Documentaries are probably the most unappreciated film genre, even as the viewing public seems increasingly enamored with every flavor of reality television. Even worse is when high profile, rabble-rousing pieces from people like Michael Moore or Al Gore discredit documentaries as a whole and steal publicity from smaller, more honest, and more interesting movies. This article will give some well-overdue attention to less famous docs that would, in a fairer world, be better known than all the blockbuster fiction movies or the Ken Burns-type movies.
10. Sunshine Hotel (2000)
A short film about the closing down of New York City’s last flophouse. The sight of mostly old men, in some cases driven somewhat crazy by their standards of living and addictions, shuffling through lives most of us would consider a living hell is predictably depressing. But there are many surprising sparks of life in these people, especially Bruce, a guy who makes alcohol runs for the other tenants and takes time to make a succinct and surprisingly inspiring speech about how “work works.” This documentary is available on Volume 1 of the DVD series Full Frame: Documentary Shorts which you can get with several other excellent but not quite as good documentaries on Netflix here.
9. Home Movie (2001)
Director Chris Smith had already made the relatively well-known film American Movie which introduced the world to horror movie maker Mark Borchardt. While his follow-up film does not have quite the dramatic punch of that film or quite the emotional investment, Home Movie is much more fun. A mosaic of wildly different homes, all of them quite different from your average home, it contains many laugh-out-loud moments along with the occasional poignant scene (several courtesy of an alligator specialist. Honest.)
8. Blood In the Face (1991)
This film is very largely comprised of footage of rallies by the American Nazi party and the Klu Klux Klan and interviews with their various spokespeople. The movie has drawn some criticism for not including any narration or footage to refute the claims upon which the organizations are founded. Reviewers have actually asserted that it is possible that the movie will be used as a recruiting tool. Honestly, the movie features members of the KKK seriously reporting about a thirty-five thousand man army of Mongolian cavalrymen assembled in Canada waiting to invade, along with the theory that Caucasians are the emotionally superior race because they can blush (that is what the title “Blood in the Face” refers to). If you see the movie as anything but a frightening message of the thought processes involved in being a member of these organizations, you were probably going to turn dangerous anyway.
7. The Last Cigarette (1999)
(Editor’s Note: No trailer here. I couldn’t find one ANYWHERE. A dozen-plus Youtube/Dailymotion searches turned up nothing but personal videos of people recording their last cigarette ever before they quit. Great for them, but not so much for my research. The doc is available on Netflix, for those who want to see it.)
From the same crew that made Blood In the Face, this documentary about the banning of cigarettes from public places is again by turns hilarious and horrifying. Again without commentary from the filmmakers, we see various news reports and bits of archival footage that illustrate the nature of cigarette addiction throughout American history along, with some ridiculous footage of the congressional hearings that resulted in massive fines for tobacco executives. Highlights include a sampling of smoking fetish videos (no nudity, it’s seriously just women smoking), and a story of a man who demanded his legal right to keep smoking in his garage in the face of evidence it was hurting the health of his upstairs neighbor.
6. Cane Toads: An Unnatural History (1988)
One of the funniest documentaries ever made about a serious subject. It’s a loopy analysis of the impact of a nineteenth-century importing of cane toads into Australia to fight an outbreak of cane beetles. It turned out the toads couldn’t really feed off the beetles anyway, so they just bred their way out of control and became one of Australia’s ugliest environmental disasters. The footage of toads eating mice, poisoning pets from the toxins in their skins, being adopted as pets, being run down by devoted truck driver killers, and even creepier stuff will possibly give you the strangest laugh of your life with how it’s handled. Alternately, it might just make you uncomfortable that Australia simply exists.
5. Manufactured Landscapes (2007)
Ostensibly about high profile photographer Edward Burtynsky’s dramatic photographs, this film is really more about the massive advancement of industry in the developing world. While the photographs are excellent (and often very obviously staged) it’s more what director Jennifer Baichwal does with her motion pictures that affect the viewer. An incredibly long shot of a factory floor in China sounds boring, but long before it’s done, it changes from boring to breathtaking from the sheer scale of what is being shown. Incredible rivers of industrial waste and teams of people picking through garbage dumps are shown more conventionally but no less effectively.
4. The Devil’s Miner (2005)
This film is most significantly about teenage Bolivian miner Basilio Vargas working in a silver mine. It’s so dangerous that a strange variation on Catholicism has been created for the region where the deaths in it are considered “sacrifices to the devil.” Nevertheless, our protagonist still has his plans for getting out of there and living a real life. It’s a great counterpoint to Manufactured Landscapes, which is about documenting the sheer vastness of progress in the developing world and environmental concerns. This portrait of an individual in a portion of the world less touched by progress is great for showing what the cost of the alternative to all that is.
Equally essential viewing is a special feature on the DVD called One Year Later, which revisits the situation one year after the fact.
3. Harlan County USA (1976)
In 1973, the miners at Harlan County, Kentucky went on strike against Eastover Mining and Duke Power Companies because they were not being allowed to join the United Mine Workers despite a majority vote. The strike, as documented here, stretched on for thirteen months and was extremely violent. So bad was it that at one point, filmmakers Barbara Kopple and Harry Peet actually film strikebreakers shooting at them! With an extremely bittersweet ending, the movie none the less remains one of the best of the 1970’s, let alone one of the best documentaries.
Warning: the movie contains a lot of folk music by people who are not singers at all.
2. Lake of Fire (2006)
The extremely divisive issue of abortion legalization in America gets the best analysis you could realistically expect in this sixteen-year project from Tony Kaye, also of American History X fame. The movie is entirely in black and white, but the portrayal of the issue is anything but. Articulate individuals express their opinions on the subject, and both oddly callous pro-elective abortion legalization and anti-abortion legalization individuals show how far extremism can go. One interview with a murderer who actually says “yes, yes people who say ‘goddammit’ at baseball games should be executed” will probably be the moment that makes the strongest impression, but the movie offers many others.
1. The Yes Men (2004)
Combine the Wall Street Journal Business Section with Jackass: The Movie and you get a sense of how great the pranks featured in this fourth movie by Chris Smith are. Touching on financial concerns that effect the world over, corporate pranksters Mike Bonanno and Andy Bichalbaum top themselves again and again as far as making overpaid business representatives and highfalutin corporate seminars seem utterly idiotic.
In fact, they’re so good, TopTenz won’t spoil anything. But here’s something to consider: the same year this movie came out, the Yes Men used the BBC to make a prank announcement featuring Andy Bichalbaum that Dow Chemical would be donating twelve billion dollars to assist in providing medical treatment to those who experienced health damage as a result of the pollution the company caused. It ended up dropping the company’s stock value two billion dollars. Bet Dow Chemical wished more people had seen this movie then
Written By Dustin Koski