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Ten Great Documentary Films

Updated on October 26, 2011

Documentary film making used to be associated with cinema vérité "day in the life" style movies and dry historical talking heads. While documentaries have gotten greater exposure over the past couple decades, they still occupy a lower rung in the movie hierarchy than fiction films. The fact is, that many documentaries show as much storytelling craft and generate as much excitement as fiction films. Many people view documentaries as a way to simply convey information but this isn't where documentaries really shine. Book still have the advantage over films in the ability to convey large amounts of information. The documentary film is still best suited at conveying artistic truths through storytelling. Many documentaries are often accused of being "biased", as if the form was associated with traditional media and not artistic perspective. Documentary filmmakers are often as much auteurs as fiction filmmakers, shaping a vision of the world that is uniquely their own and one that has the ability to change the way that you look at the world.


Barbara Kopple's 1990 Oscar winning documentary is especially relevant to today's political environment. The film follows the story of striking workers in Minnesota who had their wages and benefits slashed by a company that was posting record profits. The film is a harrowing portrayal of the robbing of the middle class by those in power. It is also documented proof that the corruption and unfairness in the American system that has only recently gotten wide attention has been with us a long time. Kopple's film explores how this has happened, and what the consequences are of rigging the game in favor of big business.


Andrew Jarecki's controversial documentary is mostly made up of home video footage of the Friedman family, coupled with interviews of those involved in the case. Arnold Friedman was a seemingly normal suburban father and computer teacher but he was arrested for possession of child pornography. What happened next was an explosion of hysteria in which the police and parents seemingly manufactured a case in which children were coerced into claiming that they were abused by Arnold and one of his sons Jessie. Arnold Friedman remains a pathetic figure throughout most of the documentary but his family is ripped apart by his actions and even after watching this incredibly gut wrenching film, nobody is sure of what really happened and whether an innocent man paid for his father;s sins.

CRUMB (1995)

The underground comic book artist Robert Crumb may be one of the most disturbed functional human beings that ever lived. His art, as with his life, is filled with obsessions and fetish. Those women who have accused Crumb of misogyny will probably not find anything to change their mind here. Crumb has a strange, troubled and complex relationship with women, and sexuality. The most fascinating parts of the documentary are the parts that explore Crumb's childhood and the life of his brother, who shows how Crumb might have turned out without his talent. Terry Zwigoff's film is one of the most unusual portraits of a human subject ever made.


Director Spike Lee is known for his provocative and racially charged fiction films, but he has also made a few documentaries and this is his best. The film explores the story of the four girls who were killed in a Birmingham, Alabama church bombing in 1963. The film functions as both a document of what was at stake in the American civil rights movement and the kind of brutality that was really being fought against. It is also a heartbreaking story of the families who lost four innocent little girls who had done nothing to anybody and whose only crime was being the wrong skin color.


There are a number of great rock documentaries out there but probably none will have the impact of this Rolling Stones movie by Albert and David Maysles. What makes the film so important is the concert at Altamont, which got out of control and the Hell's Angels who had been hired to run security brutalized a number of concert goers. many people consider the violence at Altamont to represent the ending of the piece and love aesthetic of the hippies and the beginning of a darker era for America. Watching this film feels as though you are witnessing something bubbling up from the American psyche while one of Britain's greatest bands stands witness to the fallout.


German Director Werner Herzog made a number of great documentaries as well as great fiction films, often portraying the eccentric passions of free spirited human beings. This movie is about Timothy Treadwell, a bear enthusiast and his passion for the animals. Unfortunately, Treadwell was mauled to death by a bear with his girlfriend. Herzog put his film together using 85 hours of Treadwell's footage of himself interacting with bears. The film portrays a man with an infectious passion for these animals, who nonetheless risked his life over and over in the naive belief that he had nothing to fear.


Director Tony Kaye is no stranger to controversy. He made the fiction film American History X, which gave a sympathetic portrayal of a white supremacist, while at the same time denouncing his views. He takes on an even more controversial subject with this three hour documentary about abortion. Kaye interviews doctors, legal experts, philosophers, religious fanatic, hardcore feminists and shows graphic footage of both abortions being performed and violence perpetrated against staff at abortion clinics. The movie is in black and white and uses no music or voice over to manipulate the viewers response. What we see is a complex issue laid bare before us, with all of the facts and opinions only contributing to an overall sense of ambivalence.


Erroll Morris is often cited as one of the best of contemporary documentary filmmakers. The reputation came from this film where he explored the case of an innocent man, Randall Dale Adams, who was tried and convicted and sat on death row. Taking place in Texas, the film portrays the dysfunction with the judicial system and the insanity of the death penalty, where revenge seems to be the primary motivator for the punishment. Morris actually was able to create change through his film. A year after it was released Adams was released from prison.


As much praise that has been heaped onto Gus Van Sant's fiction film Milk, Rob Epstein's documentary about the San Francisco civil rights leader may be even better. Milk was a man who dared to stand up for equality in a time when it was almost unthinkable for gays and lesbians to do so. He hit them where it hurt most, the pocketbook, and the methods that he used are still being used to fight for gay rights today. His tragic death, shot by Dan White, a fellow San Francisco supervisor shows the depth that homophobia goes in some people.


Joe Simpson and Simon Yates went through an ordeal that is absolutely unbelievable. While mountain climbing, Simpson broke his leg. Yates had no choice but to cut his friend loose and try to make it down on his own. The chances of either man making it down alive were miniscule. Both managed to make the incredible journey. This documentary features a mix of interviews with Simpson and Yates as well as re-enactments of their journey down the mountain. The result is a film as suspenseful and thrilling as any fiction film you have ever seen.


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      Laura 4 years ago

      HI Niki, glad to be of help ! I wouldn't do duoble wall for the expense and the amount of light it blocks out; single is fine, especially if you get six-year UV treated poly with a wicking aid on the inside face (it helps condensation run off). And it's my experience (especially at this time of year of transitioning crops in the greenhouses) that the more air you can get through there, the better. I do get by with only one roll-up side on both greenhouses. But realize that it rarely gets above 90 where I live (like, 2 days a summer) so if you have hotter summers than that you'll need to bring the temperature down as much as you can during the summer days, with either shade cloth or as much air blowing through there as possible open the ends, if you can. And the rocket stove! I need to fire it up again, it's a lot of fun, especially if we're just roasting potatoes or nuts or whatever.Congrats on your toys!

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      Svetlana 4 years ago

      hello,I just wished to write to say how much I've enyoejd reading your site. I am part cherokee on my mother's side and my sister is half blackfoot on her father's side. we are half sisters actually as you can see. but anyways I love anything and everything to do with the Native American culture. I also have a friend who is always looking for new info on this as well and I am having a problem with finding information about her birth totem. Her birthday is September 13 If you could help me I'd be grateful as I say she loves Native American stuff as I do. Also I noticed you do crafts. I do too and am looking for a crochet pattern for a native american girl dress to do for a project I'm working on. If you may have any ideas or could help in any way I'd be grateful. Sorry if I've rambled I take medication due to a serious ailment which has left me bedbound. Thanks again for any and all help!!!!

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      Mark 6 years ago from Alabama,USA

      Good list but you have left off quite a few great docs.

      Voted up and useful

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      Robephiles 6 years ago

      I decided not to include Moore because he is too well known. He has some of the highest grossing documentaries ever. I figured that most people who come to this page already know Moore.

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      ruffridyer 6 years ago from Dayton, ohio

      What, no Micheal Moore films? Thank you for that. His "Documentaries" are moore fiction than fact. You made some good choices here. Rated Up.