1. Man on Wire
I avoided Man on Wire for a few years – something about an Oscar-winning documentary on a French tightrope walker who crossed the Twin Towers sounded too much like smug, hollow Art (with a capital A). Well, my loss. Man on Wire is exceptionally well-done, and one of the most thrilling documentaries I’ve ever seen. And you know what? It’s pretty goddamn beautiful too, self-conscious Artiness be damned. It also happens to be the 2nd best reviewed film in the history of Rotten Tomatoes (trailing only Toy Story 2, believe or not), boasting 151 positive reviews out of a total of…151 reviews. So if you don’t like it, you’re not just a jerk, you’re a statistically anomalous jerk.
2. Shut Up Little Man! An Audio Misadventure
In 1987, two post-grad roommates started recording the outlandishly vitriolic and dysfunctional arguments that occurred between their alcoholic, fifty-something neighbors (one clearly gay, the other seemingly an oppressive homophobe) – fights which routinely ended with one repeatedly taunting the other, “Shut up, little man!” This documentary about how those private fights became a cult phenomenon fosters interesting discussion around exploitation, art, obsession, voyeurism, and, especially, the bizarrely fascinating dynamic between this demented Bert and Ernie at the heart of it all. It also sheds fascinating light on the mail-based tape-trading culture of the 80s and 90s that served as a sort of proto-YouTube. It’s easy to condemn the recorders as shameless, self-justifying parasites, but there’s such an insatiable desire on their part to learn more about the neighbors that, eventually, you can’t help but regard them as anything other than obsessive Peeping Toms.
3. The Thin Blue Line
Errol Morris is one of film’s most celebrated documentarians and The Thin Blue Line is perhaps his greatest achievement. An engrossing look at an obscenely flawed murder investigation that put an innocent man behind bars, TTBL’s power stems mainly from two factors: a beautiful, artistic visual style that leaves most documentaries in the dust and an outstanding score from Philip Glass (which combines surprisingly well with TTBL’s wonderful array of drawling Texas accents). In regards to the former, whereas dramatic reenactments are usually embarrassingly stilted and amateurish, Morris’ are haunting and cinematic; along with the interviews themselves, they are presented in a visual style that is both sparse and oddly dreamlike (notice how much Morris’ reenactments convey with such a minimalist approach to props and action). It’s as if the events in the film are separated from the more logical and orderly world we inhabit – a sensation heightened by Morris’ refusal to use crutches like narration, title cards, or news footage, all of which most documentarians rely on to connect their films with the world at large. The comically bungled investigation and the tragic imprisonment of Randall Dale Adams exist in a nightmarish, Kafkaesque universe where law and order are replaced with the absurd and the surreal.
4. Last Days Here
Last Days Here opens with the former front man of Pentagram (a seminal but overlooked early metal band), Bobby Liebling, searching under a couch in his parent’s basement for a stray crack rock. Needless to say, things look kind of bleak for the aging metalhead. Directors Don Argott and Demian Fenton wisely depict the absurdly pathetic depths to which Liebling’s life sank without ever mocking or exploiting him, allowing what appears to be a tragic story to build towards a stirring climax. But, as extraordinary a character as Liebling is, the film’s heart lies in the incredible support and adoration of Sean “Pellet” Pelletier, the friend and lifelong fan who helps Bobby get clean and start touring again; Pellet’s dedication to Liebling and the music that changed his life is genuinely touching. Bonus: Last Days Here features some good vintage footage of mid-70s metal.
5. Hoop Dreams
Roger Ebert called Hoop Dreams the best film of the 90s. Not the best documentary, mind you, but just straight-up the best film of the entire decade. I wouldn’t go that far (perhaps Roger was swayed by the way Hoop Dreams evocatively, if harshly, captured his beloved Chicago), but this is undoubtedly an amazing film. Hoop Dreams masterfully explores a seemingly unexceptional, picayune topic (two talented inner-city youths dreaming of basketball stardom) in epic scope: the access we’re granted into these boy’s lives is astounding. Director Steve James followed his subjects for five years, recorded 250 hours of footage, and witnessed scenes of unbelievable triumph and heartbreaking pain. You absolutely do not have to like basketball to like this movie – you merely need to have a vested interest in the human condition.
6. Into the Abyss
Helmed by iconic German director Werner Herzog, Into the Abyss chronicles two convicts (one on Death Row) charged with committing a triple-homicide over a red Camaro in a backwoods Texas town. Herzog seems to view the film as rumination on the American death penalty writ large, but Into the Abyss is most effective as examinations of a specific crime that ruined the lives of all it touched, of families seeped in sadness and loss, and of a town where prison sentences are passed down from generation to generation like freckles. Its most powerful moments are its small insights – windows into the unimaginable private lives of grown men who can’t read but have been stabbed with screwdrivers, of a Death Row inmate ingrained to always respond with a “Yes, sir,” even when describing the chilling details of a murder scene. Plus the movie touches on smuggling sperm out of prison and at one point Werner asks a subject to, “Please describe an encounter with a squirrel.”
7. Brother’s Keeper
Brother’s Keeper is an oddly charming documentary about four (well, three) eccentric, illiterate farmers who’ve spent decades in some dilapidated shack in upstate New York. It’s all surprisingly fun considering it centers on a murder trial in which one of the brothers is accused of murdering another. The Ward brothers are pleasant company to spend 100 minutes with (my favorite was Lyman, the “nervous” one), and after they introduce you to the chickens they house in an abandoned school bus, you’ll find yourself helplessly lured into to a dramatic courthouse finale.
8. Room 237
Full disclosure: I’m borderline obsessed with The Shining. While 100 minutes of insanely intricate and arcane critical theory over the film might be tiresome for most, it gives me a rather large Kubrick-boner – I would never decline an opportunity to journey down the wormholes of this mysterious and enigmatic masterpiece. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a film that was so intensely targeted at something I’m interested in and with such an absolute disregard for the enjoyment of the general movie-going public. Room 237 is essentially just unseen theorists rehashing their odd interpretations of the horror classic, ranging from substantial (the genocide of the Native Americans is clearly a theme in the film (though I wouldn’t subscribe to the idea that it’s about that genocide)) to laughably contrived (The Shining as Kubrick’s attempt to deal with guilt over his role in faking the American moon landing). But the validity of the theories isn’t really the point. Rather, it’s a celebration of great art and the wonders of subjectivity, existing at the point in which they clash to create something entirely new.
And how could you hate on a movie with the following quote on Kubrick? “That’s the ultimate shining that Kubrick does. He is like a mega-brain for the planet who is boiling down with all of this extensive research, all of these patterns of our world, and then giving them back to us in a dream of a movie – because movies are like a dream. And that’s related to why I think there’s a lot of evidence that what Kubrick also gave us in The Shining is a movie about the past – not just any past, THE past. I mean past-ness. It’s a movie about how the past impinges – that’s what ghosts are.” Okay, I see how you could hate on it. But if you loved it like me, you’ll love this documentary.
9. Exit Through the Gift Shop
Like Augie Farks and Coke, I like the idea of Exit Through the Gift Shop more than I actually like it. It’s hard to talk about the film, directed by the infamous street artist Banksy, without getting spoiler-y, but let’s just say that after doing some minimal research I’m still not entirely sure what side of the hoax/authentic fence it lands on. Regardless, even it falls a bit short as a cinematic experience (Thierry Guetta, ostensibly the central figure of the movie, is (intentionally) quite grating), it’s impressive, brilliant even, as a sly social experiment/art-world critique.
10. My Amityville Horror
My Amityville Horror is better than it has any right to be – who woulda thunk that after all these years and awful movies, there was still an interesting story left untold in the whole Amityville saga? Fortunately, My Amityville Horror switches the focus from the sensationalized, dubious paranormal claims the Lutz family made so many years ago to the very real sense of familial dysfunction that pervaded their home. The film follows Daniel Lutz, only 9 years old at the time of the supposed events, and now a troubled grown man living in the shadows of the infamous story. To say Lutz was traumatized by his childhood would be an understatement – in fact, he’s haunted by it. However, while he steadfastly swears that the paranormal events occurred, it’s clear that his memories are hopelessly interwoven with hatred for an overbearing stepfather who turned his home life into a nightmare of fear and anger. It’s fascinating to watch Lutz displace his own demons onto a picturesque house no more terrifying than the home of any other brutally unhappy family.
11. Dark Days
Is there a better topic for a documentary than the homeless people living in the underground tunnels of New York City? Like a grittier, nonfiction version of the Howie Mandel classic Little Monsters, Dark Days explores this oft-wondered about, but rarely glimpsed strata of society. I saw it quite a while ago, but its uncanny loneliness I remember well.
12. A Band Called Death
I know what you’re thinking: “Come on Ted, not another documentary about three black brothers from 1970s Detroit who started an obscure, wildly-ahead-of-its-time protopunk band. We get it already!” But I’m not sure you do: these guys were playing non-conformist, lightning-quick punk years before the Ramones! Their story is unique and also surprisingly moving. The film starts to lull around the midway point as their original story peters out, but things recoup nicely in a climax that is unabashedly powerful and bittersweet. And the music kicks ass.
13. Mad Ron’s Prevues from Hell
Okay, a few notes on this one:
- It’s not really a documentary, but rather a compilation of obscure low-budget horror movies trailers from the 60s, 70s, and 80s, interwoven with vignettes from a movie theater that happens to be overrun with zombies.
- By any standard method of appraisal, it is unspeakably awful.
However, if you react to bullet number one like I do (i.e., “Awesome! Obscure low budget horror movie trailers from the 70s!”), you could care less that the film surrounding the trailers features some of the most inept attempts at acting and humor ever committed to film (well, video in this case.) I mean, you get to watch trailers from classics like Three on a Meathook, Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things, I Dismember Mama, The Undertaker and His Pals, The Corpse Grinders, God Told Me To, I Eat Your Skin, and Night of the Bloody Apes! How could anyone argue with that? Or find fault with me for including a film on this list that is not, technically speaking, either a documentary or good? Horror buffs like me will want to watch with a pen and pad close by to jot down titles of some of the particularly absurd films featured herein.
And, just as a bonus, here’s a film I wrote about in an article on The Most Underrated Movies of the Last 10 Years. It’s actually not on Netflix Instant, but you can watch it for free on Hulu (with advertisements):
Bonus: Chasing Ghosts: Beyond the Arcade
An unheralded film about champion 80s arcade gamers that I serendipitously found on Hulu turned out to be one of my favorite documentaries of the decade. Chasing Ghosts doesn’t have the draw of a polarizing (or important) topic like Bowling for Columbine or An Inconvenient Truth, but what it lacks in flash and headline-stealing relevance, it makes up for in quirky idiosyncrasy. The players profiled in the film, hardcore gamers and unabashed nerds who enjoyed (and were forever marked by) a fleeting glimpse of mainstream recognition and popularity, are so compellingly odd that you find yourself drawn inexorably into their world as they relive decades-old glories, failures, and feuds: There are cheating scandals! And implications of gamer groupies! You’ll even meet Mister Awesome, the self-created, macho superhero who stars in his own soft-core porn and claims that Arnold Schwarzenegger, America’s “most successful immigrant,” built his fortune as a drug dealer and a prostitute. Chasing Ghosts masterfully explores the niche of their subculture, creating a rich ethnography on this self-sustaining community of virtuoso, albeit sheltered, performers. The movie is understated and sweet – while perhaps not as dramatic as most other quality docs, it’s an unusual and enjoyable film, and it does justice to these distinctly strange men without mocking them.