In documentary filmmaking, truth is almost always filled with lies.
It’s just the nature of the form, really—of any filmmaking at all, for that matter. Even a home video recording, if you’ve ever made or watched or starred in one, is marred by manipulation: Whether you’re aware you’re being “watched” or not, your truth is a sort of surreal quilt of camera placement, cuts and atmosphere, totally mitigated by the lens and then, further down the food chain, the ultimate observer. If you know you’re being watched, you act accordingly; if you don’t, the recording may carry a subtle tone of voyeurism, of intrusiveness—the feeling that something isn’t quite right.
And yet, from direct cinema to Dogme 95, truth has always been an idealistic goal for many filmmakers, and not necessarily the purity of it, but the translation of its most deeply held essentials. Arguably, documentary filmmaking has always been at the forefront of that aim, though during much of its primordial beginnings—especially throughout the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s—documentary filmmakers trolled truth as if it was yet another stuffy branch of bourgeois power.
In Land Without Bread (1933), Luis Buñuel parodied the white guilt of popular travelogue docs of the time, pointing out that sadness and economical devastation existed in Spain itself—no need to travel to some faraway land. In Nanook of the North (1922), the life of an Inuit clan was notoriously messed with. And Man with a Movie Camera (1929) pretty much just made a bunch of shit up. Their goals weren’t to leave truth unfondled, but to say that an unfondled truth is an unexplored one: shallow and meaningless.
Once Jean Rouche, Frederick Wiseman, D.A. Pennebaker and the Maysles, however, pioneered and then defined throughout the 1950s and ’60s what came to be known as cinéma vérité, documentary filmmaking shouldered the burden of truth, resolving to allow life to operate on its own, brushed only briefly by the manipulative fingers of the filmmaker. This was coupled with advances in filmmaking technology, notably that equipment became lighter, and more mobile. In turn, crews shrank, and coverage became paramount. That Nick Broomfield’s films are filmed with a minute crew on minute budgets, or that Oscar-winning Searching for Sugar Man (2012) was captured partly on an iPhone camera, means that today, as it is with most art, anyone can be a documentary filmmaker.
Which isn’t a bad thing. Because truth belongs to the people, by definition—it is ours to shape and hone and mold into something that enriches each of our lives and each of our worldviews however we see fit. That the following list leans heavily on films released in the past five years isn’t a coincidence, nor is it a factor of some shortsighted list-making. Instead, it points directly to our increased capacity to capture, reproduce and respect truth. If anything, we’re coming full circle.
Will the truth set you free? Probably not, but we believe the following 100 documentaries are the all-time greatest attempts to find out.
100. Deep Water
Directors: Jerry Rothwell, Louise Osmond
Louise Osmond and Jerry Rothwell’s 2006 documentary Deep Water feels like an homage: to sailing, to the sea, to adventure, to vindaloo paste, but mostly to the unknown. In it, Osmond and Rothwell, with narrative help from friends and then—sure—Tilda Swinton, chronicle the 1968 round-the-world Sunday Times Golden Globe yacht race, wherein nine of the world’s best sailors, plus one large-hearted electronics engineer named Donald Crowhurst—pretty much the definition of a “weekend sailor”—set out to circumnavigate the globe. They started in the UK, went south and around the Cape of Good Hope, across the Indian Ocean, around Cape Horn, and then back across the Atlantic to complete the loop. It was supposed to take about nine months. Instead, Crowhurst’s story found incomprehensible tragedy—and weirdness.
While Deep Water often trumps melodramatic musical cues and interstitial vignettes even Errol Morris would call cheesy, pushing the narrative into heartrending territory the story itself could easily attain on its own, long passages of screen time are devoted, just as simply, to staring at the sea. Like Herzog’s seemingly interminable shots of whitewater on the Amazon in Aguirre, the viewer is expected to hold her gaze. It’s a hypnotic sight; it’s also simultaneously overwhelming and calm, vicious and passive, loud and susurrate to the point of silence. In that middle ground, between poles (or, rather, where two ends meet, at both the end and the beginning), there is the terror of the unknown. There is this ocean and that ocean and thousands of miles of incomprehensible vista. —Dom Sinacola
99. Low and Clear
Directors: Kahlil Hudson, Tyler Hughen
Reading the description of Kahlil Hudson and Tyler Hughen’s remarkable film—two friends who are world-class fishermen, half a country apart, take a trip to British Columbia to fly fish and reconnect—you’d think that you’re in for a slow, meditative, deeply felt journey with beautiful scenery so bounteous you’re bound to take it for granted. It is all of that: meditative and deeply felt and beautiful—but it’s anything but slow. Having two fascinating, outspoken and often at-odds subjects helps, as does the deft and slightly mischievous touch of editor Alex Jablonski. But most of all, Hudson and Hughen seem determined not to settle for a tone poem. They want to tell something thrilling—and what they come up with is up to the task, a mesmerizing feast for the senses. —Michael Dunaway
Director: Jeffrey Blitz
The oh gawrsh factor is through the roof in this crowd-pleasing look at the efforts of eight youngsters, in 8th grade and under, to win the 1999 Scripps National Spelling Bee. It’s also a surprisingly suspenseful watch, thanks to some smart editing and the bright-eyed charisma of these kids—among some 250 hopefuls—cheered on by parents, teachers and audiences at these de facto intellectual Olympics. A quintessentially “American” portrait, Jeffrey Blitz’s Oscar-nominated film touches on issues of race, class and ethnic background in delving into each competitor’s journey to the event in Washington D.C., but Spellbound gets a pass for its many tropes because they’re, well, true—that, and its up-with-nerds charm. —Amanda Schurr
Director: Ondi Timoner
Chronicling seven years in the turbulent career of the Dandy Warhols and the Brian Jonestown Massacre, Dig! reveals the messy details of not only what it meant to rise in the ’90s indie rock scene, but what it took to navigate the complicated friendships and ambitions that formed it. The film goes beyond footage of sex and drugs to tell the urgent story of two bands seeking fame and radical musical revolution—but mostly fame. At the most, it’s a test of endurance: To what extent are you willing to tolerate the excessively putrid behavior of people who may (or may not) be making brilliant art? Those on the fence with Kanye, take note. —Caroline Klibanoff
Directors: Henry Alex Rubin, Dana Adam Shapiro
As a documentary that sets out to shatter our assumptions about quadriplegics, Murderball tries admirably to paint its characters as regular guys. Except these aren’t; they’re testosterone-fueled jocks proud of their aggressive playing and even prouder of their dicks (which still function, they’re quick to point out, when their legs or arms don’t). These young men devote themselves to wheelchair rugby, which they aptly dubbed “murderball” before it gained enough popularity to earn corporate sponsorship and a place in the Paralympic Games. It’s a sport played by teams in armored wheelchairs, by guys who arguably have chips on their soldiers rolling around on an indoor court in order to knock each other sideways and incite a roar from the crowd. It has all the trappings of any other team sport, including hot-headed coaches, displays of bravado and nail-biting championship games. Yet, despite the adrenaline and dick-waving, the heart of the film is something more important than just a game: It’s watching these guys struggle to accept themselves. Each tough, competitive personality shelters a damaged but recovering self-image. —Robert Davis
95. Room 237
Director: Rodney Ascher
There exists a rare species of obsessive cinephile: the hyper-fan who focuses on one film, mentally and emotionally ingesting it dozens, maybe hundreds, of times. Along a certain parallel, there is also a serious breed of conspiracy theorist, compulsive in his or her beliefs, taking things far beyond just watching Doomsday Preppers for fun. Push these two types inextricably together, you get Room 237, the confounding, eye-opening and often hilarious documentary about individuals whose over-wired brains are devoted to one cinematic masterpiece, Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining.
The most outlandish—and perplexing—theories in Room 237 posit The Shining either as a vehicle meant to comment on dark, oppressive periods in history, or as a massive, cryptic revelation. As a cinema sociologist, director Rodney Ascher acts as non-participant observer, letting his Room 237 subjects sell themselves, leaving us to jump on, laugh or stare in amazement. As a documentary filmmaker, Ascher voraciously digs into the stories, freezing frames from the 1980 classic, adding explanatory graphics and complex maps of the hotel’s physical layout. As the subjects analyze Kubrick, Ascher analyzes their analyses, which in turn inspires an analysis of Room 237 itself, making for a documentary film that twists in on its own guts so thoroughly one can’t help but feel similarly obsessed by film’s end. —Norm Schrager
94. L’amour Fou
Director: Pierre Thoretton
At first, this exceedingly quiet film seems to offer little in the way of insight: through the laconic accounts of long-time partner Pierre Bergé, the story of fashion industry icon Yves Saint Laurent is laid out in strikingly economical detail. He gained notoriety, and with it critical respect, as he lost much of a perspective on the bounds of his wealth and the impenetrability of his depression. In fact, upon learning Laurent had only a few weeks to live due to brain cancer, Bergé elected to keep the information from his partner—and husband, married only a few days before Laurent’s death—because he knew the designer wouldn’t be able to functionally deal with the news. In these moments, L’amour fou plays out like a touching, though slight, testament to a great artist and the unyielding love some people felt for him. It’s probably no surprise that as his profile rose, Laurent began to pull away, both physically and mentally, from the person with whom he chose to spend his life.
Yet, the film’s success lies in the way it thoughtfully dwells over every insignificant piece of rare art or expensive accoutrement amassed by the couple over their lifetimes, so much so that (especially with Laurent’s presence removed) Bergé’s home looks little more than a stuffy, poorly organized museum—fastidious and far from homely. And then, when Bergé endeavors to sell all of it on auction, the sense of loss grows to tenuous levels: Is he trying to find closure, or instead proving that everything they accumulated did nothing to make their lives any better, or any worse, when viewed in retrospect? Bergé, the inheritor of an astounding amount of money due to the auction (which Thoretton documents plainly, watching Bergé as he calmly hears one astronomical closing bid after another), finds nothing in the end but whatever security all that wealth provides … which, as we watch Bergé blankly stare out of a dreary window, Come Aguiar’s perfectly nuanced score accompanying his silence, feels like even more of nothing at all. —D.S.
93. Koko, the Talking Gorilla (Koko, le gorille qui parl)
Director: Barbet Schroeder
Koko, the Talking Gorilla uses the story of Koko, a gorilla who is able to communicate through sign language, to ask: “What rights should animals have?” As part of that project, director Barbet Schroeder plays with various levels of conundrum: money-focused interests want to put Koko on display while Koko’s trainer, Penny Patterson, argues that Koko should have the same rights afforded human children, because Koko demonstrates the same capacities as a typical young child. To his credit, Schroeder doesn’t shirk the obvious fact that the whole reason any of us are watching a documentary about a talking gorilla is right there in the title: it’s a talking gorilla, meaning we too are implicated in the exploitation of Koko’s humanity. Schroeder also chooses to linger on Patterson’s confessionals and her interactions with Koko, suggesting that Patterson’s expectations may be far too ambitious, and that her faith in Koko’s humanity might say more about Patterson herself than Koko, the latter of whom spends most of the film studiously ignoring the camera.
Watching it now, I’m struck by another way to view the film. Because this was released the same year as the English translation of Michel Foucault’s The History of Sexuality, it’s also possible to see the film as an exploration of how scientists were dealing with emerging anxieties over the postmodern assertion that “nurture” was as or more important than “nature.” In that sense, Koko is merely a prop for a broader discussion about what the “self” is, sure, but it grants the film an intellectual and cultural context that makes it more than just an early missive in the debate over animal rights. —Mark Abraham
92. The Hellstrom Chronicle
Directors: Walon Green, Ed Spiegel
When Dr. Nils Hellstrom (played by a flamboyantly serious Lawrence Pressman) says that The Hellstrom Chronicle will convince us of our inherent folly in assuming we will forever be Earth’s dominant species, we balk—because why wouldn’t we? His statement seems laughable at best, and evidence of his mental instability at worse. Yet, in proving that the Kingdom of Insects will eventually dominate the globe due to a brilliant combination of groupthink, corporeal efficiency and sheer attrition, the film is a convincing case for, at the very least, respecting the lives of those creatures we habitually take for granted. Filmed in sumptuous close-up, timelapse and nearly suffocating intimacy with worlds that, typically unavailable to us, feel completely alien, The Hellstrom Chronicle gleefully farts all over stuffy nature documentaries and sci-fi B-movies and cheap-o public access diatribes in order to come up with a viewing experience that is awful, hilarious and terrifying all at once. —D.S.
91. Biggie & Tupac
Director: Nick Broomfield
From its very first moments, Biggie & Tupac—a sort of truther’s glimpse into the murders of rappers Notorious BIG and 2Pac—is an exceptionally strange film. Director and narrator Nick Broomfield speaks in a clipped cadence, as if English isn’t his first language, and Earth isn’t his home planet. That he is somehow able to waddle his way into the most exclusive (and sometimes terrifying) situations is nearly incomprehensible, until one realizes that, to some extent, all his weirdness probably makes him seem so non-threatening that the folks who spill deeply incriminating confessions probably never figure his footage will ever see the light of day. And yet, Biggie & Tupac is endlessly compelling, far from an actually competent procedural but still ringing with enough sincerity that, buried beneath Broomfield’s weirdness and his very dubious journalistic intentions, there must be something true he’s tapping into. I’ve heard Broomfield referred to, among other epithets, as a “bottom-feeding creep,” and it’s not a stretch to see how his methods and results could be construed as the work of such. Yet, the access the man gets … when it comes to documentary film, do the ends justify the means? Because: the last 10 minutes of the film alone are worth the journey, in which an interview with Suge Knight (whom the film pretty clearly portrays as the orchestrator of both murders) reveals unnerving opinions on socioeconomic and racial realities. —D.S.