I’m not well versed in documentary film, but I try to catch one every once in a while. The few that I’ll list are films that I like based on simply content…not necessarily quality of filmmaking. These topics interest me.
1. Someone already mentioned “The Devil and Daniel Johnston”. It’s about Daniel Johnston, an amazing musician who has made beautiful and creative music (and inspired many other great musicians).
2. “Largo” is another music film that came out just recently. It’s just selections of performances from various musicians and comedians at a Los Angeles club called Largo. It was a key spot for some significant talent in LA, including Jon Brion, Aimee Mann, Fiona Apple, Andrew Bird, Zach Galifianakis, Patton Oswalt, etc…(all of whom appear on the film). Elliott Smith also frequently played there, and there was a nice tribute to him in the film (but no footage from his shows).
3. I also saw a film this year called “Wild Combination: A Portrait of Arthur Russell”. He was a jazz/disco/classical/folk (and everything else) musician from the 70s-90s. He has a pretty cool life story, and the film tells it well.
4. I also really like Sydney Pollack’s “Sketches of Frank Gehry”. I never enjoyed architecture until I saw that film. I just think Gehry is a true artist in a field where artists are not necessarily welcome…but the film does a better job of explaining that.
The documentary Terror’s Advocate, from Barbet Schroeder, is fairly interesting.
@against mr boo
WHOA! thanks for the info. sounds like “stations of the elevated” predates as the first hip-hop film. i need to track that down. any hints as to how i can do it?
The Silent World. Jacques Cousteau and Louis Malle underwater!
“Manufactured Landscapes” came out a couple years ago. It’s based on the work of a Canadian photographer who specializes in capturing the weirdly beautiful aesthetics of industrialization – including the pollution and incidental transformations of the environment that accompany humankind’s systematic extraction of resources from the earth. Filmed primarily in China, it features a very memorable tracking shot that last for over five minutes just rolling down the length of one manufacturing plant found in a large complex of such buildings in one Chinese city. Also some pretty amazing footage showing the construction of the Three Gorges Dam which required the complete dismantling of many entire cities by their inhabitant prior to their being submerged. (The cities, that is, not the inhabitants themselves! They were merely relocated.)
anything done by the BBC is outstanding….also Michael Moores bowling to columbine
Pomoxian — That is indeed a good documentary. If you liked it, I would also recommend to you (and everyone) another recent documentary, “Up the Yangtze” by Yung Chang. It was probably one of the most touching documentaries I’ve seen in years. It is about the lives and changes surrounding the Three Gorges Dam project, and it’s really, really good.
Another documentary I really liked for its complete absurdity: “The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters.” It’s hilarious, strange, entertaining, and moving at the same time.
Wanted to do a Top Ten list, but I couldn’t narrow it down past 11. However, NIGHT & FOG is a technically a short, so we’ll call that my favorite short doc and then the other 10 are my current favs, listed in alphabetical order:
The Five Obstructions
The Fog of War
Hearts and Minds
Man With the Movie Camera
Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media
And check out the International Documentary Associations’s recent, member-selected Top 25 Documentaries list:
It’s got a lot of great ones, too (many of my favs are on that list, as well). The only one on that list I haven’t seen yet is #25: WOODSTOCK, but I plan on seeing it soon!
First of all, thanks MARKO for sharing about Largo, I am a huge fan of all the people who perform there, so I’ll definitely have to check it out.
This March at the True/False Film Festival, Man on Wire was the closing night film, and it was absolutely breathtaking – an amazing story too.
I also like This Film Is Not Yet Rated, mostly because it deepened my hatred of the MPAA.
This is hard, so I’m just going to stick to my very very favorites.
Errol Morris’s A BRIEF HISTORY OF TIME
Herzog’s LITTLE DIETER
The Drew Assoc. CRISIS: BEHIND A PRESIDENTIAL COMMITMENT
Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s PARADISE LOST I & II
AMERICAN MOVIE, MY KID COULD PAINT THAT, KING OF KONG: FIST FULL OF QUARTERS, LOST IN LA MANCHE, BURDEN OF DREAMS
I’ve always loved the documentary film. I’ve been very happy to see in the last 10 years or so how we’re seeing more and more. It can be a hard product to sell. About 30 or so years ago I tried to get someone to tag along with me to go see Welfare (Frederick Wiseman). No one was a bit interested. I didn’t tell them it was 3 hrs long. They just didn’t want to be bothered…“It’s a documentary”… they would say. These days it’s a little different between Michael Moore & the penguin invasion people are more likely to give these films a chance. This is a good thing since we are more likely to see more new films at the show and some old ones make there way to DVD. My favorite director just happens to do documentaries- Errol Morris. The Louis Malle box set is great. I guarantee you will see more Chris Marker. Just had to get that all off my chest…whew!
Rize – flawed filmmaking, but the subject matter is amazing
Microcosmos – some of the best insect shots I’ve ever seen
Hoop Dreams – lives up to its rep
Man with a Movie Camera – I don’t know if this counts as a documentary, but it is a great achievement
Hearts of Darkness – I love seeing artists almost losing it
i’m developing a course on the history of documentary film. maybe you guys can help me.
what landmark documentary films from the 40s and 50s would you include in such a course, and why? i’m well-covered in all the other decades, but it seems i have a gap in these two. thanks in advance.
The “Why We Fight” series from World War II comes to mind, although that’s more propaganda than documentary, I guess.
I’m guessing, though, that most documentaries of the time were involved with the war or its after-effects, since that was the subject on every mind.
I haven’t seen “Louisiana Story,” 1948, by Robert Flaherty, but it is regarded as a classic
“Night and Fog,” by Alain Resnais, from 1955: a short (30 mins.) but powerful look at the Nazi death camps, and probably one of the first to deal with the subject
From the 1930s, not that you asked: "The Plow That Broke the Plains and "Las Hurdes’
I agree with lots of films on here. I would like to get some opions on a fictional documentary that I thought was done quite well and a lot of people hate. Werner Herzog’s The Wild Blue Yonder. I don’t think it was the greatest thing I ever saw, but it was a good idea and was carried out pretty well. People seem to think it is the worst thing they ever saw though. I may never watch it again, but I enjoyed it. Did anyone else like it.
It’s probably sacrilege to suggest it, Bobby, but I recall seeing a few Disney documentaries from the 50s – mainly “The Living Desert” and “The Vanishing Prairie” – that were well-received and effectively set the standard for what would follow with “Winged Migration,” “March of the Penguins” and anything on Wild Kingdom or Animal Planet. (And, as Joshua mentioned above, “Silent World” is another beauty from that period.)
My 10 favorite documentaries (order #1-#10):
The Man with the Movie Camera by Dziga Vertov
The Sorrow and the Pity by Marcel Ophuls
Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills by Joe Berlinger
The Power Of Nightmares by Adam Curtis
No End In Sight by Charles Ferguson
When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts by Spike Lee
Harlan County U.S.A. by Barbara Kopple
The Times of Harvey Milk by Rob Epstein
Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey by Sam Dunn
U2 3D by Catherine Owens
I haven’t seen enough documentaries to put together a more comprehensive list, unfortunately, but I’d like to think these 10 can stand up to scrutiny.
I love documentaries. Of all movies, I find them the easiest to watch. When one arrives, it may go straight from mailbox to player, where an Ozu film might hang around for days, weeks, or months.
That said, a lot of documentaries are somewhat predictable, particularly one involving a political figure. It might be very informational, but it also tends to be somewhat friendly.
I love a documentary that’s complex, where you end up not real sure how you are supposed to feel.
In that light, the best I’ve seen in years is Tony Kaye’s extraordinary “Lake of Fire,” a documentary about abortion that seems bent on pushing the buttons of everyone on either side. Pro-choice? Here’s liberal activist Nat Hentoff arguing against it — and while we’re at it, let’s take an upclose and personal look at an actual abortion. See what goes on. See what happens. Pro-life? Let’s take a look at your company and how the abortion issue has been used as a political tool for right wing causes, and while we’re at it, we visit Paul Hill, who will go on to murder a doctor who performs an abortion. We also look at what happens when a woman tries to perform an abortion herself.
Does Kaye have an opinion? Probably. But this isn’t a black or white issue. It’s a complex issue, and that’s how he treats it.
My favorite documentaries, as rated on IMDB:
Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father (2008)
American Dream (1990)
Down from the Mountain (2000)
Fantôme d’Henri Langlois, Le (2004)
Gimme Shelter (1970)
Little Lady Fauntleroy (2004) (TV)
Mio viaggio in Italia, Il (1999)
No Sex Last Night (1996)
A Visit with Truman Capote (1966)
Andy Warhol: A Documentary Film (2006)
Artie Shaw: Time Is All You’ve Got (1985)
Days of Waiting (1990)
Fem benspænd, De (2003)
Grey Gardens (1975)
The Hip Hop Project (2006)
The Old, Weird America: Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music (2007)
A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies (1995) (TV)
Stardust: The Bette Davis Story (2006) (TV)
Thou Shalt Not: Sex, Sin and Censorship in Pre-Code Hollywood (2008) (TV)
Wild Man Blues (1997)
You Think You Really Know Me: The Gary Wilson Story (2005)
rodney & tom:
thanks for the info. of course, i already had “night and fog” on my list. but i didn’t think about “louisiana story.” the disney docs sound interesting.
so this begs a bigger question, since not too many people came up with options. something i just started thinking about as i made this list. what happened to the documentary form in the 40s and 50s? where are the major docs that heralded some sort of shift in the genre, or the major films by strong doc auteurs, or some sort of historical points of significance in the form at that time? did it have something to do with WWII and its effects? almost every other decade, historically speaking, has strong contributions to the documentary along one of the lines i mentioned. please fill me in if i’m overlooking something. i don’t have my documentary history books with me, so i can’t go back to the texts and see what was going on at that time.
I’m neither filmmaker nor historian, but I suspect theatrical documentaries were as much threatened by the onset of television as were entertainment features. As the newer medium brought live drama to the living room, it also brought the likes of Edward R. Murrow, making it easier to find enlightment at home. That might partially explain why feature documentaries faded for a while, at least until “This Is Cinerama” and others gave audiences something that they couldn’t get on a small black-and-white screen.
Awesome, I’ve been meaning to get into the documentary stuff for awhile now and now I’ve got some great looking ones to check out. And while I haven’t seen many, there is this one called The Great Happiness Space: Tale of an Osaka Love Thief that I found to be extremely interesting.
and the irony is, this coincided with the timeframe in which neorealism took off.
re: Raj Singh Arora -
Micheal Moore? Seriously? i’ll admit i was captivated by the film at first watch, but after watching it again, you can definitely notice all the tricks Moore uses to tilt the arguments to his favor. I’m not discrediting his arguments – they are valid, especially in Bowling For Columbine, but i feel Moore goes way to far to pummel you over the head with his point of view. His style is way to invasive. I’d almost argue that these films are not documentary. They are persuasive essay’s on film.
For me, good documentary is when the documentary filmmakers are completely transparent. You shouldn’t notice they’re even there. A great example would be The Devil and Daniel Johnston. You’re presented with an overwhelming amount of information, and you are shown, not told. It’s fantastic.
you’re describing the observational mode as good documentary. its only one branch of the documentary tree. there’s others. and no documentary filmmaker can be completely transparent. the camera its there, and it effects things. i dont mind when filmmakers acknowledge the pesence of the camera and themselves. it’s just one more mode of documentary expression. one more way to reach the truth of any given situation.
essay films are a sub-genre of the documentary film.
good points. i guess i should have just come out and said that Micheal Moore is a big blowhard. Having just seen The Devil and Daniel Johnston, i couldn’t get over how good it was, and it kind of eclipsed other documentaries. It just seems for me that the more the filmmaker makes themselves known, the more it can detract from the topic at hand. Unless, of course, the topic is the filmmaker or a filmmakers point of view.
i agree that moore is heavy-handed. i think he’s a good filmmaker though. but like you, i don’t particularly care for his brand of documentary.
The Fog of War is my single favorite doc ever.