Friday 9 February 2007

Documentaries Are Movies Too!

I've heard people say they don't mind documentaries, but why would you ever watch one twice? They can't be as good as a solid fictional narrative film, can they?

Damn straight they can! Here's a few lists of different types of docs that kept me interested and made me want to come back for another look. These aren't necessarily the best or the most insightful, but they all either shocked, surprised or simply engaged me in the unfolding story and its characters.

10 Entertaining Documentaries

A Perfect Candidate
- A document of Oliver North's 1994 campaign for the Senate. Before you snigger at the thought of voting for North, you should see the other guy...

American Movie
- Mark Borchardt's dream is to make his movie. Don't try to convince him he can't.

The Aristocrats
- Comedians of all stripes tell the world's dirtiest joke, but it ends up being more about the thought process behind a joke and the many different approaches that can be taken.

Bowling For Columbine
- Michael Moore's scattershot take on why America loves its guns. It's messy, but it's very entertaining and asks a lot of questions that aren't easily answered.

Dogtown And Z-Boys
- I'm biased because I loved skateboarding as a kid and knew about these pioneers of surfing on asphalt, but you don't have to care one bit about it to enjoy the history and people of the sport.

For All Mankind
- Piles of NASA footage from Apollo missions. Isn't that enough?

Mad Hot Ballroom
- Though the thought of ballroom dancing and kids may give you the willies, this is an exceptional story about some inner city kids who are determined to compete for the city championships. It's not about the dancing, it's about the people.

Riding Giants
- Stacy Peralta's follow up to "Dogtown And Z-Boys" is about the big wave surfers and is equally good in all respects to his first feature. Some of the footage is staggering.

- We get to follow several kids as they prepare for the annual U.S. Spelling Bee and get to know them and their parents. As with "Mad Hot Ballroom", it's not really about the main subject of the film...It's about the people.

- Really fun documentary about Crossword puzzle solvers and the lead up to the National championships. Intermixed with celebrities who also have a passion for solving the daily crosswords, we get to meet some pretty interesting folks.

10 Documentaries with Incredible Stories/Lives

Capturing The Friedmans
- A family's set of home movies help to tell the story of a father and his youngest son who are both accused of having sexual relations with young boys. Throughout the course of the film, which includes further interviews with police and others, we become less and less sure of what really happened.

- The governor of Illinois has 60 days to decide the fate of over a hundred prisoners on Death Row. A number of journalism students have uncovered the fact that some of these prisoners are innocent and the clock is ticking towards the end of the governor's term.

Go Tigers!
- Massillon Ohio isn't just football crazy, they revolve their lives around it.

Grizzly Man
- Werner Herzog develops an remarkable portrait of wildlife activist Timothy Treadwell, by using Treadwell's video diaries of his trips to Alaska to live amongst the grizzlies.

Hoop Dreams
- 5 years in the lives of two high school basketbal players with their sights set on the pros. You just can't script this kind of stuff...

Mr Death: the Rise And Fall Of Fred Leuchter Jr.
- One of Errol Morris' most interesting films. Beginning with a look at how Fred Leuchter became a designer and builder of electric chairs (and other devices used in prison Death Rows), the film suddenly takes a jaw dropping turn as we see that Leuchter is looking for validation - any kind of validation.

Paradise Lost: The Child Murders At Robin Hood Hills
- Tremendously disturbing tale of the killings of three young boys and the two teenagers sent to prison for their deaths. As the film progresses, not only do we see what was likely a great injustice, but we meet one of the creepiest people ever...

- 10 years after being a Big Brother to Stevie, filmmaker Steve James returns to visit.

Street Fight
- This 2005 document of the mayoral race for Newark New Jersey is one of the best political films I've seen. Pretty damn upsetting too.

The Thin Blue Line
- Another great Errol Morris film that was actually the catalyst for the release of an innocent man.

12 Documentaries on filmmaking/films

A Personal Journey With Martin Scorsese Through American Movies / My Voyage To Italy
- I can think of no one else I'd rather listen to speak about film than Martin Scorsese. His trip (via clips and personal recollections) through American films that inspired him is faulty in only one respect - he stops once he reaches the 70s and his peers. A similar travelogue through Italian films from his youth is equally interesting - though be warned that spoilers abound.

Celluloid Closet
- An excellent survey of how gays and lesbians have been portrayed in films over the years.

The Cutting Edge: The Magic Of Movie Editing
- The focus here is on editors and their work. It provides some superb examples of how editing can effect a specific scene and give it a certain tone.

Decade Under The Influence
- Ah, the 70s...Interviews with the directors and actors who made so many memorable films from that decade.

The Five Obstructions
- Lars Von Trier challenges fellow Danish director Jorgen Luth to remake one of his old short films using five different sets of parameters and restrictions. Surprising turns are mixed in with flashes of filmmaking brillance by Luth.

Hearts Of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse
- Thought "Apocalypse Now" was a mind trip? The reality of making the film is just as screwed up. Worth it alone for the amazing outakes of Martin Sheen in the hotel room.

Schlock: The Secret History Of American Cinema
- This is a really fun ride through a bag full of, well, schlock films from the 50s and 60s. Any film that includes a scene from "The Abominable Dr. Phibes" is OK with me.

Lost In La Mancha / The Hamster Factor
Think Terry Gilliam is a fascinating director? Then these two documents of him behind the scenes are just what you're looking for.

Visions Of Light
- One of my favourite documentaries of all time...An excellent look at cinematography and how effective "painting with light" is in creating mood within a film.

Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession
- Though the heart of this movie is the sad story of Jerry Harvey - the programming chief of this early cable station - the joy of it is to listen to the many people influenced by the classic foreign and off the beaten path films it showed.

10 Music Documentaries

A Great Day In Harlem
- Some of the greatest jazz musicians to ever walk the Earth, gathered for a photograph one morning in 1958. Through interviews and performance clips (the section on drummers is worth the price alone), we get to see each participant. Though I haven't seen Ken Burns' mammoth documentary series on Jazz, I'm not sure it'll give you much more of a feeling for the music than this hour long account of the taking of a single picture.

Calle 54
- Each performance by this mixed group of Latin jazz musicians (Tito Puente, Chucho Valdez, etc.) seems to top the one before it. The filmmakers also took pains to drape the scenery in lots of colour to give a feast for the eyes while the ears are digging the music.

- A very unique look into the daily lives and battles of two bands who began as friends. The career paths of the Dandy Warhols and The Brian Jonestown Massacre certainly diverge over the course of the film and we get to see everything from backstage antics to total onstage meltdowns.

The Last Waltz
- One of the best filmed concerts ever. Martin Scorsese does a freaking phenomenal job in composing the shots and capturing The Band's farewell performance (with countless guest stars).

- An introduction to electronic music of all types including Stockhausen, Kraftwerk, Afrika Bambaataa as well as more modern day DJs and techno artists. Not a straight line history, but simply opens up a vast number of possibilities for music to follow.

Monterey Pop
- Otis, Jimi, Janis, etc. A seminal document of the 60s music and counterculture scene - with a kick-ass Ravi Shankar performance.

Pink Floyd - Live At Pompeii
- I just love seeing Floyd playing with those huge stacks of Marshall amps.

- If you've never understood what's so musical about scratching records or thought "Feh, I can do that!", watch this film and be prepared to prop up your jaw. I'm sure not everyone will enjoy the sounds, rhythms and beats developed, but I fail to see how you could not see how it is musical.

Stop Making Sense
- Each song in this Talking Heads concert is lit a bit differently than the one before it and the camera work has been mapped out beforehand. Throw in a tremendous band, high energy show and David Byrne's unique enthusiasm and you have another of the best concert documentaries ever filmed.

- Can I say seminal again?

10 Documentaries of Images

- The cinematographer of "Koyaanisqatsi" steps out on his own for a similar styled film. This one focuses a bit more on people - customs, relationships with nature and our barbaric abilities.

Fata Morgana
- Werner Herzog makes incredible movies. Unique images abound and this collection of images from the desert feels like one entire mirage.

- Life Out Of Balance. Not only the theme of the film's images, but an appropriate description for how you may feel after watching so many familiar things viewed in totally different ways.

Lessons Of Darkness
- Werner Herzog makes incredible movies. The burning oil fields of Kuwait have been recast as a sci-fo story and gives one the feeling that Herzog has some insight into what the Apocalypse might look like.

Man With A Movie Camera
- Ah, Russian silent cinema...Dziga Vertov's various city scenes of daily life are edited together in extraordinarily innovative ways that are still visually intriguing even today.

Manufactured Landscapes
- Terrible beauty is a term that just kept popping into my mind during this film. On the surface, it's a documentary on photographer Edward Burtynsky and his pictures of mankind's changes to the natural world due to industry. Digging deeper there's an unspoken warning.

- Within the confines of a small piece of nature, this film opens up fascinating worlds on the small scale. You may never look at a dung beetle the same way again.

Rivers And Tides
- Andy Goldsworthy is an artist who works with nature and creates what is essentially temporary art. Whether is sculptures on a beach awaiting the high tide, ice formations that will melt away or beautiful patterns from fallen leaves, each of his constructions is definitely a work of art. And fortunately we now have many of them on film.

Sketches Of Frank Gehry
- If an architect's buildings match his mindset (neat and orderly, creative and sleek, etc.), than Frank Gehry's mind must be littered with crumpled up Salvador Dali paintings. Though without the melting clocks...

Winged Migration
- The trailer alone for this movie is stirring. The music combined with stunning images of birds from angles you never thought possible gives me the goosebumps everytime. Beats those damn penguins...

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