Amusingly I had Man With A Movie Camera at my number one position, and Night and Fog in second place!
I couldn’t really decide properly on qualitatively best films (also found it very difficult to rank ‘real life’!), and looking through the list there are a lot of films I forgot, missed or simply have not yet seen (I’m thinking about doing a quick post on that soon). So I just put together a list of the documentaries that were most on my mind at this particular moment in time. I tried to go for documentaries that provided the most interesting and unique experiences too!
My orphans are:
4. Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media – I think this is the more lovable kaleidoscopic journey through ideological concepts to The Corporation’s more militantly confrontational stance. I love both (and am glad to see The Corporation on the list at 49) but this is my personal favourite! In what other film do you get to journey to the actual town called ‘Media’!
6. Edward Said: The Last Interview – Three and a half hours of Said talking about his life, his career, his work and ideas contained in his novels, Palestine and the failures of Arafat. Absolutely compelling throughout with no need for flashy visuals, just time to watch people talking, leafing through books and discussing. I also voted for it because it inspired me to buy a copy of Orientalism!
7. The Power of Nightmares: The Rise of The Politics of Fear, 18. The Trap: What Happened To Our Dreams of Freedom and 19. All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace – I also had Pandora’s Box in there too but decided that I needed to give filmmakers other than Adam Curtis some attention too! I put a thread about the Curtis films here
and went through All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace as it was broadcast.
I really like the montage storytelling techniques in these documentaries that works beautifully to inspire subliminal, slightly cheeky connections between topics! I would also recommend the, non-narrated, intertitled, Doris Day-stock footaged, ‘wall of sound’ soundtracked It Felt Like A Kiss
as a good entry point too!
9. Enthusiasm – I’m glad I quickly remembered to vote for this one now! Best enjoyed with a glass of celebratory vodka to raise in triumph as the religious iconography troops dejectedly out of its church!
10. Raw Deal: A Question of Consent – a harrowing film about rape, class, the education system, prostitution, domination, videotape, ‘justice’, and whether anyone comes out of a terrible situation with their dignity intact, especially once the authorities get involved.
13. London Orbital – a trip around London’s main motorway ringing the city (a ‘non-place’) that sparks off a chain of free associative reminiscences, remembrances and dreams that personalise and humanise an otherwise empty stretch of road.
14. The Colours of Infinity – not the best made documentary in the world, but a fascinating one, as Arthur C. Clarke talks through the world of fractals and the Mandelbrot set.
16. Waco: The Rules of Engagement – An almost insanely comprehensive documentary tracing the rise and downfall of David Koresh’s Branch Davidian cult, from video tapes of sermons, to the phone calls during the fatal FBI siege.
17. American Movie – “It’s all right! It’s OK! There is something to live for!! Jesus told me so!” Also valuable for teaching me the way that all
Americans seem to pronounce Coven (not like oven but like the cove of a beach!) *wink*
20. Blackfish – I thought I should throw in a modern film as a kind of compensation for not having yet had the guts (or the time!) to watch The Animals Film! But this is a great substitute, showing the life of killer whales in capitivity and their occasionally fatal interaction with their trainers (both parties betrayed by their Sea World managers, i.e. the people who really deserve to be eaten or placed in captivity!)
21. Culloden – a magnificent ‘cinema verite’ documentary taking the conceit of a camera crew capturing the events of the 18th century battle, running its lens down the line of bedraggled conscripts. The theme of the blameless individual being railroaded by uncaring leaders into fighting their battles for them, for no reward.
22. Chicken Ranch – behind the scenes of a brothel in the middle of nowhere with its own private airfield to ferry in the randy clientele. Amusing, jawdropping, depressing and dark, sometimes all at the same time. But hey, it’s a job!
23. Robinson in Ruins – following London and Robinson In Space, this is a view of Britain’s landscape with the human interaction marginalised in favour of nature reclaiming forbidden or ‘toxic’ spaces.
30. A Great Day In Harlem – The story behind gathering all of the jazz greats of the late 1950s together for a group photograph. This same photograph actually gets used as a significant plot point in Spielberg’s The Terminal, so if you watch this documentary you not only get more insight into the individuals, but also don’t need to watch Tom Hanks and Catherine Zeta-Jones going through an on-again/off-again odd couple romance!
32. The Same River Twice – intercutting between the past and the present, this is a film about a naïve communal rafting trip with abundant nudity and free love contrasted against the present day of faded or shelved ideals as people button up their blouses to become schoolteachers or forlornly reminisce about the good old days. The impossibility of recapturing, or recreating, an idyllic moment.
33. Out of Phoenix Bridge – a documentary about four Chinese women who have moved to the countryside and are all sharing a tiny room in Beijing while looking for work as labourers. Another film about hopes and dreams almost powerless in the face of harsh reality. Also clear eyed about the pressures of supporting a family back in the countryside, or abandoning children to be raised by their grandparents while you have to move where the opportunities are.
37. A (1998) – followed a couple of years later by the follow up film A2, this is in a similar vein to the Waco film, but about the Aum Shinrikyo cult
who were behind the Tokyo subway sarin gas attacks in 1995
38. The Death of Yugoslavia – the magnificent, harrowing BBC series interviewing those involved in the break up of Yugoslavia, Bosnian war and subsequent ethnic cleansing.
39. Tattooed Tears – behind the scenes of a Juvenile detention facility in California. Scary stuff!
40. Patience (After Seabald) – as with London Orbital, a geographical journey through a piece of literature
41. Visions of Light: The Art of Cinematography – a great tribute to the creation of breathtaking imagery
42. Paradise Lost – The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills – corruption, assumptions and deception
45. Classified X – Melvin van Peebles presents a journey through black representation in cinema. Prepare yourself for lots of insensitive blackface material and Shirley Temple behaving like a little brat towards her various filmic butlers!
46. East Side Story – now I know that MichaelB didn’t submit a list! This is another film documentary, this time about the Soviet musicals extolling the virtues of farming and meeting the yearly quotas! (Almost directly in opposition to all the Busby Berkeley beautiful yet decadent celebrations of the aesthetic qualities of love, dance and music for its own sake!) Much more fun than it sounds, as these were the mainstream entertainment films that all the budget available to filmmakers got thrown at in order to make them as lavish as possible.
47. Crystal Voyager – the best surfing film ever made, split into two halves. The first follows a pro surfer, their live and their fascination with the sea. The second dives into the ocean to put the audience onto the surfboard with fish eye lenses and inside the wave shots galore. The final stretch, scored to Pink Floyd’s Echoes
, is superb.
48. Wednesday – in contrast to East Side Story, this is a portrait of lives in a crumbling Moscow tower block!
49. The Future Is Not What It Used To Be – a portrait of a Finnish ‘futurist’. I wrote more about this here
50. Synthetic Pleasures – now this documentary is definitely dated, full of mid 90s ‘virtual reality’ shots, but covers so many different issues from the internet culture of the time to created ‘faux natural’ landscapes to sexuality, video games, and subcultures in general. Is this form of ‘reproduction’ as good, or at least as vibrant, as the Biblical one?