My top 60 documentaries
August 1st, 2016 Posted 8:35 pm
I love documentaries. Over the past couple of years I’ve become engrossed in the genre & developed a true passion for them, to the point where they’re basically all I watch these days.
Here in Toronto I’m very lucky to have access to outlets such as the Hot Docs Cinema, one of the only cinemas in the world to specialise in documentaries, and Queen Video, with a more-than-extensive selection of hard-to-find non-fiction DVD gems. Not only that, but it’s great to be part of online communities such as /r/Documentaries on Reddit who help spread the word about everything from obscure short films from the early 90’s on sex, drugs or rock & roll right through to the latest Louis Theroux blockbuster (and can’t we all wait to see it…!) Between all these and my Netflix subscription I’m pretty much set for life.
A few weeks ago I posted a Reddit comment where I mentioned a bunch of my favourite documentaries. It had a pretty good response so I spent some time compiling a list of my top 60 to share with the community. And I thought I’d post them here to my blog as well.
I tend to steer away from the nature/science/biographical-style docs and go more for the ones that tell a fascinating story about someone or something. You’ll find most on the list are along these lines; also they’re all fairly modern dating from around the 2000’s – 2010’s (if anyone has suggestions for some decent older docs to check out I’d love to hear).
Note there are no links to view the docs, this is simply a list with a brief description about the film along with my thoughts on it. I hope some of you are inspired to investigate further & check them out. The full IMDB list I keep of docs I watch, if you’re interested, is here. Enjoy!
60. My Life As A Turkey (2011)
I happened to stumble across this doc late one night on TV, all about nature enthusiast Jim Hutto, who conducted an experiment by raising a group of wild turkeys well into adulthood. He bonded deeply with the turkeys as they grew over the course of two years, in some cases living & acting as though he was a turkey himself. It may make you think differently about your Thanksgiving dinner this year.
59. Bus 174 (Ônibus 174) (2002)
A chilling Brazilian film about Bus 174 in Rio de Janeiro which was taken hostage in June 2000 by a gunman, threatening to shoot all on board. The whole incident was captured and broadcast on live television as it happened; the film offers a bleak glimpse into life within Rio’s favelas.
58. The Missing Ingredient: What Is The Recipe For Success? (2015)
A fairly recent & light-hearted documentary about famed (and sadly, closed) Manhattan Upper East Side restaurant Gino’s and its striking red zebra wallpaper, the pattern of which was ‘borrowed’ by Pescatore, a struggling restaurant in Midtown. Much controversy surrounded Pescatore’s new image, especially by Gino’s staff and their regular customers. The narrative is delightfully balanced between Gino’s colourful history and Pescatore’s desire to remain on the map.
57. Craigslist Joe (2012)
I’m a pretty avid user of Craigslist so it was quite an inspiration to watch this doc & see for myself how Joseph Garner managed to organise an entire cross-US trip based entirely on personals ads he posted. The idea was that he wasn’t allowed to spend any money for a month, relying entirely on the kindness of strangers to help him along his journey.
56. Shut Up Little Man! – An Audio Misadventure (2011)
In the late 80’s, two friends moved into an apartment in San Francisco to find that their neighbours, Peter Haskett & Raymond Huffman, constantly argued & bickered with each other, laden with expletives, homophobic references and repeated catchphrases such as “Shut up, little man!” The new tenants set up tape recorders to capture the heated conversations; by accident it soon became an audio vérité phenomenon, with people from all around the country copying the tapes and passing it onto friends. The film tracks the story of Peter & Raymond’s unlikely rise to cult fame.
55. The Man With The 7 Second Memory (2005)
A made-for-TV doc about a British man called Clive Wearing who has suffered from a certain type of amnesia since 1985 which literally leaves him with a seven second memory. The moment he lays eyes on someone, his wife for example, he thinks it’s the first time they’ve met. Remarkably, he can still play piano (he was an expert choral singer & pianist at the point of contracting the illness) and his wife still cares for him today.
54. Happy People: A Year In The Taiga (2010)
Werner Herzog makes his first of many appearances in this list; in this masterpiece he spends a year in the Siberian Taiga documenting the traditions of hunters & gatherers whose culture has remained virtually unchanged for centuries. A wonderful insight into a whole other world.
53. Whole (2003)
Now this is a really strange doc I found while searching through the collection of Queen Video, an alternative DVD rental store, all about a unique group of individuals who feel like they should be amputees. They literally have all their arms & legs attached to their body with perfect function, but they have an overwhelming desire to be rid of one or more of their limbs. It’s just bizarre… you have to see it to believe it.
52. An Honest Liar (2014)
Illusionist, magician & skeptic James Randi has devoted much of his life to debunking all things paranormal, particularly self-proclaimed psychics and evangelical healers. A number of fascinatingly cringeworthy moments are on display from throughout his career, particularly the time he was asked by The Tonight Show crew for advice on how they could impose tight controls on Uri Geller during a demonstration of one of his ‘psychic’ tricks on live television. It really makes you realise the lengths these people go to in order to fool their audience.
51. The Summit (2012)
K2 is the second highest & one of the most dangerous mountain summits in the world; in 2008, eleven climbers lost their lives in one day following a devastating avalanche. The film tells the heartbreaking story of this fateful day.
50. Flowers From The Mount Of Olives (Õlimäe õied) (2013)
Definitely not the highest budget or best produced doc of the list, but there was something about the story that really captured me. 82 year old Estonian nun Sister Ksenya resides in a Jerusalem convent and contemplates her long & tumultuous life. She’s a super interesting woman who is soon to embark on the Great Schema, the final step along her spiritual path which involves a code of complete silence for the remainder of her life.
49. The White Diamond (2004)
Dr. Graham Dorrington is an engineer who has built a unique airship which he intends to fly above the forest surrounding Kaieteur Falls in Guyana. He attempted a similar exercise 12 years beforehand which resulted in the death of one of his crew members. Although the incident is still fresh in his mind, he’s determined not to fail this time around, inviting Werner Herzog along to capture his dream coming true.
48. Of Men And War (2014)
A group of American war veterans return home from the front lines of Iraq, taunted by horrific memories & left with post-traumatic stress. The film chronicles the therapy involved in opening up to share their story, find peace with their families and ultimately conquer their demons. It’s a pretty long movie but there’s a lot to get through.
47. Catfish (2010)
A rather creepy story that spawned a TV series of the same name, which documents the filmmakers befriending a young artistic girl named Abby Pierce through Facebook. The friendship eventually expanded to members of Abby’s family such as her mother & father. As it turns out: not everyone on the internet is who they say they are.
46. Waste Land (2010)
Brazilian artist Vik Muniz had an idea to work with waste pickers at Brazil’s largest landfill, turning trash into incredible works of art & later selling them at a London auction house, the profits of which were returned to the community. It’s quite uplifting to see how the experience was able to change the lives of those less fortunate.
45. Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey (2011)
Exceptionally cute film about Kevin Clash, the puppeteer responsible for the creation of Sesame Street’s Elmo. There were unproven allegations following the film’s release that he was involved in a relationship with a minor which kinda puts a dampener on things, but he still has a great story to tell. If you like this, it’s also worth watching I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story, although I do think Being Elmo is slightly more charming.
44. Blackfish (2013)
Controversial documentary about Tilikum, an orca kept in captivity at SeaWorld for nearly 30 years who was killed her own trainer in 2010. SeaWorld went into damage control upon the release of the film claiming it was inaccurate & misleading; either way, it’s a harrowing look at the morality behind animal captivity.
43. Encounters At The End Of The World (2007)
Set entirely in Antarctica, Werner Herzog and Peter Zeitlicher get to know the scientists & researchers stationed there who study its barren wilderness. It’s an impromptu film in that none of it was planned prior to their journey – it all happened as they went along. It includes some stunning footage of ice caves and Mt Erebus, an active volcano.
42. Meru (2015)
I’m a pretty big fan of mountain climbing documentaries and I think this is the best. It follows three climbers and their failed quest to ascend this Himalayan peak in 2008, attempting it once again in 2011. The crew evade death on more than one occasion during the process, including an avalanche and a frightening fall which led to a major injury. A true case of never giving up on your end goal.
41. Tig (2015)
A charming documentary about American comedian Tig Notaro, focusing on her breast cancer diagnosis in 2012 and a stand-up set she performed in an LA comedy club shortly afterwards which really put her name on the map. In the year that follows she continues to develop her career & relationship with her fiancée while dealing with the challenges that come with illness.
40. Walking The Camino (2013)
The Camino de Santiago is one of the world’s great long-distance pilgrimages which can begin at a variety of European locations but ultimately ends in Galicia at the north of Spain. A number of pilgrims were followed & interviewed along the 500 mile course in 2009, all participating for a variety of reasons from adventure to spiritual enlightenment. It made me want to take part in the pilgrimage one day myself.
39. Exit Through The Gift Shop (2013)
A huge fan of street art, the film follows Frenchman Thierry Guetta around Los Angeles and his quest to discover the people behind the art, eventually leading him to befriend renowned British street artist Banksy. It’s difficult to tell for sure if this really is a documentary or if it’s a work of art by Banksy himself. Either way it’s a bloody good story.
38. Children Underground (2010)
A bleak look at the lives of five orphaned children left to fend for themselves on the streets of Bucharest, Romania. Taking shelter inside a subway station, you become witness to physical/sexual abuse, drug addiction and other harsh realities that occur within the group. Also documented are the social workers who attempt to reform the lives of the young ones. Difficult to watch but certainly eye-opening.
37. Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present (2012)
I first saw a clip of performance artist Marina Abramovic on Reddit; it featured some highlights of her 2010 exhibition at New York’s Museum of Modern Art where she sat for over 736 hours on a chair, simply staring in silence into the eyes of participants who sat opposite her for minutes at a time. The clip led me to discover this documentary of her life leading up to her retrospective performance piece. A truly fascinating individual.
36. Cartel Land (2015)
Follows the stories of almost all involved in the supply chain of illegal narcotics from Mexico to the US, from the drug manufacturers through to the Cartels through to vigilante Mexican and American groups trying to protect their neighbourhoods & border. The footage is so raw & real I’m surprised the filmmakers made it out alive.
35. Undefeated (2011)
Follows the progress of a Memphis high school football team made predominantly of kids who fall below the poverty line, and their struggle to keep together as a team. The sheer passion the coach Bill Courtney has for his players is inspirational; he’s a true mentor who’s ultimately able to turn around their losing streak.
34. On Death Row (2012)
Captured at the same time as Werner Herzog’s feature film Into The Abyss which appears further along the list, this is a made-for-TV series that takes a look inside Texan prisons with a particular focus on inmates who are due to be executed.
33. Somm (2012)
A fascinating look into the life of a Master Sommelier and what it takes to pass the coveted exam. The best scene is the one where a bunch of Sommeliers-in-the-making are asked to sample a particular wine and determine exactly which vintage it is. The accuracy by which they’re able to pinpoint the grape is tremendous.
32. Amy (2015)
One of the better biographical documentaries out there. I didn’t know all that much about Amy Winehouse or her music prior to seeing the movie but I was almost in tears by the end, wishing she was still with us today sharing her soulful voice & charisma with the world.
31. The Barkley Marathons: The Race That Eats Its Young (2014)
A fun & light-hearted film about the famed Barkley Marathons, a 100 mile, rarely-completed ultra marathon held annually in Tennessee since 1986. The film profiles the charismatic organisers of the race as well as in-depth coverage of the 2012 marathon and its participants.
30. Weiner (2016)
A cringeworthy look into the life & times of Anthony Weiner, former Congressman and candidate for New York Mayor, famed for his numerous sexting scandals that tore apart his career and almost ruined his marriage. Despite what you make of him personally, I was particularly impressed at the composure & humour he was able to keep during a time of such strenuous media coverage.
29. Into The Abyss (2011)
Werner Herzog delves deeply into the abyss that is death row, interviewing a prisoner convicted of murder in the months & weeks leading up to his execution. Herzog collected a wealth of material from five inmates on death row, opting to feature Michael Perry in this film with the remaining men forming part of a TV documentary series called On Death Row.
28. The Bridge (2006)
This is probably the most hard-hitting film to watch out of all on the list. A camera crew recorded 10,000 hours of footage of the Golden Gate Bridge during 2004, capturing almost all the suicides that occurred that year and interviewing friends & family members of the deceased as well as a previous survivor of the fall.
27. The Cove (2009)
An investigation into dolphin hunting in Taiji, Japan, led by activist Ric O’Barry, who helped capture & train the dolphins used in the Flipper TV series. Although the dolphin hunt is legal, it’s a brutal depiction of the reality behind this barbaric tradition.
26. The Wolfpack (2015)
Residing in New York’s lower eastside, this family of 7 children were homeschooled and warned by their father to never venture outside due to the dangers lurking within Manhattan. After 15 years of their only exposure to the outside world being via film, one of the brothers broke the rules and wandered onto the street, followed closely by his remaining siblings.
25. Jiro Dreams Of Sushi (2011)
At 85 years old, Jiro has spent almost all his life dedicated to the art of sushi-making. As the owner of arguably the most famous & exclusive sushi restaurant in Tokyo, the film documents his youth, the day-to-day running of the location and his two sons, both of whom have followed in his sushi-making footsteps.
24. Cave Of Forgotten Dreams (2010)
Explore the Chauvet Caves in the south of France with Werner Herzog, who managed to gain rare access to what are considered the oldest known rock paintings in the world.
23. Winnebago Man (2009)
Jack Rebney, famous for his furious, ‘fuck’-laden outtakes of an 80’s Winnebago commercial, despised his notoriety after the clip took to Youtube in its early years and moved to a secluded location in northern California where he no longer had to deal with general society on a daily basis. Winnebago Man sees the filmmaker track down Rebney to introduce him to a genuinely appreciative audience.
22. The Last Days (1998)
Steven Spielberg’s Academy Award-winning film about five Hungarian Jews who revisit their childhood homes and tell some very traumatic stories about their time at Auschwitz.
21. Life, Animated (2016)
A heartwarming doc from this year showing at cinemas right now, about a young autistic man Owen Suskind and how it took animated Disney movies for his family to finally get through to him. It follows his story from a young boy right up until his recent graduation & move into his own apartment where he’s finally able to retain some independence.
20. Senna (2010)
I have absolutely zero interest in Formula 1 but I was hooked on the life story of Ayrton Senna, Brazilian race-car driver and national hero who died behind the wheel at an unfortunately young age.
19. Chernobyl Heart (2003)
A short film which I discovered through /r/Documentaries about children in Belarus born with cancers & illnesses related to radiation from Chernobyl. Particularly moving is a scene where a young girl is given an artificial heart valve, allowing her a second chance at life.
18. Dear Zachary: A Letter To A Son About His Father (2008)
This is a particularly painful one to watch that’ll surely make you cry. Kurt Kuenne tells the story of his friend Andrew Bagby who was murdered, with the idea of presenting it as a gift to his son Zachary who he never got to meet. What ends up happening to Zachary is beyond belief.
17. Camp 14: Total Control Zone (2012)
Born & raised in a North Korean labor camp, Shin Dong-Huyk eventually escaped & made his way to the US to tell his tale of the cruelty that went on behind the walls of his former home. He witnessed the execution of his own mother and was frequently exposed to hunger & savage beatings by prison guards. I recently read that he since admitted to embellishing some of the stories for dramatic effect, but it’s still an intense watch & will leave you with utter contempt for Kim Jong-Un and his ridiculous regime.
16. Sour Grapes (2016)
Rudy Kurniawan is new to the wine auction scene but gradually makes a name for himself from his excellent knowledge and outrageous purchases. Little did the wine community know that he had a very fraudulent ulterior motive all along. An interesting tale of trust & deceit within an exclusive club of connoisseurs. Fairly recent doc that may still be showing in cinemas today.
15. Serving Life (2011)
A made-for-TV doc about a group of prisoners in Louisiana who are responsible for running an in-house hospice, providing care for those nearing the end of their lives who have little other friends or family to turn to. A rather beautiful perspective into how otherwise hardened criminals come together to treat fellow inmates with warmth, care & dignity.
14. Bowling For Columbine (2002)
Michael Moore at his finest, dissecting the Columbine massacre and presenting his thoughts on why gun violence is so prevalent in America. The most tense part of the film is when he brings two of the Columbine victims into the K-Mart head office to confront those responsible for the availability of handgun ammunition in their stores.
13. Resurrect Dead: The Mystery Of The Toynbee Tiles (2011)
Damn, this is a supremely mysterious & interesting story! Dating from the 80’s, a number of custom-made tiles have been found throughout US & South American cities which say “TOYNBEE IDEA / IN Kubrick’s 2001 / RESURRECT DEAD / ON PLANET JUPITER” or something to that effect. Nobody knew who was responsible for the tiles let alone what any of it meant, so a team of intrigued investigators got together to try to figure it all out.
12. Seymour: An Introduction (2014)
Seymour Bernstein is a much-loved pianist, piano teacher & composer whose announced his final recital in 1977, after which he concentrated solely on teaching & composing. The film sees Seymour take to the stage one final time; a performance nearly 40 years in the making.
11. Finding Vivian Maier (2013)
Nobody knew that Vivian Maier, a nanny who worked in various American cities in the 60’s-70’s, harboured a secret passion for street photography. Tens of thousands of photographs & negatives were discovered in the years following her death; director John Maloof wanted to spread the word about her previously unrecognised talent.
10. Spinning Plates (2012)
An endearing story about three very different restaurants in the US (Chicago’s Alinea, Breitbach’s Country Dining in Iowa and La Conina de Gabby in Arizona), detailing the trial & tribulations the restauranteurs and staff alike go through along the journey.
9. Alfred & Jakobine (2014)
I saw this at the Hot Docs festival in Toronto a few years ago, I don’t believe it’s available on DVD yet so it might be hard to find. Alfred & Jakobine met in the mid-50’s in Africa where they quickly fell in love & spent the next 10 or 15 years travelling around the world in an old London taxicab. After marrying & having children they decided to settle down in the US, but Alfred couldn’t stay put & ultimately left to pursue his vagabond ways. Decades later he came to regret his decision so he restored the old taxicab (which he’d kept all along) and travelled across the country to see Jakobine one final time before it was too late.
8. Dave Gorman’s Googlewhack Adventures (2004)
This is a stage show rather than a documentary but it’s bloody entertaining. British comedian Dave Gorman discovered the term ‘Googlewhack’ (googling two legitimate English words that bring up only one result) and ended up on a ridiculous worldwide adventure because of it. If you like this one also check out Are You Dave Gorman? where he travels around the world to meet a bunch of other people who share his name.
7. Wings Of Hope (2000)
Werner Herzog was scheduled to take a flight within Peru in 1971 but he ended up on a different flight due to his reservation being cancelled. Lucky for him, because the original flight was struck by lightning & crashed, leaving a miraculous sole survivor to fend for herself in the Amazonian jungle for a couple of weeks before being rescued. The film retraces the exact steps Juliane Koepcke took during her fight for survival.
6. Tickled (2016)
Best documentary so far from 2016 about a Kiwi TV reporter who accidentally discovers a sport called Competitive Endurance Tickling and the investigation that follows. It has everything I could ever ask for in a narrative – an absurd but fun-sounding subject that escalates into something so much deeper than you could ever imagine, full of bizarre characters and engaging plot twists. Go see it in a cinema now if it’s showing near you.
5. Louis Theroux: anything
I didn’t want to break down Louis’ films independently otherwise the whole list would just be made up of him, so I put him here as a single category instead! But my top picks of his are The Most Hated Family In America about the Westboro Baptist (“God Hates Fags”) Church and his specials related to mental/criminal institutions such as Behind Bars, By Reason Of Insanity and Miami Megajail.
4. Man On Wire (2008)
In 1974, Frenchman Philippe Petit & a team of assistants snuck onto the roof of the twin towers in NYC, rigging a high wire between the two buildings & completing the cross in around an hour one morning with bewildered pedestrians looking on from below. The doc tells the story of the preparation leading up to & including the event.
3. The Fear Of 13 (2015)
Nick Yarris spent 21 years in the Pennsylvania prison system on death row after having been convicted of murder. Surprise, surprise: it turns out he didn’t actually do it and was eventually released from prison. He’s an absolutely enthralling storyteller, he relates his youth & his time spent in jail with such passionate intensity. A must-watch.
2. Searching For Sugar Man (2012)
Detroit singer-songwriter Sixto Rodriguez released a few albums in the 70’s which didn’t result in much local success. Decades later he discovered he’d become a superstar in South Africa after someone had smuggled his records into the country, finding immense popularity among the anti-apartheid community. A truly mindblowing story.
1. Grizzly Man (2005)
Wildlife enthusiast Timothy Treadwell spent 13 summers camping amongst wild bears in Alaska as though he was a bear himself. Werner Herzog did an astonishing job at interviewing his friends & family and stitching together the footage Timothy had taken over the years which ultimately led to his demise. As far as I’m concerned, there is no greater documentary than this one.
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