The past 20 years has seen a renaissance in documentary filmmaking, with features including Bowling For Columbine and Supersize Me earning both critical acclaim and financial success. At the same time, we’ve seen some fantastic documentaries emerge that cover topics of a geekier persuasion, from role-playing games and retro arcade high scores to visual effects artists.
With this in mind, here’s a selection of our favourite documentaries of the past 20 years, which focus exclusively on subjects of a geeky persuasion. We can’t possibly claim to have seen every documentary of the last two decades, though, so do share your own favourites in the comments.
With his pencil moustache, side-parting and wide-brimmed hat, respected American cartoonist Robert Crumb looks just as eccentric as the characters in his strange and incredibly intricate illustrations. Director Terry Zwigoff’s candid documentary takes a close look at the artist’s life and work, and what it uncovers is absorbing, endearing and sometimes desperately sad.
It was once said that Zwigoff threatened to shoot himself if the reclusive Crumb didn’t agree to make the film – a rumour started by Roger Ebert. Whether that apocryphal story’s true or not, there’s no doubt that what Zwigoff has captured is a timeless account of one of America’s most individual artists.
Trekkies is an at-times massively entertaining exploration of Star Trek fandom, that just about stays on the right side of appreciation (as opposed to ridicule). There are some heavily devoted fans to be found in Roger Nygard’s documentary, from the Star Trek dentist through to the the avid action figure collector after the lower production numbers. It pushes the line a little close at times, but Trekkies is a strong and generally appreciated documentary, aided immensely by having Denise Crosby involved. The follow-up, Trekkies 2, is a little less successful though.
The American Nightmare (2000)
The 60s and 70s horror landscape is laid bare in this 2000 feature by director Adam Simon, which features a stunning assembly of some of the era’s finest filmmakers – including George A Romero, David Cronenberg, John Landis, Tobe Hooper, Tom Savini and Wes Craven. Looking at how the horror of Vietnam and the US government’s violent treatment of the civil rights movement fed into the genre films of the time, the documentary fuses talk-head recollections, movie clips and news footage to disturbing and sometimes hallucinatory effect.
Although the message is simple – the excesses of such films as Last House On The Left were as nothing compared to what was happening in the news – it’s a point made with eloquently and mercilessly. Thank goodness John Landis is on hand to provide some of his smiling levity.
This Film Is Not Yet Rated (2006)
Comfortably one of the most fascinating documentaries for modern day movie nerds, This Film Is Not Yet Rated investigates the Motion Picture Association Of America ratings board, and just who is a member of it (something that’s traditionally been shrouded in secrecy). With interesting input from filmmakers who have got little shrift from the board in the past, it’s a slanted but fascinating expose, exposing some of the prejudices inherent in the system. And the thought of board members have to sit and watch the film, to give it its rating, is quite a golden one.
NB: The clip above contains scenes which could be considered NSFW.
King Of Kong: A Fistful Of Quarters (2007)
Before 2007, most critics would probably have scoffed at the notion that a documentary about videogames would end up as one of the most entertaining features of the year. But Seth Gordon’s King Of Kong manages to take a niche subject in videogaming – setting world records on retro arcade machines – and finds within it an exciting and beguiling underdog story, resulting in a documentary acclaimed for the strength of its storytelling, if not its factual accuracy.
Structured like Rocky or The Karate Kid (Joe Esposito’s You’re The Best Around even features at one point), the film follows ordinary American teacher Steve Wiebe’s attempts to set a new high score on Donkey Kong, and his subsequent battle of wills with current record holder, Billy Mitchell.
Mitchell’s depiction as the Cobra Kai dojo to Wiebe’s humble Daniel-san drew some criticism, but it’s the background detail that entertains us as much as the central battle; there’s the eccentric Roy Schildt, who coins his own word especially for the film (“chumpatised”), plus a whole gallery of (almost) uniformly loveable classic game enthusiasts.
Invest in the DVD, and you’ll find a great deleted scene where a Xybots fanatic walks around a grocery store like a robot. Pure geek bliss.
Chasing Ghosts: Beyond The Arcade (2007)
“You could be the biggest, strongest guy in the place, but if you couldn’t play a videogame, you were nothin’.”
Released at almost the same time as King Of Kong, this similarly retro-themed documentary was eclipsed somewhat by the former film’s tale of rivalry. This unfortunate timing meant that Chasing Ghosts didn’t get quite as much attention as it deserves, even though some critics argued that this feature was the better of the pair.
Featuring some of the same interviewees as King Of Kong, Chasing Ghosts covers the early-80s golden age of video arcades, with contributions from Twin Galaxies founder Walter Day, and the numerous fanatics who spent endless hours honing their skills on games such as Berzerk, Pac-Man and Galaga. It’s a document not only of a generation of game players, but also an entire social experience that has steadily dwindled in the years since. Even if you’re too young to remember the arcades of the 1980s, Chasing Ghosts makes for compelling viewing – no other documentary has captured the coin-op era’s distinctive sights and sounds in quite such loving detail. Did you know Track & Field would use pencils or electric carving knives to press the buttons more rapidly? We certainly didn’t.
The Dungeon Masters (2007)
At first glance, this documentary about three Gamemasters and their obsession with Dungeons & Dragons might seem like it’s making fun at its subject matter. But gradually, the tenderness and humanity in Keven McAlester’s film becomes apparent, as each of its three main players reveals more about their lives outside D&D. There’s Richard, who takes an almost sadistic delight in killing his players as quickly as possible; Elizabeth, whose extraordinary black make-up and silver hair (she’s a Drow Elf) provides the film with its most striking image, and Scott, a gentle storyteller who strives to finish his voluminous fantasy novel.
With some carefully-composed cinematography and well-paced editing, The Dungeon Masters is an affectionate and intimate study of three flawed yet likeable people who all happen to have D&D in common.
Corman’s World: Exploits Of A Hollywood Rebel (2011)
Whether you know filmmaker Roger Corman for his 50s B-movies, his Edgar Allan Poe cycle of baroque horror flicks, his 70s exploitation pictures, or his more recent creature features, Corman’s World is essential viewing. With contributions from some of the many actors, directors, writers and producers who emerged from beneath his creative wing – among them Joe Dante, Robert De Niro, Jonathan Demme and Ron Howard – the film is not only a fitting document of his life and work, but also a reminder of the vital role he’s played in American cinema.
Ray Harryhausen: Special Effects Titan (2011)
As the art of stop-motion becomes increasingly supplanted by CG, Gilles Penso’s documentary provides a loving retrospective of one of the most respected and influential movie artists of the 20th century. Peter Jackson, Guillermo del Toro and Steven Spielberg are among the filmmakers who explain how Harryhausen’s work affected them, from The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms to Clash Of The Titans (the good one, not the remake). And while special effects movies seldom use stop-motion these days, the documentary is a reminder not only of how detailed and beautifully sculpted Harryhausen’s work remains, but also how his imagination continues to inspire filmmakers everywhere.
Sense Of Scale (2011)
Like stop-motion animation, the advent of CG has gradually supplanted the use of scale miniature effects in movies. Made by Berton Pierce, Sense Of Scale relates the stories of some of the finest practitioners in miniature effects, including Mark Stetson, who created some of Blade Runner’s extraordinary sequences. Along with these accounts, there are some stunning archive footage snippets and behind-the-scenes images from movies such as Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, Escape From New York and The Abyss. A must-watch for movie geeks, the film hasn’t received the wide distribution it deserved – fortunately, copies can be purchased directly from its website.
Everything Or Nothing: The Untold Story Of 007 (2012)
With its release perfectly timed to coincide with James Bond’s 50th birthday on the big screen, Everything Or Nothing charts the agent’s cinematic progress. From the various legal battles which occasionally raged behind the scenes, to the constant ebb and flow of the movies’ success at the box-office, Stevan Riley’s documentary is both honest and clearly the product of a Bond fan. Its recounting of Bond history is peppered with fantastic anecdotes from many of the 007 actors themselves – though Sean Connery is notable for his absence, appearing only in archive footage. Our favourite? Possibly George Lazenby’s hilariously open account of how he managed to cajole his way into getting the iconic role through sheer cunning and ambition.
Room 237 (2012)
Although greeted with a tepid critical reception on its release in 1980, Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining has since acquired legendary status. This brilliantly-made documentary, compiled from movie footage and interviews, attempts to provide a cross-section of the extraordinary theories surrounding Kubrick’s horror classic. Whether it’s the assertion that The Shining is the director’s coded admission that he helped fake the lunar landings of 1969, or the theory that it’s a retelling of America’s genocidal history, the ideas of its subjects are explored without comment – though the occasional, wryly amusing use of snippets (including one from Lamberto Bava’s Demons) may provide an insight into director Rodney Ascher’s mindset.
Room 237 is not only a compelling look at how The Shining has passed into revered status, but also an example of how modern myths are made.
Side By Side (2012)
As digital technology continues its irresistible rise, Side By Side provides a timely comparison of digital and traditional photochemical filmmaking. With contributions from Martin Scorsese, Joel Schumacher, Christopher Nolan and James Cameron to name a few, the documentary provides a balanced and entertaining perspective on the pros and cons of both techniques, and is refreshingly unafraid to explore the technical side of its subject matter in-depth – something film geeks are sure to absolutely lap up.
Indie Game: The Movie (2012)
Following the stories behind three modern classics of indie gaming – Braid, Super Meat Boy and Fez – this Kickstarter-funded feature may be one of the best videogame documentaries ever made. This is because, like all great documentaries, Indie Game is about more than its subject matter – it’s also about chasing dreams, the joy of creation and the fear of failure. Beautifully shot, carefully constructed and full of great interviews, it perfectly captures a moment in 21st century videogame history where digital distribution opened up a new frontier for independent game designers.
That everyone concerned went on to enjoy the success they deserved makes this story of long lonely hours of coding and designing all the more satisfying.
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