I really enjoy movies. I’ve always enjoyed watching them, talking about them, reading about them, and learning about what goes into the production process.
When I was in high school I used to make short videos for school and elsewhere, and always really enjoyed it. Heck, one day I would like to film a documentary — or even short film — of my own.
For now, though, I want to mention a handful of documentary films that I can recommend. Each of these films is quite a bit different than the other, but I think they all share the distinct quality that makes them good documentaries: they make you more interested in the subject matter than you were before you watched it.
6 Days to Air
If you haven’t had a chuckle or two from South Park yet, you’re truly missing out. As much as I like the show’s funny social commentary, their method is even more fascinating. 6 Days to Air documents the production of a single episode of their show, which happens in less than one week.
American Movie chronicles the efforts of one Mark Borchardt to finish his flim project Coven. It will resonate with anyone who has ever made their own productions, or aspires to, as well as those who grew up in small towns with bigger aspirations.
This one is definitely funny, has its share of awesome one-liners, and is also uplifting in its own strange way.
Burzynski is a documentary I’m not sure I’m really qualified to comment on, since I’m far from a science expert. But what I do know is that the film sets out to tell the story of biochemist Stanislaw Burzynski and his controversial — and often entirely successful — cancer treatments and his struggles with the Food and Drug Administration and the rest of the medical community. I had never heard of him before, and found it really fascinating.
Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop
Conan O’Brien took over Late Night in 1993, when I was only six years old. I don’t really remember a time watching Late Night when he wasn’t hosting. Perhaps because of this, and because I’m a fan of his, I paid close attention both to his ascent to The Tonight Show and his walking away from it on principle. This documentary picks up after those events wrapped up, when he takes a tour on the road during the months when he was legally forbidden not to appear on television.
For both fans of Conan and creative, motivated people who have seen frustrations of their own, I highly recommend this documentary.
Hell House is a challenging movie to watch, particularly for those that have grown up within a religious family or community. It depicts a haunted house run by a fundamentalist Christian church, specifically for the purpose of converting those who walk through it. No matter who you watch it with, it’s bound to stir up a discussion, likely before it’s even over.
For me, the movie is unsettling and a bit sad. But the story told is striking and worth revisiting every now and then, I think.
Indie Game: The Movie
I just reviewed this movie earlier this weekend. It’s fascinating for those who love gaming, but in particular it inspired me as a creative person. It documents the passions, frustrations, and successes of a few developers working to build independent video games. If you need a good dose of inspiration and motivation, give this one a go.
Much like Hell House, Jesus Camp delivers a non-judgmental story of a camp designed for fundamentalist Christian children. I would echo everything I said above about Hell House here, and perhaps recommend a freaky-sad Christian movie night with these two movies back to back.
The King of Kong
It’s a great movie for retro gaming buffs, but honestly it’s fantastic even if you have no interest in games whatsoever. I’ve watched this film with a few friends who aren’t into gaming, but convinced them that the underdog competitive story within would be compelling. Without fail, everyone ends up enjoying the movie and rooting along.
Loose Change 9/11
I’m a sucker for conspiracies, and Loose Change 9/11 is the definitive question-asking documentary focused on 9/11. It covers a number of angles that other documentaries I’ve seen don’t, and is also a solid primer for the most common concerns surrounding 9/11. It’s worth it if only as a primer, really, since there are probably more documentaries focused on 9/11 than on the Kennedy assassination.
Resurrect Dead is a fascinating film of obsession and mystery. Literally, the main character is obsessed with solving a real-life mystery. It centers on strange tiles that have been showing up all over the east coast, into the midwest, and even around the world, for the last 30 odd years. Many of the tiles simply read: “Toynbee Idea, in movie 2001, resurrect dead, on planet jupiter”.
The research and lead-tracking the main characters do kept me hooked the whole way through.
The People vs. George Lucas
For many, their love of Star Wars is only matched by their frustration with George Lucas over his consistent tweaking of the original trilogy. Well, that and no longer releasing the original untouched films. It pisses people off.
I’m not quite at that point, but I can certainly understand the arguments of the frustrated. I’m not against a director having control over his creation, but I don’t see the benefit in locking away original versions of films.
Anyway, if this issue piques your interest at all you’d like this documentary.
I’m not always a fan of Bill Maher’s methods, and I think his demeanor might turn some folks off from this movie. Even so, I think the film is worth it. Aside from the interviews with various religious people, Maher also shows a surprising amount of vulnerability and honesty when reflecting on his own history of religious beliefs.
Whether you’re a religious person or not, I would argue, there is something to be gained from this film.
Special When Lit
Special When Lit covers the history of pinball and spends a good deal of time with many of today’s most avid collectors and players.
My brother-in-law turned me on to this one due to his interest in pinball machines and his increasing involvement in the pinball community. I’d never thought too much about them, but as any good documentary film will do I’m quite a bit more interested in them after watching it.
It’s not something I ever knew to look for before, but it seems there is a strong pinball community in just about every major city nowadays. Who knew?
This Film Is Not Yet Rated
If you’ve ever been frustrated or confused by the state of movie ratings, track this film down and watch it. The film combines interviews with filmmakers who are effected by the ratings negatively with an investigation into the members of the entirely secretive ratings board. Interviewees include Matt Stone, John Waters, Kevin Smith, and many others.
Best of all, this film will open the eyes of those who maybe never considered the source of (or implications of) the MPAA before. Watch it, and show it to your friends.
Any suggestions of your own?
That’s my list of documentary films, at least as far as I can recall. Are there any that you’ve seen and would recommend to me?
I’ve seen most of these and I agree that they are films you don’t want to miss.
However the best documentary I’ve ever seen is Touching the Void.
It’s an incredible survival story of two mountain climbers – one of which has to make a terrible descision that is controversial even to this day.
The acting and cinematography is some of the best and adds to the mix to make this a fantastic watch.
Looks like it’s on Netflix. I’ll check it out this week. Thanks Josh!
Nice list and I’ve seen quite a few of these. Will check out Burzynski as that sounds interesting. The documentaries which made the most impact on me are Dear Zachary and Collapse.
Thanks — I haven’t seen either of those. Dear Zachary has been in my Netflix queue for some time, I just haven’t gotten around to it yet.
I’ve actually seen every film on this list — and aside from “Loose Change,” I’m a fan of them all!
Most of the documentaries you highlight revolve around the creative process, so I’ll share a few in that vein and then a few that I really love just because I love them.
(I’m a huge documentary nerd and went to film school — you’ve been warned)
* Startup.com — Most people have seen this now, but it’s really interesting to watch it 10 years after it was released and 13/14 years after the events in the film. There are a number of docs that chronicle the .Bomb movement but Startup.com is probably the best. e-Dreams, the story of Kozmo.com is also a good one — but it’s probably not available digitally.
* Overnight — One of my favorite rise and fall docs, Overnight is the story of the guy that directed “The Boondock Saints.” Suffice to say, he’s kind of a huge jackass and the film chronicles his rise and fall from wunderkind to being totally shut out of Hollywood. Ironically, “Boondock Saints” did end up being a cult hit, but the way his deal was structured, I don’t think he made anything off of its success on home video. Troy Duffy debates the accuracy of the film — and to be sure, the filmmakers had their own biases — but every interview I’ve seen with the guy shows he’s a pretty big douche.
* The Kid Stays in the Picture — Robert Evans shaped the second major golden era of Hollywood (Chinatown, The Godfather, Love Story, Rosemary’s Baby, the list goes on) and his autobiography is a great read, as is this narrated film (by Evans) that chronicles his life’s work.
* Midnight Movies: From Margin to Mainstream — Great overview of the midnight movie era, the career of Jon Waters/Divine, etc.
As for more general picks:
* Capturing the Friedmans — Absolutely compelling family drama.
* Born Rich — Study of those born into extreme privilege
* The Thing Blue Line — Got a guy off of death row. Rock on Errol Morris.
* Hoop Dreams
And I’ll stop there.
I’d also recommend tracking down HBO’s Project Greenlight TV series – particularly the first two seasons. The third season (which I believe Bravo aired), sucked ass, but Season 1 and 2, while the film’s weren’t anything special, the series itself was a great look at the filmmaking process.
Nice list, checkout I Like Killing Flies… probably my favorite doc on Netflix