Top Ten Stellar Documentary Films

September 1, 2006

The other night, I flipped back and forth between the Mets game and the Spike Lee documentary on Hurricane Katrina. I must say, if you dig totally subjective documentaries, you’ll definitely consider When the Levee Broke to be four-and-a-half hours well spent. Latent racism abound!

For your consideration, a Friday Top-Ten that deals with documentary films. You won’t find the Metallica movie on this list (because there isn’t a list great enough to include that gem!), or anything involving Nirvana (The Year Punk Broke or Kurt and Courtney). There’s a pretty good split between music-related films and other chronicles.


10. Dark Days (Mark Singer) – CHUDS, CHUDS, CHUDS, CHUDS. I thought it was interesting, only because growing up I’d heard about alligators in the sewers of New York, and people living in the subways in virtual darkness. Well…one out of two ain’t bad!

9. Gimme Shelter (Albert & David Maysles) – The moment that the ’60s ended, and the upper-middle class children of America realized that playtime was over. I just like it because it captures the ‘Stones during an era where they were listenable without sounding like a parody.

8. Grizzly Man (Werner Herzog) – What’s not to like about this movie focusing on the life and grizzly (pun intended!) death of Timothy Treadwell. At some points, the omnipresent Herzog gets on my nerves, but when I see this is on TV I almost instinctively tune in. A bear-y good time for all.

7. The Dreamer That Remains (Stephen Pouliot) / Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey (Steven M. Martin) – This is a tie between two incredible music related documentary films. The first, The Dreamer That Remains is about the life and work of Harry Partch, one of my favorite Twentieth century composers. The other, obviously, is about Leon Theremin.

6. A Brief History of Time (Errol Morris) – Boy is this confusing. I don’t know the first thing about cosmology, but I know Stephen Hawking is widely considered to be one of the greatest thinkers ever. Since God, even. So, it’s interesting to try and listen to him, and pretend to understand what he’s theorizing.

5. Stop Making Sense (Jonathan Demme) – The best concert video I’ve ever seen. This could, technically be it’s own top ten (and I’ll keep it in mind), but I never even remotely cared about Talking Heads until I saw this. Until that point, they were–to me–a stupid bop band that one of my teachers had a strange obsession with.

4. Hoop Dreams (Steve James) – When I was a young lad who was interested in sports, my tennis coach (yes, I know, I had a tennis coach) told me she’d seen this in theaters and I should go. So, I plucked some obscure relative from my family at random and asked them to take me. I remember being so excited, thinking that they were going to live up to their dreams, and neither kid did. That, I think, was the first time I realized that documentaries didn’t have to have Hollywood endings. I was 11 years old at the time.

3. Heartworn Highways (James Szalapski) / Be Here to Love Me – One focuses solely on Townes Van Zandt, the other also includes country luminaries like Steve Earle and Guy Clark. What’s so great about Heartworn Highways is that it was made in ’75, so the musicians weren’t by any means established. Both are very informative and moving documents.

2. The Thin Blue Line (Errol Morris) – It got a dude off death row. If that doesn’t show the power of film making, I don’t know what will. That’s, like, a huge deal. Movie history! I mean–until someone comes along and makes a movie called Movie History.

1. Triumph of the Will (Leni Riefenstahl) / Why We Fight – When viewed back-to-back in high school, I remember being pretty stunned by each of these propaganda films. Now, I didn’t see all the Why We Fight videos (what are there, eight?), but I saw enough to make an impact. Triumph… is a film about the ’34 Nazi Party Rally. I think I just enjoy watching old history films. I’m a nerd.

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    […] try ranking them (note to self: update this list). Instead I saved my rankings for genres like Documentaries or disturbing Horror movies. One time I even tried to find the most ’80s movie. I’ve […]

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