5. American Movie (1999)
Directed by: Chris Smith
Starring: Mark Borchardt, Mike Schank
“Coven sounds like oven, man…and that just doesn’t work” – 1999’s Sundance Film Festival darling American Movie has it all, it’s hilarious, touching, and weirdly inspirational for what is essentially one of the weirdest “making of” documentaries ever made. The film follows young Mark Borchardt, an aspiring film director looking to make two films, a short horror film Coven and a slice-of-life indie called Northwestern, both of which have been passion projects of his for years, and his many blunders along the way. Mark, our star, is easily one of the most lovably odd characters in documentary film history, rivalling only Grey Gardens’ Big and Little Edie. Mark’s desire to see his film Coven to the very end, despite having no experience in the filmmaking world and encountering plenty of roadblocks along the way, is truly inspirational for anybody passionate about creating anything artistic. Everybody can relate to the story being told in American Movie, despite how quirky and over-the-top some of its small town characters may be. The absolute highlights of American Movie include any scene with Mark and his best friend Mike Schank, who delivers some of the funniest lines in any documentary film I’ve ever seen. Mark and Mike have such a wonderful on-screen chemistry together, at the end of the movie’s short run-time you’ll be begging for much, much more. I don’t want to say too much about American Movie, because I really do think that it’s a film absolutely everybody should see and enjoy. If you’re passionate about creating anything in your life and love hilariously quirky small-town folk, American Movie is absolutely the film for you.
4. Hoop Dreams (1994)
Directed by: Steve James
Starring: William Gates, Arthur Agee
On a far more real, less silly note, Steve James’ remarkable and highly-acclaimed Hoop Dreams is everything that American Movie isn’t. While Hoop Dreams can still be seen as inspirational and uplifting to many, Steve James’ documentary is a much more bleak story about following your dreams, but not always arriving to the conclusion you’d like to see. Hoop Dreams is seen by many critics as being one of the greatest documentaries of the modern era, highlighting major social issues in a touching, interesting, and subtle way. The documentary follows young basketball hopefuls William Gates and Arthur Agee, both of whom are scouted and subsequently recruited from St. Joseph High School in Illinois. Both Gates and Agee struggle with keeping their grades up to par while also training for and playing basketball, as well as face the many struggles of being young lower-class African-Americans in a predominantly white area. We watch these two young athletes overcome injuries, find work and try to hone their skills in one of the most highly-competitive sports in America, and try to overcome adversities like race, social class, and lack of economic and educational support. Hoop Dreams is a terrific film that absolutely lives up to its tremendous reputation, but isn’t always easy to watch because of the hardships these talented kids face. Despite its length (nearly 2 ½ hours), Hoop Dreams flies by and is a very smooth watch, largely in part to its editing which earned the film its sole Academy Award nomination. If you’re at all interested in sports or stories of people trying to overcome social class and other hugely important issues, seek out Hoop Dreams immediately. Not only is it an incredibly well-made documentary, but it’s also one of the most important films of its kind. Hoop Dreams is available on blu-ray from the Criterion Collection.
3. When We Were Kings (1996)
Directed by: Leon Gast
Starring: Muhammad Ali, George Foreman, Don King
“Ali Bomaye!” – When We Were Kings is almost universally considered to be one of the all-time greatest sports documentaries ever made, and in my opinion it absolutely lives up to that terrific reputation. While never as serious or eye-opening as Hoop Dreams, When We Were Kings is a tremendously entertaining film that documents one of boxing’s greatest upset victories, as well as a cultural phenomenon of the time. The Oscar-winning documentary tells the incredible story of 1974’s “Rumble in the Jungle”, where grizzled boxing veteran Muhammad Ali took on the undefeated heavyweight champion of the world, George Foreman. Despite the big game Muhammad Ali talked in the lead-up to his fight with Foreman, the world had already written the bout off as being an easy Foreman win. What followed would shock the boxing world, and go down as one of the most important and iconic fights of all-time. When We Were Kings shows how the fight in Zaire, Africa (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) became a hugely important event in the sports world and in pop culture, featuring performances by singers James Brown and B.B. King, and shows Muhammad Ali and his trash-talking of his intimidating and talented opponent George Foreman in all its glory. The film features interviews with many officials involved in the fight, and other admirers of the iconic match, including writer Norman Mailer and filmmaker Spike Lee. When We Were Kings is an incredibly entertaining and thrilling account of one hell of an underdog story, and is a documentary I quote and think of very often.
2. Waltz with Bashir (2008)
Directed by: Ari Folman
Starring: Ari Folman, Miki Leon
Ari Folman’s incredible war documentary Waltz with Bashir is without a doubt the most unique film on my top 20 list, as it is entirely told through animation. The film was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign-Language Film after missing the boat on being entered into the documentary category, something which very rarely happens for a documentary film. Ari Folman’s highly-acclaimed and tremendously important Waltz with Bashir tells the story of the director’s own time in the Israel Defense Forces during the 1980’s, specifically his experiences in the Lebanon War. Folman travels to meet a friend from his time serving in the military, who reveals that he has been experiencing nightmares and flashbacks connected to their experience in the war. Folman, unable to recount specifics from his time serving in the forces, seeks out former friends and colleagues who help him piece the events together through anecdotes recreated in animated segments. Many of the events recalled in Waltz with Bashir are horrific and very difficult to watch at times, but this is helped by opting to animate the events as they happen. The animation is absolutely stunning and unique in its vision, and helps to tell a story that would otherwise be impossible to recount in a live-action documentary film. Though Folman’s movie can be very difficult to watch, this is exactly what makes it such an important work, as it tells horrific stories of a war that the world needed to hear about. The film touches on important themes and social issues like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), specifically for those involved in the special forces. Though the film’s subject matter and nightmarish sequences may be difficult to swallow for some, Waltz with Bashir is a must-see film and one of the most important documentaries of our time. Ari Folman’s doc is available in both its original Hebrew-language and a dubbed English-version of the film, both of which come highly recommended.
1. Grizzly Man (2005)
Directed by: Werner Herzog
Starring: Timothy Treadwell, Werner Herzog
Here it is, folks. The greatest documentary ever made, and personally one of my all-time favorite films period. Werner Herzog’s incredible film Grizzly Man is incomparable, and works in a way that I can hardly even describe. The film tells the tragic story of eccentric nature-enthusiast Timothy Treadwell, who spends his Summer’s in Alaska’s Katmai National Park and Preserve, living with grizzly bears, getting to know them, interacting with them, documenting them with his video camera, and warding off alleged “poachers”. We are treated to many stunning videos of Timothy Treadwell approaching massive man-eating bears without so much as a second thought, chasing adorable foxes, hiking, and making hilarious observations while going about his regular schedule in the Preserve. The highlight of Herzog’s film comes when a young fox steals Tim’s hat, and he is forced to give chase, swearing and yelling for the fox to return his hat. While many may think that Treadwell, our main character in Grizzly Man, was reckless in his comfort with the bears and that he deserved what eventually came to him, I see Timothy as a hopelessly romantic, tragic character. Timothy Treadwell spent thirteen years of his life pursuing something he adored, and never backing away no matter how terrifying or trying things got, and there’s just something so absolutely romantic and admirable about that. Werner Herzog treats his subject with the utmost respect, while also questioning the logic and motive behind some of Treadwell’s questionable actions and decisions. If you know anything about the titular “grizzly man”, you know that this story doesn’t exactly have a happy ending. Despite knowing the conclusion from the get-go, this film keeps you guessing what the fate of Tim Treadwell will be, and does everything in its power to hold the attention of its audience. This is a story of how dangerous and beautiful nature is, and the fine-line humans tread between respecting that danger and underestimating it. Grizzly Man features breathtaking scenes, an absolutely stranger than fiction story, and is guaranteed to either infuriate or bring you to tears. I think it’s a crime that Herzog’s Grizzly Man has not been seen by more people, and I recommend you seek it out immediately if you haven’t already seen this incredible film.
Part 1 (#20-#16) can be viewed here
Part 2 (#15-#11) can be viewed here
Part 3 (#10-#6) can be viewed here