Documentaries: Ten of the Best
Contributor Ben Cockram's recommendations
Lists like this shouldn't exist, or rather, they are a bit of a fallacy. In a world bursting at the seams with documentaries it's difficult to say with any conviction that the ten selected below are the 'best' in the genre. It's too subjective, too personal a thing. One mans Schindlers List is another mans The Goonies. However, like the best documentaries, these lists exist to spark debate, and to perhaps open your eyes to pieces of work that you didn't know about. So these may not be the definitive, absolute, 10 best documentaries of all time, but they are certainly 10 of the best, and should tap into the emotions and cause the sorts of reactions that make this genre one of the most exciting and exhilarating to experience in cinema.
Nanook of the North (1922)
It may be grainy, there may be no dialogue or talking heads, but make no mistake; Robert J Flaherty's film documenting a year in the life of an Inuit and his family invented the language of the modern day documentary. And it still stands up today. Watching a family hunt, fish, build shelters and fires, survive in a harsh environment untouched by the modern marvels of 20th Century industrial technology is an engrossing, captivating delight. Today it stands up not only as the first example of documentary filmmaking, but also as a stunning anthropological study of a people who still had no idea how modernism would fundamentally change their lives and practices.
Hearts and Minds (1974)
Rightfully winning the Oscar for Best Documentary in the year it was released, this is the film that Michael Moore probably thought he was making with the likes of Farenheit 9/11 and Sicko. It is a glaring indictment of American involvement in Vietnam, shot and released whilst the war was still raging. It subtly balances the conflicting attitudes America had towards the war whilst at the same time offering a voice for the Vietnamese people, all told through archival footage, news reports, and minimal interviews. It is at once devastating, maddening, and moving, and perfectly portrays the futility of war without seeming to take sides.
The Thin Blue Line (1988)
Made by arguably the finest documentary filmmaker of the past 40 years - Errol Morris - this film was, quite literally, a lifesaver. By shooting dramatic re-enactments of the events leading up to the incarceration and conviction of Randall Adams - a man accused of shooting a police officer and subsequently put on death row - Morris effectively illustrates the injustices at play in a corrupt judicial system that relied on flimsy, circumstantial evidence to make their conviction. At the same time Morris was also able to unmask the identity of the real killer and help bring him to justice. A showcase for a master of the genre, and also the real-life effects this kind of investigative journalism can have in real life.
Hoop Dreams (1994)
Clocking in at three hours, but feeling much shorter, this documentary was shot over 5 years and charts the lives of two inner-city high school kids, both recruited onto an elite basketball program, as they navigate the pitfalls of school, sport, and the street. It becomes apparent very quickly that this is less of a triumphant sports story, and more a rich, detailed insight into the lives of poor, inner city families with aspirations and dreams that sometimes don't chime with the realities of life. It's a superb feature, and a favoured documentary of David Simon, the creator of The Wire. You don't get a much better testimonial than that.
Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills (1996)
The first (and last) time a documentary film crew were allowed in a court room to film a trial in the US, this film is as close as we will get today to understanding what led to the witchcraft trials that happened in the 16th and 17th centuries. The brutal murder of three boys (a word of warning, the film repeatedly uses footage of the murder scene) in a small town sparks a media-infused manhunt for the culprits, culminating in the blame landing at the feet of Heavy Metal music, devil worshipping, and three unassuming teenage boys who shoulder the paranoid fears of a backward town more interested in justice than the truth. It's shocking, and will make you scream at the TV at the idiocy of it all. Two sequels followed this film, and another unrelated documentary that tells the full story, but none quite capture the atmosphere, the pervading sense of dread and horror, that the original did.
Dark Days (2000)
Shot in stark black and white, with a brooding, bass -heavy soundtrack by DJ Shadow (who agreed to do it for free after seeing the footage), Director Marc Singer spent two years living underground in New York City, in the tunnels and old subway lines, with the community of homeless who called this subterranean network home. Stories of broken families, drug addiction, and lives torn apart abound, but given the heavy subject matter, the film is extremely uplifting, and at times very funny. Singer hasn't made another film since, which is a shame as on the evidence of this, he had a fantastic eye and a keen ear for the spectacular things that exist, quite literally, right underneath us.
Capturing the Friedmans (2003)
Andrew Jarecki started out making a documentary about Bobo the Clown, the number one kids entertainer in New York. What he finished with was a film charting the troubled lives of the Friedman family, as the father and one son were charged and tried with multiple counts of child rape. Using a mixture of excruciating family footage (shot by Bobo the Clown when he was a teen), new interviews, and old family stills and holiday footage, Jarecki builds a captivating narrative where you are left to question who, if anyone, was really guilty. In Jarecki's own words "It's a combination of different versions of different stories" leaving the viewer to ask the question, whom do you believe?
The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (2007)
A delight from start to finish, and proving that great documentaries don't always have to have an ark subject matter to be brilliant, this is a story of nerds. Brilliant, enthusiastic, sweet, intelligent nerds, with an unblinking love for the Arcade games of the 80s. Anchored by the central narrative of a newcomer taking on the seasoned pro to become The King of Kong (Donkey Kong to be precise), this is a love letter to video games, a gloriously funny ode to all things 8-Bit, and the simple pleasures of winning, just for the sheer joy of seeing a killscreen. That's right, a killscreen.
Exit Through The Giftshop (2010)
Directed by elusive artist Banksy this asks big questions: what is art? Who is the artist? Is it all just nonsense? An eccentric, enthusiastic French shopkeeper attempts to befriend Banksy and other street artists, in the interests of making a film about street art. But soon Banksy turns the camera back on the shopkeeper, who transforms into an overnight street artist-megastar, Mr Brainwash. It's an often hilarious portrait of a man with little talent beyond self promotion, and calls into question the nature of art and the artist. It's also an amazing showcase for the likes Banksy, Shephard Fairey, and Inavder as we see them putting their 'art' onto the streets.
Stories We Tell (2012)
Coming off like a documentary genre version of Kurosawa's Rashomon, Sarah Polley's film tells the story of one woman's life (Polley's mother), from the perspective of her children, her husband, her lovers, and her friends. It shows us with great candor how subjective the truth can be, how the reminisces of one person can be totally different to the memories of another. It's a personal affair, narrated by Polley's father, utilising multiple filmmaking techniques to pull the viewer into the story so that by the end, even you are questioning what you just saw, and if it was real, imagined, or a little bit of both. In a word - beautiful.