Documentaries, unlike the often mindless entertainment that Hollywood’s good for regurgitating, enlighten us about the world around us: good, fact-checked ones, anyhow. Truth is relative and art (fictional movies), subjective. Proceeding is a collection of 20 of the finest, most interesting and most informative ones yet.
1. Grizzly Man (2005)
Directed by Werner Herzog, Grizzly Man tells the tragic story of grizzly expert and advocate Timothy Treadwell and his girlfriend. Tim and Amie Huguenard frequently traveled to Alaska to–in much the same fashion as others have done with apes and other endangered species–actually live among these large, furry predators. But in October of 2003 in a remote, barren part of Alaska, things went terribly wrong when Timothy, along with his girlfriend Amie, were mauled to death by a rogue bear. The irony about this documentary (about the actual event, really) couldn’t be any more blatant: A couple was killed by the very kind of animal they loved and were adamant about saving.
2. Titicut Follies (1967)
Truly one of the more (or even most) disturbing documentaries, Titicut Follies (by the iconic filmmaker Frederick Wiseman) profiles life inside the then-notorious Massachusetts Correctional Institution for the Criminally Insane in Bridgewater, Massachusetts. Wiseman’s first (and most successful) documentary, it takes a nightmarish look at the goings-on inside the hospital–capturing truly unsettling experiences of the life surrounding the patients, doctors, and other staff. Wiseman also makes sure that several perspectives are presented: From the director’s narration and commentary, to interviews and footage of the staff and patients themselves. Titicult Follies was so controversial, in fact, that it was banned from public screenings in the U.S. for 24 years.
3. Roger and Me (1989)
Michael Moore, documentary-producer extraordinaire, in his directorial debut directed this classic, which showcases what happened when GM shut its Flint, Michigan plant down, eliminating some 30,000 jobs. Moore also (fruitlessly) aimed to question its CEO (then Roger Smith) about the virtually irreparable damage the closure did to the metropolitan Flint area. On his journey, Moore interviews locals–like the colorful Bob Eubanks (‘Flint’s most famous native son’) and Rhonda Britton, a strange rabbit connoisseur–and illustrates the depressing degree to which Flint was economically depressed by GM’s closure.
4. An Inconvenient Truth (2006)
Directed by Davis Guggenheim and narrated by Al Gore and Billy West, An Inconvenient Truth sparked alarm among environmentalists, as well as cries of ‘conspiracy’ and ‘fraud’ from many others–notably, political conservatives. As Gore states, “It is now clear that we face a deepening global climate crisis that requires us to act boldly, quickly, and wisely.” The film describes how Earth lies on a potentially irreversible path to devastation should the current levels of CO2 being released into the atmosphere continue. Simulatenously, it serves as an impetus for people everywhere to get serious about global warming, and to begin the transition away from fossil fuels towards cleaner, renewable energy. Otherwise, Gore claims, Earth could be little more than a dried up, hopeless place in the coming decades.
5. The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons From the Life of Robert S. McNamara (2003)
The Fog of War is a documentary by Erroll Morris about the former US Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, and McNamara’s eye-opening accounts surrounding the usually-unseen realities of modern war. McNamara, the former Defense Secretary in the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations and World Bank president, highlights parts of his military career (as well as in business) and the “eleven lessons” learned over his life, including: unpredictable, unchangeable human behavior, enemy engagement, and how the U.S. military has become a bastion of inefficiencies and waste.
6. Hoop Dreams (1994)
Hoop Dreams documents the lives of Arthur and Gates, two inner-city Chicago youths, who want nothing more than to be basketball superstars. From their freshman years in high school to entering college, the director captures their growing-up for over six years, the teens never losing sight of their ‘hoop dreams’. In between that time, tragedies occur and small triumphs transpire, but the pressures of dealing with inner-city life while “just trying to make it” is seemingly the overriding theme of the film.
7. The Times of Harvey Milk (1984)
Directed by Rob Epstein, The Times of Harvey Milk tells the true story–through several montages of actual interviews with witnesses and individuals close to the case, as well as news reports–of the inspirational struggle, monumental achievement, and untimely assassination of San Francisco’s first gay Board of Supervisors member, Harvey Milk–as well as the assassination of San Franciscan Mayor George Moscone.
8. The Thin Blue Line (1988)
The Thin Blue Line is an investigative 1988 documentary about a Texan man who was wrongly convicted of homicide; it’s also one of the only documentaries ever that directly helped to vindicate a convicted murderer. Errol Morris, the director, lays out the back-story as follows: Randall Adams, a Texan man and somewhat nomad, broke down and had to catch a ride with a stranger known as David Harris. The two hung out for a while, and Randall claimed to have subsequently retired to a motel where his brother stayed. But when a cop turns up dead, and Adams and Harris became suspects, Harris offered up a wildly different story of that night’s events–ultimately implicating Adams in the murder. Years later, Errol reexamines the case through interviews and reenactments of the original crime scene, helping to exonerate Adams and actually implicate Harris as the cop killer.
9. Capturing the Friedmans (2003)
Capturing the Friedmans, by Andrew Jarecki, tells the heartbreaking story of a once-respectable Jewish family of five, who lived in Great Neck, NY, whose lives were transformed almost instantly when Arnold Friedman (the father) was arrested for buying child pornography and on the suspicion of the rape of numerous students he taught. His own son, Jesse, was also charged with molestation, admitted it, then recanted it years later. Arnold died in prison in 1995, Jesse being released early in 2001. The overriding theme of Capturing the Friedmans is how a seemingly happy, middle-class family could be destroyed when dark secrets surfaced. Much of the film is actual footage shot by the family themselves during the dad and son’s trials.
10. Woodstock (1970)
The Woodstock Music & Art Festival (1969) of Bethel, NY is likely one of the most symbolic (of an era), legendary music festivals of all time. Woodstock, by Michael Wadleigh, examines the massive event of 500,00+ concertgoers from several perspectives, both good and bad, and from the time preparations were made for the event up until (and after) the huge cleanup commenced. Woodstock shows portions of actual concerts, interviews with many people involved–including artists and concertgoers themselves–the rampant drug use, muddy legions of hippies (some naked), and even the military moving in to provide medical help and security. It was truly, undeniably one of the wildest parties ever.
11. Jesus Camp (2006)
Directed by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, Jesus Camp documents the lives of several children preparing to attend a summer camp called ‘Kids on Fire’. Far from a traditional kids camp, this one entails instructors and activities that are controversially designed to instill hardcore Christian values into kids. Ewing and Grady dive deep into the cult-ish environment to interview camp counselors–including Becky Fischer–parents, and kids themselves, plus to show outsiders an idea of what transpires there. Children are seen weeping, even wailing as they’re taught that only Jesus can save them, that they must repent of their sins and to–essentially–religiously follow the Bible’s instructions because Jesus Christ reigns supreme. It all begs the question: Are they being brainwashed, being programmed to blindly follow a rigid ideology?
12. Don’t Look Back (1967)
D.A. Pennebaker directed and filmed the young Bob Dylan’s 1965 England tour, which featured Joan Baez (a famous American folk singer that courted Dylan for a short time), Donovan (an Irish folk rock/folk psychedelic singer), and Dylan’s manager, Albert Grossman. Pennebaker takes his audience from hotel rooms, to concert stages, to public halls and airports in his mission to paint a picture of Dylan and crew’s legendary, antic-filled tour of England. Don’t Look Back also illustrates Dylan’s apparent transition from acoustic music to electric while on tour, and how many of his fans (Baez included) were less than thrilled about the move.
13. Bowling for Columbine (2002)
Obviously inspired by the tragic 1999 Columbine high school massacre, where 12 students and one teacher were fatally gunned down by two students (Dylan Klebold, Eric Harris), Bowling for Columbine’s Michael Moore embarks to find out why America has such a disparate number of gun-related murders as compared with the rest of the developed world. Moore ticks off the usual suspects–violent movies and video games, poverty, the ease of acquiring guns, and so forth. But, as the film acknowledges, most of the other aforementioned countries have the same problems (minus easy availability of guns in some countries), yet they experience only a tiny fraction of the gun violence as the U.S. The problem? Powerful special interest groups and the corporate elite, according to Moore.
14. This Film Is Not Yet Rated (2006)
In something of a turning of the tables, the American movie ratings board (the MPAA, or Motion Picture Association of America) itself comes under the microscope of documentarian and Academy-award winner Kirby Dick. Dick’s quest? To investigate the very influential and powerful MPAA, or as the filmmaker puts it, the “non-censoring censor”. Prompted by the overwhelming power over the entertainment industry that the board touts, Dick searches for these “men behind the curtain” who determine which movies will and will not go to the multiplex. The director even sends a band of PIs to spy on the MPAA headquarters, and interviews a handful of directors whose careers were directly affected by the prestigious board’s decisions.
15. Loose Change: Final Cut (2007)
Loose Change: Final Cut is likely one of the most controversial documentaries ever shown to American audiences. In it, Director Dylan Avery is out to disprove the official story of 9/11–a report that stipulates that the impact of two aircraft hurtled into two World Trade Center towers caused towering infernos and the buildings’ collapse. Avery employs a series of expert analyses, witness testimonies, news footage, and supporting evidence–such as the fact that no other steel-framed building has ever collapsed due to fire in the history of the world–to suggest that 9/11 was an inside job, planned (or in the very least, allowed) by very powerful people such as George W Bush, Dick, Cheney, and Condoleeza Rice. Also included as evidence are interviews with various news stations that covered the notorious event, first responders, firefighters, and others. With all of this information, Avery attempts to persuade people that the official story of “19 Islamic hijackers” was a false flag mission perpetuated by individuals in the highest offices.
16. F for Fake (1973)
This classic Orson Welles’ documentary about lies and disception zeros in on the notorious art forger Elmyr de Hory, as well as his biographer, Clifford Irving. F for Fake details how Irving perpetrated the counterfeit autobiography of Howard Hughes, plus delves into on the often-mysterious and introverted world’s of both Hughes and Welles and their careers–the latter of which got started with a fake resume and a hoax Martian invasion. Throughout the film, Welles’ own tricks and exploits on many of his audiences are exposed, too.
17. Metallica: Some Kind of Monster
Some Kind of Monster, by Joe Berliner and Bruce Sinofsky) is a music documentary about Metallica’s strained relationships among its members during the production of the album St. Anger. From 2001-2003, the directors capture over 1,200 hours of rarely-seen interviews with band members and crew, heated debates (some would even call them bitter fights), shrink visits, concerts and general turmoil from within that threatened to break Metallica up.
18. Triumph of the Will (1935)
Triumph of the Will is a hugely symbolic, even ominous propaganda-documentary of the Third Reich’s Nuremberg Party Rally (of the Sixth Nuremberg Congress) in 1934. It features thousands of real-life cast members, notably Adolf Hitler and his powerful henchmen, like Rudolf Hess, Heinrich Himmler, Goering, Joseph Goebbels and other perpetrators of one of the world’s most sinister mass crimes. Hitler ordered the film to showcase to future generations how and why the Third Reich rose, but as historians have repeatedly illustrated, Triumph of the Will is really a terrifying look at how Hitler (successfully) employed “mesmerizing”, fear-inducing rhetoric–as well as at his countrywide campaign to spread lies about “the inferiors” and to instill fear in citizens–to rally huge crowds around his cause.
19. Shoah (1985)
Another documentary surrounding Nazi Germany and the Holocaust, director Claude Lanzmann assembled this 9+ hour documentary with survivor and witness interviews, as well as reconnaissance of ex-Nazi officials. What makes Shoah particularly successful is Lanzmann’s in-depth, deeply exploratory style of interviewing that lends a terrifying picture of the incomparable misery, torture, and murder of millions of people in mid-2oth-century Europe. Perhaps even more troublesome is Lanzmann’s and others’ implication that Nazism (and antisemitism in general) still lurks in shadows around Germany, Poland, and other countries.
20. Man on Wire (2008)
In August of 1974, Frenchman Philippe Petit–a tightrope walker and street performer–spent nearly an hour walking, kneeling, lying, and even dancing on a wire (some 1,400ft above ground) perpetrating what many consider “the artistic crime of the 20th-century”. In addition to footage of the insane act itself, the film documents how Petit and colleagues sneaked wire into the Twin Towers, past tower security, and strung it up between the rooftops of the skyscrapers. Director James Marsh makes use of interviews, actual footage of the scenes, and even a recreation of Petit’s extreme and legendary stunt.