1. Food Inc. (2008)
Food Inc., a 2008 documentary by Robert Kenner, is a deep, sobering look into the world of mass food production; namely, we learn how the $3.99 sausage we buy is truly made, and that a lot of it isn’t pork.
The issue of mass produced food is a severely complicated one — as the documentary repeatedly states, there is a constant battle between efficiency and quality. The more efficient mass produced food becomes, the more affordable food becomes to all of us. Increasingly, however, mass production strategies appear to not always have our health in mind, seemingly placing efficiency and profit over major wellness issues (i.e,. it makes more economical sense for a financially-stressed family to buy a few Burger King cheeseburgers as opposed to a few heads of broccoli.)
The documentary focuses on the complex web of affordability vs. wellness vs. humane growing practices vs. corporate interests, showcases the life of a modern farmer (which seems to mostly consist of taking loans, and being controlled by the whims of large corporations), and ultimately concludes on a somewhat upbeat note; stressing that if we want to change the way food is produced, we simply have to make smart choices each and every day.
2. Hoop Dreams (1994)
Hoop Dreams was made in 1994. The three hour long documentary follows the lives of William Gates and Arthur Agee, two teenagers from inner-city Chicago who are recruited to play basketball at a prestigious school in Westchester, Illinois. Filmed over the course of over half a decade the documentary delves into matters of class, race, and economic inequality in a unprecedentedly poignant and oftentimes devastating manner, and is widely considered one of the best documentaries of all-time. Gene Siskel and Robert Ebert named Hoop Dreams the best film of 1994, and Ebert ranked it as one of the best movies of the 1990s.
Said Ebert in his initial review, “There is also cause for real anger in the film. American Dreams such as NBA stardom are concepts much celebrated when they have a happy ending. But for every Michael Jordan or Isiah Thomas, there are thousands who do not win their dreams.” Over two decades later many of the realities portrayed in the film — particularly the socio-economic and racial divides within cities — remain arguably more prevalent than ever, making Hoop Dreams an unquestionably important watch.
3. The Improv: 50 Years Behind The Brick Wall (2013)
This one’s worth it just to hear about Larry David cooking fish.
The Improv, essentially an oral history of the institution that birthed modern standup comedy, is also a compelling look into the early lives of modern comedy legends. Featuring interviews from Jerry Seinfeld, Jimmy Fallon, Keenen Ivory Wayans, Sarah Silverman, Larry David, Judd Apatow, Ray Romano, Kathy Griffin, Russell Brand, and many more, The Improv gives us a vivid glimpse into the wild ongoings at Budd Freidman’s legendary — and now nationally recognized — establishment.
4. Big Shot (2013)
In 1996, the New York Islanders were at a crossroads of sorts. The team had experienced unparalleled glory in the 1980s (4 championships in a row, a streak that arguably may never be beaten by any modern-day sports franchise), but declined rather considerably by the mid-90s. With the franchise in state of flux and financial uncertainty, they needed something major to re-invigorate the franchise. Enter John Spano, Texas billionaire and new Islanders owner, a savior figure of sorts who was going to completely turn the team around.
Spano, though, didn’t exactly turn the team around. He also wasn’t a billionaire. Not even close.
Big Shot tells the story of John Spano, and how he came extraordinarily close to conning his way into buying a professional sports franchise. It’s a mind-blowing story that’s almost impossible to believe happened less than 20 years ago. With the Islanders moving to Brooklyn next season, the documentary also serves as an excellent look into one of the more unique franchises in professional sports — up until literally a few days ago, the Islanders were one of the only teams in professional sports not centered around a major urban area.*
*As an Islanders fan I’m a bit biased here, but all my roommates watched this without my provocation, and now reference John Spano to the point of annoyance.
5. Happy People: A Year In The Taiga (2010)
There are a lot of lessons one can take away from Werner Herzog’s ‘A Year In The Taiga’, an in depth look into the lives of trappers living deep within Siberia. Among other things, the documentary is filled with people who (a. know how to handle nature, and (b. have fully mastered a particular trade. A reminder that the most rewarding job in the world can literally be anywhere.