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Top Docs

  1. Stinger839
  2. _kelly

The best modern documentaries I have seen (official start year is 1990, emphasis on the '00s). As usual, not ordered.

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  Stinger839's Rating My Rating
Home Movie 2001,  Unrated)
Sound and Fury 2000,  Unrated)
Lost in La Mancha 2003,  R)
American Movie 1999,  R)
Sketches of Frank Gehry 2006,  PG-13)
Sketches of Frank Gehry
I met Sydney Pollack when he came to New Orleans to introduce and discuss this film. I actually worked at the mall where the cinema was, and I couldn't work up the nerve to say anything at the screening, but the next morning he came into my workplace and I got a tete-a-tete with someone who was very much an academic guide for film theory and history on top of being a brilliant director (with great taste in what colors to wear).

Anyways, this film. Yes. If you don't know Frank Gehry, just think of the oddest building you've ever seen and chances are it is or is derivative of Frank Gehry. For a reference point, Gehry did Bilbao Guggenheim and Seattle's Experience Music Project. Pollack and Gehry have long been friends, and the documentary was filmed as an independent project of Pollack's over the course of a few years and many meetings with his friend Gehry. The two talk of art, design, inspiration, and everyday stuff. Gehry explains his process as an architect. Pollack captures some stunning shots of Gehry's work for just using a handheld diigital. If you like to see a brilliant (and some will say odd) artist revealing the guts and marrow of his profession, this is the film for you.
The Fog of War - Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara 2003,  PG-13)
My Architect: A Son's Journey 2004,  Unrated)
Tarnation 2004,  Unrated)
Southern Comfort 2001,  Unrated)
Paragraph 175 2000,  Unrated)
The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters 2007,  PG-13)
The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters
I just plain love this documentary. The production crew delves into the lives of classic video games' top players, centering around a rivalry between the first superstar of gaming Billy Mitchell and an unknown newcomer Steve Sanders for world champion of Donkey Kong, a game revered by regular classic game circuit players as perhaps the most difficult of the classic games.
The crew captures many angles of the involved people's personalities, enough that this feels very narrative at points, which is a marker of good doc. I became involved in the politics of this community, this "unusual and relatively unknown" outlet for proving oneself, and was quite intrigued by the gamers' competitive tactics and somewhat archaic score verification process, which looked easily corruptible by personal bias. At the end of this movie, one feels like you've learned something. Even a seasoned gamer like myself didnt know about "Twin Galaxies" though I had heard of the place they run FunSpot. The "referee" of classic gaming is a very interesting person, quite clearly an artistic word-minded soul interested in a very technical math-centered field, and by finding the balance between the two, he created a new career and a new way of viewing video games.
This movie will probably change the way you view video games.
Slasher 2004,  Unrated)
In his first feature on digital film, John Landis tackles something he hasn't before: a documentary.

Landis follows a "mercenary car salesman" and his partners on a trip to Memphis, Tennessee to shift as many cars at a local dealership. Their business is traveling the country as "top salesmen" - selling large quantities of cars at dealerships that, for various reasons, desperately need to get cars off their lot and a temporary sales boost.

The main subject, Michael, is one of the most interesting documentary subjects I've seen and his personality not only carries the movie, but also creates plot where there is simply life being lived. His two friends, try to keep him out of trouble, being a hyperactive alcoholic with a loud mouth that he runs as fast as top sports car, as well as having several other unique traits that I can't peg as I'm not a psychologist.

Besides his "lead", Landis is able to capture a portrait of lower class and middle class America in poorer cities. There are some tear-tugging moments, both out of laughter and sympathy.

Landis said he had trouble working with a doc crew because he is used to setting up shots as opposed to just shooting (and disregarding things like other camera operators or crew members in a shot). However, Landis does get some of his desired set-up shots, and they look just as great as his studio work, but is more powerful in my opinion because of the catching content and the serendipitous execution of documentary.
Metal: A Headbanger's Journey 2005,  R)
Metal: A Headbanger's Journey
This is one of my favorite documentaries, not only because I'm a metalhead myself, but because it gives true insight into a large global cultural movement. That this movie was helmed by an anthropologist metalhead increased this full perspective of its subjects. Sam Dunn asks intelligent questions of the "heroes and gods of metal" so that even diehard fans will gain some insight on the art form. Dunn's talent at interviewing also creates some very compelling and full portraits of a spectrum of metal fans themselves. Dunn is also incredibly tactful when dealing with the "bad boys" of metal who just want to curse and fling beer at the camera, or especially the Satanic black metal musicians in Northern Europe (mostly Norway) who advocate violence and have prior committed or advocated terrorist acts of political natures. Overall, Dunn creates a fantastic and extremely informative doc, thorough, and one of the better music docs I have ever seen. This doc works for people completely oblivious to the metal scene as well as the seasoned headbanger. The DVD 2 disc edition is also required to get the best out of this doc. While what had the edited feature stands perfectly on its own and will be enough for some viewers, the extended interviews with metal's legends and revolutionary contemporaries are must-watch for rock fans or musicians.

This movie also introduced me to tons of great metal bands I didn't know about and I've also gotten around to listening to legendary bands that have been on my "discographies to digest" list; Right now I am listening to: Hammerfall and Candlemass in the former category, and Rush and Iron Maiden in the latter. \m/,.\m/
Pretty As A Picture: The Art Of David Lynch 1997,  Unrated)
Pretty As A Picture: The Art Of David Lynch
All Lynch fans MUST see this. It is a sort of biography of Lynch via most of his major collaborators and mentors over the years talking on Lynch, most taking place with Lynch present and interaction between him and the other subject. These interviews are interspersed between segments of real-time observation of Lynch doing various projects. We get to watch him work on some carpentry, several paintings, a few installations, scoring film with Angelo Badalamenti, and cutting 'Lost Highway'. He returns to the 'Eraserhead' set with all of the original cast to discuss what he still considers to be his most spiritual film.

If you still aren't convinced, visit
Winged Migration (Le Peuple Migrateur) 2003,  G)
Winged Migration (Le Peuple Migrateur)
This may be a 5, but it's been since the film's release that I've seen it, so I want to give it another view.
The Aristocrats 2005,  Unrated)
The Aristocrats
not just a funny film, but an effective documentary as well, this film explores aspects of not only comedy and the comedian's life, it holds a mirror up to society and asks "what's your limit?". The DVD extras are essentially extensions to the film; plenty of interviews to make this a worthwhile rent or buy.
Crumb 1995,  R)
A bold and unflinching examination of an (socially edgy) artist and his equally talented but more troubled male siblings. Deserved its Grandy Jury Prize at Sundance
The Celluloid Closet 1996,  R)
The Kid Stays in the Picture 2002,  R)
Word Wars 2004,  Unrated)
Fast, Cheap & Out of Control 1997,  PG)
Fast, Cheap & Out of Control
I love documentaries like this: pick a few very interesting accomplished people and mix their stories together thematically and visually. This is an interesting glimpse into the lives of four very focused individuals: a robot technician, a lion tamer, a topiary gardener, and a mole-rat expert. The parallels lie in their dedication to their professions, what they are trying to accomplish or demonstrate with their career, how these men have all found themselves in these oddly specific fields for the same central lifelong desire of "what's the world all about?", and how their careers mirror many other interesting philosophical and scientific concepts, such as evolution, our status as "dominant species", passion in life, and the human legacy to the world. You will not regret having seen this superior interview-based documentary.
A Certain Kind of Death 2003,  Unrated)
A Certain Kind of Death
This is a superb documentary, not interested in probing its subjects (indeed no documentarian or film crew member is ever heard from) but instead settles to observe. The people interviewed seem to be allowed a free forum for their thoughts, like the director told them, "just do what you would normally do and help us understand what your job requires you to do".
"Faces of Death" can totally suck on it because this crew ALSO got LA county morgue access, and they got just as awesome footage as you guys did, cept it wasn't all heavy handed and laced with shock value like the FoD series. This is a film that shows what is - what a modern pauper's death and burial looks like, exactly. Not much sentimentality, just what we find out about the person from recovered legal forms or papers left in their houses. We first meet these people as decaying remains. The camera is not afraid of dead bodies, even extreme cases and bodies left to decay as long as most of these are usually much more severe to look at than other corpses. So there are many things here you may not want to see in our bubbled modern world, and that luxury is afforded to you because of the people who work for coroners and mortuaries. This movie shows us exactly what these jobs entail; the best example in the sequence in which bodies are prepared for cremation and then cremated. It's a beautiful naturalistic filming technique and the result is pure reality. This is what life, and death, are really like, and it may take a hell of a lot to watch this. But if you're a sick objective fuck like me, you're just going "those are some great shots of blood filled body bags" or "look at that...died on the shitter. Probably what'll happen to me. I better make some skydiving arrangements ASAP if I get bowel cancer instead of waiting around my shitty apartment and making mounds of 'gonna die' documents."
Paris Is Burning 1990,  R)
Paris Is Burning
It's just fab that there are any documentaries as revealing and close to its subjects as 'Paris Is Burning'. An obvious landmark for queer filmmaking, a paradigm examination of documentary subjects - footage of people emoting and expressing raw feelings. Beautiful
Gendernauts: A Journey Through Shifting Identities 2000,  Unrated)
Gendernauts: A Journey Through Shifting Identities
Another movie I added. Great doc exploring the lives and thoughts of a range of transgender and transsexual people. As a documentary, very personal and artistically edited (for the better).

The synopsis for this is misleading. The director may be reaching for some sort of futuristic theme, but yet another director has no idea that being trans is not a new thing and not as interesting as everyone thinks it is, but that doesn't matter because she picked great people to interview: trans people who know how to avoid that exploitative bullshit and really reveal just their general thoughts on life with the trans thing as a sidenote, albeit a large one, which is how it is in real life.
Bowling for Columbine 2002,  R)
Who the $#%@ Is Jackson Pollock 2006,  PG-13)
Who the $#%@ Is Jackson Pollock
A transparent look at the art world. Fascinating trucker and treasure hunter Teri Horton stumbles across what she thinks may be a Jackson Pollock, and she has to battle the tastes of art collectors and agents to prove its authenticity. After a long battle with the reigning gods, she enlists the help of an outcast looking to get back in the game and an art authenticator who uses science instead of gut feeling to determine authenticity.

Various art world figures are asked about the painting by the filmmakers, including an expert imitator or forger, several art brokers, a painter of Pollock's generation, art investors, and gallery owners.

Besides the evidence which links a fingerprint on Teri's painting to four authentic Pollock's and matches paint samples to Pollock's workshop, I instinctively feel that this IS a Pollock. For the art connoisseurs who look at it and appraise that it hasn't got the energy and feel of "a Pollock" without doing detailed analysis of paint patterns, I wonder if they have ever seen "an authentic Pollock" that they felt "didn't have the energy of a Pollock". Too much of their appraisal is subjective and in a vacuum of their own aesthetic sensibilities. These people are particularly stunned when the forensic investigator discovers that Pollock used acrylic, a paint which was believed by art historians to not be available at that time to Pollock's workshop.

This is a great film demonstrating the modern evolution of the herd mentality and subsequent clash of different cultures to determine "what is art?".
A Very British Gangster 2008,  Unrated)
A Very British Gangster
This is one of the best filmed documentaries I've seen since Winged Migration. The shots here make the film appear as a narrative piece, and the film-maker interjects himself just enough to remind us that this is the "cameras allowed" side of these people's lives.

Thoroughly intriguing portrayal of this crime family and of the social and political functioning of Manchester.

A film that proves reality is more compelling and creative than fiction. A must see for anyone.
Anvil! The Story of Anvil 2009,  Unrated)
Black Tar Heroin: The Dark End of the Street 2000,  Unrated)
Black Tar Heroin: The Dark End of the Street
It's not hard for this film to be brilliant. The camera just has to be running on these people, and then it is up to the makers to dig through the three years of footage to compile a coherent story.

All of them are young, introspective, resourceful, friendly, and full of potential. But they are also all very filled with sadness, in great despair, in ill health, in dangerous situations, and rarely happy because they are all addicted to heroin. It would not be surprising if a followup done today would reveal all the participants, or at least a majority, to now be dead of a drug-related cause. At the conclusion, two main subjects have AIDS and are not receiving treatment, and one of them is still prostituting despite a looming charge of attempted murder if charged again with prostitution.

Of course when dealing with this topic, the content will be saddening, but the factor that determines whether or not the film is good is if it is revealing. And this film does reveal in horrific detail the reality of junkie living. We see their battered bodies, bruises and burst blood vessels spotting their skin from frequent injection and dramatic weight losses from neglecting eating for fixing. We see them in the throes of withdrawal and, more rarely, doped to the point of complete loss of awareness with their only spoken sentiments being about their specific despairs and missing loved ones. We see them lurking on street corners to advertise for dates, visiting public restrooms to shoot up, using pay phones to contact dealers, and running small dealing operations out of temporary and deteriorating living spaces. We see them attempting relationships with other addicts, but it seems that what draws these people together is their addiction and mutual need for supporting their addiction. We see them attempting to regain their lives when jail or death looms, but we also witness them inevitably falling back into the deadly grip of addiction.

Great documentaries reveal stark reality, and this film certainly accomplishes that.
Red Without Blue 2007,  Unrated)
Red Without Blue
Very interesting piece about identity and how a family deals with situations that most of society deems "odd" or "too complicated". Biggest plus here is that Claire's transsexualism is not the sensationalized focus of the film as many of its loglines and synopsis report, but rather one more bit in a large patchwork of the subjects' past and current happenings, emotions, and the impact on their closest relationships. This film is centrally about personal identity and the twin dynamic than sexgender and sexuality, which is very refreshing for one like myself who has seen too many films play heavily on the trans component to gain notoriety.

A very fair and frank examination of this family's life, including some very moving and astounding interviews with the parents.

The only reason I didn't give this a 4 star rating is because it didn't have as much emotional bang (for me) as did many of the other documentaries I recommend and list on Top Docs. But it may be profound enough to warrant a four from you, so I must strongly recommend it if you seek a doc that films a modern American family.
Confessions of a Superhero 2007,  R)
Confessions of a Superhero
It's just astounding. I really have no more to say. I live for documentaries that select intriguing people in situations so absurd that they could only be real. This is one such film.
Sick: The Life and Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist 1997,  Unrated)
Sick: The Life and Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist
An extremely interesting artist who provides a deep glimpse into the nature of pain. He demonstrates, mostly with his body, the clear, yet often confounding, large gap between unwanted pain and consensual pain. If you've ever been intrigued, excited, or outright confused by masochism, let Bob give you a colorful education on the matter.

Also worth noting is how impeccable director Kirby Dick is when it comes to picking subjects for his documentaries. This was his first international hit, and it is quite clear why it was so hailed, especially in the era before the internet where self-documented extreme masochistic acts were not a google search away or conveniently categorized on BMEzine..
Prodigal Sons 2010,  PG)
Protagonist 2007,  R)
I'm a sucker for a piece like this: the film-maker takes a set of subjects, usually a small amount in the range of 3 to 6 and interviews them all seperately, never has them meet or needs to see them meet, but uses some central theme, some shared condition to unify true stories that one would usually consider to be in totally different worlds from each other. Basically, these films show us the constants of being human and reveal our universal qualities. They place a spotlight at a millimeter distance from the human condition and show it to us.

Does this film ever get to that lofty, poetic, and transcendent place? Not for me, but I see that it has the elements to do it for other people. One thing that is not universal after all, are our emotional reactions to art.

I think this is a must watch. I really love the tie-in element of the Greek puppetry theatre, and the film-maker picked some incredibly interesting subjects.
Bigger, Stronger, Faster* 2008,  PG-13)
Bigger, Stronger, Faster*
A good muscled look at the taboo of steroid use and the biggorexic pressures on modern American men. Film-maker is in an ideal situation for doing this project, with two brothers who have used steroids and the film-maker himself having only dabbled with them once and his whole life struggled with the decision of whether or not to plunge in. I think this is just as revealing about widespread cultural hypocrisy as Grass, The Union, Bowling for Columbine, and the works of The Yes Men.
Modify 2007,  Unrated)
Brilliant examination of how we modify our bodies by interviewing many and varied people who engage in the more extreme modification practices.
This Film is Not Yet Rated 2006,  NC-17)
This Film is Not Yet Rated
Brilliant expose of the most influential censorship organization in American film. But what else does one expect besides brilliance from the ingenious mind of Kirby Dick?
The Yes Men Fix the World 2009,  Unrated)
The Yes Men Fix the World
These guys always deliver cutting edge political advocacy. Their little bits of imaginary "down time" distract from the overall film (and not in the requisite relief way I'm sure they were aiming for. Still there are plenty of gut-busting and giddying pranks, hard-hitting explications of their actions and exposes of those whom they are targeting, which are all solid and mildly to wildly brilliant.
The Union: The Business Behind Getting High 2007,  Unrated)
Cropsey 2010,  Unrated)
I Think We're Alone Now 2008,  Unrated)
Food, Inc. 2009,  PG)

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