After watching "Blackfish" the other day and "20 Feet From Stardom" over the weekend, I've been nerding out over documentaries. I love documentaries almost more than traditional film. Taking a dense subject and turning it into a compelling story that also educates the audience is a more impressive skill to me than spending hundreds of millions of dollars on special effects to make a big spectacle of a movie. These are not films that are ever going to resonate with that dream demographic that seemingly all movies are aimed at these days (and the reason it seems like all new movies are based off of comic books), so it's often surprising that the filmmakers get the money to make these movies at all. But I'm thankful someone is funding them, because these are films that need to be made. Below are some of my other favorites. If you haven't seen both Blackfish and 20 Feet From Stardom you need watch them right away!
1) Searching for Sugar Man
Lots of great docs have been made about music and musicians; it doesn't take a lot to get people interested in hearing about music they love. This is a movie about a musician you've never heard of, who hasn't had an album in over 40 years and is living very simply (to put it mildly) in Detroit. It turns out he has a cult following in South Africa and they have never forgotten him. It's all true, of course, so you can look up the details if you want to, but the story telling is so great in this doc that I don't want to give it away. See this movie! There's a good reason it won the Best Documentary Oscar last year.
2) First Person (TV Series)
Not everyone likes Errol Morris' style, but it is distinctive. He invented the "Interrotron" to interview people and get candid, honest commentary from the likes of Robert McNamara. But he has also always held the idea that seemingly average people have the most compelling, strangest stories. He followed through with this perspective in a series that aired on IFC (maybe elsewhere too?) around 2000-2001 wherein he interviewed the most compelling people you've never heard of. Well, maybe you've heard of some of them now, but I had certainly never heard of Temple Grandin before his episode about her. This series is a reminder that the strangest stories are usually true and that you never know who around you might be quietly leading a fascinating life.
3) King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters
This one has nostalgia going for it. And the title--they could have made a horrible lazy movie and still they would have had me with that title. Anyone who had an Atari 2600, anyone who ever played Ms. Pac Man in a pizza parlor, anyone born before the 80s will have a moment of reverie watching this movie. And the kick-ass 80s soundtrack doesn't hurt. Perhaps they managed to turn a story about a video game competition that hasn't been relevant for over 30 years into high drama by demonizing poor Billy Mitchell. Or maybe the truth just hurts. In any event, Donkey Kong has NEVER been this interesting, and I'm sure it never will be again. Children of the 80s (and some of their parents) should not miss this movie.
4) The Queen of Versailles
This one just has to be seen to be believed. Truth is stranger than fiction, and the rich not only live in a bubble, but I think that bubble is floating over Jupiter or something because that is not the same world us mere mortals occupy. The Siegels are just lucky that Americans by and large can't be forced to watch any nerdy dorky documentaries, because you'll probably feel like getting a mob together with pitchforks in front of their house after you see this. And how is it that CPS, the ASPCA, and ICE aren't on these people's asses right now? Oh yeah, because they are *still* filthy rich (notwithstanding the whining about money you will see in the movie) and therefore live by different laws than the rest of us.
5) King Corn
This movie came out about the same time as Food Inc. and all those other alarmist food supply chain documentaries. I liked this one better because it came at the issue from a different perspective. Also, although the movie brings some very alarming facts to light, it just doesn't have the same alarmist tone as the other movies of this genre that can be such a turnoff.
There are so many great documentaries, here are a few others I have found immensely entertaining and enlightening:
More Than Honey Bees are amazing and this movie is gorgeous.
Thunder Soul I'll bet you never knew high school band could be this cool! And it will probably never be this cool again. Having participated in marching band, I can vouch that a good band director is everything, and this movie is just further awesome evidence of that. Forget the sports coaches and teachers--a good band director can inspire kids to become better students and better people.
Man on Wire If you haven't seen it, this movie is just breathtaking. There is no other word for it.
Jiro Dreams of Sushi This one might not resonate with you unless you are a food enthusiast or Japanophile. But if you are interested in either, you will find this portrait fascinating.
La Camioneta This interesting but heartbreaking film gives you a little insight into the lives of people living in the third world.
Bill Cunningham New York This movie is about an eccentric photographer whose pictures you have undoubtedly seen without giving any thought to who took them. This also becomes a movie about the loss of the artistic community in Manhattan to gentrification. It might just make you think about the debt society owes to our artists who make our world better by making it more beautiful and making us think, yet often have artistic temperaments that make it difficult or impossible for them to live neatly within societal constraints.
Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry Film is a format well suited to documenting the lives of visual artists, who often aren't great at explaining themselves in words. Perhaps Ai Weiwei doesn't need any help with visibility--he's doing quite well these days--but the film is beautiful and I certainly didn't know anything about the artist before seeing this film.
Ballets Russes I love ballet. This movie was satisfying for me because it fleshed out a lot of the history of ballet I thought I knew.
Have any documentaries you love? Send me a comment or a note and let me know what else I need to see!