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No art form is as flexible or open to new voices as the documentary film. No running time is better or worse than another, no subject is too large or too small, and all the traditions of narrative film are thrown out the window in the search for depth, truth, and novelty.
The best of these movies can sway public opinion, touch the nerves of the world — just ask Michael Moore — or change your life forever. Whether you’re in search of a fresh perspective, an unabashed polemic, or pure, heartwarming entertainment, here’re 22 documentaries you should watch as soon as possible. Trust me.
1. The Act of Killing, 2012
Why: Joshua Oppenheimer’s tour-de-force film seems like an impossible one to make, but it’s even harder to take your eyes off of. Over almost four hours of running time, Oppenheimer and his subjects, the perpetrators of the 1965 Indonesian genocide, recreate the atrocious mistreatment and oppressive rule they continue to perpetrate on the country to the present day. You’ll be sick to your stomach (almost) as often as you laugh.
2. Harlan County, USA, 1976
Why: Arguably the best film ever made about labor conflict, Barbara Kopple’s documentary feature made international headlines for its unflinching portrait of a violent strike in Kentucky. Gripping and tragic, Harlan County, USA cemented its director as one of the finest nonfiction filmmakers in history.
3. Searching for Sugar Man, 2012
Why: The myth of Dylanesque American folk singer Sixto Rodriguez came to life in this Oscar-winning investigative documentary from 2012. Perhaps no documentary has ever had a more successful soundtrack — and Rodriguez, the film’s subject, has become an international icon from this darling film.
4. The Story of the Weeping Camel, 2003
Why: Have you ever wanted to see an albino camel cry at the sound of a musical instrument? How about watching a nomadic Mongolian family adjust to life in an ever-changing world? If you answered “yes” to either of these questions, then Byambasuren Davaa’s masterful semi-narrative docudrama is essential viewing. Warning: Bring tissues.
5. Crumb, 1994
Why: This glimpse into the life of infamous oddball and genius cartoonist R. Crumb is as rich a portrait as any film I’ve ever seen. At turns truly disturbing — Crumb and his family suffer from various forms of mental illness — and visually stunning, the movie presaged the re-entrée of comics and graphic novels into mainstream film.
6. Blackfish, 2013
Why: Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s agenda-driven ‘thriller-mentary’ about the mistreatment and subsequent misbehavior of a SeaWorld-owned killer whale has drawn the attention of the world’s major news outlets. This is for good reason: So effective, upsetting, and propulsive is the filmmaking that the theme park has seen its business model collapse as the movie’s reputation continues to grow.
7. The Civil War, 1990
Why: I recommend setting aside a Saturday to binge-watch all of Ken Burns’s seminal PBS documentary miniseries The Civil War, an overwhelming, unparalleled historical survey about the bloodiest period in the history of the United States. Even better: PBS offers the entire series for free.
8. The Last Waltz, 1978
Why: No concert documentary comes close to the sadness and grace of Martin Scorsese’s masterful, coked-out look at the final tour of The Band in 1976. Keep a lookout for Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, and other guests whose very presences here remind us of their enormous collective impact on American music and culture.
9. Night and Fog (Nuit et Brouillard), 1955
Why: The recently departed Alain Resnais (RIP, big guy), the genius behind seminal flicks Last Year at Marienbad and Hiroshima Mon Amour, was also a nonfiction filmmaker of uncanny skill. His short documentary film on the liberation of Nazi concentration camps after WWII was one of the first ever shot at the camps themselves with permission of the German government.
10. Urbanized, 2011
Why: Gary Hustwit’s trilogy on different forms of design — starting with the enjoyable Helvetica and the fantastic Objectified — concluded in 2011 with his most impressive documentary ever, a film on urban architecture, development strategies, and city building. It may sound like a snoozefest, but Hustwit’s intellectual engagement and childlike fascination with some of the world’s greatest architects and city planners is contagious.
11. Grizzly Man, 2005
Why: Few films on this list are as haunting as Grizzly Man, a nonfiction look at the life and death of environmentalist and bear enthusiast Timothy Treadwell. As directed by Werner Herzog, this documentary goes first to the heart and then deep, deep into the subconscious. And you’ll never forget the tape of Treadwell’s last moments on Earth.
12. Encounters at the End of the World, 2007
Why: I wasn’t the only person to notice what an enthralling documentary Grizzly Man was; Herzog’s movie was so popular that he was asked in 2006 to shoot a film on the McMurdo Station in Antarctica. For all of his oeuvre’s typical darkness, this documentary chooses instead to mosey calmly, even respectfully, through the lustrous glacial wilderness. One thing’s for sure: It’s the best penguin-related documentary available.
13. The Thin Blue Line, 1988
Why: So cohesive, expertly shot, and convincing are the arguments in Errol Morris’s breakout documentary that the filmmaker is considered to have freed a convicted murderer from jail the day before his execution. Adding to the prestige of this extraordinary investigative doc is the fact that, on the basis of its significant cultural (and financial) success, subject Randall Dale Adams went on to sue Errol Morris for a little extra dough.
14. Dogtown and Z-Boys, 2001
Why: Though the above link has some French subtitles, that shouldn’t stop you from joining nonfiction director Stacy Peralta on his journey inside the mythos and careers of the Zephyr “extreme skateboard” team.
15. Jiro Dreams of Sushi, 2011
Why: The only reason David Gelb’s portrait of sushi master Jiro Ono isn’t higher on this list is the extreme mouth-watering that comes from watching the film. As much a character study — and a charming one at that — as a dissection of the social mores and behaviors of contemporary Tokyo, this foodie-friendly flick rolls along at a brisk pace.
16. Before You Know It, 2013
Why: Three gay seniors in contemporary America — a cross-dressing widower, a flamboyant Texan bar owner, and a Harlem-based LGBTQ activist — relate their stories of wisdom and lessons learned in this fantastic indie. Shot with tenderness by director PJ Raval, the film, not yet theatrically released, begs to be pre-ordered as it finds its loyal audience.
17. Spellbound, 2002
Why: Everyone loves a good spelling bee, but it helps to be as funny as Jeffrey Blitz’s debut documentary. Eight key competitors face off — for onscreen time as well as the championship — while we start, quickly and unexpectedly, to root for each of them. Though not all win the bee, of course, most of them earn our love by the film’s end.
18. Point of Order, 1964
Why: At the height of his power, fearmongering Senator Joseph McCarthy had begun to pepper members of the American government with frightening amounts of slander, distrust, and public shame. What better way to unveil his legacy as one of abuse and evil than in the brilliant cinema verite editing of legendary doc-maker Emile de Antonio. And speaking of verite legends…
19. Don’t Look Back, 1967
Why: Bob Dylan and Joan Baez on tour. Oscar-winning director D.A. Pennebaker. A feud with Donovan. ‘Nuff said.
20. Reindeer, 2013
Why: Eva Weber’s remarkable short film is the shortest by far on this list, clocking in at hardly over three full minutes. But within those minutes are some of the most beautiful images of Scandinavia ever put on film in the form of the Karigasniemi village reindeer wranglers of Utsjoki, Finland.
21. Perfect Film, 1986 (reported)
Why: How to explain the serendipitous discovery of 22 minutes of lost-and-found newsreel footage from the assassination of Malcolm X? Why, do as Ken Jacobs did in a 1986 Canal Street pawn shop in New York City: Legally purchase the film negatives for a couple bucks, retitle the footage, and call it an experimental film!
22. Shepard & Dark, 2012
Why: Treva Wurmfeld’s first feature-length documentary paints a portrait of playwright and actor Sam Shepard in the least common way: through his close relationship with another, far-less-famous writer, Johnny Dark. Wurmfeld’s handheld style and close encounters with both men helps to get to the core of what makes Shepard such an icon — and his legend such a good story.