What are the best documentaries of all time? Sight and Sound is about to release a poll around this issue. Richard Brody has his choices, of which I’ve seen 2: Night and Fog, which belongs, and The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On, which is one of the most remarkable films I’ve ever seen although I’m not sure one of the best.
I don’t know that I’m quite qualified to answer this question. There are a lot of bloody documentaries out there and I’ve seen a lot of them, but then a lot of really important ones I haven’t seen. I think it’s more interesting perhaps to think about what makes a good documentary. Brody’s take:
What these selections have in common is the idea of history, the construction of history cinematically, and the manifest personal involvement of the filmmakers in that construction. The ultimate subject of all great documentaries is the presence of the filmmaker at the events on view or under consideration—and when, as in Wiseman’s work, the filmmaker is subtracted, it’s a conspicuous subtraction, as if by way of an onscreen equation. The implication of the past in the present, the ongoing effect of the past in the present, is another crucial documentary idea—the contextualization of reported events by means of visual archeology and intellectual analysis, the unfurling of the filmmakers’ own thought process by way of that analysis. That’s the source of these ten movies’ vital, dynamic, and ongoing inspirations for other filmmakers, as well as for these filmmakers’ own later works. The past in the present, the future in the present—the essence of the great documentary is in the cinematic conception of time, the disjunction between the real time of filming and the times that it implies. Rule of thumb: the greater and more wondrous that disproportion, the greater the film.
I’m not as smart as Brody, so I’ll be a bit less lyrical. I like documentaries that throw you off kilter. That certainly can consist of the interplay between past and present as Brody says, but it doesn’t have to be. What I dislike about documentaries–and what annoys me about how people talk about interesting documentaries–is the idea that the tell the truth. So often, when I watch something like Jennifer Baichwal’s Act of God, which is about people struck by lightning and closes with the experimental guitarist Fred Frith telling his story of his strike with a 5 minute guitar improvisation, the commenters are angry because they just wanted to know SOME FACTS ABOUT LIGHTNING!!!! There’s the strong sense that documentaries serve as either how-to manuals of understanding the world or as crusading films exposing evil.
I’m more sympathetic to the latter, but most of them aren’t very good films. I don’t necessarily want to know more about a topic when I come out of a documentary. I want to have my way of thinking about the world transformed. And sometimes this happens. Here’s 11 I think very highly of as I’m sitting here. Not definitive, even for me.
Night and Fog (Resnais, 1955). Maybe the best documentary ever. Even among Holocaust films there’s a lot of competition there, but that’s a very powerful film.
Manufactured Landscapes (Baichwal, 2006). What is nature? Following the photographer Edward Burtynsky as he photographs Asian pollution, both artists involved challenge the viewer. It’s 2 stories, with Baichwal as important as Burtynsky. Wonderful for the intelligent Environmental Studies student interested in social justice. Plus anytime we can start a film with a 8 minute shot of row after row after row of Chinese factory workers doing the exact same thing, we are on the right path.
Grin Without a Cat (Marker, 1977). The best film about what the 60s represented and how they declined. No one played with the complexity of truth and memory more than Marker.
Louisiana Story (Flaherty, 1948). Probably my favorite of the older style of documentary that provides a lot of narration and a main character that may or may not have any real relation to how these people actually lived. But again, who cares about some arbitrary line of accuracy.
Grizzly Man (Herzog, 2005). Speaking of the complexity of truth, I’ve had multiple people who did not know each other question whether Herzog was really telling anything resembling the truth here. Which is great. Timothy Treadwell is an anti-social weirdo with major problems. So is Werner Herzog. And it’s not like Herzog is even all that sympathetic. So there are two stories from two dislikable people going on at the same time. Entertaining and seriously makes the viewer question the relationship between people and the wild.
Cave of Forgotten Dreams (Herzog, 2010). I usually try to limit films to one per director on these lists, but Herzog tells an incredibly compelling story about life and art 10,000 years ago. The past and present merge in this beautiful film. I was completely compelled from start to end.
Louie Bluie (Zwigoff, 1985). Documentaries about musicians are usually somewhat entertaining but don’t often get to the point of being really compelling. Louie Bluie is an exception, about a very cranky and hilarious old man and his amazing musical and visual art (including his “found art” (a term I hate) pornographic alphabet book.) Astounding.
The Times of Harvey Milk (Epstein, 1984). An exception to the political documentary problem of earnestness, as Epstein tells a story of movement just beginning to rise in American culture at a point where it is just beginning to go through its biggest crisis.
When the Levees Broke (Lee, 2006). Spike Lee’s finest film. Some complain that he gave credence to people who thought the government had blown up the levee to force black people to suffer the brunt of the disaster. Sure, that didn’t happen. However, it actually did happen in 1927. And given how horribly the government has treated African-Americans in New Orleans basically forever, those people had good reason to think that was possible. Again, documentaries aren’t about telling a single truth, whatever that even means in a case like the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
The Beaches of Agnes (Varda, 2008). The best autobiographical documentary I’ve seen. A great filmmaker making a film about a great filmmaker.
The Battle of San Pietro (Huston, 1945). Almost forgot about my favorite World War II film, where Huston spares the viewer nothing of the horrors of a minor battle in a necessary war. Made the military so uncomfortable that Mark Clark added an intro on the vital importance of this battle so the public wouldn’t get so upset by it.
Pretty recent set of films, but then we are living in the golden age of documentaries.