Tag Archives: Best Documentary

Doctober II #6 – The Fog of War (2003)

fog_of_warThe Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara (2003)
Directed by: Errol Morris
Written by: Errol Morris
Starring: Robert S. McNamara

The greatest documentary subjects often tend to be the most divisive and controversial ones.  Usually without agenda or bias, they instead challenge viewers to think outside the box and reconsider their own personal positions and points of view.  Errol Morris’ Oscar-winning documentary The Fog of War pushes this idea even further.  Consisting of a 105-minute interview with Robert S. McNamara, former Secretary of Defense of Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, The Fog of War is more stylish, revealing, and honest than most docs could ever hope to be.  McNamara brings with him a list of eleven critical lessons he learned during his time serving the United States of America, and makes an excellent case for his and his colleague’s often controversial actions.  In many cases, his eleven lessons can be considered for universal use, and not just for those in high-ranking positions of power.

McNamara comes across as a genuine and truly down to earth man with nothing more to lose.  His political career is behind him, and it’s clear that he has reflected on the actions of his government and his country that came in a time of great confusion and turmoil.  He is transparent and never afraid to admit when somebody was in the wrong, using a vast knowledge of history and terrific anecdotal evidence to backup his claims.  McNamara frequently tells the camera that it was sheer blind luck that got the United States and Russia through the Cold War without starting a nuclear war.  The former Secretary of Defense gives chilling recollections of the Cuban missile crisis, the assassination of JFK and the subsequent inauguration of Lyndon Johnson, and America’s entry in Vietnam and the immediate mess that situation would become.  Stories like these leave a long-lasting impression with viewers because of how genuinely terrifying they are, and really puts the role of government into perspective.  Nothing is black and white for those in charge; at the end of the day, regardless of education, wealth, or status, we’re all just feeling our way through the dark.

The film’s fascinating subject aside, director Errol Morris is a major reason why The Fog of War works nearly as well as it does.  He shows tremendous restraint by allowing McNamara to speak his mind, especially since he often doesn’t seem to have any sort of script or agenda.  He lets his subject stumble, pause, and go back in his own timeline to clarify facts and anecdotes, and adds a great deal of humanization to somebody who is considered to be very divisive and controversial.  Morris’ veteran eye for details and penchant for storytelling shine just as bright as they did in his earlier masterpiece The Thin Blue Line.  It’s clear that he’s matured as a filmmaker and a storyteller in the years since that film, but his trademarks are still there.  He manages to turn an interview with this controversial figure into a very intimate and revealing experience – something Morris seems to have a knack for.  The Fog of War tackles incredibly complex topics like human nature, conflict resolution, acting under pressure and scrutiny, and most importantly our taste for war and appetite for destruction.  He adds to McNamara’s storytelling by using archival footage and stylized graphics and inserts, making The Fog of War constantly interesting from both visual and narrative standpoints.  Backing up Errol Morris’ expert direction is a typically haunting (and sometimes playful) score by frequent collaborator Philip Glass.  The film’s soundtrack adds weight to McNamara’s anecdotes and Morris’ direction, turning the film into a truly unforgettable experience.  Today, The Fog of War is considered to be one of Errol Morris’ greatest accomplishments, and perhaps one of the most important documentaries of the 2000’s.  It won the Academy Award for Best Documentary in 2004, as well as an Independent Spirit Award.  Robert McNamara passed away in 2009 at the age of 93, leaving an incredible legacy behind him – he is still to this day the longest acting Secretary of Defense in US history.
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What I Liked:

  • Robert McNamara is an incredibly fascinating and well-spoken subject.  His points are all delivered clearly and concisely, and his anecdotes are riveting.
  • The “11 lessons” structure really adds to the pacing of the film, but doesn’t detract from McNamara’s interview at all.
  • Errol Morris’ interview style is up-close and personal and very intimate.  By the end of the film, you really feel like you understand McNamara.
  • Philip Glass’ score is incredible – haunting, tense, and just a tiny bit playful.  Would work perfectly in a spy film.
  • The use of archival footage never distracts from the interview, but adds tremendous weight to the picture – especially when dealing with the subjects of nuclear war or Vietnam.
  • Morris often chimes in from behind the camera, sometimes asking questions or calling for clarification, and it always helps to alleviate things a little.
  • Every single one of Robert McNamara’s eleven lessons are relevant and important to leaders around the world.  They deal with empathy, rationality, efficiency, data, good and evil, and human nature, and every single one resonates after the credits roll.

Errol Morris’ The Fog of War could have easily been another dull, lifeless, lost in the crowd interview documentary – but the end result is so much more than that.  Morris created a masterpiece using simple direction, incredible archival footage, a brilliant score, and one hell of a subject.  It’s intimate, important, startling, informative, and powerful.  Robert McNamara is one of the most interesting documentary subjects in the history of the medium, and the importance of his messages cannot be understated. You don’t have to be a history buff to take something away from The Fog of War, you only need to be human.  Errol Morris’ The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara gets my highest recommendation.

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Doctober II #4 – The Times of Harvey Milk (1984)

the_times_of_harvey_milk_posterThe Times of Harvey Milk (1984)
Directed by: Rob Epstein
Written by: Rob Epstein, Carter Wilson, Judith Coburn
Starring: Harvey Milk, Harvey Fierstein (narration)

Harvey Milk was an American hero who broke down barriers and paved the way for change in US politics – the effects of which are still being felt to this day.  The Times of Harvey Milk chronicles the political career of the first openly gay supervisor in San Francisco.  From his humble beginnings in neighborhood politics and activism, to his final days with an office in San Francisco’s city hall, Rob Epstein’s film covers only the most important details of Milk’s incredible career. Milk’s open homosexuality at a time when such a thing was shamed in much of the Western world was cause for controversy, much of which is discussed in the film.  In the final act of the film, the assassination of Harvey Milk and San Francisco mayor George Moscone by supervisor Dan White is painfully detailed by director Rob Epstein, who gives his subjects all the respect in the world.

Actor Harvey Fierstein expertly narrates the documentary with his famous and unique gravelly-voice to great effect, never distracting from the incredible use of archival footage, nor overshadowing the talking head interviews with friends, family, and fellow politicians.  It’s perhaps my favorite example of narration in documentary, largely because I couldn’t imagine the film being nearly as effective without it.  While the film is absolutely a celebration of the life and accomplishments of Harvey Milk, it never loses sight of some of its bigger picture ideas – the opening up of American politics (and American people in general) to homosexuals, and the changing of the guard in the Western world.  We see what a confused and hateful America looked like before people like Harvey Milk and Sally Gearhart lobbied for change, and then talk to people whose lives were transformed by their actions and activism.  The effect is even greater in hindsight, comparing our tolerant and accepting society today to that of 1978, which was anything but.  It took the death of a courageous leader (and many more like him) to inspire thousands to take action and stand up for what they believe. The Times of Harvey Milk paints a powerful and comprehensive picture of a massive political movement, even though it only captures the fight in a single American city – it feels epic in scale despite its admittedly small scope.

Many of Milk’s triumphs were captured on film through amateur videographers and journalists, which director Rob Epstein expertly edits into a concise chronological look at his journey through city politics.  These moments are beautiful in their humanism, and makes the film’s tragic third act that much more unbearable.  We see touching and humorous interviews with Anne Kronenberg (Milk’s campaign manager), Tom Ammiano (LGBT activist), and Sally Gearhart (activist) among others, all of whom paint a vivid portrait of who Harvey Milk was, and how tragic the loss of his life was.  While we watch Milk’s meteoric rise, Epstein simultaneously covers the election and political career of Dan White, Harvey Milk’s eventual assassin.  The Times of Harvey Milk is incredibly well-crafted, giving the audience all of the information necessary to piece together the story without bloating or boring viewers.  This was recognized by critics and audiences worldwide in the form of an Academy Award for Best Documentary in 1985, and a place in the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry in 2012.  The life of Harvey Milk was given a big screen adaptation in 2008’s Milk, directed by Gus Van Sant, for which Sean Penn won Best Actor for portraying the titular activist and politician.
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What I Liked:

  • The talking head interviews are incredible, both the archival interviews and those captured specifically for the film.  They’re touching, funny, and revealing, with nobody afraid to talk about who Milk really is.  They embrace him for all his flaws, because at the end of the day he genuinely had good intentions.
  • The use of archival footage, especially in the film’s last act, is breathtaking.  We get a near real-time look at the assassination of Harvey Milk and George Moscone, which has become one of my all-time favorite movie moments.  Even though we all know what is coming after Dan White’s dismissal from the board of supervisors, we can’t help but hope that things turn out differently this time around.
  • Dan White is given the proper amount of time in the film, which I felt was very important seeing as he played a major part in the story of Harvey Milk.
  • The Times of Harvey Milk is as concise a documentary as I can imagine, which is an enormous feat when tackling the entire career of such an important figure.  It never overstays its welcome, which is rare for biographical films such as these.

The Times of Harvey Milk is one of the greatest biographical documentaries ever made, and I’m glad that it has been recognized as so over the years.  It’s at first glance a small scale look at the career of one brave politician and activist, but deep down it’s much more.  It’s a powerful look at a movement against hatred and bias that had tremendously far-reaching influence and importance on the lives of everyday Americans.  People like Harvey Milk made the world an infinitely better place, and Rob Epstein’s The Times of Harvey Milk is a beautiful tribute to the man and the movement.  It’s relevant, important, revealing, and heartbreaking – which is everything a documentary should aspire to be.  The Oscar-winning Times of Harvey Milk gets my highest recommendation.

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Doctober II #3 – Hearts and Minds (1974)

heartsandmindsdvdHearts and Minds (1974)
Directed by: Peter Davis
Written by: n/a
Starring: n/a

The Vietnam War has been said to be one of the United States’ most fatal mistakes in modern history, and no matter what your politics are, it’s likely that you agree with this notion.  Peter Davis’ Hearts and Minds takes a good hard look at how America got into this mess of a war, how it affected their soldiers and the people of Vietnam, and points fingers at the people responsible.  We travel to Vietnam to view the destruction of villages, to speak to wounded and mourning Vietnamese, and get up close and person with US soldiers still on the ground. Back home in the United States, Davis manages to capture revealing interviews with high-ranking officials who either supported or opposed the war, with soldiers whose lives have been drastically altered from their time in the jungle, and anti-war protesters who knew it was a mistake from the word go.

Hearts and Minds undoubtedly has a bias, but it’s hard not to when dealing with one of the darkest, most pointless wastes of human life in modern history.  Peter Davis captures a great deal of anger, confusion, and disenfranchisement, felt by everybody from politicians to civilians.  It’s tragic to see such a large number of people lose faith and patriotism due to something that could have been so easily avoided.  It’s a feeling that has persisted in American people ever since the Vietnam War, and one that was exacerbated by later wars in the Middle East. Many of those interviewed attempt to frame the war in different ways that fit their personal narrative, and yet none of them manage to justify the horrific actions and decisions that took place over a period of nearly two decades.  This is the brilliance of Hearts and Minds, nobody makes it out looking saintly or evil – everybody realizes that mistakes were made and corrective measures should have been taken.

Peter Davis captures many intimate and heartbreaking moments throughout Hearts and Minds that it’s difficult to pick out highlights.  Some of the moments that touched me the most were an interview with a Vietnamese man building coffins for young children killed in bombing runs, a scene in an American classroom where an army official explains to young students that they will most likely have to go to war someday, and an interview with an American soldier who was accidentally hit by a US napalm run, burning his pants clean off.  He remarks about how hard it is to fight a battle when you’re not wearing drawers, almost making the viewer forget about the horrific loss of human life going around all around him.  Memorable moments like these would lead to Hearts and Minds winning the Academy Award for Best Documentary in 1975.  My only substantive complaint about the film is that it can at times be very heavy-handed, trading subtlety and honesty for something that comes off as less genuine, but included in the film only to get a point across.  These heavy-handed moments just aren’t necessary, as anybody viewing the film is intelligent enough to put two and two together themselves.
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What I Liked:

  • Interviews with Vietnamese and American soldiers are very well-balanced, both of whom are given a great deal of respect.
  • People from all walks of life are featured: Vietnamese farmers, soldiers, prostitutes, US soldiers and protesters, high-ranking politicians and military officials.  
  • The film is edited to be told in a completely non-linear way, which works very well for what is effectively a look back at a period of nearly two decades.  We’re not burdened with dull stories of the politics that led to the war, we just dive in head-first.  
  • Some of the footage captured is horrifying, including US soldiers burning down Vietnamese villages, children and civilians retreating from napalm and bombing runs, soldiers in the middle of firefights defending their positions, etc.  We’re thrown right into numerous battle scenes and left wondering how the footage was obtained.
  • Both Democratic and Republican politicians are heavily criticised, with nobody escaping from the line of fire.  Even the US President’s involved in the two decades are heavily implicated.
  • Peter Davis goes a great length to human the Vietnamese people after two decades of blatant hatred and racism against them.  When soldiers refer to them using racial slurs or about how inhuman they are, Davis makes you feel guilty because you know that things aren’t black and white, and that these soldiers have essentially been brainwashed to hate something they don’t understand.

What I Didn’t:

  • The film becomes unironically heavy-handed and sentimental in its last act, the most notorious example being: overlapping the words of General William Westmoreland talking about how life is not important to the Vietnamese, coming immediately after a scene in a Vietnamese cemetery, featuring grieving children and parents.  Instead of being touching and genuine, it feels like too much, and that Davis is going too far to push his viewpoint – which is already shared by the majority of viewers.
  • I would have appreciated the use of subtitles for the Vietnamese instead of narrated translation, as certain things can be lost in translation or skipped over in this manner.

Overall, Hearts and Minds is an incredibly effective anti-war documentary, and perhaps one of the most all-encompassing and important views of how so many Americans became disenfranchised with their own society and government.  It’s a difficult look at one of the most regretful periods in modern American history, and doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to pointing fingers and showing the audience why it was such a tragic period.  It’s expertly crafted and edited, capturing many memorable and heartbreaking moments that never would have been witnessed otherwise.  Peter Davis’ Hearts and Minds is recommended, but may not be for the faint of heart.

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My 20 Favorite Documentaries of All-Time (#5-1)

Americanmovie5. 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)Hoop_dreamsposter

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.


When_We_Were_Kings_DVD_Cover_art3. 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)Waltz_with_Bashir_Poster

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.


Grizzly_man_ver21. 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

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My 20 Favorite Documentaries of All-Time (#10-6)

Citizenfour_poster10. Citizenfour (2014)

Directed by: Laura Poitras

Starring: Edward Snowden, Glenn Greenwald, William Binney, Ewen MacAskill

The Oscar-winning documentary from just last year is the most recent film on my list, but undoubtedly one of the most important.  Citizenfour is Laura Poitras’ revealing film about American whistleblower Edward Snowden, one of the most important social figures of the modern era.  Snowden fled the country and subsequently leaked documents revealing the extent of the surveillance and wiretapping being practised by the USA’s National Security Agency (NSA).  These documents are incredibly troubling to anybody even remotely concerned about personal privacy in the internet age, and are the result of a single tragic moment in history, the attacks on American on September 11th, 2001.  Snowden secretly reached out to Laura Poitras, and journalists Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill, and met with the group in Hong Kong for the making of Citizenfour, one of the most frightening and groundbreaking documentaries of the decade.  The film largely takes place in a hotel room, where the four discuss the documents, the leaking and reporting of said documents, and spend a great deal of time dealing with the inevitable paranoia that comes with meeting in such secretive and important fashion. Citizenfour is meditative, intense, and terrifying all at the same time, making it an incredibly compelling watch and a film deserving of its tremendous critical reception.  This is an Academy Award winner that absolutely nobody can dispute the importance of, and one we’ll be analyzing and poring over for years to come.   


9. Trouble the Water (2008)Trouble_the_water

Directed by: Carl Deal, Tia Lessin

Starring: Kimberly Rivers Roberts, Scott Roberts

In 2005, the effects of Hurricane Katrina were felt all around the United States, but nobody got it worse than those living in Louisiana, specifically the famous city of New Orleans.  Trouble the Water is the incredible documentary that tells a story of survival, struggle, and raises major questions and concerns about the government’s handling of the Hurricane.  Trouble the Water follows Kimberly Roberts and her husband Scott, both of whom walk the devastated streets of their former hurricane, now changed forever.  Kimberly videotaped the day before the storm struck New Orleans, and the morning of the storm, capturing terrifying and thrilling footage of the events.  Kimberly’s videos are played between other home videos, news reports, and interviews taken by Deal and Lessin, the directors of Trouble the Water.  Kimberly and Scott try to find silver linings in the destruction of their great city, and struggle with starting fresh after such devastation.  They voice their frustrations with the way the American government handled the failing of the levees, the setting up of shelters for those displaced throughout Louisiana, and delivering aid to their countrymen in their time of need.  Trouble the Water raises incredibly thought-provoking arguements that American’s are still wrestling with over a decade later, and because of that is incredibly engaging, frustrating, and downright scary.  The film was deservingly nominated for an Academy Award in 2009, but lost out to the incredibly influential and entertaining Man on Wire.  This is a must-see film about one of the most tragic events of the last decade, and is an absolute eye-opener.


Stop_making_sense_poster_original8. Stop Making Sense (1984)

Directed by: Jonathan Demme

Starring: The Talking Heads (David Byrne, Bernie Worrell, Alex Weir, Steven Scales, Chris Frantz, Jerry Harrison)

The second rockumentary on my list is a much different monster than Anvil! The Story of Anvil, but succeeds in being every single bit as entertaining.  Stop Making Sense is the incredible concert film by Oscar-winner Jonathan Demme, focusing entirely on the Talking Heads, fronted by the highly-acclaimed and eccentric David Byrne.  Talking Heads were one of the most influential alt-rock bands of the 1980’s, and continue to be incredibly popular even after being broken up for as long as I’ve been alive. Byrne and company give highly energetic and entertaining performances, featuring terrific sound design and direction by the legendary Jonathan Demme.  Highlights of the concert include Byrne’s opening performance of “Psycho Killer”, featuring only himself and a boombox, the incredible performance of the band’s biggest hit “Burning Down the House”, and most notably Byrne’s iconic massive business suit, gradually growing comedically larger throughout the film.  Stop Making Sense is a hell of a lot of fun, and is the single concert movie I find myself coming back to time and time again, not only because I adore the music, but because everything about it is just so lively, so lovingly-crafted, and so damned influential in its absurdity.  Stop Making Sense is perfect in every way, and deserves a spot at the top of any concert documentary list.  I highly recommend it, even if you’re not a fan of Talking Heads, it’s a terrific time that’ll leave you smiling for hours after it’s over.


7. Stories We Tell (2012)Stories_We_Tell_poster

Directed by: Sarah Polley

Starring: Sarah Polley, Michael Polley

Blurring the lines between reality and fiction, Canadian actress Sarah Polley’s documentary is easily the best film in her already impressive directorial catalog.  Stories We Tell is an incredibly personal film about family, specifically her own family dynamic.  It examines the subjectivity sometimes found in truth and the act of storytelling, being both highly-engaging, entertaining, and very emotional.  Stories We Tell delves into Sarah Polley’s deepest family secrets, and does it in such a real, revolutionary way.  Though it’s centered around a family that the audience knows nothing about, it feels deeply personal and familiar in a way I’ve never really felt while watching a documentary.  Sarah Polley examines the relationship between her birth mother and her father, and reveals that she is the child of a different man, the result of an affair between her mother and a Montreal film and theatre producer.  The film is peppered with faked archival footage of Polley and her family, shot convincingly on super 8 film and blurring the lines between real and fake perfectly.  On top of the examination of the relationships in her own life, Stories We Tell analyses the act and art of storytelling, and how stories can be so revealing, and often twisted and shaped by memory.  Stories We Tell is a masterpiece of modern documentary filmmaking, and one I think about very often.  It’s a love letter to a family, a mystery, and an analysis of storytelling all wrapped into one complex, touching film.  It may not be as easy to digest as some of the other films on my list, but I promise you won’t be disappointed by this one.


For_all_mankind_dvd6. For All Mankind (1989)

Directed by: Al Reinhart

Starring: Jim Lovell, Russell Schweickart, Eugene Cernan, Michael Collins, Charles Conrad, Richard Gordon

For All Mankind is a unique film on my list, as it’s entirely composed of archival footage, all edited and stitched together to make up one beautiful documentary.  For All Mankind takes footage of NASA’s Apollo missions through the 1960’s and 1970’s, coupled with real mission recordings of the astronauts involved as well as narration by some of the men.  All this footage from different missions is seamlessly edited together to seem like one single epic mission to the moon.  For All Mankind focuses on the beauty of the distant planet Earth from the dark expanses of space, and features breathtaking visuals captured by incredibly brave pioneers of spaceflight.  If you know anything about me, you know that I adore all things space, so it’s no wonder this film is so high up on my list.  Throughout this wonderfully edited experimental film, viewers are treated to amazing views of small fires in the pitch-black Sahara desert, a quiet space-walk, a beautiful sunrise over the edge of the Earth, the first footsteps on the moon by Neil Armstrong, and the planting of the American flag on the moon’s desolate surface.  On top of these incredible images, we get to see astronauts in the hostile environments they thrive in, and get to take a look at the innovative technology of the time.  There’s not a single moment in For All Mankind that isn’t memorable or beautiful, especially in high-definition.  This documentary is a brilliant time-capsule, and is a must-see for anybody with an interest in space, NASA, and the moon.  For All Mankind is available on blu-ray through the Criterion Collection and comes highly recommended.


Part 1 (#20-#16) can be viewed here

Part 2 (#15-#11) can be viewed here

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Doctober Feature #5: Alex Gibney Triple Feature – Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (2005), Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson (2008), and Taxi to the Dark Side (2007)

I’ve seen Alex Gibney be called the “Ron Howard of documentary filmmaking” on numerous occasions over the last few years, with the release of popular and acclaimed docs like The Armstrong Lie (2013), We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks (2013), and his latest Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine (2015). This title refers to the prolific nature of both filmmakers, and the inevitability of occasional dips in quality and inconsistency.  Both Gibney and Howard have masterpieces and hugely popular films, but both men have also rushed projects or been overly ambitious, resulting in occasionally light, fluffy, or sloppy films being made.  With this said, Gibney is still easily one of the best, most unique voices in the game, and one of the best documentary filmmakers of the 21st century so far.  His films have made a tremendous impact on the documentary world, and on the cultural zeitgeist of our time.  No matter what the reaction to Gibney’s project are, I’m always excited to check out anything with his named attached to it.


SmartestguysintheroomEnron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (2005)

Directed by: Alex Gibney

Starring: Peter Coyote, Andrew Fastow, Jeffrey Skilling, Kenneth Lay, Gray Davis

Alex Gibney’s first major breakthrough in the world of documentary films came with his 2005 film, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room.  The film made Gibney famous because of how concise it was, giving audiences an overview of Enron as a company, what went wrong, and who exactly was response for the downfall of a company many thought was too big to fail.  Not only is the film concise in its delivery of information, but it manages to be incredibly entertaining (especially for the subject matter) and in the process pulls no punches.  Gibney’s voice as a documentarian was born with Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, quickly making him a commodity in the world of film, and earning him his very first Academy Award nomination.  Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room gives a profile on Kenneth Lay, Jeffrey Skilling, Andrew Fastow, and the rest of those responsible for the goings-on within the Enron Corporation, a major American energy company through the 1990’s and early 2000’s.  The film covers the stock market bluffs, the controversial ‘rank and yank’ firing system used by the company, the manic CEO’s and executives, misreporting of finances, and Enron’s role in the California energy crisis.  No stone goes unturned, and nobody involved in the quick downfall of the company is safe from the film’s scrutiny.  

In less than two hours, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room manages to deliver more shocking facts, interviews, and entertainment than most modern documentaries could ever hope to do.  The film is edited very sharply, never pausing for too long on any particular subject, but never simply glossing over major moments or figures.  Even those with no prior knowledge of the Enron Corporation or the energy industry of 1990’s America will easily be able to keep up with the film and get a lot out of it.  The music, interviews, video clips, and photographs used throughout the film help move the narrative along, and give you an accurate picture of the times and what was going on at Enron at any given time.  Audio recordings and first-hand accounts of what was going on in and outside of the corporation are riveting, shocking, and incredibly revealing.  Alex Gibney’s Oscar-nominated film does everything it aims to do, and it does it in a very natural, painless way.  When the film’s end credits roll, you will be left infuriated at what took place within the company, and what could have been had such rampant and epic corruption taken place.  In short, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room will move you in ways that you’ll never expect, and have you coming back for more.  This film is highly recommended to all, no matter how interested you may be in the subject matter.


Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson (2008)Gonzoposter

Directed by: Alex Gibney

Starring: Hunter S. Thompson, Johnny Depp

Coming just one year after Alex Gibney won an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature for 2007’s Taxi to the Dark Side, Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson became Gibney’s first major production to tackle just one single subject. Gonzo tells the story of rock star journalist and writer Hunter S. Thompson, specifically detailing the years between 1965-1975.  It was during this time that Thompson became a cultural icon for his writings on the Hell’s Angels motorcycle club, the hippy movement and counterculture of the late-1960’s, his hatred for US President Richard Nixon, his backing of Democratic nominee George McGovern, the birth of “gonzo” journalism and the publishing of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Gibney’s film paints a detailed picture of the time period and features a tremendous amount of interviews by those close to the writer, who help give accounts and paint what kind of person Thompson was.  We hear stories of his rampant alcoholism and battle with drug addiction, his thoughts on American politics and culture of the time, original music by Thompson himself, his infatuation with fame and fortune, and the events and mood leading to his suicide years later.

If you’re like me and know next-to-nothing about Hunter S. Thompson, Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson may not be the most effective place to start learning about the cult writer and cultural icon.  Though the film is fun to watch unfold due to the chaotic nature of its editing and use of music and sound, the loving interviews, the terrific narration by Johnny Depp, and the amount of archival footage and recordings of Hunter S. Thompson himself, when it ended I felt nothing at all.  This nothingness is the worst possible feeling after watching a clearly lovingly crafted and well-made documentary for two hours.  I felt as if I learned nothing about who Hunter S. Thompson was as a person, what shaped him and influenced him as a writer, what fueled the fires that led to his passionate views, and what lead to his reliance on drugs and alcohol, how it affected his day-to-day life, and how it led to his eventual suicide.  Instead, I was taken on a journey detailing Hunter’s drug-use, his support and hatred for politicians of the era, and the zany adventures that inspired his famous musings, articles, and books.  Unfortunately, none of these topics were particularly interesting to me, as they had no real impact due to my not understanding Hunter S. Thompson as a person.  I appreciated many aspects of Gibney’s Gonzo, but was left cold and terribly disappointed in the end.  I wish I didn’t have to say it, but Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson is the biggest disappointed of Doctober 2015 thus far, and is a project that had an incredible amount of potential.  For those interested in an introduction to the subject or Alex Gibney completionists, it’s mildly recommended, but made no real impact on me.


Taxi_to_the_dark_sideTaxi to the Dark Side (2007)

Directed by: Alex Gibney

Starring: Dilawar

Taxi to the Dark Side is Alex Gibney’s Academy Award-winning documentary, released in 2007 and playing an important role in the discussion of America’s use of torture methods to get information out of international terrorist suspects.  The film made Alex Gibney a name to watch in the game, coming just two years after his highly successful Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room.  Those two films, coupled with the Academy Award win cemented Gibney’s status as one of the most important documentarian’s of the decade, and has resulted in him directed more than a dozen documentaries since their release.  Taxi to the Dark Side tells the tragic story of Dilawar, an Afghan taxi driver, who was detained by the forces in Afghanistan, and ended up being found dead less than one week later.  The death – and others like it – was later investigated and ended up producing truly shocking, disgusting information about the use of assault, sensory deprivation, and humiliation.  Taxi to the Dark Side exposes the soldiers and officials who are to blame for the senseless killings of prisoners, and delves into the controversial methods employed by American special forces in the “War on Terror”.  Officers and soldiers who were stationed in the Afghanistan and played a role in the killing of Dilawar and other prisoners are interviewed by Gibney, with many of them giving honest accounts and admitting to their roles.

There’s no wonder Alex Gibney won an Academy Award for Best Documentary so soon into his directing career, with films like this and Enron exposing the horrible things humans are capable of when there is lack of oversight or effective leadership in place.  Taxi to the Dark Side genuinely shocked me with its accounts of torture, inefficiency in the foreign prison system, and the photos coupled with true reports and accounts of the incidents.  Gibney and the officers tell horrifying stories of sleep and sensory deprivation through the use of music and noise (dogs barking, screaming, etc.), alternating heat and cold, and extreme sexual humiliation.  Other accounts tell of officers destroying the legs of a prisoner by repeating kneeing and kicking, and how many officers saw humor in what they were doing.  Not only does Gibney confront and expose those directly involved in the senseless killings, but also the government officials in the Bush administration who supported and saw the necessity of torture of suspected terrorists.  Even though he may be inconsistent at the best of times, Alex Gibney knows how to put a documentary together concisely, giving the important information – but never spoon-feeding the audience.  The film runs at a smooth pace, and never pulls any punches about its subject.  The accounts are incredibly in-depth, and as a result are never easy to listen to or watch unfold.  This is what makes Gibney’s Oscar-winner such an important piece of work, and what makes it a terrific and revealing film.  Without filmmakers like Gibney who are willing to expose incidents and those responsible for these incidents, then the world would be oblivious to these needless tragedies.  This is a documentary that you need to see, whether or not you agree with the idea of torture to obtain information. Taxi to the Dark Side comes highly recommended, and might be Gibney’s masterpiece.

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