Welcome to part two of my top documentary recommendation posts. In case you missed it, check out part one of the feature which highlights some of the best documentaries around, across a range of categorized subjects.
Again, keep in mind this is by no means a definitive list of all the must-see documentaries out there but rather just a list of docs that I’ve seen that I wish to recommend to you. Where possible I’ve included Netflix availability for each of the films.
Showbiz & Filmmaking
This Film Is Not Yet Rated (2006)
Director Kirby Dick’s investigative film targets the Motion Picture Association of American (MPAA), the American equivalent of the BBFC who give the films their various age ratings. Through interviews with filmmakers like Kimberly Peirce (Boy’s Don’t Cry) and Wayne Kramer (The Cooler), whose films have been effectively censored by the board, it looks at the various questionable judgements they have made over film content while following a hired private investigator to find out the true identities of the secretive organisation.
Nightmare Factory (2011)
This entertaining doc explores the world of Hollywood makeup effects by honing in on pioneering company KNB Effects, created by effects maestro Greg Nicotero who has worked on everything from The Evil Dead to The Walking Dead. As well as giving insight into that world, it’s also an endearing human story about how one horror fan made his dreams come true. Available on Netflix USA.
American Movie (1999)
One of the best documentaries ever about movie making, this hilarious and utterly charming film follows Mark Borchardt, a passionate aspiring filmmaker doing his best to complete his horror short film he had abandoned years prior in order to finance his big dream project.
Side By Side (2012)
None other than Keanu Reeves features in this fascinating doc that looks at the issue of shooting on digital vs. traditional film, using interviews with everyone from Christopher Nolan and Wally Pfister (fighting the film corner) to Martin Scorsese and David Fincher (fighting the digital one) to weigh up the pros and cons of each side. A must-see for film fans interested in the art form’s history and potential future. Available on Netflix USA/Canada.
Room 237 (2012)
Ever since its release back in 1980, Stanley Kubrick’s horror masterpiece The Shining has spawned many-a-theory about what it all really means. This compelling, rather oddball documentary looks at some of the more outlandish theories – for example that Kubrick filmed the fake moon landing video because young Danny wears an Apollo 11 sweater (pictured above) – via in-depth interviews, clip analysis and dramatic re-enactments. Available on Netflix USA/Canada.
The Hollywood Complex (2011)
This charming yet eye-opening documentary follows several kids who have families that dream of them becoming a big TV or movie star and so travel with them to live in a specially made apartment complex for three months while the event’s management trains and educates them in preparation for auditions. Think the beauty pageant scenes from Little Miss Sunshine except for the world of entertainment and you’re somewhere close to what this is.
Think you watch a lot of movies? Think again. This part-delightful, part-alarming little doc looks at a handful of people in New York who basically do nothing else but watch movies, with some racking up literally thousands every year combining at home, cinema and special festival screenings, at the expense of any sort of other social or family life. The film is available to watch in its entirety on YouTube.
Fascinating documentary about Utah-based DVD rental companies who purposefully edit the movies that they rent to remove any sort of offensive, sexual or violent content to be more in line with conservative family values, leading to major attention from some of Hollywood’s biggest directors (including Steven Soderbergh and Michael Mann) speaking out against what they believe to be censorship of their work. The dark places it goes from there is best left to discover for yourself…
Tales from the Script (2009)
The likes of John Carpenter, Shane Black, Frank Darabont and many more of Hollywood’s top screenwriters relay their stories of success and, indeed, failure whilst being a writer in such a tough, competitive business. If you’re at all interested in either what goes into writing the movies or even in becoming a screenwriter yourself then this is essential viewing.
Unauthorized: The Harvey Weinstein Project (2011)
This thoroughly exploratory doc takes an uncensored look at the life and work of notorious and hugely successful Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, from his early days creating Miramax (along with his much quieter brother Bob) to his infamous Oscar campaigns and beyond. But it also serves as a fascinating general insight into the way the Hollywood studio system functions.
A Story of Children and Film (2014)
Irish filmmaker and critic Mark Cousins’ delivered his magnum opus series A Story of Film: An Odyssey a few years back. This similarly insightful, charming and educational film feels like the lost chapter of that series as it takes a specific look at the way children have been portrayed in movies over the years, using his own niece and nephew as a case study and jumping off point. My full review of the film here.
I Know That Voice (2013)
We’ve all been exposed to and loved animation in one form or another over the years. This hugely entertaining, slickly produced doc looks at the often overlooked world of voice-overs in animation (and, indeed, live-action CGI), featuring interviews with those people whose faces you may not recognise but whose voices you certainly will, ranging from John DiMaggio (Bender from Futurama) to Jim Cummings (Tigger from Winnie the Pooh). Available on Netflix USA/Canada.
That Guy… Who Was In That Thing (2012)
Similarly to I Know That Voice, this charming little documentary looks at those sorts of character actors whose names you may not know but whose faces you have seen pop up here, there and everywhere in movies and TV shows. The film endearingly explores the world of those that may never be the leading man but they’re often the backbone of what makes a particular movie or show work. Available on Netflix USA/Canada.
The Economy & Corporations
Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price (2005)
An informative and surprisingly emotional look at how the retail conglomerate Wal-Mart affects local businesses and small communities because of their ability to sell goods at such low costs, featuring interviews with mistreated former employees and small business owners, as well as exposing the practices of Wal-Mart’s executives via damaging footage. Available on Netflix.
Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (2005)
Based on the best-selling book of the same name, this penetrating, shocking Oscar-nominated documentary explores the fall of the now infamous Enron Corporation, looking at the faulty business practices that led to its decline and the effect that had on the economy and people’s day-to-day lives. Available on Netflix USA.
Inside Job (2010)
Mat Damon narrates this comprehensive and extremely insightful Oscar-winning doc that takes a very close look at the 2008 global financial crisis, via extensive interviews with experts, financial analysts, academics and journalists. It takes an almost impenetrably complex subject and makes it accessible for the uninitiated while never skimping on the necessary details. Available on Netflix Canada.
Hot Coffee (2011)
A snappy, informative and often shocking look at the infamous “Hot Coffee lawsuit” brought against McDonalds when a customer spilled boiling hot coffee onto her lap, resulting in third degree burns, when there was no warning on the cup. Director Susan Saladoff, herself a former medical malpractice lawyer, to explore the weaknesses in the US judicial system with regards to plaintiffs receiving damages from corporations. Available on Netflix.
Inequality for All (2013)
One of the best films about the U.S. economy that I’ve ever seen, this is extremely in-depth, well-researched and informative but at the same time doesn’t feel dry or overly convoluted for those who maybe aren’t as in the know already. It features a centralized interview with economist and former U.S. Labor Secretary Robert Reich, the type of passionate and engaging teacher we all wish we had, making a compelling case for the potential for a serious impending crisis due to the widening economic gap. Available on Netflix USA/Canada.
Terms and Conditions May Apply (2013)
We all use websites like Facebook and Twitter and knowingly (and sometimes unknowingly) give over to them some of our most personal and sensitive identity information. This documentary exposes the way in which such corporations have access to and use your information. An interesting look at privacy (or lack thereof) in the 21st century internet-dominated world. Available on Netflix.
The Corporation (2003)
This exhaustive, lengthy documentary (it clocks in at almost two and a half hours) looks at the very development of corporations, from its early days as a legal concept to the world-dominating, money-making institutions they are today, using in-depth case studies of some of the world’s biggest examples. Available on Netflix.
The Media & Internet
Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism (2004)
Filmmaker Robert Greenwald makes another appearance on this list (he also made the aforementioned Wal-Mart doc) with this shocking exploration of the Fox news network, highlighting and often revealing owner Rupert Murdoch’s Conservative bias that so thoroughly permeates it, contradicting the channel’s self-proclaimed claim of being “Fair and Balanced.”
This investigative documentary by Errol Morris looks at the case of Joyce McKinney, a former beauty queen and tabloid newspaper staple who got involved with Mormons seemingly without knowing and was eventually charged with abducting and imprisoning a young Mormon Missionary. An engaging, if slightly lightweight doc (at least by Morris’ standards) about an increasingly peculiar story. Available on Netflix.
Miss Representation (2011)
This rather brilliantly titled and astute film looks at the way in which women have been portrayed in the media as well as their severe under-representation in positions of government and power. Christina Aguilera, Margaret Cho, Rosario Dawson, Geena Davis and Jane Fonda are just some of the women interviewed. Available on Netflix.
Page One: Inside the New York Times (2011)
This doc gives us not only unprecedented access and insight into the inner workings of the prestigious New York Times but the larger picture of how print news media has had to change in a world where more and more people get their news for free online, with some papers and journalists more willing to change than others. Available on Netflix Canada.
We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks (2013)
You may have seen the rather lacklustre dramatized version of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange’s story with The Fifth Estate but you’re better off watching this documentary by the ever-bold Alex Gibney. It details the creation of the controversial as well as Assange’s eventual perusal by the U.S. government over accusations of unlawful and potential dangerous security breaches. Available on Netflix USA/Canada.
If you aren’t already in the know about what exactly Catfish is then it’s best to go into the documentary knowing as little as possible. Without giving too much away it focuses on Nev, a young man in new York who starts a romantic relationship with a woman through Facebook despite never having met her in person. Watch for yourself and see what exactly you make of it.
Sports & Physical Achievements
Utterly fantastic, visual striking documentary which looks at the life, career and unfortunate death of Brazilian three times Formula One World Racing champion Ayrton Senna, specifically exploring his professional rivalry with fellow driver Alain Prost. Even if you don’t know the first thing about F1, director Asif Kapadia makes it accessible, entertaining and compelling while also making it an absolute joy for those who love the sport. Available on Netflix Canada.
Desert Runners (2013)
This one focuses on a group of people from all walks of life – each with their own individual reasons and motivations – who come together to run the most difficult “ultramarathon” series in the world; ranging from the hottest, driest and even coldest (yes, there is such a thing) deserts in the world. A wholly inspiring and dynamic look at the limits to which people can push themselves and the determination of the human spirit to keep going against the odds. Available on Netflix USA.
Dogtown and Z-boys (2001)
A fun, fascinating and very well made documentary that looks at the transformation of the previously niche sport of skateboarding from its early stages born out of surfing the waves in Santa Monica to the on-land craze that spread throughout the world, helped largely by the self-titled Zephyr skateboard team (AKA Z-boys). A dramatized version of the story was later made in the form of The Lords of Dogtown. Available on Netflix USA.
The Armstrong Lie (2013)
A slightly overlong but nevertheless illuminating documentary by Alex Gibney about sports legend and five time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong, from his rise to fame and success to his sudden fall from grace when revelations of performance enhancing drugs being taken reared their ugly heads. It actually started out as one thing but Gibney changed course when those shocking revelations came about. A fascinating look into the mentality of a charismatic liar. Available on Netflix Canada.
Touching the Void (2003)
Kevin Macdonald makes his second appearance on this last after Marley, this time with the harrowing and quite unbelievable true story of how two climbers, Joe Simpson (on whose book the film is based) and Simon Yates, made the perilous, disastrous and near-fatal journey up the west face of the 6,300m high Suila Grande in the Andes in 1985. The film went on to win the BAFTA for Best Film and it became the most successful British documentary in history. You only need to watch it to see why. Available on Netflix USA/Canada.
Next Goal Wins (2014)
This focuses on the American Samoa football team, labelled “the worst football team in the world” after a crushing 31-0 defeat. It chronicles their determination to never give up hope as they attempt to qualify for the 2014 World Cup with a help of a ruthless new coach brought in from outside their remote, cultured island community. You don’t need to be a football fan at all to enjoy this passionate, utterly endearing documentary that also gives a great insight into a culture that will be alien to most of us. Read my full review here.
That’s it for part two. Make sure to check back for the third and final part of the feature over the next couple of weeks!