American Dream (1991)
The Atomic Cafe (1982)
Sometimes it's hard to watch a documentary that has played such a role in changing the language itself. The Atomic Cafe was made up entirely of old nuclear propaganda footage, edited in a way to reveal the ignorance and agenda. Trivia: Two of the three directors, Kevin and Pierce Rafferty, are cousins of George W. Bush, and Kevin later became a mentor to Michael Moore before Roger & Me. If I recall correctly, the filmmakers, family notwithstanding, were essentially living out of their cars by the end of production, fighting to not have the film hijacked by funder suggestions, and then, after it came out, were on Letterman and crazy rich people were buying hundreds of copies and sending them to public libraries all over the country. A great film.
ALL Big Noise Films Years from now, there's going to be a panel with Rick and Jacquie and someone's going to inquire about how they managed to afford to make all these wonderful films and when people learn that these two had to hustle and scrape, borrow and beg for every penny, pitchforks are going to come out. I joke about being a total fan of theirs, but, honestly, watching them work is one of my favorite things in the world.
Anarchism in America (1983)
Bus 174 (2002) (Jose Padilha and Felipe Lacerda, 2003)
I should watch this and Manda Bala in the same week. Bus 174 is taken from raw news video, surveillance tapes, and helicopter shots of Brazil, and throws in some crazy video tricks (I think there's a jail scene that's shown in negative so everyone looks ghostly). It tells the crazy story of a poor Brazilian lumpen who takes a bus hostage. There the story explodes into invisible histories of police brutality and the ongoing state monopoly of violence. I bought this and IT SAT ON THE SHELF FOR MONTHS. Everyone said it was great, but I didn't listen. Finally, I watched it and the hype was worth it. Writing about it now makes me want to recommend Pixote as well.
The Century of the Self (Adam Curtis, 2002)
This solid documentary essay is like a long lecture set to stock footage. About Freud and marketing (see the entry for The Power of Nightmares below)
The Corporation (2003)
Darwin's Nightmare (2004)
dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y (Johan Grimonprez, 1997)
The DVD cover says two things: "Excerpts from 'MAO II' & 'White Noise' by DON DELILLO" and "Other Cinema." Other Cinema is the Bay Area based experimental DVD Label. Slow motion plane crash footage amid a history of plane hijacking and DeLillo. The cover might as well say "Sort of like the opposite of your typical date movie."
Fahrenheit 9/11 (Michael Moore, 2004)
Stop. Don't whine. Just think of it as two films. In one, Michael Moore offers piss poor analysis of the middle east, I don't think he mentions Israel once, and thinks shots of Saudi royalty and the Bushes holding hands is how you explain the moment. That movie is not on this list. But in this second one, that he accidently cut and edited into that not-so-good first one, Moore follows regular people and examines their relationship to the war, to recruiters, to loss, and to patriotism. That second movie is good enough to get in this list.
The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara (Errol Morris, 2003)
The Fourth World War (2003)
The Free Voice of Labor: The Jewish Anarchists
Grin Without a Cat (Chris Marker, 1977; French title: Le Fond de l'air est rouge)
Drink some coffee before watching Marker's loooooong opus: there's a 117m cut and a 240m cut. If you make it through, the dilemma of, among other things, a vanguard without a base will send your mind reeling. Depressing and vibrant, and long.
Hearts and Minds (1974)
Peter Davis just absolutely does it. One of the top films of all time, bar none. If you haven't seen it, see it today. Ostensibly about the American war on Vietnam, I'm not a good enough writer to describe how good this film is. Really one of the few films that you should own so you can consult it regularly.
Hoop Dreams (1994)
The Hour of the Furnaces (La Hora De Los Hornos) (1968)
Incident at Oglala: The Leonard Peltier Story (1992)
Iraq in Fragments (2006)
Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple (2006)
Life and Debt (2001)
The fact that Stephanie Black doesn't have a damn permanent budget after making this tour-de-force on Jamaica, globalization, and neo-imperialism is just a crying shame. Well shot, expertly crafted, weaving between the poetry of Jamaica Kincaid and the nuances of the World Bank, I used to show this annually at a film festival I curated because every single time people would leave going "Now I understand" and then show up the next year dragging their friends. One of my favorite documentaries.
Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media (1992)
Meeting Resistance (2007)
Middletown: Second Time Around (Peter Davis, 1982; 6 1 hour episodes)
We were in line for this and, no joke, George Stoney was right behind us. He started telling us about his old films, what he thinks of teaching documentary, and how he gets out of forgetting the names of old students when they ambush him, backlit, at the Lincoln Centre. Then we sat and watched Second Time Around together. Peter Davis, maker of Hearts and Minds, needs to have his movies released in a box set so that people can study them. This episode, one in a series about Muncie, Indiana, inspired and influenced by the famous Lynd works of the same name, follows a couple, both divorcees, about to get married . The host at the theater joked that the criminally hard to find episodes are like documentary samisdat; you'll understand why people persevere to see the rest after you've seen one. It plays like real life, it's rich without being heavy-handed, and except for the hairstyles and constant smoking, it's as fresh as tomorrow. By the way, Davis said at the Q and A that the subjects of the film are still married.
Night and Fog (1955)
Panama Deception (1992)
Perfumed Nightmare (1977)
The Power of Nightmares (Adam Curtis, 2004; 3 1-hour parts)
I just read that the BBC didn't promote these when they first came out and so they'd pop up on the internet and I wouldn't know what this was or who put it together, but the experience was marked by two things. First, as a viewer, I was hooked. Second, it felt like a different kind of documentary: a patchwork of music, very little interview, tons of great footage from all over the place, and a steady authoritative narration simply explaining the parallels between the neo-cons and radical Islam. Somehow the combination, plus the willingness to use more abstract footage to illustrate emotions and motifs, works really well. Maybe we should have a companion website to Documentary Is Never Neutral called Good Essay Films Make Me Happy.
The Revolution Will Not Be Televised (2003)
Roger and Me (1989)
While it pains me to begin this description with a disclaimer, I must. When you watch this film for the first time, you have to go in pretending that you don't know who Michael Moore is. His technique, of placing himself into the story as a stand-in for the audience and to carry the narrative arc, has turned him into a punching bag of the right wing and, in some of his weaker projects, has felt a bit forced (That said, I love Michael Moore and think he's one of the greatest things going out there). But he wasn't on the map when he made this: he was dead broke and barely strung this first film together on favors and begging.
This is the first film, sometimes I feel like the only film I've ever really seen, that is honestly made from the viewpoint of the working poor (upper class liberals kvetched, but ignore them). It is awe-inspiring how powerful it is. There is a reason there is an entire cottage industry of right wing hacks dedicated to tearing down Michael Moore (do some googling if you think I'm exaggerating) and you will understand why if you pretend for a few hours that you've never heard of the guy and pop this in the DVD player.
The Sorrow and the Pity (1969)
The Take (2004)
The Terror and the Time (1979)
The Thin Blue Line (1988)
Videograms of a Revolution (1992)
Vietnam:in the Year of the Pig (1969)
The War at Home (1979)
Waco: The Rules of Engagement (1997)
The Weather Underground (2002)
Sam Green's insightful feature on the eponymous political organization. Doesn't stoop to exploitation, delves into the nooks and crannies, and gives the history while sharing the emotional pull of the times. The soundtrack features this wonderful drone which I recall most at the beginning (when people are figuring out how to respond to the carnage in Vietnam) and at the end (as the WUO breaks up amidst infighting and drifting to the fringe), sandwiching more music in the middle, and that drone really contributes a lot.
Winter Soldier (1972)