Recently over more than a few drinks, a friend of mine commented “You know I have not really got into documentaries. What are some good ones?” I think right now we are in the golden age of documentaries. This is because of Michael Moore. OK, Republicans keep reading for 30 seconds. Michael Moore has led this renaissance in documentaries because he has made three movies that each one broke the record for domestic box office for a documentary. 1989’s Roger and Me brought in 6.3 million. 2002’s Bowling for Columbine brought in 21.2 million (along with the top Prize at Cannes and an Oscar). 2004’s Fahrenheit 9/11 was the big winner with over 119 million. Documentaries are cheap to make (No stars, limited special effects, not a lot of advertising, any sound track, etc.) and can potentially make money. While most documentaries will not break 10 million, they can attract a strong following and produce multiple revenue streams in DVD purchases and provide prestige to studios when they are defending green lighting films such as Showgirls. Here are your lists of the 11 documentaries you need to see.
1. Heart of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse – this documentary show why studios will give a director $250,000 to make a documentary that will probably break even and will possibly make allot of money. Heart of Darkness is a documentary about Francis Ford Coppola directing Apocalypse Now. Apocalypse Now is an amazing film with incredible performances. Coppola was on top of his game. His three previous films were The Godfather, The Godfather Part 2 and The Conversation (Two best picture wins and a nominee). Yeah, he was hot. Then he went to shoot Apocalypse. It was a disaster. Coppola fired his lead actor on the first day (Harvey Keitel), his replacement (Martin Sheen) had a nervous breakdown AND heart attack AND was still better to work with than his son, filming went over by 200 days, Marlon Brando showed up out of shape and refused to learn his lines and then Dennis Hopper, well he was being Dennis Hopper BEFORE rehab. It shows what a disaster making a big budget film can be. It also shows the potential for disaster that can happen when you record the making of a film. It also shows that no matter what goes wrong in the creative process a brilliant film can come out of it.
2. It Might Get Loud – I am just going to copy what I wrote about it when I ranked it one of the best films of the past decade.
Everyone with a soul has at one point wanted to be a rock star. If you are not a complete narcissist you wanted to play lead guitar instead of being the singer. It Might Get Loud will reawaken that part of you that came alive the first time you heard that first great guitar riff. It could be Nirvana’s “Smells like Teen Spirit”, Gun’s n’ Roses “Sweet Child of Mine”, Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lot of Love”, The Who’s “Pinball Wizard” but whatever it was you knew that you had never really been alive until you heard that music and a part of you knew that nothing would ever be the same.
That first great rock song is like your first great love. You discovered it almost by accident. You felt fear, raw sexuality, and like you were becoming an adult all in a few seconds. It Might Get Loud makes you feel that way all over again.
It Might Get Loud is a documentary featuring Jack White of the White stripes, The Edge of U2 and Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin. Three great guitarist come together to talk music, to jam and talk about what influences them. The film comes across as a bystander who is a fan of great music who quietly sits while the three maestros experiment, jam, talk, joke and open themselves up in a way that you never see.
While most “Rock-umentries” (I hate that term. It is too contrived to have come from anywhere but a late 80s MTV staff meeting.) come across as a forced interview designed to say what genius the musicians are and that if you want to understand pure art you will buy their latest album. This documentary about musicians comes across as three people who are brought together because of their love of music and the guitar. You believe that despite the money, the fame, the adulation (aka groupies), that they would want to hang out on a Friday night in someone’s old house after a long week of work and play guitar.
This is the movie that is not a way to spend a Saturday night. This is the movie to watch alone. Then hang out with friends who like music (who really like music) ask the simple question “Which is a better Zeppelin song Rock n’ Roll or Whole Lot of Love?” in a bar that has a really good jukebox. Bring some quarters, a willingness to see where the conversation goes and blast the songs that need to be heard.
p.s. Ironically, my favorite Zeppelin song is “Going to California” not loud but still powerful and brilliant. The song that woke me up was “Stairway to Heaven” I was 13, my first kiss came three months later and life would never be the same.
3. Waiting for Superman – This is the second Davis Guggenheim suggestion (after It Might Get Loud). Ironically, of his three films, his two best did not win the Oscar for best documentary while the weakest of the three “An Inconvient Truth” (which is very good) did. Superman is a documentary that explores the state of public education in America. It explores the role of Teacher’s Union’s, raising kids who cannot add but have high self esteem and follows a group of children participating in a lottery to get into Charter Schools. The film ends with you finding out which children were accepted into Charter Schools and which ones are forced back into public schools. It is moving without playing on your heart strings. It also has the saddest ending of any film ever made. These are not characters. These are real people whose lives could have been changed with a simple twist of luck, but instead will be trapped in a circle of poverty that education is the only super hero that can save them.
4. Smartest Guys in the Room – John 8:3 “He that is without sin cast the first stone.” I think Jesus might make an exception about the executives at Enron. Smartest Guys tells the story of Enron’s rise and their financial collapse. This documents the excess of their executives, their decision to cause rolling blackouts in California, (The Governator should have told Maria that he just went in the wrong room during the blackout.), the political fallout (Gov. Gray Davis was voted out of office in California; George W. Bush’s largest campaign contributor was Enron), the impact to Wall Street, the loss of people’s 401K, it was devastating. Director Alex Gibney’s underlying them of how greed when taken to excess causes more problems than it removes is also explored in the next film on the list.
5. Casino Jack and the United States of Greed – this tells the story of imprisoned lobbyist Jack Abramov and his relationship with Speaker of the House Tom Delay. I liked this film because I knew almost nothing about Abramov. This documentary told his story and how lobbying dollars would go through Abramov to Delay to members of Congress who supported Delay’s goals. It was a disturbing view of how things really get done in Washington. This film also explores the role of the Christian Right activist Ralph Reed were heavily involved in lobbying for Indian Casinos. It is incredibly disturbing. This is also another reason why Documentaries are a good film investment. This film made $174,000. The bio-pic “Casino Jack” about the same topic and stared Kevin Spacey (who is pretty good), Barry Pepper and Kelly Preston was a very good film and barely made 1 million dollars. Alex Gibney is the best director working in documentaries today. He is amazing.
6. ESPN’s 30 for 30 – yes this is a TV series that brings in some really amazing creative forces to address some interesting sports topics. Alex Gibney did a documentary on Steve Bartmen (Google him. If you are a Cubs fan you know exactly who he is.). Barry Levinson did a documentary on the Baltimore Colts Band. The series also featured stories on the USFL (best one in the series), Wayne Gretzky leaving Canada, Cancer Survivor Terry Fox’s attempt to run across Canada on one leg (warning: have some Kleenex around) and one on 2004 Red Sox World Series. Just like any series of short films there are going to be some misses but overall the series is amazing.
7. Murder Ball – if you like sports documentaries watch Murder Ball. This is a documentary about quadriplegic rugby players who play in wheel chairs. It is amazing. It changed m perspective on the disabled. The athletes (NEVER FOR ONE SECOND THINK THEY ARE NOT ATHLETES) are amazing. They will do anything to win. They have rivalries (some that are legitimate and others that are petty rivalries that people use for fuel to be better). They want to win.
8. Fall from Grace – Freedom of Speech vs. Freedom of Religion. This documentary is a true documentary about the Westboro Baptist Church and its minister Fred Phelps showing a fair and honest presentation of their core beliefs. Westboro Baptist church has for years protested at the funerals of US Soldiers who died in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. The church believes that the September 11th attacks were Gods punishment for Sexual Deviance of Americans. This documentary was made approximately three years before the Supreme Court ruled that their protest were legally protected. The documentary was originally screened for the Church before it was shown at any festivals. The church members were concerned that the film put them in too positive of a light and that some people would view the films as a propaganda piece. That is the best promotion about this film. It is honest, unflinching and accurately displays the group as they really are. You may hate what they stand for, but you get an unbiased view of their reality. This lets you see what they are really like and lets you form your own opinion instead of just reinforcing the opinion you had when you walked into the movie
9. Super Size Me – Being the funniest man in documentaries is sort of like being the nicest guy in prison. Their ain’t allot of good competition. Super Size Me director Morgan Spulock is very funny. He is your funniest friend to have a beer with. If it is 3:30 p.m. on a Friday when you do not have plans, you get a text message saying “Want to have a beer tonight?”You instantly know three things; 1. You will have a great time. 2. You will have some great conversations. 3. You will defiantly have more than 1 or 2 beers. DJ King Pigeon is my Morgan Spulock. Super Size Me is liked spending a month doing a crazy idea that was conceived at 2:30 a.m. after 2-3 beers have turned into Jaeger Bombs. Super Size Me documents how Spulock spent a month eating all 3 meals a day at McDonalds. He would only make a meal Super Sized if they asked him. The power of this documentary is shown when McDonalds, you might have heard of the restaurant, got rid of the Super Size meals after this documentary, that made only 11 million came out. Morgan Spurlock does not use this as a vehicle for corporate bashing but uses McDonalds as a reference point; he could have used Burger King, Wendy’s or any other fast food restaurant, to describe the obesity problem in the United States. Exploring School Meals, Exercise, and the role of a sedentary lifestyle on the physical and economic health of America. He took a silly concept and thanks largely to the force of his comedic personality take a potentially boring topic (Nutrition) and makes it entertaining.
Super Size Me works for the same reason that the show Friends and the movie Shrek work. They are all the story of very likable people going on a journey. You are instantly drawn to Spurlock not because of his looks, his charm, and his intellect but there is an everyman quality about him that shines through. He is easily relatable and very likable.
10. Man on a Wire – Massively overrated. It is a great concept full of great visual imagery that could have been heavy handed but was very well done. Man on a Wire describes how a French Tight Rope Walker broke in, strung a wire and walked between the towers of the World Trade Center. This story was great, but the film made it less interesting. This is one of the few topics that would be better as a bio-pic than it was as a documentary.
11. Exit Through the Gift Shop* - yes, Exit gets the ominous astrix. Is Exit really a documentary or is itself a piece of Graffiti art? Exit is described as a documentary about graffiti artist Banksy. He has achieved worldwide fame by not revealing his identity, not having his picture taken and more importantly by creating some of the best graffiti art in the world. Ironically, he became famous by being anonymous. This is one of the many questions to ask if what he is doing is for him or for massive self promotion. Google his stencils from the wall between Palestine and Israel. They are amazing. The film starts by describing the history of Graffiti art. This art form has many examples including mass producing iconic images (e.g. Atari Aliens, The Queen Mum and Andre the Giant)or ironic images (ex. Graffiti free zone in San Francisco) on public places. Technically it is vandalism. But the images are amazing, beautiful and as thought provoking as a piece in a museum. Banksy takes the camera and records how the “director” goes on a path to becoming a graffiti arts culminating in an amazingly successful art show in which the artist effectively outsourced the work to other artists. This film is a great commentary on how people “value” art and shows that the only real way for graffiti art to get back to its roots is to completely sell out as a way of saying “Fuck You! Pay $500,000 for a telephone booth with a pick ax in it. Tomorrow I will make a Che Guevara mural to be free for the world to view and enjoy. Thanks for financing my next trip to Israel. I will do a mural that the world will see for free. Go ahead and brag to your elitist friends about how you a “Master of the Universe” but at your heart you are truly Bohemian. You are lying to yourself and financing me. Oh yeah, thanks for renting ‘Exit through the Gift Shop’ I needed to buy more spray paint.
I was not familiar with his work when I saw this film. After seeing this film I purchased his coffee table book “Walls and Piece.” If it was meant to be an experimental film designed to laugh at film snobs the way his art shows will occasionally laugh at art snobs it worked. If it was designed to trigger thought and analysis about what really is art it worked, even if it was not a true documentary.