Even though mockumentaries by their very nature mock, not all subscribe to the satire or parody inherent in such a style. Mockumentaries, or fake documentaries, can cover everything from drama to horror, relying on the documentary approach to subvert such subject matter. But they succeed best in achieving laughs, and traditionally that’s what the style has been used to do most. Mockumentaries explore (and explode) subjects by revealing their absurdity, drawing upon everything from talking heads to cinéma verité in order to poke fun.
Ranging from the outright campy to the subtle dark humor of more nuanced approaches, mockumentaries offer a powerfully hilarious storytelling device that reveals the humor in everything from rock bands to New Zealand vampires. Here are the twelve best mockumentary films.
The popular Canadian television show Trailer Park Boys inevitably expanded their 30-minute format into several movies. Where the franchise’s first self-titled movie rehashed much of the first season’s plot, Countdown to Liquor Day goes off the rails in a new direction. Focused on ex-criminals and Sunnyvale Trailer Park residents Ricky, Julian and Bubbles, the camera crew that follows these three around often end up in the middle of gunfights or harebrained schemes all meant to outwit their nemeses, Trailer Park Supervisor Mr. Lahey and his Assistant Trailer Park Supervisor and sometimes lover, Randy.
If pop and rock serve as subject matter supreme for mockumentaries, then it was only a matter of time before someone did a send-up of rap. Fear of a Black Hat came out nearly one year after CB4, but Chris Rock’s take on the ‘rockumentary’ did it first. With a star-studded cast, including the late Phil Hartman and Charlie Murphy, Rock and co-writers Nelson George and Robert LoCash examined the gangsta rap scene. A “documentary” meant to parody N.W.A., CB4 followed around three aspiring young rappers who end up on a local kingpin’s bad side when he lands in jail and believes they’re the reason why.
The first of Christopher Guest’s three mockumentaries co-written with Eugene Levy, Waiting for Guffman introduced the world to a cast that would form the backbone of their other projects. The film picked up on This is Spinal Tap’s tradition while bringing a decidedly sweeter tone to the table. Corky St. Clair leads the lovable bunch of misfits who comprise the small-town theater group. They are determined to catch the eye of Broadway producer Mort Guffman, as they put on a play about their town’s history, Red, White and Blaine. Needless to say, things go wrong in all the right ways.
With an all-star cast featuring Kirsten Dunst, Denise Richards, Brittany Murphy, Allison Janney, Kirstie Alley, Ellen Barkin and then-unknown Amy Adams, Drop Dead Gorgeous had the making of a hit, but it was a massive failure when it was first released. Give anything time, however, and its poignancy only grows, which is exactly what happened. The film has since developed a cult following thanks to its behind-the-scenes look at beauty pageants and their cutthroat contestants. Drop Dead Gorgeous is a biting satire about the competitive world involving both stage moms and their wannabe daughters.
Critics tend to credit Woody Allen’s 1983 mockumentary Zelig as being the better of the director’s forays into the film style, but it’s his 1969 film Take the Money and Run, co-written with Mickey Rose, that first captured its quintessential tone. Equal parts derisive and ludicrous, the film follows the inept Virgil Starkwell as he experiments with—and naturally fails at—a life of crime. Coming before both This is Spinal Tap and The Rutles: All You Need is Cash, the film was one of the earlier versions of the mockumentary, and thanks to Allen’s early outlandish comedic approach, it succeeded in setting a strong foundation for future such films.
It was the film that launched a thousand impressions. When Kazakhstan-born Borat visited America, he brought with him several explosive assumptions and beliefs that came into sharp contrast with the celebrity and political figures he met and interviewed over the course of the film. As the dimwitted but eager Borat, Sacha Baron Cohen knew how to push people’s buttons thanks to his experience playing characters that do just that. But Borat struck a different nerve, especially when his ignorance worked to unveil entrenched racist, bigoted or sexist views with the people he met along the way.
There’s a reason mockumentaries and musical subjects work so well together, evidenced by A Mighty Wind. Detailing the folk and bluegrass artists who worked with music producer Irving Steinbloom, the film follows Mitch & Mickey, The Folksmen and The New Main Street Singers as they reunite to put on a tribute concert following Steinbloom’s passing. Not only are the songs created for the film toe-tapping good fun, but seeing Guest, McKean and Shearer reunite as band mates after working together on This is Spinal Tap and watching Levy and O’Hara work their magic together once again made the film a classic as soon as it hit theaters.
Unlike many other films on this list, Man Bites Dog has a decidedly more subtle comedic tone in that its satire tends toward the darker side of things; it’s not as overt as This is Spinal Tap, nor is it as absurd as What We Do in the Shadows. If anything the Belgian film pushed the mockumentary style’s limits by turning it on its head. The film follows serial killer Ben who not only murders on camera, but also continually shares his violent philosophy with the camera crew, who inevitably become entangled in his crimes. With plot lines involving gang-rape, it’s hardly a laugh-out-loud film, but its sharp commentary about society and violence continues to make it a cult classic for a reason.
One half of Flight of the Conchords’, the dry, absurdist Jemaine Clements, and director Taika Waititi teamed up to explore a fraternity of New Zealand-based vampires. In a film that seems as close to This is Spinal Tap as a mockumentary has gotten yet, the documentary’s crew follows a group of four vampires, each at least several hundred years old (and one hitting the 8,000-year-old mark) who live together in hilarious not-so-often harmony. With special appearances by their rivals, a local gang of werewolves, What We Do in the Shadows hits all the right notes when it comes to the mockumentary style.
Coming smack dab in the middle of Guest-Levy’s improvisational collaborations, Best in Show saw everyone involved working at their best. With a series of memorable characters all determined to win the Mayflower Kennel Club Dog Show, the film had no end to unforgettable moments and lines. Where Waiting for Guffman came first, and A Mighty Wind raised the style to a new art form, Best in Show displayed why this team—from its creators to its actors—had a special gift for this particular type of storytelling.
Arriving six years before This is Spinal Tap made its contribution to the medium and forever defined mockumentary style, Eric Idle and Neil Innes gave the world The Rutles. The Beatles parody began on Rutles Weekend Television, a project Idle co-created with Innes following Monty Python’s end. From there, the idea spawned into a television movie that followed around band members Dirk McQuickly, Ron Nasty, Barry Worm and Stig O’Hara. With parody songs like “Ouch!” (“Help!”), “Piggy in the Middle” (“I Am the Walrus”) and more, this clever send-up of the Beatles’ career remains a classic to this day.
With oft-quoted lines like taking something “up to eleven,” or classic scenes like the Stonehenge debacle, This is Spinal Tap continued the mockumentary trend of examining music subject matter by filming the bizarre, if hilarious, careers of rock band Spinal Tap. Directed by Rob Reiner and starring many cast members who would go on to do equally fantastic mockumentaries of their own, including Christopher Guest, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer, there’s a reason this film continues to be one of the most famous mockumentaries to date. It set the bar regarding what the medium could achieve, as well as the absurdist tone that in many ways continues to define this particular film style.