Thursday, September 28, 2006

What's Up? Docs.

a great documentary and a great dramatic film is that with a great doc, you become so captivated with the subject that you want it to go on and on. If it's a two-hour documentary, by the time it reaches the end, you wish it was four hours; whereas with even a good three-hour movie like, say,
JFK or Gangs of New York, you kind of endure the length and surreptiously want it to end. Plus you can more readily watch docs over and over again and become so absorbed that the length is never a question.

Theatrical release documentaries have enjoyed a renaissance in recent years, led by a slew of lefty, political, mostly anti-Bush fare, most famously those by Michael Moore (
Roger & Me, Bowling for Columbine, Fahrenheit 9/11) and Robert Greenwald (Outfoxed, Uncovered, Wal-Mart). PBS, with shows like Frontline, American Masters and P.O.V. , has been the televised showcase for the work of modern master Ken Burns, who, along with his brother Ric Burns, has seemingly never made an uninteresting film. Noted filmmakers like Martin Scorsese (No Direction Home) and Sydney Pollack (Sketches of Frank Gehry) have also made important recent forays into the genre.

So here are the 40 or so docs that have burned their way into my memory, that not only have changed the way I look at the world, but have changed the way the world looks to me. Something like that. I actually just wanted to do a top 10 favorite documentaries list, but more and more movies kept coming to mind and so it grew and grew. Of course, for that reason, this post may never be truly finished.

A lot of these I haven't seen in a long while and so my comments are comin' atcha via the miracle of selective recollection. I think the Warhol film the other night got me inspired to catalog some of the best documentaries I've ever seen at any point during my long, fruitful existence. Anything I thought of late in the game after I made my list gets honorable mention, but it's not really a ranking, just that my initial impressions cut the deepest. For instance, I thought of
Rude Boy first and then only later Westway to the World, which is probably a better starting point for Clash enthusiasts, and works really well as a terrific, fleshed-out Behind the Music episode, but without as much pure live footage as Rude. Where Westway really shines is in covering the early stages and formative roots of the Clash as they went from garage band to something like world domination.

Except for only one or two instances I've seen each and every film listed below. I'm providing links where I can to either IMDB or so that you can get other takes and rankings or even purchase the DVD. Hey, it's all up to you.

1 Grizzly Man (2005)
Werner Herzog's gripping character study of self-mythologizing Timothy Treadwell, who lived among giant grizzlies in Alaska. Not sure if seeing a movie composed entirely of Treadwell's unadulterated footage would have made for a better movie. Still debating that, but no denying the seductive allure of the subject as he pushes his luck and defies the odds a little more each season, until ... well, I won't spoil it here in case you've been in a coma for a few years.

2 No Direction Home (2005)
Martin Scorcese's thorough tour through the Dylan folklore, with particularly effective cataloging of the early influences and contemporaries that shaped him in part one, and the volcanic eruptions of his immense, uncontainable, unquenchable inventiveness following in part two, merely changing the direction and landscape of pop culture and mainstream music in the process. For me personally, the perfect marriage of subject and execution. Inspiring.

3 End of The Century: Ramones (2003)
Saw this one at the Angelica as soon as it came out with some of my old punk crew, which made it that much more enjoyable. Problem was, the volume level was criminally low considering how important an element noise and loudness played in their presentation. Fortunately, a few months later it was broadcast on PBS (along with a short film about Joe Strummer), where I was free to blast away whenever the boys were shown onstage.

4 Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004)
Can't really be overestimated or overstated in terms of its impact, and if didn't tilt or swing an election in its favor, so to speak -- not for lack of trying -- its influence on straight political polemic is perhaps still being felt if you consider the recent spate of like-minded features (
Why We Fight, Inconvenient Truth, etc.). For all but the most committed Bush loyalists, a convincing litany of charges adding up to a severe testament to the madness of Emperor George. Great unapologetic agitprop in action.

5 Ken Burns' Baseball
A modest little undertaking in 9 majestic parts and something like 18 hours of gorgeous archival photos, painstakingly tracing the history of the game. With terrific narration and commentary that in many instances reaches for the poetic and succeeds triumphantly, the rule here is the further back it reaches, the better, but each decade has its own inherent charm. The footage of Babe Ruth, however, comes closest to dominating the proceedings.

6 Ken Burns' Civil War
I wasn't as down with this one by Ken Burns as with some of his others. I'm not really a Civil War buff; I always gravitated toward the American Revolution and found its anti-colonial sentiments more stirring somehow. But this undoubtedly set a high standard for future documentary treatments of Big Historical Events. Great use of period photos and actor narration.

7 Sex Pistols: The Filth & The Fury (2000)
From conception to destruction, myth to demise and all sordid points in between. Media manipulation was the linchpin behind the legend of the Sex Pistols, but there was undeniable substance lurking behind all the Malcolm McLaren-inspired shenanigans. Like Great Rock & Roll Swindle, the film was directed by Julian Temple; both films serve as bookends to the bollocks, never mind that the band really meant it, man, even if Malcolm saw it all as Situationist shock theater. Lasting image from
Fury is juxtaposing the pitiful dementia of Shakespeare's Richard III with Johnny Rotten's menacing, confrontational stage persona.

8 History of New York (2004)
Ric Burns' terrific 7-part, 14-hour monster of a series begins back in the day (1609) and spans the history of the city that would eventually come to be known as Gotham itself through the centuries, building up to That Day (9/11/2001) when New York was redefined yet again. Holds up to repeated viewings like few documentaries of its kind, and featuring an expert cast of talking heads.

9 Frontline: Who Was Lee Harvey Oswald?
Defies the reassuring, agreed upon casting of Oswald as a nutjob, but in my opinion draws erroneous conclusion of LHO as lone gunman, instead of the victim of an overarching historical conspiracy to paint him as patsy. Raising the mind-blowing theory that LHO may have been a double agent for one of the intelligence agencies, the film does a credible job of demonstrating how his short life straddled many of the seismic political currents that may have set in motion the crime of the century. Oswald can be seen playing both sides of the Cuba issue, defecting to Russia, meeting mysteriously with radical communists in Japan when stationed there as a Marine, and establishing possible ties to Jack Ruby before the JFK assassination.

10 Hitler's Henchmen (1991)
It cannot be denied that the Naxis, although pure political evil, are documentary gold: engrossing, mind-blowing and frightening. It's all here in this six-part series on those evil boys from Berlin: Hesse, Goebbels, Himmler, Speer, Donitz & Goring -- collect 'em all -- with cameos by Josef Mengele, Martin Borman, von Ribbentrop, etc. Holding it all together is Hitler himself.

11 Rude Boy (1980)
Picky purists will tell you this isn't a documentary at all. They would technically be right, but the principal reason for this movie to exist is the stirring, incendiary, flaming hot footage of The Clash onstage (the new DVD release even has a menu button that will allow you to view only the songs and skip the meandering bits of seemingly unscripted narrative in between). Everything you needed to know about not only why the band's legend continues to endure, but what roiling emotions punk brought to the surface every time it was done right. If a lead singer ever had any more gruff charm and charisma than Joe Strummer, they would have to outlaw it on the spot. Catch the Clash at their absolute blazing peak and learn what all the fuss was about.

12 Kurt & Courtney (1998)
Did Courtney Love actually take a hit out on grunge-meister Kurt Cobain, whether for the money or to somehow further her own career and street cred, or did the rocker really use a shotgun to trigger his suicide? That question lies at the center of this fascinating look at some nebulous and unanswered details relating to the death of the Nirvana lead singer. Absorbing film that makes a startlingly successful bid to be taken seriously.

13 Jails Hospitals & Hip-Hop
Another film that plays much better than it sounds, thanks to the cocky, assertive talent of Danny Hoch, who jumps chameleon-like among several streetwise hip-hop personas (including his own), to great effect. At times it's stunningly poignant, at other points somewhat cringe-inducing, but always totally, undeniably original. Audacious and memorable.

14 Baadasssss Cinema (2002)
Loving overview of the blaxploitation movie, mostly from its heyday in the early 1970s. From interviews with prominent actors and directors of the time, the case is made that exploitation is relative: nobody seems to have any regrets; to the contrary, films like
Shaft, Superfly, Black Caesar and Foxy Brown are shown not only as great fun, but as legitimate sources of pride for an audience and community eager for heroes of their own, especially those out to give Whitey some much-deserved comeuppance.

15 Ken Burns' Mark Twain (2001)
In which we learn the seminal event in the great writer's life was the death of his younger brother, for which he took responsibility and blame. The guilt seems to have driven him to heights of creativity and enriched his black humor with more depth and poignancy than otherwise may have existed.

16 Warhol
Didn't even plan on watching it but caught the last two hours the other night. Worth it just for the footage of Velvet Underground playing as part of the Exploding Plastic Inevitable multimedia extravaganza, but there's a ton of priceless footage unearthed here: the Factory's drugged out denizens, would-be Warhol assassin Valerie Solaris, the cautionary tale of Edie Sedgewick, Jackie O, Dylan are only a few highlights of the second half.

17 Watergate Plus 30: Shadow of History (2003)
Nice document to have for those who would dismiss this constitutional crisis and hijacking of a government as a "third rate burglary." Show this to all who would attempt to resurrect the Nixon legacy. Not that chronicling monumental abuses of power has any current relevance. It's stressed that even with all the obvious Nixonian transgressions, Tricky Dick's downfall was engineered in large part by moderate Republicans who grew tired of his large corrupting shadow. Recent revelations that Henry Kissinger himself now serves as an informal but influential advisor to President Bush on the Iraq War proves that American political history not only repeats itself but has a disturbing penchant for the surreal.

18 Outfoxed (2004)
Any film that has as one of its tent poles the notion that Bill O'Reilly is a blustering, bombastic fool cuts straight to my heart. And this movie does much more than that, putting the propagandistic machinations of the Fox News channel in bas relief and shining a much needed disinfecting spotlight on the turgid personalities populating this right-wing echo machine and posing as fair and balanced purveyors of objective information. Behind the scenes memos and incisive examination of who gets past the "no spin" gatekeepers says otherwise. Conservative guests outnumber liberals and progressives to a degree that gives the lie to their litany of half-truths, hatchet jobs and falsehoods.

19 Crumb (1994)
A study in creativity, artistic integrity and familial madness, the film traces the accomplishments and obsessions of the legendary underground artist who created some of the Sixties' most enduring iconic images. The captivating depictions of Crumb's mom and brothers make you feel sad and guilty but like all effective voyeurism, just try turning away.

20 Don't Look Back (1967)
In which the artist as an unappreciated, shrewd, cunning rock&roll showman vies for time with the introspective, earnest folky serves as a telling metaphor for similar dichotomies in us all. The fact that the music is brilliant and Dylan is caught in magnetic, mesmerizing medias res, at the absolute pinnacle of his most fertile period, doesn't hurt a bit either. "Give the anarchist a cigarette."

21 Gimme Shelter (1970)
Celebrated or lamented as the event that officially ended the idealism of the 1960s, the concert film of a free Rolling Stones show is renowned for the death of a fan at the hands of the Hells Angels biker gang naively entrusted to handle security detail.

22 Wild Man Blues (1997)
The DVD box shouts "Extraordinary," "Fascinating" & "Remarkable" -- high praise blurbs indeed but this time the hyperbole is warranted. Woody comes off as bumbling, indecisive and neurotic but somehow likable and even gutsy, while Song Yi is the masterful passive/aggressive control freak both lovingly encouraging the Wood man and cleverly manipulating him. There's a real love for the music permeating throughout as well.

23 Ziggy Stardust (1973)
Thank goodness for D.A. Pennebaker. He not only gave us Don't Look Back and Monterey Pop, but this priceless treasure capturing David Bowie's on tour in his last incarnation as the androgynous rock messiah Ziggy. Really a straight ahead concert movie, the play's the thing here, highlighted by mesmerizing performances of "Width of a Circle" and other prime cuts of vintage Ziggy-ness.

24 The Wobblies (1979)
Remember being inspired by this bad boy about the International Workers of the World labor movement when I saw it in a theater during the punk era! All singing, all dancing, the exhilirating recollections of the hardened old strikers from a time when it appeared the good guys might really win versus the heartless, greedy Pinkertons, mine owners, factory bosses, strikebreakers, scabs and coppers. If this movie doesn't touch your heartstrings, you're probably dead. Or a Republican. I don't know which is worse at this point.

25 American Experience: Fidel Castro (2004)
Like the Nazis, the camera can be said to love Fidel. Whether it's the constant army fatigues, the beard, the cigar, even the CIA recognized early on that this man's charisma was gonna make him trouble. That's why assassination attempts can be seen as the sincerest form of flattery. This riveting film covers all the bases, from law school to guerilla war with Che, trips to New York, the post-Revolution reign of terror and Bay of Pigs and Cuban missile crisis.

26, 27 & 28 Woodstock (1970)/Monterey Pop (1968)/Isle of Wight
Taken together, these three outdoor concert films would make for a comprehensive anthropology of what it meant to be young and a hippie in the groovy 1960s. I think Monterey has the best music (Hendrix, Who, Janis) performances, Woodstock best captures the zeitgeist of hippiedom, while Isle of Wight shows the strain and ugly underside of the youth culture turning on itself.

29 Rod Serling: Submitted for your Approval (1995)
From the golden days of early television anthology dramas thru to Twilight Zone, Night Gallery and even features like Planet of the Apes, for which he wrote the memorable, quoteworthy screenplay, Serling jammed an incredible amount of ambitious ideas and political insight into every thing he touched. His refusal to settle for lower standards and battles with censors and the lowbrow, demeaning forces of commerce were lifelong demons to battle. There is an unyielding, uncompromising struggle for quality and morality that is still inspiring.

30 Soul of a Man (2003)
Technically, like Rude Boy not a documentary at all, but an incredibly imaginative recreation of the lives of three seminal early blues men. Directed by Wim Wenders and shot in some sort of oldtimey looking sepia tones and also incorporating authentic era footage, the details are painstakingly realized to the point where if you suspend disbelief the persuasive reality takes over and you couldn't see it happening any other way. Best of the multivolume Blues series curated by Martin Scorsese and shown on PBS. Stunningly original filmmaking.

31 I Am Trying To Break Your Heart (2003)
This was the film about alt-country darlings Wilco's refusal to compromise when confronted with their record label's dissatisfaction over their new record's lack of commercial prospects. I was a big fan of the group and had them live several times, but this movie had the odd unanticipated effect of making me like the band a good deal less after I walked out of the theater -- due to something about lead singer Jeff Tweedy's personality that I can't quite put my finger on -- call it pretentious, overbearing, precious... Another big turnoff for me was the group decision to fire/dismiss guitarist and unreconstructed rocker Jay Bennett, unfairly and shabbily handled by Tweedy & Co. in my view. So it goes sometimes.

32 Battle of Algiers (1966)
It was rumored that the U.S. government thought it would be a smart use of taxpayer money to show this docudrama to our troops before they went overseas to Iraq to fight yet another anticolonial insurgency, so as to learn from the mistakes and transgressions the French made in their brutal excursion into Algiers. Some joker, however, apparently switched reels at the last moment and popped in Bill Murray's Stripes instead and now all hell has broken loose over there. I've never seen it, but its historical significance merits inclusion here.

33 The Howlin' Wolf Story
After seeing it looking at me from a shelf in J&R Music World, this was the DVD that led me to finally buy a DVD player! And it didn't disappoint either, with good sound and images from the fertile mid-1960s period of the Wolf, as well as a goodly amount of complete song performances. Only thing detracting from perfect package is lack of early Howlin' Wolf in action, but who knows how much footage from then even exists. Does include the Wolf together with early Rolling Stones on a 1965 British TV show, Shindig. A complex, multifaceted portrait of the towering, talented blues legend.

34 Lou Reed: Rock & Roll Heart
Definitive look at the grumpy former glam rocker, from growing up on Long Island to walks on the wild side with the Warhol crowd. When asked how much longer he would be doing this (i.e., writing and performing rock & roll), Reed responds with righteous indignation, rightfully asking the interviewer if he would pose the same question to an old blues guy. The implication is clear: a musician keeps going until something stops him from making music. Touches all the right notes, with some good Velvet Underground material if I recall correctly.

35 Eat The Document (1972)
I've never seen this Dylan doc, but then very few other humans have either. Eat This Document is assembled from footage shot during the same 1966 tour that served as the basis for Don't Look Back, but it's supposed to be even more raw and amateurish.

36 Unforgivable Blackness: Jack Johnson (2004)
Boxer Jack Johnson
is a dream subject for any documentarian, but in the hands of a Ken Burns? Elevated to great cultural significance with metonymic ramifications and ripples for black-white race relations that have run troubled through the river of American history. Is there a better anticipation than looking forward to the second night of a great documentary like this after you finished watching the first part totally enraptured in the subject matter?

37 Frontline: Hunting Osama Bin Laden
Portrait of the al-Qaeda leader goes a good way toward penetrating the myth without dulling his undeniable charisma and the sway he holds over large swaths of the earth's population, and for that reason of course it's important documentary reportage.

Honorable Mention:
Liberty! (American Revolution) 2004 :
The War That Made America (2006):
Eyes on the Prize (1987):
The Grateful Dead Movie (1977)

Woody Guthrie (2006):
The Men Who Killed Kennedy (1988):
Klaus Kinski: My Dearest Enemy (1999):
A Constant Forge (John Cassavetes) 2000:
Image of an Assassination (Zapruder Film) 1998:
Arthur Miller, Elia Kazan & the Blacklist (None Without Sin) 2003:
Ken Burns' Jazz (2001):
Lewis & Clark (1997):
History of Dallas Cowboys (1960-2003):
Harlan County USA (1976):
Hearts of Darkness (1991):
Roger & Me (1989):
Before Stonewall (1984):
Frontline: Behind the Mask (IRA & Sinn Fein) 1997:
Ramones Raw (2004):
An Inconvenient Truth (2006):
About Baghdad (2004):
History of Rock & Roll (1995):
IMDb Documentary page:
Documentary Film at Wikipedia:
The Documentary Channel:
NFL Films:
Documentary Films.Net:

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