Thursday, February 01, 2007

Favorite documentaries

Before I launch into this list of docos I've seen multiple times and grown to love, a few provisos.

I fully acknowledge these aren't necessarily the greatest documentaries of all time, just the ones I love. I could have included every movie by Errol Morris on this list, but I tried to limit it to one per director. And I deemed "Wordplay," "An Inconvenient Truth" and "When the Levees Broke" to be too recent for consideration.

With that out of the way, here are 10 documentaries I recommend very highly:

When We Were Kings
This one somehow managed to live up to all its hype, at least to me. Along with the magnetic Ali, you get George Foreman scaring the locals with his big dogs, James Brown in top form and all kinds of other treats.

Boys of Baraka
Before they made the frightening and somewhat enlightening "Jesus Camp," Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady made this engaging doco about a program that took 11- and 12-year-old boys off the mean streets of Baltimore and took them to Kenya to attend school and straighten up. It has mixed success at best, but that's part of this flick's unsentimental charm.

Waco: Rules of Engagement
I'm still convinced that our government did something terribly wrong at the Branch Davidian compound, so I give in to that belief every time I watch this scary doco that tries to pound home that point with dodgy evidence but dogged determination.

Four Little Girls
Though he has made many great movies, this little one remains my favorite work by Spike Lee. With a mix of just a few too many talking heads and, thankfully, many more people who were hit hard by the event, Spike introduces us to the four girls who died in the KKK bombing of the 16th Street Church in Birmingham, Alabama, and the sad legacy they left behind.

Fast, Cheap and Out of Control
"Fog of War" and "Mr. Death" are other Errol Morris works that certainly could fit on this list, but this one remains my favorite for its sheer celebration of the power of being a geek. The characters you meet, a robotics scientist, a topiary artist, a lion tamer and a man way too obsessed with the naked mole rat, are just the oddest form of cool.

Hands on a Hard Body
This one comes with a tinge of sadness because Robert Altman had begun work on a fictional take on this crazy tale when he was taken from us. The "hard body" of the title is a fully-loaded pickup truck, and watching what these Texans will go through to win it is surprisingly entertaining.

One Day in September
This one hit me a lot harder than Steven Spielberg's "Munich" as it examined what went so horribly wrong at the 1972 Munich Olympics. Watching this great documentary by Kevin McDonald, who later went on to direct "The Last King of Scotland," will leave you with the very unsettling feeling that the German government of the day could have done a whole lot more to prevent the outcome of this event.

I can't think of a finer portrait of an artist who just can't find where he belongs in this world. I didn't discover this one until after I had watched "Ghost World," and the combination of the two just made me fall in love with Terry Zwigoff's style of directing. Everyone in R. Crumb's family is a freak of some kind, but you'll be glad you met them all.

This tale of quad rugby players and their intense competitive spirit is told with a refreshing lack of sentimentality that still manages to get you hooked "Hoosiers"-style on their drive to win the World Cup.

Capturing the Friedmans
When I watch fictional movies, I usually need to like at least one of the characters to be fully engaged. With docos like "Capturing the Friedmans," however, those rules definitely don't apply. Everyone looks bad in the depressing but compelling story of a family torn apart by their father's penchant for child pornography, and possibly for sexually abusing his children and other people's. Truly troubling all around.

And there you have it. Please feel free to add any of your favorites, and possibly give me some ideas for my Netflix queue.


jeremy said...

Wha? No Hoop Dreams? And I agree about Morris, his films are great. I like the Maysles, too--Grey Gardens has to be one of my all-time faves. And, I'm sure you're thinking, Grey Gardens, that's so gay--but I can compound that exponentially with two of my other favorite docs: Truth or Dare and Silverlake Life.
I also really like Grizzly Man, Dark Days, Born into Brothels.
And, of course, the whole Up series by Apted.

Reel Fanatic said...

Those are indeed all great choices, Jeremy ... Hoop Dreams, Grizzly Man and Gimme Shelter were all on the short list of about 20 before I whittled it down to 10 ... and I find Grey Gardens to be an odd compelling flick, too

jeremy said...

Oh yeah, and I just caught "51 Birch Street" and was pretty impressed. I'm sure you'll have to wait for DVD for it, but don't let it pass you by. It reminded me a lot of Friedmans, though not as dark.

Reel Fanatic said...

I hadn't heard of that one, Jeremy, but I just added it to my list of movies to look out for on DVD ... thanks!

J. Marquis said...

Crumb and Capturing the Friedmans would definitely go on my top 10 list. I would also pick Roger & Me but (probably not the last couple Moore films). My favorite might be "Visions of Light"...a 1992 film about the history of cinematography. Beautiful imagery and music.

renee said...

If you haven't seen the Up Series, you must do so immediately. Definitely my all time favorite. Probably not a fair competition because of the sheer volume of material, but so good.

Other favorites are Hoop Dreams, The Thin Blue Line, Paradise Lost, Born into Brothels, Murder on a Sunday Morning, Brother's Keeper, Unknown White Male. I could go on and on. Documentary is my favorite form of film.

Reel Fanatic said...

I have seen some but not all of the Up series, Renee, and agree with you that they are compelling viewing ...

I haven't seen Visions of Light, but it's definitely on my to-see list now .. thanks for the head's up

Marina said...

Oh man. You know, just when I thought I was getting caught up, a bunch of other things come up on my list. I've heard of all of these documentaries and seen none. Not a single one.


I'm going to fix that.

Reel Fanatic said...

I'd start with 4 Little Girls or Fast, Cheap and Out of Control, Marina, but I really think you'll enjoy them all

Linda said...

This is a good list, I love documentary. I recommend Murderball to anyone who will listen. When We Were Kings is great too. Others on my list are Rivers and Tides, Mad Hot Ballroom, Step Into Liquid, Neil Young:Heart of Gold, Shut Up and Sing!, Obstinato, No Stupid Questions, Mister Rogers:America's Favorite Neighbor ..... oh man, there are sooo many.

Linda said...

Oops, forgot the granddaddy of all music documentaries, The Last Waltz!!!

TacoDave said...

Paradise Lost - both the original and the sequel are compelling, frightening films. Very good documentaries.

Lori said...

Well, I'm not nearly as knowledgeable about the docs as you are, Keith...generally they're not my cup of tea. But I do have a couple that you should see if you haven't, both about the craziness of making movies... Heart of Darkness, about Apocalypse Now of course. I think it's one of the best docs ever made...and also the doc that was made about Terry Gilliam's Don Quixote movie, I can't remember the title. That's a good one, too.

* (asterisk) said...

Here's some of the documentaries I've seen and reviewed in recent months.

I watched Inside Deep Throat the other night, too, but haven't done a review (such as they are) yet.

There are several in your list that I liked a lot too, including When We Were Kings and One Day in September.

Not seen Murderball, but it looks really interesting.

Reel Fanatic said...

Thanks for the suggestions, all ... I have seen that movie about Terry Gilliam trying to make Don Quixote, and I think it was called Lost in La Mancha .. It's such a great movie because it's funny, maddening and just sad all at once

Shannon said...

For Doc's in 2006 I would have to say Metal: A Headbanger's Journey, Thin and Manufactured Landscapes would be my picks. Although I will jump on the Born into Brothels bandwagon, that film was excellent. Lost in La Mancha ws great (and tragic) as well.

* (asterisk) said...

Lost in La Mancha was great, yeah, as was Metallica: Some Kind of Monster, even tho I don't care for that band's music too much.

Reel Fanatic said...

I'm kinda slow to pick on new docos since they never screen out here in the hinterlands, but those two do sound intriguing Shannon ... This post has really expanded my Netflix queue!

Nell Minow said...

Your choices and the suggestions in the comments are all great. I had two big surprises when I became a movie critic -- and the first was how much I loved the documentaries. (The second was that scary movies were not as scary as I thought.) I'd like to suggest "Some Kind of Monster," "Don't Look Back," "A Perfect Candidate," "Sherman's March" (and his other films), "Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room," "Burden of Dreams," "The Fog of War," "The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill," "A Great Day in Harlem," and "Beyond the Mat."

Chris said...

I agree with Crumb and Capturing the Friedmans, those would be in my top 10. Hoop Dreams got mentioned in the comments. As for one that hasn't been mentioned, Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills is probably the most harrowing I've ever seen.

Reel Fanatic said...

A Great Day in Harlem is one that almost made the Top 10 cut for me, Nell .. The premise didn't sound all that intriguing, but the way they introduce you to all the people in that famous photograph just drew me in

Sage said...

I'll second Born Into Brothels, The Last Waltz, and Metallica: Some Kind of Monster.

And I'll add The Brandon Teena Story. The interviews with the two killers are incredible. It's hard to believe people like that really exist.

For social activism: Life and Debt, and The Take. And, for the environmentalists, End of Suburbia, Go Further, Blue Vinyl (which is compelling, but needs a good editing), and, of course, An Inconvenient Truth.

Reel Fanatic said...

I'm embarrassed to say I've seen almost none of those, sage, but I've written them all down .. looks like I'm gonna be on a steady diet of docos for the next few weeks, at least!

Replicant said...

Hands On A Hard Body is one of my all time favorites too. That doc is just so honest with real people saying things it would take a Hollywood scribe a decade to even come close to writing.

When I heard it was going to be made into a movie I shuddered. Then I heard Robert Altman was doing it and it made me happy. Then he passed. Now I hope it doesn't get made.

Reel Fanatic said...

I'm definitely with you there, replicant ... The passing of Robert Altman happening concurrently with the news that he was gonna take on one of my favorite movies was just so hard to deal with ... Now that he's gone, I also have no desire to see this fictional version get made

Daddy's Girl said...

I've only seen one of these - 'When We Were Kings' - and I absolutely love it. One doc that has stayed in my memory is a BBC documentary called '12 days in September' (or something like that - I know it's 'x-number of days in x-month' - very helpful, I know). It follows a young American guy in his last couple of weeks on death row. The young man maintained his innocence right up to the end - and his lawyer contended that his conviction was a race issue (he was black and allegedly murdered a white man - a policeman I think). It's really well made with some really engrossing interviews and riveting footage - you might appreciate it (if you can find it anywhere). The BBC makes great docs - there's another one about a priest - Father Fortuyn or something - who abused many young boys and had his case covered up by an alcoholic bishop - so he got away with it for decades - can't remember the name of the doc but it was really good. Has stayed with me for almost ten years now.

Reel Fanatic said...

Thanks for the suggestions, daddy's girl ... The first one sounds right up my alley, but it might take a little research to find .. When I typed in 12 Days in September at the IMDB, I got mostly movies about 9/11, but not quite what you described .. If anyone knows about this, please help me out

Daddy's Girl said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Daddy's Girl said...

Eureka! I have found it: it's called 'Fourteen Days in May' (I was way off LOL). It was made in 1987 and you can read about it on IMDb. Don't know if it's been released on DVD, but the BBC's been releasing a lot of old stuff these days so it just might be.

Reel Fanatic said...

Ah ... thanks for the update, Daddy's Girl ... I'm gonna go check on the Netflix now .. They have all kinds of docos, so it's more than likely available

MC said...

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Anonymous said...

If you like Hoop Dreams, I would recommend another Steve James movie called Stevie.

I also like:
Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father
Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr.
Capturing the Friedmans
King of Kong: Fistful of Quarters
American Movie
American Dream

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