Because I find it very difficult to compare documentaries to narrative films. Listed by year, then ranked. No shorts.
For Twitter length reviews click here, especially since I am no longer updating this post as of 4/16/17.
2. Nanook of the North
1. Great White Silence
1. Berlin: Symphony of a Great City
1. Man With a Movie Camera
A movie that is so casually creative and masterful that it’s untouchable in terms of people plagiarizing it. What exactly could they steal without just remaking the documentary entirely? It’s literally just jump cut after jump cut, but that framing narrative utterly destroys any and all attempts to categorize this strange beast. The film might as well have ended with the titular man devouring the reels themselves, but I suppose that would make the quiet genius of the self-criticism a touch too broad. Just enjoy it as a crazy collage of Russia in a day, I suppose.
1. Salt for Svanetia
1. Man of Aran
2. Three Songs About Lenin
1. Triumph of the Will
1. Spanish Earth
1. Olympia Part 2
2. Olympia Part 1
1. Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One
1. In the Year of the Pig
1. La Region Centrale
1. Grey Gardens
Both a glorious piece of camp and a window into another eccentric world of cat piss and fleas. Fascinating as portrait of two very unique women, who could be aged down several years and still feel exactly the same. One is dangerously complacent and with a mean streak but whose years of experience and desire to just live her life make her a real ball. The other is like a teenager, alternating between a desire for independence and just wanting her mom to treat her as warmly as she did when she was a child.
1. F For Fake
1. Gates of Heaven
1. Vernon, Florida
1. Sans Soleil
No idea where to even begin with this film. Legendary for being nine and a half hours long and not containing a single frame of archival footage, with nothing but conversations and memories of the past constituting the material. It’s as painful as anything I’ve ever seen, deliberately designed to overwhelm the viewer with its sheer scope even if you zone out at times (and trust me, you will). While you’re free to draw your own thesis statement out of this documentary, as the Holocaust is the sort of topic that lends itself to that sort of thing, my take is that there’s a deliberate arc to Claude Lanzmann’s interviews even if it becomes deeply muddled just by how much there is on display. The movie is a failed attempt to document a genocide, with Lanzmann and his ever-present translator trying to deal with the big questions, then moving onto the day-to-day processes and how the people in the surrounding communities dealt with the massacre (in some cases with shockingly indifferent, casual anti-Semitism), and finally giving up and just focusing on the Krakow ghetto pre-liquidation. It’s as vast a canvas as anything, and some of the details are just shocking. The barbershop conversation in particular is one of the most horrifying scenes ever filmed, a blank stare into the heart of culpability and finding nothing, along with the one time Lanzmann pushes someone too far away from their intellectualized remove and they cannot deal with the pain. Hearing about the most minor details of the atrocities over endless minutes is what prompts a deeper, fuller understanding than the sort of thing one reads about in history books. And the Nazi interviews! We’re even further removed from them because of the tricks the crew had to pull with recording their stories, and the questions about ethical problems that Shoah raises is simultaneously troubling and part of the movie’s power. These are as revealing as anything I can imagine, and prompt difficult discussions about the nature and banality of human evil. I can’t call Shoah a necessary piece of work at all, although I will say that the people who are most inclined to avoid it are the ones who should watch it, but it’s certainly one of the most important things ever made, and it’s a strong example of how, sometimes, a movie can be dubbed a masterpiece solely on the basis of its subject matter.
1. The Thin Blue Line
1. Paris is Burning
Documentaries like this are ultimately about grabbing a specific time and capturing it, and this was a time of great tragedy and great beauty for the gay men of NYC. Relevant even to the RuPaul’s Drag Race age as a commentary on many things but especially white/cis privilege, both within and outside groups of gay men.
While Koyaanisqatsi is edited far more effectively, arguably the greatest music video ever in a certain sense, my heart ultimately belongs to Baraka’s near-successful attempts to bottle up all of humanity. The latter is a much harder watch even with the former essentially implying that all our technology is doomed to fall apart with that final shot of the rocket falling to Earth. Baraka, however, has a far more cosmic soundtrack (I could listen to it all day without watching a single image and still get something out of it) and greater worldview, from the highs of the greatest sights that are still happening today to the lows of history’s horrors, past and present. We see streetwalkers followed by female employees at a casino followed by performing women in what I’m sure is kabuki makeup. The meaning is vague, but it represents something about womanhood. We see factories, people scavenging trash, planes followed by fires. Most grim of all is a sequence of Japanese commuters in the subway who are compared to chicks in a factory assembly line who get treated in a way so casually gross as to render one a vegetarian, ending with their beaks being burned off in a mechanized process. For comparison, Koyaanisqatsi compared the process of the daily commute to an assembly line of hot dogs. The movie also goes for a slower, methodical long take approach, sparing us nothing-the Auschwitz sequences with seemingly never-ending shots of creepy metal hallways and countless shoes and photographs of the victims are as upsetting as anything in the bleakest Holocaust film, with a certain series of visuals that follow being incredibly tempting to turn away from. Yet even in the horrifying processes that the film documents over endless years and all around the world, beauty is everywhere, whether in a full body tattoo, masterfully applied tribal makeup, or in a synchronized movement of worship for the Buddha. The trash scavengers still look beautiful. The people who stare at the camera without blinking are filled with dignity. If nothing else, it’s a marvel of pretty pictures that could inspire wanderlust from anyone, and the kind that makes one want to see everything as opposed to the idealized, safe things. To which I say, do it, before the world is swallowed up the evils captured and the wonderful things humanity can do vanish forever. Preachy, perhaps, but the movie is deeply religious despite its initial travel guide exterior.
2. The Quince Tree Sun
1. Fast Cheap and Out of Control
1. Histoire(s) Du Cinema
1. Dark Days
1. The Gleaners and I
2. Southern Comfort
1. Bowling for Columbine
1. Love and Diane
Love and Diane’s titular characters are a pair of deeply complicated women, products of a system that punished the worst off until some relatively recent developments. The documentary doesn’t really look at the Catch-22 situation that they are in with social services but you can tell that the relationship is tangled for everyone involved. It’s such a shame that this movie is so little known, for it is so intimate that it feels staged, yet too painful to be anything other than the truth. Diane is nothing like anyone I’ve ever seen in a film, documentary or otherwise, yet totally familiar in how she is pushing past her past mistakes and clinging to any semblance of normalcy via faith and dreams of office work. Watching her at a job interview is grim. Love isn’t a bargaining chip exactly, but her HIV+ status and new baby make it so that her family can afford a nicer apartment from their Social Services check, until Diane is forced to report her as a neglectful mother due to her depressive tendencies that make it hard for her to take care of the infant, Donyaeh. She doesn’t take this well, and she probably has every right to feel that way even with her rages and moods that are not documented as they occur, but the aftermath is vicious looking. All of this makes the movie sound like a case study, but it’s anything but that. It’s about two people trying to make their way through a life that’s already difficult enough, but they can’t help but make it harder for each other because of their backgrounds (one of the things Diane says to Love, which the latter recounts in a meeting with her lawyer, is wince-inducing). They’re also tremendously articulate, which is always helpful. As far as documentary based desires go, I want nothing more than for an update on Love and Diane, even if all their progress through this world has probably become even more tough. Whatever happened to Jennifer Dworkin? I’d give everything for a follow up. Humane, lacking in gimmicks, and socially grounded-Love and Diane deserves a bigger audience and respect as a classic of the genre. For the strongest scene in the film to be so grainy because of Dworkin tucking herself against the wall shows commitment, not sloppiness. Both those adjectives apply to the primary relationship, and it’s all the better a documentary for it.
2. The Weather Underground
The Weather Underground is a rarity among talking head documentaries for shamelessly grappling with incredibly difficult political topics and hitting every note it aims for. Justified violence is not enough of a topic in politics let alone cinema, and The Weather Underground makes a strong case both for and against it. Has aged brilliantly if only for the grimness of the vision on display, with very little having changed since the days of the Vietnam War and the Black Panthers. The subjects are such an eclectic mix despite blurring together a bit. Feels a bit like a news story that only has 90 minutes to hit all of its points and it does so.
3. To Be and To Have
1. The Five Obstructions
Watching the little mind games between Leth and Trier, we see the teacher/student relationship take on new life, but more importantly, the relationship between author intent and what actually comes across is so thoroughly dissected that the fifth obstruction feels like Trier slapping Leth with a gauntlet before laughing. It’s the Rosetta stone to a provocateur.
1. Grizzly Man
Superb character study that delves into Timothy’s isolationism, closeted homosexuality, relationship with bears, and above all his fundamentalism with as much depth as you could hope for. Near flawless.
1. Dave Chappelle’s Block Party
A fabulous party, a thoughtful gift, a glorious tour, character/community portrait…whatever you want it to be! And it features Lauryn Hill to boot. That Jesus Walks performance alone justifies the screening.
2. Iraq in Fragments
The documentary is one of the genres of film (if such things even exist) that it is easiest to push the standard boundaries in, if only because there’s a whole lot of layers between fact and fiction to be peeled back. Zoo does this in the form of near silent reenactments of all the events of the human-animal encounter that resulted in a colon perforation for Kenneth Pinyan, with voice overs from the interviews accompanying the images. It’s neither a talking heads doc or a biopic, and the lack of words spoken on screen reminds me a little of the second half of a movie that came along five years later in Tabu, in that it evokes the film functioning as a memory in how impressionistic it all is. There is absolutely nothing disgusting about this beyond the subject matter (and I’m not just referring to the sexual aspect of it). Adding to this is the movie’s lighting, which puts almost all other documentaries and quite a number of narrative works to shame. Combine this with the soft strobe score and you have a sort of animal point of view conjured up, with a color palette for those who see a small spectrum but do so most intensely. Whatever it’s aiming for, it’s as dreamy as can be, with several scenes composed with transfixing minimalism and great use of negative space. For a more modern comparison, think Under the Skin’s inky black void of death. One visual of a house from the outside, with a warm, golden window filled with the “zoo” friends as the outside is cold and blue, is a perfect encapsulation to me of the film’s skills in framing. In the more typical mode of documentaries being a study of something, Zoo is not a case of style over substance, with the interviews being a fascinating look at projection that adds even more to the blank slate memories. The zoophiliacs are pretty clearly social shut-ins, deeply hurt by the world meddling in their affairs, but it slowly becomes a warranted complaint even when we’re given the side of people like vets who have good reason to believe that the horses are being outright abused. Hold your tongue, don’t say “ew” or cringe. Just watch it (it’s short!) and allow the voices of these men to be heard. The movie is a cry for tolerance, and the shot of a man running into the wilds while radio shock jocks talk about the subject matter in the crudest terms possible is far more nasty than anything else you’ll see.
2. Deep Water
1. Trouble the Water
2. Up the Yangtze
1. Beaches of Agnes
A gleaning from a vagabond from 5 to 7. Both a personal document of a fascinating woman that’s never less than delightful to watch (except when she thinks about Jacques Demy which is just heartbreaking) and something that pushes legitimately new territory even by the standards of a master. Even more pixie dust filled than The Gleaners and I, but really just so much more in general. Jam packed with stars but the most glowing is Varda herself, with so much love to spread around from the depths of her ocean-filled soul. A great potential double feature with #2 on this list.
2. Of Time and the City
One of those movies that it’s very difficult to make come across as appealing even though it totally is, for it is filled with heart and a biting sense of humor, Terence Davies’ Of Time and the City is an essay film comprised of mixed media and absolutely vicious narration from Davies himself. Poetic turns of phrase like “gobstoppers that would last until your middle age” or the utter scorn with which he spits out condemnations of the Catholic Church as simple as “GOD WILLING” are enough to make Liverpool sound like a nasty shithole and the director sound like a mean old man. And he’s very much critical of the religious influences so ingrained there, and he probably is a curmudgeon. But what an ode to childhood this is, for while most are bittersweet, Davies is not afraid to wrestle with the fact that there are, quite frankly, a lot of shitty things that occur during childhood, and yet they are scrapbooked and nostalgically reminisced over. And all this is done using the archival footage of people who probably weren’t even thinking about the children when they filmed it, for the subliminal effects of graffiti streaked buildings or homophobic judges have a ripple effect. It’s both a ghost story and a societal portrait. More importantly, though, it shows that our lead of sorts in Davies himself could be writing and narrating a hit comedy if he wasn’t a film director, with his launching into a prayer after thanking God for his born-again atheism not feeling out of place in something directed by Woody Allen. The movie doesn’t even hit the 75 minute mark but when a movie like this is basically an internal monologue, about an hour of this kind of soapboxing and beauty pageant arguments is just the right amount. It’s a chance to see the world through the eyes of another in the most literal way, and one of the most pleasant surprises for me was how much I was reminded of myself when our guide would say things like The Beatles being a waste (they really are overrated) or reveal a quiet sadness over a boy putting a hand on his shoulder and not wanting him to leave. We don’t want to leave that moment either, but we must go and see a worn-down cathedral compared to the slums, for it is the nutrition within this feast.
3. Anvil! The Story of Anvil
Filled with enough highs and lows to pack a whole album. You can see that this band is very much doomed (their tour manager is the type of woman who says “S as in Sodom” when spelling things) and it’s a hilarious trainwreck. But it’s also fucking sad. This is Spinal Tap with all the pathos.
4. Pervert’s Guide to Cinema
5. Capitalism: A Love Story
1. Exit Through the Gift Shop
2. Cave of Forgotten Dreams
Wim Wenders’ Pina is so successful as a tribute to the choreographer Pina Bausch that I went from knowing nothing about her to thinking her loss was the worst thing to ever happen to the world of modern dance. It’s not so much for the capturing of her personality, with bland talking heads that don’t actually move their lips and give only the vaguest of insights into her mind. That part is the only thing keeping this from masterpiece status, especially since I left the movie thinking I didn’t know shit about Ms. Bausch’s personality outside of her wonderful line “Dance, dance, otherwise we are lost.” Instead, this film should’ve focused solely on the dances of this visionary artist. I know almost nothing about dancing, but what struck me most was just how important the setting of the dances were and where everyone was positioned relative to each other, and how fucking thrilling it was to watch as a result. Unlike some other horrifying musical numbers on film that cut around everywhere so we can’t see the full performance, Wenders uses the camera simply to draw our attention to the most important parts of the dance while occasionally doing a little substitution via editing for the piece with ensembles of different ages. It’s cinematic, but not obtrusively so. In other words, the human body is given its proper reverence. I truly wish I could have seen this one in 3D just to get even more out of the positioning of people’s limbs and bodies, but high definition will do just fine. Her two most signature numbers are also the most interesting. I hadn’t even considered the possibility of dancing to the Rite of Spring, let alone doing it in a gigantic square of dirt, but the exaggerated, filthy movements between the genders are like nothing I’ve ever seen. The other, Cafe Muller, with people crashing and playing around with chairs in a fashion that’s initially quite alarming, is as weird and wonderful as any dream sequence from a Rob Marshall musical that focuses on people dancing in their fantasies, except this is a real life piece of bizarre performance art. If only the rest of the movie was this narratively informal in its focus and had just been a performance piece, for I could watch this troupe of dancers get dragged around by ropes and dance on escalators all damn day.
2. The Arbor
The Arbor is a fascinating study of a woman but it also reinvents the documentary…is it a documentary, though? It could be a biopic. Or an adaptation of the play. Or a kitchen sink drama that might also be reality. And is it ultimately about Lorraine or Andrea? Like Dunbar’s work, The Arbor is all about observing, capturing the rhythms and sadness of the poor working class living in the United Kingdom’s apartment blocs, with the kitchen sink turned up to a full blast of hot water. The lip syncing puts RuPaul’s Drag Race to shame, too. It is a blurry looking film, but the smears are perfect for a film with blurred lines between fact and fiction. (It’s ultimately a documentary, though.)
3. The Interrupters
1. The Imposter
Astounding. Don’t want to say more-watch this blind.
2. Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present
One of the great documents of commitment to one’s art, with both the kind of eloquent subject anyone would love to have and some genuinely fascinating work delved into, spiraling outwards to reflect all those touched by Marina Abramovic until it comes back to us, staring back at Marina.
1. At Berkeley
Very confidently my number one (some of the other years await more additions) and fully warrants a full write-up for so many reasons that I don’t know I could enumerate them. It’s four hours long but truly feels like so much less. This documentary is one of the zippiest films ever relative to its length, simply because it feels like a typical day at college except you get to peek into the faculty meetings for a change. I think it would appeal to both those receiving a higher education and those who are not for that alone, and I would also go so far as to say that At Berkeley is one of the great portraits of a generation in all its intelligent naivete and inability to deal with forces that are too huge and out of control for them to tackle. Sadly, it won’t be seen by enough young people because of its (admittedly intimidating) length and Wiseman being far too obscure for all his skill, but I’d demand it as required viewing for almost anyone. Grows even scarier when you realize this takes place in a blue state and still only so much can be done by those who actively want to help. Has enormous ambitions, just like the subjects, and succeeds at fulfilling all of them simply by being so all-encompassing. Frederick Wiseman touches upon subjects as heavy as the death of the middle class and the absolute crisis that is student loan debts in the United States, to under-explored topics like the difficulty for today’s youth in their attempts making changes. There’s only so much they can do, but they’re just not capable of handling it because of the vicious circle that is the scale and demanded speed of their demands, and the administration’s unwillingness to help. But this is only my opinion, and the film’s secret weapon is its skill as a Rorschach blot for the individual viewer. Whatever your age or political leaning, this is quietly devastating and a contender for best film of the year if you mix the documentaries with the recreations. I will not spoil the song that plays at the end but it’s exactly what this journey into the very heart of Americana (and the beliefs in education that shape so much of our country) demands, and it brings all four hours of difficulties home in a gut punch tinged with kindness.
2. First Cousin Once Removed
3. The Act of Killing
As a film, I demand more from The Act of Killing. Or rather, less. The film becomes incredibly redundant after a certain point and needed a trim-the Director’s Cut should have been treated as bonus footage, although I can’t think of a more revolting or unwanted bonus. But as a document of a shameful period of history and how we absorb media, it’s astounding. Hopefully this third place ranking doesn’t seem like I’m telling people it’s not worth seeing, I’d actually call it required viewing for everyone who can see it. If you’re reading this, then you can.
4. Stories We Tell
5. Pervert’s Guide to Ideology
See the first Pervert’s Guide, but even better?
1. The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness
If all you knew about this movie was that it focused on a studio and the title, it would practically imply the sort of movie production studio where mad prophets who have turned to the filmmaking industry fight for more money/creative control and the stars of the movie are insane primadonnas, it’s a relief that The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness is merely a quiet portrait, where the stars are being born before our eyes and given life by voice actors. Even when the average Studio Ghibli fan probably knows from interviews that Hayao Miyazaki speaks his mind without hesitation and is a bit of a curmudgeon to boot, the candor on display here is refreshing, with no mind games at Studio Ghibli taking place-that’s not to say there isn’t any drama, however, it’s just very polite about it. The documentary leaps around many different topics over its slightly padded runtime as production over The Wind Rises/Tale of Princess Kaguya kicks into high gear (the latter film’s pace being relative), with the most intriguing being the relationship between Miyazaki and the near-unseen Isao Takahata-they are friendly rivals, but Takahata’s natural slowness makes him seem like a mythic Artist, whereas we slowly grow to realize that Miyazaki is ultimately more of a perfectionist craftsman, and one whose relationship with his job is the most casual, endearing sort of hypocrisy, going from wanting to work ten more years to retiring out of sheer exhaustion with his films. His committed routines, perfectionist demands for the animation crew, and existential crises over the changes in the century practically feel like they were written to make the film a scripted character study. Studio Ghibli’s future is not looking good, and it’s made clear early on that the tsunami, an increasingly elderly audience, and the original crew’s retirements are essentially making this into a eulogy. So thank goodness for Mami Sunada, a woman of great talent who is able to rile the appropriate emotions out of her subject, along with some genuinely startling insights. Finding out which film Miyazaki considers “foolish” is like watching a child get disowned, while his answers to the questions about Kiki’s Delivery Service are the sort of insight that the film is filled with, enough to make anyone devoted to a creative career have a better understanding of what works and doesn’t work in a movie. It all ends with the closest to flight one can achieve.
1. Field Niggas