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The Documentary Blog
March 27, 2008 3:01 PM   Subscribe

Do you love documentaries? The Documentary Blog offers reviews and news about documentary films. Check out their list of the Top 25 Documentaries.
posted by Fuzzy Skinner (52 comments total) 50 users marked this as a favorite

 
Hell House? not Nuit et Broulliard, or High School, or any Wiseman? Really? And Capturing the Friedmans? This list suffers from both recent-history bloat and subject-matter interestingness as primary criterion. Well, at least it's not March of the Penguins.
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 3:09 PM on March 27, 2008 [4 favorites]


No Planet Earth? Really?
Looks like an interesting enough resource, though. Thanks.
posted by CitrusFreak12 at 3:10 PM on March 27, 2008


Well, at least it's not March of the Penguins.

What? No March of the Penguins?
posted by Fuzzy Skinner at 3:25 PM on March 27, 2008


Cool - thanks, Fuzzy Skinner.
You seem to be off to a great start in your posting career here on mefi so far!
posted by madamjujujive at 3:33 PM on March 27, 2008


(head explodes)

Hearts and Minds > Harlan County, USA
Paradise Lost > Paradise Lost 2
Every other Morris documentary > Vernon, Florida
Grey Gardens > Salesman
posted by Tbola at 3:34 PM on March 27, 2008


No Fog of War?
posted by ill3 at 3:59 PM on March 27, 2008 [2 favorites]


It's only two people, cut them some slack.

Though, keep the recommendations coming. Or links to better lists. It seems like most of the time I go surfing for documentary recommendations I only find Kevin Kelly's list. That, or some list that starts at Michael Moore and ends at Super Size Me.
posted by Gary at 4:19 PM on March 27, 2008


Though, AskMe (2) (3) has been helpful.
posted by Gary at 4:24 PM on March 27, 2008


Ambrosia Voyeur: Honest question: can you recommend a documentary which is interesting not because of its subject matter, but because of its execution--something that's so mind-opening that it's a definite must-see?

Also, no Dark Days?
posted by Flipping_Hades_Terwilliger at 4:29 PM on March 27, 2008


I wouldn't say it's one the "best" documentaries, but I really enjoyed Paper Clips.
posted by Poolio at 4:50 PM on March 27, 2008


I know these guys. I used to do a radio show on our local campus station - my time slot was right after their show.
posted by davebush at 4:55 PM on March 27, 2008


No Trekkies??

Only half joking... I could watch that thing over and over.

American Movie has to be my favorite. Stevie is great, too.
posted by starman at 5:07 PM on March 27, 2008 [1 favorite]


Hoop Dreams? (gets my vote for most overrrated docu) And wow, no Wiseman is strange.

Also, The Staircase is terrible. It's been shown that the filmmaker deliberately left out footage to cause shock when viewers hear the verdict. The information he left on the cutting room floor make it quite clear why the verdict arrived at was the correct one. To me, this is one of the worst documentaries ever because of this. The filmmaker has a point to prove and uses his film to do it. It's the Alan Zweig school of filmmaking. Blagh.

Here's my own list, which has some crossover, of excellent documentaries.

Frankly I'd take Time Indefinite and The Cruise over anything on their list.
posted by dobbs at 5:11 PM on March 27, 2008 [1 favorite]


No Expelled?

Oh, no, of course there wouldn't be. I don't know what I was thinking.
posted by Astro Zombie at 5:25 PM on March 27, 2008


Gates of Heaven #1? I saw it when it came out and was disturbed by the art crowd laughter at the pet cemetery's guitar hero's aspirations... and argued with people for years about whether or not Morris was making fun of those people. It has become pretty clear since then that he was not. But a pretty minor doc, although an entry point for non-fiction cinema's greatest master.

There is one Erroll Morris film that is inexplicably missing from this list, inasmuch as it tackles most of life's major philosophical conundrums. The best film ever made, I think: Fast, Cheap and Out of Control. OK, I take that back. But don't live without watching it once or twice.
posted by kozad at 5:30 PM on March 27, 2008


No "Race: The Power of an Illusion"?
posted by meanderthal at 6:01 PM on March 27, 2008



"I saw it when it came out and was disturbed by the art crowd laughter at the pet cemetery's guitar hero's aspirations... and argued with people for years about whether or not Morris was making fun of those people."

Yup - Morris may deflect that criticism well, but I think it is valid. Not that he isn't extremely talented.

Vernon, Florida does have one of the most unintentionally funny lines in it though. 3 old men sitting on a porch talking about a friend's suicide. One old man explains that he just didn't seem like the type and says - "we thought that that was the last thing he would ever do (short pause) .. which it was".


Hoop Dreams? (gets my vote for most overrrated docu) -- I second that vote.

Paradise Lost 2 over the first one?? That must be a typo because even the filmakers have basically apologized for the film (and to be fair, they did have severe problems getting clearance for clips they wanted to use due to the impact of the first film) Try Brothers Keeper.

And as great as Harlan County is, I prefer Kopple's later film - American Dream

(The Maysles bros. are my faves)
posted by vronsky at 6:28 PM on March 27, 2008


No Expelled?

Oh, no, of course there wouldn't be. I don't know what I was thinking.


Kay, I'll bite. What's your point?
posted by Pope Guilty at 6:42 PM on March 27, 2008


Conspicuously missing from the Top 25 List: Fog of War, Brothers Keeper, Shoah, The Up Series, Excellent Cadavers (the documentrary, not the film: about the Sicilian mob, and highly recommended), Endless Summer (much more than just a surfing movie). And lots of great, but absent, music docs: Don't Look Back, Let's Get Lost, Jazz on a Summer's Day, Festival Express, High Lonesome, Decline of Western Civilization. I'm sure I'm forgetting things here.
posted by ornate insect at 6:51 PM on March 27, 2008


ornate insect: The Up Series was #14.

Speaking of which, Wikipedia lists a lot of similar documentaries done in other countries. Has anyone seen them and can tell me if they are available / any good?
posted by Gary at 6:56 PM on March 27, 2008


Nothing from either Ken Burns or Michael Moore? Not even Roger and Me, The Civil War or Baseball?
posted by deadmessenger at 7:03 PM on March 27, 2008 [1 favorite]


Little known fact about Salesman: the four men featured pooled their money to purchase a shared prostitute during the filming, but the Maysles decided not to use that footage out of sympathy.
posted by gsteff at 7:09 PM on March 27, 2008


Aargh. What was that skateboard movie recently? I never skateboarded in my life, and I really enjoyed it.
posted by yhbc at 7:10 PM on March 27, 2008


Yeah, Dogtown and Z-Boys. That one.

What, no Dogtown and Z-Boys?
posted by yhbc at 7:14 PM on March 27, 2008


The gaping omission from both this list and the International Documentary Association list that spurred is Triumph of the Will (and Olympia). Complicated choices, to be sure, but I don't think you could really exclude either from a top 25 list on the basis of cinematic power.
posted by gsteff at 7:20 PM on March 27, 2008


Meh-tafilter: Top 25 Documentaries

The list reads as if it were compiled by a sophomore film major - I think this blogger needs to have his eyes peeled back by some films that go further than the IFC rotation material listed in the link above.

See

Bunuel's LAS HURDES

Marker's SANS SOLEIL*

Franju's LE SANGUE DES BETES*

Stone's THE SATELLITE SKY

Cooper and Shoedseck's GRASS*

I could go on and on...

*Available on dvd through Netflix...
posted by cinemafiend at 7:22 PM on March 27, 2008 [1 favorite]


Yeah, Dogtown and Z-Boys. That one.

I was never a skater either, but I thoroughly enjoyed that too.
posted by Poolio at 7:30 PM on March 27, 2008


Hot damn... also:

Scorsese's AMERICAN BOY

McElwee's SHERMAN'S MARCH
posted by cinemafiend at 7:31 PM on March 27, 2008 [1 favorite]


Other peoples' lists are always:

1. Interesting
2. Wrong (including this one)

The good thing about lists we don't agree with is that it introduces us to things we may not otherwise hear about.

I'm afraid that there are more documentaries I want to see than I will ever be able to, even if I live to a ripe old age. That's not a bad problem to have.

My "best" list would have to include: Salesman, The Thin Blue Line, The Fog of War (I have watched it over a dozen times), The Eyes of Tammy Faye, Wordplay, My Kid Could Paint That, King of Kong, Why We Fight, When We Were Kings, Mr. Death, and Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room.

When I try to tell friends and co-workers about a great movie, as soon as I say "It's a documentary," most of the time their eyes glaze over as if I just told them I watched a PBS pledge drive.
posted by Fuzzy Skinner at 7:32 PM on March 27, 2008


You know one doc that just popped into my head that really impressed me was Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse. But then, I love films about film.

And I'd like to pile on more praise for Brother's Keeper, as has already been mentioned.
When Roscoe Ward talks about what he named his turkeys, I get this weird lump in my throat, every time I see it.
posted by Tbola at 7:41 PM on March 27, 2008


Flipping_Hades_Terwilliger
Ambrosia Voyeur: Honest question: can you recommend a documentary which is interesting not because of its subject matter, but because of its execution--something that's so mind-opening that it's a definite must-see?

I'm obviously not Ambrosia Voyeur, but I would like to recommend "How to Draw a Bunny" and "Who Killed the Electric Car?"
posted by jaronson at 7:53 PM on March 27, 2008


You know one doc that just popped into my head that really impressed me was Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse.

That's the problem with lists, including mine. Stuff gets left off. Hearts of Darkness is an absolutely awesome film. I've seen it half a dozen times and it enthralls me each time.

Planet Earth is stunning. It really shows the capabilities of the high-def format, and it showed me things I had never seen before. When I break down and buy a Blue-Ray player, the Planet Earth disks will be my first media purchase. However, I never consider it in the same category as the other films on the list. "Nature documentaries" are, to me, a different category. But I wouldn't argue with anyone who thought Planet Earth deserved a top spot on anyone's list.
posted by Fuzzy Skinner at 8:28 PM on March 27, 2008


Yes, I love documentaries. Nice link.
posted by carsonb at 8:32 PM on March 27, 2008


Gah, here's a better documentaries link.
posted by carsonb at 8:33 PM on March 27, 2008 [2 favorites]


More of a short than a full length documentary, but still highly recommended: Powers of Ten.
posted by Tube at 8:34 PM on March 27, 2008


Flipping_Hades...: can you recommend a documentary which is interesting not because of its subject matter, but because of its execution--something that's so mind-opening that it's a definite must-see?

F for Fake...though the subject matter is rather compelling as well.
posted by carsonb at 8:36 PM on March 27, 2008


You can check out a bunch (100's ?) of documentary films on at http://www.folkstreams.net/
I recently watched this one on Calvin Black, one of the strangest and haunting things I've every seen. This guy carved wooded dolls and put on a show with them in his tiny tourist shop in the mojave desert in the '70s.

I enjoyed "Keep the River on your Right" about Tobias Schneebaum, one of the only western people to live with cannibals in both peru and new guinea (and partake of human flesh).

And I loved "Yank Tanks", it's about the lengths to which Cubans go to keep the '50s era american cars going.
posted by 445supermag at 8:45 PM on March 27, 2008 [1 favorite]


Cool - thanks, Fuzzy Skinner.
You seem to be off to a great start in your posting career here on mefi so far!
posted by madamjujujive


Thank you madamjujujive. Glad you enjoyed it. :)
posted by Fuzzy Skinner at 9:22 PM on March 27, 2008


The World at War is the best one I've seen (at 26 episodes I can see why they might disqualify it from this list).
posted by Gary at 9:28 PM on March 27, 2008


Flipping_Hades_Terwilliger, Nuit et Brouillard, which I mentioned, is one early example, wherein the archival footage and the contemporary shots echo each other hauntingly, starkly, and in a meditation on the act of witnessing and the weight of recorded visual history.
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 11:30 PM on March 27, 2008


No Paris is Burning? Nothing by Nick Broomfield?

As far as music docs go, I like the Omnibus on David Bowie. Cracked Actor? And though it's a somewhat modest film, I also loved Beef (and the sequels.)

The World at War is the best one I've seen

Every Sunday afternoon of my childhood seemed to be taken up with The World at War.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 2:51 AM on March 28, 2008


Oh, also a word for a relatively recent documentary on Japanese host bars, Great Happiness Space. That was fascinating. There's also a very good italian documentary on the filmmakers who were responsible for the whole Mondo outbreak of the 60's -- Godfathers of Mondo -- that I enjoyed a lot.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 3:14 AM on March 28, 2008 [1 favorite]


That is a list of his top 25 American documentaries, not a list of documentaries. Somewhat ignorant, if you ask me.
posted by gravelshoes at 6:25 AM on March 28, 2008 [1 favorite]


Planet Earth annoys me greatly. Tons of the Planet Earth footage was already released, in the Life of Mammals and Life of Birds series. Years ago. I just thought it was lazy that they didn't get all new stunning pictures and are getting credit for something new when it's already been done.
posted by agregoli at 6:30 AM on March 28, 2008


Flipping_Hades_Terwilliger, I'd recommend their number 21, Trinity and Beyond.

Content-wise it's not profound in any significant way as it simply documents atomic explosions, but it is visually arresting and unmissable. Every time I watch it it reminds me of how everyone on the planet is, thanks to a handful of people, now permanently balanced on a razor blade. I grew up after the cold war and the big nuke-scare, but this just reminds me that the nukes didn't go anywhere and that the enormous mushroom clouds and explosions you see in this movie are just a fraction of the size and power of modern nuclear bombs... The docu manages to capture the alien beauty of the whole thing.

Agreed, there are lots of films that aren't on there that should be. Titicut Follies, anyone? But the ones that they do list and I have seen are excellent.
posted by slimepuppy at 7:00 AM on March 28, 2008


Next week I'm going to the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival for the first time - I've lived within a hour's drive for all ten years of its operation and have never gone before. Really looking forward to it.
posted by steveburnett at 7:56 AM on March 28, 2008


It's been mentioned before, but I'd just like to offer another shout-out to the highly unconventional, mind-expanding Sans Soleil by the great Chris Marker. One way to describe it would be as an essay film. It's on a Criterion DVD along with Marker's short film, "La Jetée" (which was famously remade as Twelve Monkeys, and I honestly can't think of anything you could watch on DVD that would be of a higher quality.

The "subject matter" of Sans Soleil is "I lived in Japan for a while and these are my home movies." But the voiceover narration (from a somewhat unreliable narrator, no less!) adds really interesting layers to the experience, having to do with memory, history, and social/cultural customs. Amazing stuff. Put it on the shelf with Citizen Kane and Vertigo.

Even the word "documentary" becomes too limiting when you start looking at the boundaries of what's possible in the genre. I prefer the term "nonfiction film" — but Sans Soleil pushes at the boundaries of even that broad category.

If you're looking for something a little more hip, contemporary, and up-to-the-minute, check out Manda Bala, which is due on DVD in a week or two. It's like a cross between City of God and Roger & Me.
posted by Joey Bagels at 8:01 AM on March 28, 2008


Oh, also a word for a relatively recent documentary on Japanese host bars, Great Happiness Space.

Yes, this is terrific and among the best documentaries I've ever seen. A google vid version of it was linked to on MeFi not long ago.

And for those of you who liked Dogtown and Z Boys, the filmmaker's next movie was also very impressive: Riding Giants, a docu about the history of surfing and surf culture. Peralta's latest film, Made in America, is about the Crips and Bloods and looks like it's gonna be just as great.
posted by dobbs at 8:09 AM on March 28, 2008 [1 favorite]


Nice timing, Fuzzy Skinner, thanks for that.
Just as the Toronto's Hot Docs, documentary film festival is about to start [April 17-27, 2008].
It's mentioned in that doc blog, but this, "in the magical metropolis of Toronto, Ontario", is pretty bad, ouch. Believe me, it's not magical, what is he on, yoiks./ [I've been to magical spots, it 'aint here in this city — go waaay north and you'll be there]

I really liked Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse, being a fan of Apocalypse.


No Les Blank¿
I enjoyed "Yum, Yum, Yum"— Creole cooking and the music.
"Gap Toothed Women".
"Burden of Dreams"— about Werner Herzog's filming of Fitzcaraldo.
"J'ai Été"Au Bal[I Went to the Dance] - Cajun and Zydeco greats
"Chulas Fronteras" – Norteno musicians [incl. Flaco Jimenez and Lydia Mendoza]. And companion piece, "Del Mero Corazon".
What can I say, I really love his stuff.
posted by alicesshoe at 10:00 AM on March 28, 2008


Lots of good picks in this thread. Documentaries rule. Other ones I'd recommend (not that they're necessarily capital-G good - or even espousing ideas I agree with - but still worth watching):

The Sorrow & The Pity
Dream Tower
Winter Soldier
Chronicle Of A Genocide Foretold
Africa Addio
My Best Fiend
Chariots Of The Gods
Screwed
The Punk Rock Movie
Berkeley In The Sixties
The Power Of Nightmares

and of course the National Film Board of Canada has more awesome documentaries than you can shake a stick at, but, among my 'faves' -

Manufactured Landscapes
Final Offer
Manufacturing Consent
Ladies & Gentlemen, Mr. Leonard Cohen
Not A Love Story
posted by stinkycheese at 11:25 AM on March 28, 2008


Wordplay is excellent, and I really want to see King Of Kong.
Does Touching The Void count?

The following are series I also enjoyed Anatomy For Beginners, Autopsy, The Human Body and Brain Story.
posted by goshling at 4:02 AM on March 29, 2008


Echoing the reco above for The Great Happiness Space. One of my faves recently - the desperation and liver damage really comes across in a visceral way. There's this one scene where the hosts are giving a regular customer the hard sell on some expensive champagne.. but you should watch it for yourself.
posted by thedaniel at 11:42 PM on March 29, 2008


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