Monday, March 26, 2012

Documentary 101: 101 Documentaries You Might Enjoy

A documentary, as the term suggests, serves to document--a notable life, a historic event, a natural phenomenon, a rare artistry, etc.

Most documentaries worth their salt also serve to educate--as much as is realistic in 90 minutes or so--about a given subject matter. Docs exist about almost every topic you can imagine and many you can't.

Many documentaries, some more subtly, some more overtly, aim to advocate--about ending war, changing policies, reversing legal decisions, curbing corruption and much else.

Some documentaries, perhaps surprisingly so, manage to robustly entertain--with a level of drama, suspense, humor and imagination beyond many a narrative film.

But at their very best, along with some or all of the above, documentaries reveal--not just information about their surface level subjects, but often more compellingly, insights about the human condition, the world at large and, well, ourselves. 

And thus, I have found my recent documentary binge--in the first three months of 2012, I have watched 61 documentary movies--to be quite revelatory.

This isn't quite as many as I had watched throughout the rest of my life, but it's pretty close. And certainly if I add the 35 other docs I've seen since 2010, the 96 are roughly 75% of all the documentaries that I've ever seen.

I realize this may sound exorbitant, almost even an addiction. Yet not only do I view documentaries as being as importantly eye-opening, but I see this as justifiable given that I haven't spent a single minute this year (and very few ever) watching the modern-day derivative of the documentary: reality television.

In fact, as part of my extensive exploration of documentaries--inspired in large part by their being the topic of the Chicago Film Discussion Lunch Meetup I attended yesterday--I wondered what type of documentary-type programming exists on cable channels such as Discovery, Science, Military, History, National Geographic, TLC, etc.

In looking at the On-Demand listings, it seems that rather than these channels offering much in the way of one-off topical documentaries, they have what sound like reality series: Swamp Loggers, World Tough Truckers, Alaska Troopers, American Weed, Built for the Kill, Miami Ink, etc.

Not having seen any of these shows, I realize some (and others of their ilk) might be quite good, but my point is that I couldn't readily find any TV shows--other than in the Movies sections of HBO and Showtime--that seem to be documentary-style spotlights on, say, sea turtles or the Spanish American War or Christopher Wren or the Civil Rights Movement. (If someone knows where I should be looking, please let me know.)

Behind The Music used to pretty well simulate music documentaries, albeit under an hour, but in looking at VH1, they now seem to offer shows like Baseball Wives and Mob Wives.

So while the definition of "documentary" can be pretty broad--according to my film historian friend Susan Doll, the father of the documentary is a guy named John Grierson, who (around 1926) defined it as: "The creative treatment of actuality"--for my purposes here I will focus on documentary movies, not television shows.

And while there have been highly credible, even superb multi-part documentaries--from Shoah, which I have not seen to The Beatles Anthology, which I have, to Ken Burns' Baseball, Jazz and The Civil War, which I've only seen in part--my selections below are all documentaries that can easily be watched in a single sitting.
My list of 101 Documentaries You Might Enjoy is comprised solely of documentaries that I've seen and personally recommend. 
It excludes some rather decent ones, but I felt 101 was enough (although I do wind up mentioning a few more). Besides omissions that I've yet to see or just didn't love, I've left off a few films I haven't seen in a long time--such as Madonna: Truth or Dare--and skipped some, like Stop Making Sense, that I see more as concert films (although technically they are documentaries).

The documentaries are not listed in order of preference and some of my categories may be imperfect. A few favorites, at least of late, are shown in yellow, but I consider all here to be quite worthwhile.

Many of these films should be available at your local library--I borrowed several from the Skokie Public Library and also the Glenview Public Library--as well as through Netflix. Though I didn't use it or even explore it much yet, you might be able to see some of these (and/or others of worth) for free online at You can also find a good number of free docs on YouTube.

Various Topics (often pertaining to careers and pastimes

1. The Aristocrats - a bunch of comedians tell the same raunchy joke
2. Catfish - two New Yorkers make out-of-state friends via Facebook; questions of truth
3. Cheat You Fair: The Story of Maxwell Street
4. Every Little Step - the casting of the Broadway revival of A Chorus Line
5. Expo: Magic at the White City - the Chicago's World's Fair of 1893
6. Gates of Heaven - Errol Morris' highly acclaimed look at pet cemeteries and their proprietors
7. The Gleaners and I - Legendary French filmmaker Agnes Varda explores various types of gleaning
8. Grey Gardens - two relatives of Jacqueline Onassis living in squalor
9. Harlan County, U.S.A. - a 1970's Kentucky coal miners strike in the
10. Helvetica - a film about the ubiquitous typeface and design in general
11. The Interrupters - Chicago-based activists work to curb gang violence
12. The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters - a man aims to set a new world record on Donkey Kong
13. Last Train Home - a Chinese documentary about workers that leave small towns for big cities
14. My Kid Could Paint That - a child painting prodigy and questions of veracity
15. Only When I Dance - struggles of aspiring dancers in Brazil
16. Page One: Inside the New York Times
17. Salesman - four bible salesmen in the late '60s
18. The Spaghetti West - the Italian westerns by Leone, Corbucci and others
19. Tabloid - a beauty queen stalks and kidnaps her Mormon lover

Activism and Investigation (including War, Politics, Finance, Crime and Nature)

20. An Inconvenient Truth - the consequences of global warning
21. Body of War - a disabled Iraq War vet becomes a protester
22. Bowling for Columbine - Michael Moore's look at gun violence
23. Budrus - an Israeli documentary about a Palestinean community slated for displacement
24. Capitalism: A Love Story - Moore's exploration of the financial crisis
25. Capturing the Friedmans - a father & son are imprisoned for crimes on seemingly false premises
26. Casino Jack and the United States of Money - Jack Abramoff and how lobbying affects Congress
27. The Cove - explores and aims to end the practice of slaughtering dolphins in a Japanese city
28. Fahrenheit 9/11 - President Bush and his actions after 9/11, including the Iraq War
29. The Fog of War - Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and the Vietnam War
30. Food, Inc. - how food is manufactured and distributed by relatively few companies
31. GasLand - a Pennsylvania man explores how natural gas mining contaminates our water
32. Hell and Back Again - a soldier returns from war with serious physical and emotional damage
33. Inside Job - the 2008 financial collapse, reasons and repercussions
34. Jesus Camp - a look at evangelicals and their children
35. March of the Penguins - how penguins survive and multiply on the South Pole
36. Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory - three Arkansas teenagers are wrongly jailed; third in a series that helped get them released
37. Religulous - Bill Maher's look at religion and its influence
38. Restrepo - on-the-ground documentary about U.S. troops in Afghanistan, some who didn't survive
39. Roger and Me - Michael Moore's first doc; about General Motors closing plants in Flint, MI
40. Sicko - another Moore doc; about health care in the U.S. and how it compares with elsewhere
41. Super Size Me - Morgan Spurlock eats all his meals at McDonald's for one full month
42. The Thin Blue Line - a man is sent to prison for a crime he likely didn't commit; the film helped get him released
43. The Tillman Story - the valor of Pat Tillman and the cover-up that surrounded his death in Afghanistan
44. Trouble the Water - the events and aftermath of Hurricane Katrina utilizing first-hand footage
45. Waiting for Superman - the U.S. educational system and rise of charter schools
46. Waltz With Bashir - from Israel, an animated documentary chronicling a battle in Lebanon
47. Why We Fight - how the military industrial complex affects U.S. foreign policy
48. The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill - a flock of parrots in San Francisco and the man who cares for them

Biographies (besides music and sports)

49. Ahead of Time - Ruth Gruber, a pioneering photojournalist
50. Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey - Kevin Clash, Sesame Street
51. Bill Cunningham New York - longtime New York Times fashion photographer
52. Cameraman: The Life and Times of Jack Cardiff - a movie cameraman and photographer
53. Crazy Love - Burt and Linda Pugach, a married couple despite his criminal misdeeds against her
54. Dogtown and Z-Boys - pioneering skateboarding legends in the California seventies
55. Exit Through the Gift Shop - graffiti artists
56. Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson - the famed gonzo journalist
57. Grizzly Man - Timothy Treadwell, who lived with bears in Alaska
58. I Knew It Was You: Rediscovering John Cazale - the actor whose five films were all Best Picture nominees
59. Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child - a popular fine artist from New York in the '80s
60. Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work
61. The Kid Stays in the Picture - film producer and executive Robert Evans
62. Lenny Bruce: Swear to Tell the Truth - the famed ribald comedian
63. The Line King: The Al Hirschfeld Story - legendary theater cartoonist for the NY Times
64. Man on Wire - Philippe Petit and his attempt to cross the Twin Towers via high wire
65. My Architect: A Son's Journey - architect Louis Kahn
66. Sing Your Song - singer Harry Belafonte, but more about his involvement in civil rights activism
67. The Times of Harvey Milk - slain San Francisco commissioner and gay rights advocate
68. Two in the Wave - French film directors Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard
69. Unknown Chaplin - Charlie Chaplin, with a focus on his filmmaking techniques; The Tramp and the Dictator, on The Great Dictator Chaplin Collection DVD set is also quite good
70. Waste Land - artist Vik Muniz and his use of landfill recyclables from Rio de Janeiro

Music and Musicians

71. Anvil: The Story of Anvil - a lesser known heavy metal band from Canada
72. Blur: No Distance Left to Run - the reunion of one of the biggest bands in Britpop; I also love the concert video that accompanies the DVD
73. Dixie Chicks: Shut Up and Sing - focuses on the backlash of Natalie Maines' anti-Bush comments
74. Don’t Look Back - Bob Dylan's 1965 tour of England; Martin Scorsese's No Direction Home about Dylan is also very good
75. Gimme Shelter - the Rolling Stones 1969 free concert that resulted in a tragedy; Shine A Light and Stones in Exile are also worthwhile
76. A Great Day in Harlem - about the jazz musicians who gathered in 1957 for a photo of the same name by Art Kane
77. Joe Strummer: The Future is Unwritten - the leader of The Clash; I also liked one called Joe Strummer: Let's Rock Again about his later days
78. Maxwell Street Blues - blues musicians who played at Chicago's Maxwell Street Market
79. Metallica: Some Kind of Monster
80. New York Doll - New York Dolls bassist Arthur Kane
81. PJ20 - Pearl Jam
82. Runnin’ Down a Dream: Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers
83. Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage
84. The Clash: Westway to the World
85. The Filth and the Fury: A Sex Pistols Film
86. The Kids are Alright - The Who, from 1979. There's also a more recent one called Amazing Journey.
87. The Last Waltz - The Band and their star-studded final concert
88. The Promise: The Making of Darkness on the Edge of Town - Bruce Springsteen; Wings for Wheels about Born To Run should also appeal to Boss fanatics
89. The Ramones: End of the Century
90. Thelonious Monk: Straight No Chaser
91. Who Is Harry Nilsson (and Why is Everybody Talkin’ About Him)
92. Young @ Heart - about an elderly choir from Massachusetts that sings pop hits


93. Bobby Fischer Against the World
94. Hoop Dreams - Illinois high school basketball players in the 90s
95. On the Shoulders of Giants - a pioneering African-American basketball team in Harlem
96. Senna - late Formula One racer Ayrton Senna
97. The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg
98. This Old Cub - Ron Santo
99. Touching the Void- a pair of British mountain climbers and an ill-fated expedition
100. Tyson - Mike Tyson
101. When We Were Kings - Muhammad Ali and his 1974 fight with George Foreman; Muhammad Ali: Through the Eyes of the World is solid as a more complete overview

20 More I Hope To See Soon (all categories)

Hey, Boo: Harper Lee and 'To Kill a Mockingbird'
I Like Killing Flies
Brother's Keeper
Herb & Dorothy
Black Power Mix Tape
Kurt and Courtney
Please Vote For Me
Night and Fog
Harvard Beats Yale 29-29
The Cats of Mirikitani
Genius Within: The Inner Life of Glenn Gould
Chuck Close
Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer
Land of Silence and Darkness

What other documentaries do you recommend?

Some other worthwhile lists: 
Time Out New York - The 50 Best Documentaries of All Time
Current TV - 50 Documentaries to See Before You Die
Channel 4 (England) - 50 Greatest Documentaries
Houston Press - The 31 Best Music Documentaries of All Time
Box Office Mojo - Most Successful Documentaries
Wikipedia - Academy Awards for Best Documentary Feature

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great list and commentary. Hope you had a chance to view all those good doc choices in the "Hope to See" list in the time since this post. I came across you while searching on the title of my own book, which is "Documentary 101" If interested an excerpt is available at