Last night, Current TV wrapped up “50 Documentaries to See Before You Die,” a month-long countdown series summarizing the best of non-fiction cinema. And our sympathies go out to the folks at Current, because as we well know, any time you put together a “best of” anything list, you’re going to get second-guessed from here to kingdom come. But let’s face it: there are some absolutely puzzling exclusions. No Grey Gardens? Gimme Shelter? Hearts of Darkness? Gates of Heaven? Woodstock? The oldest titles on the list are The Thin Blue Line and The Decline of Western Cilvilization Part II: The Metal Years — golden oldies from 1988. We liked Catfish fine, but is there anyone on this earth who thinks it’s a better doc than Salesman? Who thinks Shut Up & Sing tops Don’t Look Back? Who finds Food, Inc. more vital than Titicut Follies?
And don’t even get us started on the fact that Dear Zachary isn’t on there.
But let’s put those complaints aside, because a list like this ultimately does more good than harm — any time a cable network can shine a light on great documentary films, we’re all for it, and these are (almost) all genuinely great documentaries. Where we really disagree is in the ranking — they picked the right movies (post-’88, anyway), but they’ve got them in the wrong order. Super Size Me at #5? Seriously? (Yes, yes, of course it’s just a coincidence that the show is hosted by Super Size Me director Morgan Spurlock.) So we’ve taken the 50 titles Current compiled and reorganized then into own top 10, with the reasons why, after the jump.
10. Capturing the Friedmans (#20)
This portrait of the unhinging of a seemingly average family is emotionally exhausting and deeply unsettling, yet is unquestionably a work of unblinking fairness and uncommon honesty. Director Andrew Jarecki tells the story of an upwardly-mobile Great Neck family whose patriarch (and later, one of his sons) is accused of pedophilia; the filmmakers rely heavily on the family’s own home videos and audio recordings (they were obsessive documenters, recording everything), adding an element of voyeurism to the already-uneasy mix. You’re watching this family come apart, right there on the screen, and you can’t take your eyes off it.
9. When We Were Kings (#40)
Muhammad Ali has proven a particularly venerable documentary subject over the past few years, with his famous bouts and colorful history providing the materials for such great nonfiction films as Muhammad and Larry, Facing Ali, and Thrilla in Manilla. But the best of the bunch is Leon Gast’s 1996 Oscar winner for Best Documentary, a thrilling, blow-by-blow account of the champ’s 1974 title fight with George Foreman in Zaire — the “Rumble in the Jungle.” Gast shot miles of footage in Zaire (where the bout was to have been fought at the conclusion of a black music festival headlined by James Brown and B.B. King, though it was delayed when Foreman was injured sparring) and had intended to release it shortly thereafter, but when funding fell through, his footage ended up sitting on a shelf for over 20 years. All the better for the final product, which is given additional poignancy by the current personas of Ali and Foreman, and extra insight by the new interviews with such figures as Norman Mailer, George Plimpton, and Spike Lee. And besides that, young viewers unfamiliar with the outcome of the bout (as your author was when first viewing the film) get the extra kick of genuine suspense in the brilliantly-edited fight sequence, in which Ali employed his immortal “rope a dope” fighting strategy.
8. Street Fight (#17)
Newark mayor Corey Booker is one of the most engaging and charismatic figures on today’s political scene, and much of the goodwill towards him is a direct result of Street Fight, Marshall Curry’s riveting 2005 documentary on Booker’s first (unsuccessful) run for the mayor’s office in 2002. He faced incumbent Sharpe James, running for his fifth term; in doing so, Booker also took on a vast (and wildly unethical) political machine, which summoned up the powers of local government to cut off Booker’s reform campaign at the knees. The campaign corruption captured by Curry’s cameras is downright astonishing (Booker signs are destroyed, businesses holding Booker fundraisers are harassed, and city police attack the filmmakers for shooting footage of James on a public sidewalk), and it’s not a stretch to imagine that the negative PR of the film contributed to James’s decision not to run again in 2006, when Booker handily beat the James-endorsed Ronald Rice. James was later convicted of five counts of fraud (he conspired to sell nine city lots to his mistress, who resold them for a tidy profit) and served 18 months in prison.
7. Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (#25)
Alex Gibney is one of our most skillful and invigorating (and prolific) documentary filmmakers, and two of his films made the Current list: the 2008 Academy Award winner Taxi to the Dark Side, and this 2005 exposé of the corruption and scandal at the Enron Corporation. (For what its worth, his 2010 film Casino Jack and the United States of Money is as good as either of those titles, possibly better.) Gibney interviews Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind, who wrote the best-selling book the film is based on, in addition to reporters, analysts, and former Enron employees; he also utilizes particularly damaging footage and recordings, including the infamous “Granny Tapes” (in which Enron’s “energy traders” joked about ripping off consumers). The story of Enron — how it happened, why it happened, and how they basically got away with it — is infuriating by its very nature, but as in all of his films, Gibney does not engage in Michael Mooore-style histrionics; his tone is measured, cool, and matter-of-fact. He doesn’t reach for effects. He doesn’t have to.
6. Man on Wire (#29)
James Marsh’s extraordinary documentary tells the remarkable story of Philippe Petit, who stunned New York City (and the world) in 1974 by walking a high-wire between the two towers of the World Trade Center without a net. Marsh’s film, which utilizes new interviews, archival footage, and stylish black-and-white reenactments, is ingeniously constructed, running on a pair of parallel timelines: one, the story (in personal history and logistical planning) of how he got to that wire, and the other, a point-by-point explanation of exactly how they pulled it off. The biography and background is as skillfully assembled as any smart documentary. The reconstruction is as suspenseful and enthralling as a good heist picture. Like any quality documentary, it tells a good story intelligently, but the thriller elements of the parallel timeline help give Man on Wire a quality often elusive to non-fiction films: It’s fun to watch.
One can perhaps forgive Current’s selection panel for not ranking Paradise Lost higher, since their decisions were made long before August 19, when the three young men profiled in it (since dubbed the “West Memphis Three”) were, after 18 years, finally released from prison. There is no doubt that the light shined on their wrongful convictions was a direct result of Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s 1996 documentary, a harrowing and unforgettable account of the merciless brutality in the woods of Arkansas that took the lives of three young boys, but also of a miscarriage of justice that nearly took the livelihood of three more. In focusing on the whispers and suspicion that landed the WM3 in jail, Berlinger and Sinofsky create more than a true crime film; they craft a stunning portrait of fear and paranoia in small-town America. Paradise Lost was followed by a 2000 sequel; a third installment was already completed for this fall’s festival circuit, and is presumably being frantically re-cut as we speak.
Spike Lee’s sprawling, epic look at Hurricane Katrina is a captivating, shocking, bitter, angry, and even (at times) darkly funny rumination on a true human tragedy and a model of government incompetence. It’s a long film (four hours in four one-hour “acts”), but it never rambles and seldom opines; director Lee points his camera at his subjects and lets them tell their own stories, only occasionally supplementing their tales with news footage and photographs. Terence Blanchard’s score is haunting, and the final act is a cry of anger and despair that is simply unforgettable. Lee has proven himself again and again be an accomplished documentarian; his earlier doc, the stunning 4 Little Girls (inexplicably missing from this list), was nominated for an Oscar, but When The Levees Broke is an even greater achievement.
3. Bus 174 (#16)
In June of 2000, Sandro do Nascimento, a street kid from the slums of Rio de Janero, bungled a robbery on a city bus, took the bus hostage, and captured national attention. Directors Felipe Lacerda and José Padilha painstakingly reconstruct the events of that fateful day, through use of interviews, traffic cameras, home movies, and electrifying news footage. But the filmmakers also expertly crosscut Sandro’s childhood and formative years with the unfolding of the bus tragedy (the result, it is argued, of those years), creating palpable, excruciation suspense and continuing impact as it steams towards its inevitable conclusion. The result is one of the best documentary pictures of recent years.
2. Hoop Dreams (#1)
Current picked this heart-wrenching 1994 documentary on sports, poverty, education, and the power of big dreams to top its list, and it is certainly an understandable choice; director Steve James, writer Frederick Marx, and cinematographer Peter Gilbert spent eight years with young basketball players William Gates and Arthur Agee (and their families), shooting over 250 hours of footage which was eventually, painstakingly assembled into the nearly three hour picture. Based on that information, one would presume Hoop Dreams to be a long, depressing, slog. Nothing could be further from the truth. Thanks to the filmmakers’ unprecedented access and patience, we feel as though we know the Agees and the Gateses — we cheer their successes and mourn their failures, we identify with their struggles and share their hopes, and when their seemingly cinema-ready big moments arrive, we’re as crushed as they are by the gulf between truth and fiction. Hoop Dreams is an unforgettable motion picture, and would be a shoo-in for the best documentary of recent years, were it not for…
1. The Thin Blue Line (#2)
…Errol Morris’s charged, haunting, moody groundbreaker, which came in number two on Current’s list. We’d flip it and Hoop Dreams, for several reasons. First and foremost, The Thin Blue Line literally saved a man’s life: in telling the story of Randall Dale Adams, a drifter accused, tried, convicted, and sentenced to death for a crime he did not commit, Morris’s film led to the overturning of the conviction and the release of Adams. But more importantly, The Thin Blue Line is a breathtaking work of cinema; in addition to assembling a pretty airtight case for Adams’s innocence (Morris worked, off and on, as a private investigator in the 1980s), the filmmaker uses quietly damning interviews, eerie reenactments of the crime (and Rashomon-style variations on the events), and a spectral score by Philip Glass to create a unique cinematic nail-biter. When Miramax released the film in 1988, the word “documentary” was box office poison; instead, they marketed it as a “non-fiction mystery,” playing up its stylishly modern take on the quintessential noir story of the innocent man, wrongly accused.
Agree? Disagree? Care to re-order the list yourself? Let us know in the comments.