Disclaimer: Having always admired and appreciated the art behind documentary films, I felt it would be appropriate to dedicate an entire month to the subject of documentaries and the filmmakers behind them. I haven’t seen every revered, influential, and critically-acclaimed film in existence, but my knowledge of documentary films is more than enough to create an all-time favorite list. Since I see so many brand new and classic documentaries every year, I hope to be able to revise the list every year for Doctober. Enjoy the list, let me know if I’m missing out on anything special or memorable, and let me know what your favorites are!
Directed by: Werner Herzog
Starring: Werner Herzog, Dieter Dengler
Werner Herzog is a filmmaker who has always fascinated me, whether he’s making documentary or narrative films, he almost always has an incredible story to tell, featuring incredibly unique personalities. Little Dieter Needs to Fly is the perfect example of this, chronicling Navy Lieutenant Dieter Dengler and his struggle to survive in the jungles of Laos as a prisoner of war by the occupying North Vietnamese. Dieter recounts his plane being shot down by anti-aircraft fire, days of torture, starvation, escape from the North Vietnamese soldiers, and survival in the jungle. Werner Herzog, being the eccentric madman that he is, goes as far as bringing Dengler back to Laos in order to relive and recreate his journey for the documentary. This is an incredible story of survival that needs to be seen by all. Herzog went on to tell the story of Dieter Dengler in 2007’s narrative film Rescue Dawn. For more on the films of Werner Herzog, check out my Doctober Triple Feature.
Directed by: Robert J. Flaherty
Starring: Allakariallak, Nyla, Allee, Cunayou, Allegoo, Camock
Though many of the scenes in Robert J. Flaherty’s classic documentary Nanook of the North are up for debate as far as validity goes, the film is nonetheless breathtaking in its technique and scope. Nanook of the North is often considered the first feature-length documentary, and easily one of the most memorable of all-time despite claims of many of the film’s best scenes being scripted or staged. The film follows young Nanook and his family in the Canadian Arctic, showing the Inuk family constructing an igloo, trading good with white men after the year’s hunt, and an exciting full-length walrus hunt. Though Nanook of the North is dated by today’s documentary standards, the film manages to thrill the audience, and have them care for Nanook and his young “family”. Staged or not, the documentary is undeniably impressive and remains a celebrated classic for a reason.
Directed by: Emad Burnat, Guy Davidi
Starring: Emad Burnat
Five Broken Cameras is a gripping documentary directed by Emad Burnat, a Palestinian, and Guy Davidi, an Israeli, and follows the journey and stories of each of Burnat’s five doomed video cameras. Five Broken Cameras begins in 2005 as young Palestinian Burnat decides to record his fourth son’s childhood, but ends up capturing much more than the innocence of childhood. The documentary shows Emad Burnat’s small village and olive groves begin to be absorbed into Israel, and the reactions and resistance by the Palestinian villagers of the area. Each of the filmmakers cameras tells its own story through the film, capturing friendships, arrests and beatings by the police, the rebel resistance by the villagers and activists in the country, and the murder and detention of those close to Emad Burnat and the Palestinian villagers. Every time one of the film’s titular cameras are smashed or shot through the film is both thrilling and terrifying, but helps to create a very unique and innovative narrative. Five Broken Cameras was deservedly nominated for an Academy Award in 2012, and remains one of the best slice-of-life documentaries about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Directed by: Nanette Burstein, Brett Morgen
Starring: Robert Evans
Famed and acclaimed film producer Robert Evans recounts his life and career in The Kid Stays in the Picture, one of the most interesting and entertainment industry documentaries ever made. Evans had a hand in the making of such hits films in the 1960’s and 1970’s as Rosemary’s Baby, The Godfather, The Odd Couple, Love Story, and Chinatown, and tells the story of how many of the films came into being, as well as chronicles his rise to the top of Hollywood. Evans narrates his own story in the film, using his famed “been there, done that” voice to recount incredible meetings, productions, and his own nightmare encounter with drugs, crime, and depression. The Kid Stays in the Picture tells the almost unbelievable story of a young, hopeless actor who makes it to the very top of the industry, and doesn’t hesitate to get down and dirty about its subject. If you’re the least bit interested in Hollywood and one of its most famed bad boys, don’t hesitate to seek this film out immediately.
Directed by: Sacha Gervasi
Starring: Steve Kudlow, Robb Reiner, Gary Greenblatt
The first of two rockumentary films to make my list, Anvil! The Story of Anvil tells the story of a highly-influential rock band that you’ve probably never heard of. Anvil started their career by headlining tours with bands such as Bon Jovi, the Scorpions, and Whitenake in the 1980’s, but went on to see nowhere near the fame those groups did. After fading into relative obscurity and not going as far as their skill and potential should have allowed them, the film sees the now-aged metal band reunite for a doomed European tour, turmoil between the members of the band, the recording of their thirteenth album, and a surprising performance in Japan. Avil! The Story of Anvil is peppered with heartfelt moments, memorable interviews with rock stars influenced by the band, tremendously funny quips by the band members, and drama as the band fights, breaks up, and gets back together numerous times throughout. The film’s success went on to propel Anvil into being re-discovered by the metal and rock scenes, and the band remains together even after all their ups and downs.