Inspired by my recent viewing of Tony Kaye’s outstanding Lake of Fire, here is my list of the best documentaries as of June 2010. No, I have not seen Nanook.
1. Capturing the Friedmans
This is my vote for the greatest documentary of all time (if I had to pick one). It is one of the most difficult films I’ve ever seen. It seamlessly blends new footage with the huge amount of home movies the Friedmans shot over the years.
2. The Man with a Movie Camera
This is a revolutionary film and possibly the most important documentary ever made. But it’s strictly for film geeks.
3. Night and Fog
This is probably the first film I ever had a visceral reaction to. The first time I saw it was in Grade 11 Politics (I know, weird). I couldn’t eat lunch. I think I struggled through dinner. I remember feeling out of sorts for a week. It’s easier to watch it a second time, but it’s still one of the most powerful films ever made.
4. Hoop Dreams
An absolutely incredible film. Perhaps more so since the filmmakers had no idea the story would turn out the way it does. The greatest sports movie ever made.
5. Don’t Look Back
The music documentary.
6. Lake of Fire
As detailed a film exploration of an issue as you’ll find anywhere. Also extremely artistic. Though one-sided, it attempts to balance out its bias as few other films have.
7. Grizzly Man
In some way, this is a little similar to the Friedman’s, as again we have an obsessive documentarian providing the fodder for a great filmmaker to make a classic film. This film, and its subject, is almost incomprehensible, given what we know about Grizzly Bears. I still can’t believe this guy ever existed.
8. Burden of Dreams
Perhaps the greatest documentary about the the making of a film. As has many of the same qualities as Herzog’s greatest films, not just Fitzcaraldo but the other Kinski films.
9. The Last Waltz
Music from Big Pink stands outside of time. This is perhaps as close as we’ll get to understanding how and why. It also documents a concert that is hard for someone like me to imagine.
10. The Thin Blue Line
It reversed a verdict. Enough said.
11. Dark Side of the Moon
Both of these are not really true documentaries. But the line is a blurry one anyway. Culloden is an amazing recreation of the battle as if film existed at the time (a revolutionary conceit). Dark Side of the Moon is essential viewing in this era where few people can agree on “fact.”
13. Brother’s Keeper
13. Paradise Lost: the Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills
Two essential films about justice. The first shows us how we can never really know what happened in the past. The second shows us the issues of justice in context, which of course is the only way we can have it in reality.
15. Atilla ’74
Interesting and moving at the same time.
Two of the most inspirational films I’ve ever seen.
18. Little Dieter Needs to Fly
The story itself is incredible. The way Herzog tells it elevates it to another level entirely.
19. No End in Sight
The best (non-fiction) film about that SNAFU.
20. Hands on a Hard Body
Extremely compelling despite its subject. This kind of thing has become much more commonplace now (I have even seen a TV series that imitated this film completely) but at the time it was pretty unique.
22. Fast, Fast Cheap and Out of Control
Sort of impossible to encapsulate.
23. General Idi Amin: a Self Portrait
Frightening, with an amazing amount of access.
24. Gates of Heaven
These people sound crazy. But somehow Morris humanizes them in a way I never imagined possible.
25. Lessons of Darkness
Another pseudo documentary. Anti-war, pro-environment, with a fictional conceit that doesn’t hold up at all. It’s still a ridiculous experience.
26. The War Game
27. No Direction Home
Not at the same level as Don’t Look Back, it’s still very interesting.
I still can’t believe I could ever come to be riveted by a spelling B. Look what it has wrought…
29. The Fog of War
Fascinating and extremely informative. Essential viewing for anyone who thinks being a leader is an easy job.
I don’t have a 30th film because that would have meant sorting through countless 8/10 docs. But I’ll just say Lost in La Mancha is pretty great too.