by D.W. Lundberg

Friday, April 2, 2010





Lights! Camera! Reality! The Documentary is cinema in its purest form - literally any film that documents life as it happens, without actors or a written script. History's earliest films can be considered Documentaries: solitary camera shots (each less than a minute in length) of moving trains, surgical procedures, and the like. Genre films of 2000-2009 ranged from the controversial (Michael Moore's hot-button Fahrenheit 9/11) to the cute and cuddly (March Of The Penguins), and were more popular at the box office than ever before. Not only do the best Documentaries allow us to draw our own conclusions about the events and the lives on display, they also capture human drama so compelling and unique you'd swear someone made it all up.

The Top Five:

5. The King Of Kong: A Fistful Of Quarters (Seth Gordon, 2007)

The most entertaining Documentary of the decade, set in the cutthroat world of – no joke – competitive arcade gaming. At first it seems to follow the rags-to-riches story of Billy Mitchell, the arrogant, mullet-haired "Video Game Player Of The Century" who's coasted on that reputation since he set the high- score record for Donkey Kong in 1982. Then a challenger emerges: a down-on-his-luck junior high school teacher named Steve Wiebe (that's "Wee- bee"), who proves himself the first major contender for the throne in more than 20 years. The fun of the movie is in the not-so flattering picture director Seth Gordon paints of Mitchell and his "disciples" – grown men who've diluted themselves into thinking their accomplishments have actual real-world merit. But it's Wiebe's journey to overcome impossible odds that had audiences cheering.

4. This Film Is Not Yet Rated (Kirby Dick, 2006)

Kirby Dick is funny and unflinching in his obvious contempt for the MPAA ratings system. He splits This Film into three separate trajectories: In the first, he uses animated anecdotes, split-screen comparisons of film clips, and interviews with fellow filmmakers to highlight the Motion Picture Association of America's tolerance for graphic violence over frank sexuality (especially scenes more overtly homosexual in nature); in the second, he hires a (lesbian) private investigator to help track down ratings board members and reveal their identities (her solution: park outside the building where they work and jot down their license plate numbers as they leave); and finally, he gives us a first-hand account of the appeals process after his own movie is slapped with an NC-17! (TFINYR was ultimately released unrated.) This is ballsy, eye-opening stuff, made all the more infuriating since, as of this date, the MPAA has done little to alter its policies. I guess that's progress for you.

3. Standard Operating Procedure (Errol Morris, 2008)

Arguably the most influential documentary filmmaker of the last thirty years, Errol Morris tackles the U.S. military photo scandal at Abu Ghraib in typical fashion: he climbs inside the heads of his subjects and turns what he finds there into a powerful study of the human condition. The movie is tough to watch, yes, but what's compelling about it is the way we feel for the men and women caught up in a situation far beyond their control. Morris' interviews with the soldiers implicated in the atrocities are surprisingly candid (Sabrina Harmon's way of explaining her patented thumbs-up pose in the photographs is especially damning), but it's the pictures, in all their ugly, brutal glory, which speak for themselves. Standard Operating Procedure is more than just a revealing look into man's inhumanity to man. It's a snapshot of our dwindling morality.

2. Touching The Void (Kevin Macdonald, 2003)

In May 1985, British mountain climbers Joe Simpson and Simon Yates became the first men to conquer the 20,813-foot summit of the Siula Grande in Peru. Disaster struck on their descent, when Simpson fell and shattered his leg. Yates then had to lower his partner down on a rope, 300 feet at a time, but Simpson slipped over the edge of a crevasse and couldn't pull himself back up. Bombarded by icy winds, and in danger of being pulled to his own death, Yates cut the rope. That's just the first half hour of Kevin Macdonald's Touching The Void, a tense and spellbinding recreation of events that became legendary among mountaineering circles. Filmed mostly as a re-enactment of that incredible story, with interview clips and commentary from Yates and Simpson guiding the action, the movie is almost unbearably intense - full of suspense so edge-of-your-seat it puts most Hollywood thrillers to shame. It is also, lest we forget, a powerful depiction of the indomitable human spirit.

1. Grizzly Man (Werner Herzog, 2005)

Werner Herzog must have seen Timothy Treadwell as one of his patented obsessives – since Herzog's films, Documentary or otherwise, have always centered around man's reckless pursuits, often at the expense of their souls. A failed actor and born-again wildlife enthusiast, Treadwell spent 13 summers living among the bears of Alaska's Kitmai National Park, only to be killed and partially devoured by one in 2003. Grizzly Man is a tribute of sorts, culled from over 100 hours of footage shot by Treadwell himself during his last five years in the park. For his sake, it doesn't help that the guy comes off as such a total whack job: He rails at the camera, gives his animal friends names like "Sgt. Brown" and "Mr. Chocolate," and worse, actually fancies himself as their confidante and only protector. But that's the genius of the movie: you shake your head at his antics one minute, and ache for him the next. Black comedy or tragic fable, this is ultimately a cautionary portrait of misguided idealism. It's an unforgettable experience.


Another one done - and in only two weeks' time! (Is that a record? Somebody check.) Next up: Dramas.


  1. I must say, you've found a genre of movies with which I am completely oblivious! Not only have I not seen any of these movies, I have not even heard of them. I am even intrigued with a few of them and expect to use my redbox code for a free rental soon! S.O.P will probably be passed up, but I can empathize with the soldiers involved and prosecuted while the "higher-ups" of their chain of command sit under their umbrellas of rank and let their subordinate's lives get crushed. A story I've seen personally-though of course not in that extent-from my stint in the military. Don't get me wrong though, I love and appreciate all our service men and women. I just wish and hope there will be more "leaders" develop who can disconnect with that "I'm above all you piss-ants" mentality.
    I'm thinking either Touching the Void or Grizzly Man will win the redbox code, those movies seem quite intriguing. Thanks for your opinions, keep writing!

  2. The only one I haven't seen is King Kong, but I plan to see it soon. I really enjoyed these documentaries. Good picks,D.W.! Oh, and Jason, most documentaries aren't rated, so there may be a few naughty words in them. In fact, I'm pretty sure Grizzly Man has more than a few.

  3. Wow Jonny just when I thought you couldn't get any dorkier you go and prove me wrong! I mean I love movies, i'm a huge movie geek, but Jonny and others like Darin make me feel like I'm an Amature Movie Buff. You guys are in a whole other league.

    I don't watch documentaries, mostly becuase they're boring, and most are about topics that I find either unimportant or just don't care about. A few are ground breaking and thought provoking and get national or even international acclaim, but these ones are rare. So I generally avoid this genra all together unless Jonny nags me into watching one.

    With that said I must admit Jonny made me watch Grizzly man. I totally agree with you on your critigue Darin. This movie and this Crazy guy are a great example of what happens when you recycle too much, hug too many trees, and save too many whales. This is why no one should listen to the crazy eco friendly green propaganda. It turns your mind to mush. After all didn't they say that we were destroying the world because of global warming and than it turns out the world isn't warming up, it's just fine? Anyways, it may sound mean but I think Timothy got what he deserves, they don't call them wild animals for nothing.

    Oh and I just had to add that I think that "Touching the Void" Movie has a very suggestive title. I'm just saying.