10. 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)
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.
8. 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)
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.
6. 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