years.  Although basketball appears to be its central focus, the movie has very little to do with the sport.  Human emotion and grim reality are far more accurate attributes.

When We Were Kings (1996) [ranked 40th by Current TV]  
As a boxing fanatic, there’s nothing better than watching experts recount the pound-for-pound glory that equated to The Rumble in the Jungle.  Made mostly in the ‘70s but released in 1996, this doc won the Oscar, which feels paltry in comparison to its ingenuity. 

Little Dieter Needs to Fly (1998) [ranked 46th by Current TV]            
Werner Herzog shares the rank, along with Errol Morris and Frederick Wiseman, as being our best living documentarian.  This doc recounts the struggle of Dieter Dengler, a pilot who was held as a POW for several months during Vietnam.  When filming was done, Dengler told Herzog that his story wasn’t through being told.  Herzog agreed, and eight years later, he made Rescue Dawn, an equally impressive narrative vision of the same story.

Capturing the Friedmans (2003) [ranked 20th by Current TV]
Andrew Jarecki was interested in making a short film about New York City’s most popular clown performers.  While interviewing David Friedman, he discovered that David’s family had more than a few deep, disturbing secrets.  Capturing the Friedmans is the result.  Prepare to be floored.

Grizzly Man (2005) [ranked 10th by Current TV]
Herzog’s documentaries, and most of his narrative films, are about eccentrics doing things that fit their character appropriately.  Timothy Treadwell lived with Alaskan grizzly bears for 13 summers, and ultimately died as a result.  Here, Herzog edits the hours of footage Treadwell shot into a mesmerizing tour de force.  There’s a scene in which we see (but do not hear) Herzog listen to Treadwell’s death.  His reaction is haunting in its simplicity, and will forever be imprinted in my mind.

When the Levees Broke (2006) [ranked 43rd by Current TV]
Furious over the lack of government action concerning Hurricane Katrina, Spike Lee made this epic, four hour documentary chronicling the days before, during and (mostly) after the storm.  His film is a scathing indictment of pretty much everyone involved, from the Bush administration on down.  This is an honest, gut wrenching look at one of America’s grandest fuckups.  It’ll rock you.

Man on Wire (2008) [ranked 29th by Current TV]
What’s interesting about an eccentric Frechman whose (current) life goal is to string a tight-rope high wire between the two newly built World Trade Centers?  Simple: everything.

Trouble the Water (2008) [ranked 9th by Current TV]
Where When the Levees Broke captures government inaction after the fact, Trouble the Water captures Katrina in real time, as it happened.  Like many New Orleans residents, Kimberly and Scott Roberts thought they could weather the storm.  Difference is, they filmed it. 

10 Great Documentaries (absent from the Current TV list)
Nanook of the North (1922)
I’m not sure how you can make a list of important documentaries and not include the most essential one of all.  Nanook of the North, about the daily dealings of a feisty Eskimo, was the first feature length documentary ever made.  Its scope is ingenious, its execution is flawless.

Triumph of the Will (1935)
This is a film that, based solely on what is presented onscreen, gets far more credit than it deserves.  Its overall legacy, however, is undeniable.  In filming the 1934 Nazi Party Congress, Leni Riefenstahl created the best looking, most flawlessly choreographed propaganda film of all time.  The movie itself is long and repetitive, but its power is shocking and vital.

Blood of the Beasts (1949)
For one semester during my junior year of college, I sat week after week, completely mesmerized by a course titled History of the Documentary.  Many of the films on this list were viewed for the first time in that class, none more memorable than Georges Franju’s Blood of the Beasts.  The film is, essentially, a day in the life of three different Parisian slaughterhouses.  It’s 20 minutes long and in black and white.  Everytime I finish watching it (which I force myself to do at least once a year) I remind myself of two things: at least it isn’t longer, and thank God it isn’t in color.  Blood of the Beasts is monumentally powerful, both in its grisly images of death and the blasé attitudes of the men inflecting it. This film ranks among the top 10 best movies I’ve ever seen.  (Note: Blood of the Beasts is available on DVD, but only as a special feature on Franju’s Eyes Without a Face, which is available via The Criterion Collection.)

Night and Fog (1955)
Much like Blood of the Beasts, Night and Fog is short and brutal, but commanding and unforgettable.  This 30 minute documentary cross-cuts beautiful, scenic shots of lush, green fields with the most horrific images of the Holocaust that I’ve ever seen.  Its purpose isn’t to shock, but rather educate.  If you’re going to watch it, and I sincerely believe you should, then watch it the same way I did, as a double feature with Blood of the Beasts.  The experience will be over fast, but the lasting power will creep in and stay.

The Up Series (1964-2005)
In 1964, 14 British seven year olds of varying backgrounds were chosen to be documented for a British television show.  Seven years later, director Michael Apted visited the same group of kids.  Seven years later, he sought them out again.  Another seven years goes by, another interview gets filmed.  The films are the result of a brilliant, simple concept; one that could only be executed by a person of sheer dedication.  Michael Apted is such a man. When Apted does finally conclude his Up Series, I hope the entire collection is preserved, only to be viewed hundreds of years from now by curious historians. 

Titicut Follies (1967)
I’m starting to notice a trend here: most of the films on this list are brutal, horrific, and all together mesmerizing.  It’s not that I’m a sadistic son of a bitch who enjoys watching people (and animals) be tortured and killed, I’m simply captivated by the sides of human nature rarely depicted in narrative films.  Chief among my interest is Frederick Wiesman’s chilling Titicut Follies. For his first film, Wiesman gained unprecedented access to the Massachusetts Correctional Institution where he was given free license to film most anything.  This includes inmate torture and beatings by guards, living situations that are far from humane, bodily operations achieved quickly and crudely, and so on. Titicut Follies is the start of a master's career, and  a staple of the documentary form.

Woodstock (1970)
Aside from Nanook of the North, I was most surprised by Woodstock’s exclusion from the Current TV list.  The three hour film chronicles the epic concert in its entirety, giving the viewer a first person pass to the most infamous concert in the history of the world.  Many critics argue that Woodstock is the best documentary ever made. Let me put it this way: the musical performances in this film aren’t the first or second most interesting part about it.  And that’s saying a lot.

Burden of Dreams (1982)
You know those cheesy, studio-approved, five-minute Making Of special features on DVDs? Well, imagine a full length version that is justly classified as a masterpiece. Werner Herzog was initially apprehensive of letting Les Blank film him while he shot his epic Fitzcarraldo, but thank God he relented.  Burden of Dreams captures a genius on the brink of insanity, all due to Murphy’s Law.  Funny, moving, and endlessly wicked, Burden of Dreams may in fact be better than the film it chronicles, which is a pretty damn bold statement.

The Times of Harvey Milk (1984)
You all saw Milk, right?  The 2008 Oscar winner with Sean Penn playing the first openly gay man elected to public office?  Yeah, well, remember how good that was, how emotional and endearing? Well, imagine that, but entirely real.  Have tissues close by.

Deliver Us from Evil (2006)
The main subject of Deliver Us from Evil is Father Oliver O'Grady, who molested and raped dozens of children while he was a Catholic priest.  The man has not spent one day in jail, or suffered any form of consequence for his actions.  You know how I know this?  Because O’Grady tells us so candidly in Amy Berg’s gut wrenching film. Prepare to be enraged.

The Cove (2009)
Seriously, Current TV, where the hell is The Cove?  You know, that excellent documentary about the annual slaughter of thousands of dolphins in Japan every year. The doc that won the Oscar two years ago.  The doc that actually got the Japanese government to end the slaughter the film depicts.  The doc that contains one of the most moving finales to any film, ever.  If there’s ever a documentary to see before you die, The Cove certainly is it.

Note: as of Sept. 1, 2011, The Thin Blue Line, Hoop Dreams, When We Were Kings, Man on Wire, Trouble the Water, Triumph of the Will, The Cove, and a number of the Up films are available on Netflix Instant.

Current TV’s original list:
50. Spellbound (2002)
49. Truth or Dare (1991)
48. The Kid Stays in the Picture (2002)
47. One Day in September (1999)
46. Little Dieter Needs to Fly (1998)
45. The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years (1988)
44. Burma VJ (2008)
43. When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts (2006)
42. Catfish (2010)
41. The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (2007)
40. When We Were Kings (1996)
39. Biggie & Tupac (2002)
38. March of the Penguins (2005)
37. Inside Job (2010)
36. Taxi to the Dark Side (2007)
35. Paragraph 175 (2000)
34. Brother’s Keeper (1992)
33. Tongues Untied (1989)
32. Dogtown and Z-Boys (2001)
31. Jesus Camp (2006)
30. Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004)
29. Man on Wire (2008)
28. Gasland (2010)
27. Tarnation (2003)
26. Murderball (2005)
25. Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (2005)
24. Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills (1996)
23. The Eyes of Tammy Faye (2000)
22. Shut Up & Sing (2006)
21. Exit Through the Gift Shop (2010)
20. Capturing the Friedmans (2003)
19. Touching the Void (2003)
18. Food, Inc. (2008)
17. Street Fight (2005)
16. Bus 174 (2002)
15. Crumb (1994)
14. Dark Days (2000)
13. The Fog of War (2003)
12. Bowling for Columbine (2002)
11. Paris Is Burning (1991)
10. Grizzly Man (2005)
9. Trouble the Water (2008)
8. An Inconvenient Truth (2006)
7. The Celluloid Closet (1995)
6. The War Room (1993)
5. Supersize Me (2004)
4. Waltz With Bashir (2008)
3. Roger & Me (1989)
2. The Thin Blue Line (1988)
1. Hoop Dreams (1994)


  1. I have only seen five of the docos you listed - more from the extended list of 50 though. But you have made me aware of some that I need to watch. I have heard great things about Capturing the Friedmans for Example, so thanks for that!

    My Top 3 would be Hoop Dreams, The Thin Blue Line and recently, Senna!

  2. Seeing Senna tonight, can't wait. I wasn't at all impressed by the trailer, but the interest you and other LAMBs have shown definitely made me curious.

  3. I haven't seen enough docs to really make a "50 list" - Hoop Dreams is mesmerizing, though.

    Need to see that "Up" series.

  4. I got lucky - when I watched all the Up movies, they were all available on Netflix. Now only a few are. They really are ingenious though.

    Have you seen/heard of The Interrupters? Same director as Hoop Dreams; front runner for Best Doc Oscar this year. I can't wait til it comes to DC.

  5. i hardly ever watch documentaries any more. i studied them at film school and quite a few of those you mentioned i've actually seen. Night and Fog i remembered thinking i could never watch again but as the years pass i feel the need to see it again.

    Despite the film school education i still struggle to think of a documentary as anything other than a dodgy reconstruction piece in some bad tv show.

    i did have the pleasure of seeing Man on Wire and Spellbound at the cinema though, both of which are some of the most enjoyable cinematic experiences i've had. i definitely need to reprogram my brain from the lifetime of bad experience.

    I'll be interested to hear your thoughts on Senna as you're a big fan of the genre. If you saw my review you'll know that I am firmly in the masses that have loved the movie.

  6. Glad to see both When We Were Kings and When the Levees Broke on the list along side Man on a Wire, Hoop Dreams, Capturing the Friedmans. Both Kings and Levees often get forgotten on list such as this.

    I would include Dear Zachary on the list as well. Really was shocked by how much I loved that film.

  7. @ Toby, my plans for seeing Senna fell through, and now it's gone from the theater. Real pissed about that.

    @ CS, considering the touchy subject matter surrounding Dear Zachary, it's hard to critique that movie without coming off as a heartless prick. I think the story and basis for that film are very heartfelt, but the movie was executed disastrously. The pacing feels like the editor was constantly on coke, and the director's narration is laughable at best. I know it's tough subject matter, but to cry during your own narration... come on. If you liked that flick, I think you'd love Boy Interrupted. Little seen, but devastating.

    All told, I really appreciate your reading and commenting.

  8. I, too, love documentaries. I can't possibly recommend Dear Zachary enough, a doc that gave me the most intense feeling I've ever had when watching a television screen.

  9. I guess I was just really turned off but Dear Zachary's caffeinated editing. In no way a bad film, I just kept thinking it could be so much more if it just chilled out.

  10. I'm putting up another 10/10 doc next week. Harlan County, USA. Ever seen it?

  11. Oh yeah, Kopple is a partisan genius. Wild Man Blues is also quite good.