One list to rule them all..
I can’t honestly remember the first documentary I ever saw. I don’t know if it was on VHS, DVD, or in the theater. Maybe it was Terror in the Aisles. I watched that a lot when I was a kid. Regardless, I did not really come to have an appreciation for the art until I was well into my 20’s. Since then, my eyes have been opened to the endless possibilities that the documentary presents. There are so many stories that can be told in so many ways. In the hands of a capable filmmaker, a great documentary can be as good and is often better than any big budget feature film opening at any theater on any given weekend.
With that in mind, I present my five favorite documentaries.
Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky in this epic series of films recount 20 years in the lives of three young men accused, tried, and ultimately convicted of a gruesome multiple homicide most of the world came to feel they did not commit. One of the genuine moments of happiness I’ve felt in the past year was when it was announced that the West Memphis 3 were to be freed. The trials and tribulations of the three, who went into prison as young boys and emerged 20 years later as hardened and thankful men is equal parts tragic, riveting and infuriating. Ultimately, the series serves as a testament to the human spirit and to show that sometimes, no matter how long it might take, justice truly can be served.
In chilly Milwaukee, Mark Borchardt has a dream. He’s an aspiring filmmaker and he has envisioned an epic movie: Northwestern. Problem is…well, Mark’s got a lot of problems. He’s unemployed, a bit of a drinker and still living with his parents. The documentary chronicles Mark’s attempts to raise funds for the feature film by producing and selling a dark short he calls Coven. He pronounces it “COH-ven,” but hey, it’s his movie. He can call it whatever the hell he wants. Along side the intrepid auteur is his long time best friend, Mike Schank. Mike’s a burn out and all he wants is to get drunk, get high, or both. Mark & Mike are a true dynamic duo and the movie constantly fascinates in it’s depiction of one’s man desperate and often futile attempts to realize his dreams.
Rarely in any film, be it a documentary or a narrative feature, have the lines between good and evil so clearly been drawn. Steve Wiebe is a former Boeing engineer who found work as a science teacher. During his off hours, he likes to play Donkey Kong in his garage and has set for himself the goal of achieving a world record score, a goal which he achieves and submits to the official keeper of such records, Twin Galaxies, via videocassette. Here enters Billy Mitchell, the previous holder of the record. Billy Mitchell is a cocky, arrogant ‘rock star’ amongst arcade game lovers and their ilk. He disputes Wiebe’s record because it came during an unsurpervised taping and on a machine that he claims has been illegally modified. He uses his influence with the owner of Twin Galaxies to have the record thrown out. Wiebe attempts to clear his name by challenging Mitchell to a one-on-one competition. Mitchell is the ultimate villain and you will hate everything he does. Wiebe is the ultimate underdog, facing down a global organization and industry that owes it’s only real legitimacy to man he’s trying to overthrow.
Surely you’ve seen such an event on your local news. Some radio station has partnered with some car lot and a whole bunch of contest winners gather early some Saturday morning under a big tent in front of a big truck. They place one hand somewhere on that shiny vehicle and, hours (days?) later, one is left standing with the keys to a new ride. Here’s hoping they can cover the taxes. This film shares the story of 24 people engaged in just such a competition in Longview, Texas. Why would they subject themselves to such physical torture? How do they plan to outlast their competitors? Their reasons are myriad, their strategies…unique and often ill-informed. You will find people to root for and against. And you will laugh. Who ever thought a Snickers bar could be so healthy?
1. Grizzly Man
Considering the somewhat delicate subject matter some mind find it inappropriate for me to proclaim this as my favorite documentary. After all, it deals with the rather shocking and violent death of a, by all accounts, very nice though obsessed man. Don’t take that as a spoiler. Director Werner Herzog, a legend amongst documentarians, establishes that fact early. His respectful handling of the story is what makes this my favorite documentary. Timothy Treadwell loves bear. He chooses to live amongst them. He names them, builds relationships with them, and tries to protect them from illegal poaching. And ultimately, that which he loves most is his undoing. Herzog interviews friends and family to build a portrait of the man. He uses some of Treadwell’s own footage depicting the man in his element serving a cause that will doom him. He does not pass judgment. He merely reflects. Nature can be a bitch and Herzog’s film does not flinch in portraying that.
I hope you get a chance to check some of these out if you haven’t already. And if you have, feel free to share your thoughts and perhaps clue me in to some of your favorite documentaries.