Ten Greatest Documentary Films of All Time

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Grey Gardens, Albert and David Maysles, 1976

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Albert and David Maysles, pioneers in the cinéma vérité movement of documentary filmmaking, chose for their subjects of this film a mother and daughter with celebrity connections. Edith Bouvier Beale and her daughter, Edie (or, as they are called by the brothers, Big Edie and Little Edie), are aunt and cousin to Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. In the early '70s, their 28-room mansion in Long Island's tony community of East Hampton was found to be a health hazard, and the two women, in their seventies and fifties, were threatened with eviction. Jacqueline Onassis paid for the house to be put in good order, and two years later, the Maysles paid the ladies a series of follow-up visits. This is not fly-on-the-wall filmmaking; the brothers are sometimes shown on-camera, and both women talk directly to them.


Gates of Heaven, Errol Morris, 1978

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Documentary filmmaker Errol Morris' debut immediately attracted acclaim for its straight-faced treatment of a subject practically begging for ridicule. When the Foothill Memorial Gardens pet cemetery, located north of San Francisco, closed (its land was sold for a housing project), the 450 animals interred there had to be moved to Bubbling Well Memorial Park in nearby Napa. Morris saw the transfer as an opportunity to explore the world of pet owners who are so devoted that they see nothing wrong with giving their animals a full dose of the last rites. His simple technique was to film his subjects, usually seated, talking about their loved ones, alternating with shots of the two cemeteries and the move. Critic Roger Ebert became an early champion of the film, and Morris' struggles to finish it resulted in a very amusing short film, Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe. The German filmmaker had bet Morris that he would never complete the film, and when he did, Herzog publicly boiled and consumed one of his shoes for the camera of director Les Blank.


Harlan County, U.S.A., Barbara Kopple, 1976

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Director Barbara Kopple's look at a 13-month coal miners' strike that took place between 1973 and 1974 in Harlan County, KY, is one of the great films about labor troubles, though not for a sense of objectivity. Kopple lived among the miners and their families off and on during the four years the entire story played out, and it's clear in every frame of the film that her sympathies lie with the miners and not their bosses at Eastover Mining, owned by Duke Power Company. Kopple's camera focuses on the desperate plight of people still living in shacks with no indoor plumbing and working dangerous jobs with little security and few safety rules.


Encounters at the End of the World, Werner Herzog, 2007

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Werner Herzog, director of such acclaimed documentaries as Grizzly Man and Little Dieter Needs to Fly, offers his unique perspective on the South Pole in this film profiling the Antarctic community of McMurdo Station. Located on Ross Island, McMurdo Station is the headquarters of the National Science Foundation. Whether offering a detailed study of the unique survival training regimen that newcomers to McMurdo are obligated to endure or pondering the majestic beauty of a landscape where the discovery of three new species in a single day is something worth truly celebrating, Herzog boldly offers viewers the opportunity to visit one of the most inaccessible and awe-inspiring landscapes on the planet.


Grizzly Man, Werner Herzog, 2005

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Filmmaker Werner Herzog adds another real-life character to his growing pantheon of people who walk a fine line between visionary genius and madness in this documentary. Timothy Treadwell was a self-styled authority on bears who, starting in 1990, would spend as much time as possible each year in Alaska, camping out near a grizzly bear habitat. While Treadwell claimed to love the bears and felt as one with them, he had no formal training in their behavior, and while familiarizing himself with the creatures he would walk within a few feet of them with a video camera in hand. Treadwell shot hundreds of hours of footage of himself and the grizzlies, and Herzog has used this footage as the core of Grizzly Man, a documentary look at Treadwell's life and death, while also including interviews with people who knew him, animal experts, and scientists.


Exit Through the Gift Shop, Banksy, 2010

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Exit Through the Gift Shop marks the feature-film debut of notorious street artist Banksy. The documentary's focus is French-born L.A. thrift-shop owner Thierry Guetta, whose apparent compulsion to videotape every moment of his life led him to document the phenomenon of contemporary street art. Guetta soon hears about the mysterious street artist/prankster Banksy, and becomes obsessed with finding him and videotaping his exploits. Thanks to Guettta's growing reputation among street artists, the two eventually meet and form a sort of partnership.


Lessons of Darkness, Werner Herzog, 1992

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Straddling a line between documentary and science fiction, Werner Herzog's Lektionen in Finsternis is an epic visual poem set in the burning oil fields of Kuwait following the 1990-1991 Persian Gulf War. Herzog, as much a daredevil as a documentarian, took his small crew in a helicopter and, floating above the fields, photographed jaw-dropping footage of the blazing, blackened landscape. Alternately horrific and majestic, the movie is a phantasmagoric, if distanced, catalog of horrors. Boiling lakes of crude oil, twisted scraps of melted metal, and ominous billows of smoke and fire abound. On the ground, the images are just as otherworldly. His high-flown rhetoric, dense with mythical portent and allusiveness, underscores this visionary movie's detached view of the destruction of the Kuwaiti oil fields.


The Fog of War, Errol Morris, 2003

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Former Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara is the sole focus of documentarian Errol Morris' The Fog of War, a film that not only analyzes McNamara's controversial decisions during the first half of the Vietnam War, but also his childhood upbringing, his education at Berkeley and Harvard, his involvement in World War II, and his later years as president of the World Bank. Culling footage from almost 20 hours of interviews with the Secretary, Morris details key moments from McNamara's career, including the 1945 bombing of Tokyo, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and President Kennedy's suggestions to the Secretary that the U.S. remove itself from Vietnam. Throughout the film, the 85-year-old McNamara expounds his philosophies on international conflict, and shows regret and pride in equal measure for, respectively, his mistakes and accomplishments.


Stevie, Steve James, 2002

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In the early '80s, Steve James was a student at Southern Illinois University who volunteered for the local Big Brother program and served as a mentor for Stephen Dale Fielding (Stevie for short), a troubled 11-year-old boy with unhappy family relationships. After a number of scrapes with the law and on-going battles with his family, Fielding had been charged with molesting his eight-year-old cousin, and he'd opted for a trial (which could lead to a twenty year prison sentence) rather than receive counseling, due in part to his experiences in a mental hospital. James and his wife (who counsels sex offenders) wanted to offer Stevie whatever help they could, and James opted to make a film about him, hoping to discover where Stevie's life and gone wrong and how his tragic turn of fate could have been prevented.


Stop Making Sense, Jonathan Demme, 1999

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Stop Making Sense was the first feature-length documentary effort of filmmaker Jonathan Demme. The director's subject is The Talking Heads, a new-wave/pop-rock group comprised of David Byrne, Chris Franz, Tina Weymouth and Jerry Harrison. The film was made during a three-day concert gig at the Pantages Theater in Hollywood. What emerges on screen says as much about director Demme's taste and sensitivity as it does about the group and its visionary leader Byrne. Though some of the material in Stop Making Sense overlaps with the Talking Heads' earlier concert film The Name of This Band is Talking Heads, one never gets the feeling of by-the-numbers repetition; the group's energy is such that it virtually explodes from the screen.

All descriptions of documentaries are from the website
Rotten Tomatoes.
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