The 100 Best Documentaries of All Time

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70. Detropia
Directors: Heidi Ewing, Rachel Grady
Year: 2012

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Detropia paints a modern likeness of the City of Detroit as the United States’ greatest failure, and perhaps its most representative example of the untenable nature of the so-called American Dream. But the film is rarely as big as it’d like to be. Though there’s something there to dissect about the dissolution of the middle class—how that doesn’t really mean much of anything anymore—directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady can’t seem to get past a melancholic tone and make a serious case about American exceptionalism dooming the rest of the country in the same way. And yet, basic facts are brutal: How in 1955, 1.86 million people lived in the city, but by the time the film was made, there were less than 800,000 people; how there are currently 40 square miles of vacant land within city limits. Detroit is simply too big, and the film struggles underneath that weight. Ewing is from Detroit suburb Farmington Hills, and as someone who also grew up in the area, I recognize sincerity and possessiveness in the way the film chronicles the city’s current plight. Which is maybe why, despite all of the despair and slow-burning nightmares and wreckage it portrays, Detropia ends on a hopeful beat, more of a lullaby than a soundless death throe. It’s quite beautiful. —D.S.


69. F is for Fake
Director:   Orson Welles  
Year: 1974

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The extent to which you’ll enjoy F is for Fake probably depends on the extent to which you believe a documentary needs to have a point, or stick to that point, or not use the point as a platform from which to grift the audience. The film is half-documentary, half-biography (…of several people at once, including director Orson Welles), and half-excuse for Welles to wear a vampire cape.

It starts as a delightful analysis of authenticity and art centered around art forger Elmyr de Hory. Welles focuses on the question of whether de Hory’s work, as good as it is at mimicking the work of famous artists, is also great art, even if it is faking somebody else’s work. But then the film begins to weave other stories into the mix: for example, de Hory’s biographer, Clifford Irving, was, at some point in the filming process, revealed to have faked a biography of Howard Hughes. Welles plays with the boundaries between truth and fiction, wondering if the very act of replication—in other words, filming people who are either acting as they would anyways or pretending to have feelings—is no different than forging art. F is for Fake is whimsical to the point where it refuses to really answer any of its own questions, but there’s a joy here that’s compelling … even if the whole thing’s a con. —M.A.


68. This Is Not a Film
Directors: Jafar Panahi, Mojtaba Mirtahmasb
Year: 2012

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In December 2010, renowned Iranian director Jafar Panahi (Offside) was sentenced to six years in prison and banned from making films for 20. His crime? Supporting the opposition party during Iran’s highly charged 2009 election. Three months later, on the eve of the Iranian New Year, while his wife and children are away delivering gifts, Panahi is home alone in his apartment. He turns on a camera. What follows is a document of the day-to-day life of a man under house arrest: He spreads jam on bread; he brews tea; he feeds his daughter’s pet iguana; he calls his family; he checks in with his lawyer. But This Is Not a Film also evolves into a provocative meditation on the nature of filmmaking itself, because, although he has been barred from directing films, writing screenplays, leaving the country and conducting interviews, Panahi’s sentence says nothing about reading or acting, so this is what he does in front of a camera, explaining what his most recent film would have been about had he been allowed to make it. Like René Magritte’s The Treachery of Images, in which the artist scrawls the words “This is not a pipe” under a painting of just such a smoking device, this is not a film but a representation of one. Which, in fact, might make it all the more truthful. —A.E.


67. At Berkeley
Director: Frederick Wiseman
Year: 2013

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Frederick Wiseman is a national treasure, a filmmaker who has spent his career diligently and perceptively documenting institutions, whether they be mental hospitals (Titicut Follies) or French burlesque clubs (Crazy Horse). At Berkeley is one of his best, and one of his longest: a four-hour examination of the University of California at Berkeley that chronicles everything from administrative meetings to classroom lectures. With Wiseman’s trademark restraint—rather than interviewing his subjects, Wiseman simply stands back and observes them in their natural habitat—he asks us to consider the college experience as a microcosm for the world with its warring philosophies and agendas. And if Wiseman’s thesis is accurate, we live in a pretty remarkable world. —T.G.


66. Général Idi Amin Dada: Autoportrait
Director: Barbet Schroeder
Year: 1974

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Roger Ebert  once criticized this film for not being “a very good documentary.” And it’s absolutely true that this isn’t, at least on the subject of Idi Amin’s three-year rule of Uganda (at the time of filming), or of Uganda itself, or of Amin as a mass murderer. Still, Général Idi Amin Dada: Autoportrait is a fascinating portrait of how Amin saw himself in 1974, and how Amin was a precocious self-mythmaker. Amin’s sense of self is incredible—only three years after the military coup that brought him into power, he displays a level of self-aggrandizement here that simply doesn’t seem possible. That conceit remains consistent throughout, in spite of the fact that most of the scenes in the film that are meant to show off Amin’s power were clearly staged for the benefit of the cameras. So while I do wish director Barbet Schroeder had done more with the film’s offhanded suggestion that Amin is not just the result of colonialism but also a reflection of Western colonial ideology—in context, it comes off more like a half-assed way to address the fact that this film is kind of exploitative than it does an actual argument—in the sense that this is a look at how a mass murderer might present himself to the world, Autoportrait is a compelling study of (in)humanity. —M.A.


65. Actress
Director: Robert Greene
Year: 2014

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Robert Greene uses what might be considered sleight of hand with Actress. The director of Kati With an I and Fake It So Real, Greene presents Actress as a portrait of Brandy Burre, an actress whose showiest credit was a recurring role on The Wire. She left her profession behind to focus on motherhood, but now that it’s been a few years, she’s getting the itch to start acting again. This would seem to indicate that Actress will be a look into Burre’s comeback, probably with insights into the struggles of a 30-something actress who’s been out of the game. Except that’s just one facet of Actress, which confidently wanders along with Burre as she begins to make decisions that don’t just affect her career but her home life. The surprises are best not to spoil in Actress, not just because they add to the film’s melancholy spell but because they also enhance Greene’s meditation on role-playing and identity. Those might not have been the filmmaker’s themes when he started, but Burre’s life created the opening, and Greene is smart enough to explore where it leads, serving as a compassionate but clear-eyed witness to her unexpected tribulations. —T.G.


64. Marwencol
Director: Jeff Malmberg
Year: 2010

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One night in 2000, Mark Hogencamp was beaten close to death by five men outside of a bar he frequented. No one really knew why it happened; after nine days in a coma, Hogencamp awoke with severe brain damage and little memory of life before. Unable to pay for intensive therapy, he slowly devised a world of his own to reconstruct in place of the one he’d lost: Marwencol, a World-War-II-era Belgian town made from 1/6th scale hobby sets and GI Joe/Barbie dolls, He populated the place with characters transposed from his life as he knew it—himself, friends and the men who attacked him. In order to find reason, and one assumes come to some sort of closure, Hogencamp—charmingly chain-smoking—acts out serialized plots in his little town, meticulously positioning tiny hands or dragging action figure vehicles down back country roads, all the while in thrall to every trivial detail within his control.

Marwencol explores Hogencamp’s imagination as he attempts to rediscover the identity he lost, following the man to New York when his photos of Marwencol are featured in Esopus magazine and shown in an art gallery. The trip proves to be the first time since the accident that Hogencamp’s left his rigorously controlled, excessively private life, and with that director Jeff Malmberg captures him finally getting a grip on the quietly slumbering truths that may have—somehow—brought him to that point. It’s a story rich in awakenings, about the precarious nature of identity and the surprises of spirit awaiting us, somewhere, out of our control, yet held deeply within. —D.S.


63. Stories We Tell
Director: Sarah Polley
Year: 2013

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With Stories We Tell, actress-turned-director Sarah Polley has proven herself a consummate filmmaker, transforming an incredible (and incredibly) personal story into a playful yet profound investigation into the nature of storytelling itself. The central mystery of her documentary—that the man she grew up believing to be her dad is not her biological father—is public knowledge at this point, easily revealed in the film’s trailer. Yet Polley conceals and reveals information—starting with her relationships to her interview subjects—in such an effortless way as to constantly surprise, even shock, her audience. The result is a film that scrutinizes the ultimate purpose of truth and comes up with a gorgeously rendered shrug. —A.E.


62. Paris is Burning
Director: Jennie Livingston
Year: 1991

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Madonna’s “voguing” phase has nothing on—that is, took everything from—the drag scene of 1980s New York City chronicled in this vibrant doc. Delving into the subculture of fierce, catwalk-styled posing and the clubs in which it thrived, Jennie Livingston depicts the less-than-glamorous realities of life as a drag queen before RuPaul was mainstream: issues of gender and sexual identity, race, bigotry and hate, HIV/AIDS, poverty, crime—theft is a commonplace means by which these would-be “Legends&#8221 seek a desired end: transformation. Named after one of the underground balls in which its subjects find a sense of family—in “houses,” no less—Paris is Burning is a joyous affair, and a curiously meta celebration of what it means “to be real.” —A.S.


61. When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts
Director:   Spike Lee  
Year: 2006

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Part indictment of FEMA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, part celebration of the unfailingly resilient spirit of New Orleans, Spike Lee’s four-hour-long look at “The City That Care Forgot” a year after the near-obliteration of Hurricane Katrina is an exhausting, comprehensive, worthwhile experience. There’s a reason so many residents refer to the catastrophe as the “Federal flood” and not Katrina itself—Lee’s Peabody-winning doc examines the systemic failure at all levels of government to maintain the storm barriers and deal with the consequences of their negligence. It’s political, it’s racial, it’s accusatory and it’s utterly compelling viewing. It’s also inspiring, thanks to the resolute locals shown struggling to survive and rebuild in the disaster’s aftermath. This is very much a Spike Lee joint; don’t expect anyone in the Dubya administration to come away without a tongue-lashing. But the heart and soul of the doc is the people of New Orleans, and they won’t let you down—on the contrary. —A.S.

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