Top ten documentaries

22 Jul

During an episode of “The Riff” many months back, my partner Mike and I happened on the topic of documentaries and simultaneously raved over how much we love them. Documentaries are almost categorically outstanding, and criminally underappreciated. But you know this.

During our conversation, Mike and I decided to devote a future podcast to discussing our favorite documentaries. The plan was to watch a bunch of docs and reconvene to divulge our rankings.

In the time since, Mike has seen a total of ZERO documentaries, instead deciding to devote his free time to watching the entire “Star Trek” series and attending superhero conventions and writing love letters to the cast of “Dark Shadows.”

So, forget Mike. I’m going it alone. Below you will find my top ten favorite documentaries. (I should note each of these was wonderful and the ranking concept is mostly fruitless. They’re essentially equal in greatness. See them all.)

Honorable mentions:

Jesus Camp (unnerving and sadly predictable film about church camp cults) … Spellbound (surprisingly enjoyable study of spelling bees) … Man on Wire (story of man who walked between Twin Towers on a high-wire in the early 70s) … When the Levees Broke (one-sided but heartbreaking nonetheless) … Bowling for Columbine (ditto) … Murderball (wheelchair rugby team) … My Kid Could Paint That (prodigy artist or fraudulent dad?) … Anvil (real-life Spinal Tap)

Unrankable: The Last Waltz (1975)

The Last Waltz, a documentary about the final concert from The Band, is truthfully my most enjoyed on this list, but placing what is essentially a concert at the top feels like cheating. Sure, there is a decent amount of backstage footage, but this Scorcese-directed movie is all about the music. And holymotherofgod is the music great. Guest performances from Van Morrison, Neil Young, Dr. John, The Staples Sisters, Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan, among others, make this a must-see (and I mean that in the truest sense) for any fan of rock and/or roll.

10. Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (2005)

You know full well what this one is about: the rise and fall of Enron. This movie will want to make you track down Jeff Skilling, Lou Pai and the rest of the executives and strangle them to death with their own Hermes neckties. I’m not exaggerating. You will truly envision murdering these greedy, shameless jerk-offs, standing on top of them after and holding up a title belt that reads “I did this for America.” You will love this vision. You will have it often. It will turn you on a little bit.

The film does a great job of explaining precisely how Enron pulled off possibly the biggest corporate scandal in American history (though no one can lucidly explain how the company made money). I saw this in 2005 and again a few weeks back, and it was equally engaging each time.

9. Mad Hot Ballroom (2005)

On the opposite spectrum of the seriousness scale is Mad Hot Ballroom, a documentary about a ballroom dancing program introduced into elementary/middle schools in inner-city Manhattan. The program is just the backdrop for a story about kids growing up in NYC. Enjoyable yet substantive. Fun movie.

8. American Movie (1999)

A classic documentary about a backwoods Wisconsin man and his friends who dream of making horror films, though they have no money, no training, no resources and a hilarious lack of talent. The documentary subjects are full-on hayseeds, yet their determination to make movies in the face of, well, pretty much everything, results in an uplifting tale of spirit and determination. This is America.

7. Capturing the Friedmans (2003)

A spellbinding story of a Long Island family in the 80s dealing with accusations of the father being a pedophile, told via interviews and grainy home videos that capture family in-fighting. The home videos result in an uncomfortably intimate glimpse into the family’s totally and tragically fucked-up lives. Don’t expect to have much fun watching this one. Incredibly powerful film, however; one you won’t soon forget. I got the goosebumps just by typing this summary.


6. The Thin Blue Line (1988)

The Thin Blue Line was directed by the godfather of documentaries Errol Morris, who has been given credit for creating the crime-drama genre so ubiquitous today. (Read: blame Errol for CSI and its ilk.)

The film examines a murder in Texas with two suspects, both interviewed at length maintaining their innocence, and is the first documentary to explore dramatic reenactments to amplify the story.

Dark, chilling, so totally enthralling. (Not to mention effective: this film helped prove one of the suspect’s innocence.)

5. Grizzly Man (2005)

Not much more can be said of this much-discussed documentary about an over-dramatic, Carson Kressleyesque failed actor that decides to devote his life to living with bears in Alaska. (Though “living with” is a loose concept, as he mostly stands about 100 feet away and talks to them as if they are his friends.)

It is equal parts sad and unintentionally hilarious – so, so many laughs – with bonus points for the most obvious ending of a movie since Titanic.

4. Sicko (2007)

I realize this is a one-sided affair (which it’s supposed to be, by the way; arguing that it’s not objective is missing the point), but I felt Sicko was the best from Moore’s catalog because it highlighted an essential yet underrepresented issue. Moore features some of the most heartbreaking stories imaginable in this one, which are worth noting if only because of their importance.

This of course should not be viewed by anyone vehemently opposed to universal health insurance, because Sicko is essentially a biased plea for change. But if you’re able to set aside politics and think in terms of human life rather than economic impact, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a more emotionally affective documentary than Sicko.

3. One Day in September (1999)

I’m sure you have a general understanding of the hostage situation that occurred at the 1972 Munich Olympics. I did too; but until I saw this movie, I had no idea of the intensity or behind-the-scenes political implications of the tragedy.

You probably don’t, either. You need to see this movie.

2. Touching the Void (2003)

Touching the Void is a retelling of the late-80s Peruvian mountain-climbing mission gone awry that has become classic lore in mountaineering circles. Two young men reach a peak that no one else has made, and then disaster strikes on the way down. A rare documentary in that it features almost zero footage from the actual event, instead relying on interviews and realistic dramatizations of the action.

1. Hoop Dreams (1994)

Obvious choice. Possibly a sentimental one. Tough to say. Like I said, these rankings are mostly academic.

It is true that everyone loves Hoop Dreams, and with good reason: it’s simple, eternally relevant, and equally heartbreaking and uplifting. I especially dig the film’s ability to span about a dozen years without sacrificing any depth.


Please leave any documentaries that I’ve missed in the comments. I’ll plan on updating my list every so often.


4 Responses to “Top ten documentaries”

  1. Mike July 23, 2010 at 6:30 am #

    1. It was “Battlestar Gallactica” not “Star Trek”.
    2. I’ve watched one documentary since said conversation “Behind the Scenes of Battlestar Gallactica”.
    3. This list is not very good.

  2. mj July 23, 2010 at 7:10 am #

    Has anyone seen “Exit Through the Giftshop” yet? I think it just ended at the Lagoon, just wondering if it’s worth watching. It looks interesting though.

  3. A.B. July 24, 2010 at 4:46 pm #

    “Crazy Love.” Absolutely. Bananas. I recommend this to anyone who says they love documentaries. As a story, it is just so completely WTF that your really have to see it.

    “Into the Arms of Strangers.” About the Kindertransport in Europe during WWII, where some 10,000 children were allowed to be sent on trains to Britain so they would not be killed by Nazis. The stories are mindblowing.

  4. Joel G July 26, 2010 at 10:28 pm #

    “Can Mr. Smith Get To Washington Anymore?” is a helluva good documentary. It’s an uplifting underdog story of a young professor who decides to run for an empty seat in the House of Representatives. Saw it on Independent Lens on PBS a few years ago, and was moved enough to buy the thing from this website: (I only own about two other DVDs, so that’s really saying something.) Highly recommended.

    “Young @ Heart” is a good one, too, but maybe not top ten of all time.

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