Thanks to streaming services such as Netflix, we’ve never had better access to documentaries. A whole new audience can discover that these real life stories are just as thrilling, entertaining, and incredible as the latest big-budget blockbuster. What’s more, they’re all true too. But with a new found glut of them comes the ever more impossible choice, what’s worth your time? Below is my pick of the 50 best modern feature length documentaries.
I’ve defined modern as being from 2000 onwards, which means some of the greatest documentaries ever made will not feature here. I’m looking at you, Hoop Dreams.
50. McConkey (2013)
Directed by: Rob Bruce, Scott Gaffney, Murray Wais, Steve Winter, David Zieff
Shane McConkey was an extreme skier and BASE jumper who lived life on the edge, and very much to the full. After his death at the age of 39 in the Dolomites, his friends decided to honor him. The result is this documentary, hands down one of the most thrilling sports-action films you’ll ever see. Charting the story from his young days making a reputation as a truly talented skier, but one who would often do it naked to shock people, all the way to his untimely death, McConkey utilizes thousands of hours of footage Shane and his friends shot of him over the years. This was a man who was pushed to chase adrenalin thrills and pursue perfection, all with the camera watching. But it also shows a hugely decent man, who loved, and in return was loved by, his friends.
49. Life Itself (2014)
Directed by: Steve James
The ultimate tribute to the ultimate film critic, Life Itself is the adaptation of the legendary Roger Ebert’s memoir from Hoop Dreams director Steve James. Built around footage and interviews with Ebert in the final months of his life, the film showcases his cultural legacy. This is done via an exploration of his friendships with fellow critic Gene Siskel, filmmaker Russ Meyer, as well as Martin Scorsese and Wener Herzog. Poignant and enlightening, there are few voices worthy of their own film, but Roger Ebert is first among them.
See also: Life Itself review.
48. Enron: The Smartest Guys In The Room (2005)
Directed by: Alex Gibney
Based on the 2003 bestselling book by Bethany McClean and Peter Elkind, the Enron scandal is artfully deconstructed here – basically, how could a company that was rotten to the core project such a healthy and enviable public appearance? Darlings of the financial markets, Enron in fact built up fake companies to trade with, reported false profits, and were implicated heavily in the California Energy Crisis – which may have had a political motivation to it. If you ever feel like the world is an evil place, then watch this film and have all your worst fears confirmed.
47. Restrepo (2010)
Directed by: Tim Hetherington, Sebastian Junger
The result of the two directors year with a US Army platoon in Afghanistan, Restrepo is an almost purely visual experience of a soldiers life on the front line. Covering the adrenalin rush off combat, the day to day duty of guarding their fort, the rebuilding and outreach work with the community, and the tense boredom of life at war, Restrepo is one of the best examples of recent Cinema Verite you can find.
Quick film 101: a lot of docs can be split into Cinema Verite and Direct Cinema. Direct Cinema is pure fly-on-the-wall, with no interference, while Cinema Verite allows the filmmaker to impose themselves within the film. There’s obviously a lot of nuance in between, but that’s your basics.
46. Shine A Light (2008)
Directed by: Martin Scorsese
It’s Scorsese, making a concert film about one of the greatest living rock ’n’ roll bands. What’s not to like?
For those who think that when big name directors such as Scorsese or James Cameron take time away from making scripted mega-budget films to pursue documentaries they’re not giving us “real films” I urge to watch something like this and reconsider. The same level of craftsmanship is being displayed, but in a more immediate genre. These directors normally deal in tightly controlled artifice, so to see how they react to events outside of their immediate control is a joy – and having the Rolling Stones let rip at Beacon Theatre is the perfect stage for Scorsese’s camera to roam over.
45. The Square (2013)
Directed by: Jehane Noujaim
An incredible piece of filmmaking that captures the events of the Egyptian crisis, starting from the mass protests in Tahir Square. Raw and uncompromising, it highlights how the people’s revolution was snatched away from them despite the hope and high energy of the initial movement. Of course, it’s an incomplete record of the Egyptian crisis, and the further we get away from 2011 the more will change and be revealed about how despite appearances, Egypt remains in the grip of a dictatorship. But nothing will take away the rawness and immediacy of this film, and as an on-the-ground account of turmoil, it’s second to none.
44. The King Of Kong: A Fisful of Quarters (2007)
Directed by: Seth Gordon
Rightly described as a “miniature masterpiece” by the Village Voice, The King Of Kong depicts the vicious battle between two men striving to gain the world record score for Donkey Kong. One is a cocky ’80s hotshot, the other a misfit with OCD. Both are compelling characters. Arcade nostalgia, obsession, low level dirty tricks and accusations of cheating, public apologies, and decades old feuds all rear their head in the his ultimate low stakes battle. It’s genius viewing, whether or not your idea of a good time is watching video games. As a sad coda though, director Seth Gordon would go on to make Identity Thief.
See also: Seth Gordon interview
43. The Fog Of War (2003)
Directed by: Errol Morris
This Oscar winning film charts the life and career of former US Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara. And it’s quite the life and career. Born during World War I, McNamara served as a Whiz Kid officer during World War II – the whiz kids being 10 officers who after reorganizing management of the war, decided to offer their services as a business unit, all ten or nothing. Ford were the company they went to, and McNamara eventually rose to become president of the company. He then followed that up by becoming Secretary of Defense for JFK and Lyndon B Johnson, which led to his involvement in both the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Vietnam War.
The documentary is an incredible insight into global security, and why certain decisions are made. For a view from the inside, it can’t be beaten.
42. Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003)
Directed by: Thom Andersen
Any film which posits Blade Runner as a vision of perfect city planning rather than dystopian nightmare has my attention. The reason in this magnificent video essay by lecturer Thom Anderson? It shows a future L.A. free of traffic jams. Made originally in 2003, but only widely available since 2014, Los Angeles Plays Itself is essentially a super-cut of all of the City Of Angels on-screen appearances, but dissected, complained about, and put into their correct context. It’s fascinating, funny, furious. It’s also hugely informative, slightly too long, and guaranteed to make you look at this misunderstood city in a whole new way. After all, they make movies here I’m told.
41. The Green Prince (2014)
Directed by: Nadav Schirman
The story of The Green Prince seems like it comes straight out of the most cliched thriller imaginable. What if the son of Hamas leader Sheikh Hassan Youssef was secretly a spy for the Israeli secret service? Well incredibly that’s exactly what Mosab Hassan Youssef was. Based around interviews with Mosab and his handler Gonen Ben Yitzak, this documentary turns what is essentially town men talking for 90 minutes into a taut thriller and fascinating examination of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
40. Cave Of Forgotten Dreams (2010)
Directed by: Werner Herzog
Herzog’s first entry onto the list is a sublime 3D sensory experience which takes us deep into the heart of the Chauvet Cave in southern France, which contains the oldest cave paintings known. It’s also completely off limits to the public, and for those who do get to go down there, you’re only allowed a few hours due to toxic levels of carbon dioxide. So this is likely to be the only look me and you will ever get at it. Luckily for us Herzog made sure it was a good one. Once again Herzog’s trademark narration guides through the haunting images, with interviews with scientists interspersed throughout. Being underground has never felt this good.
39. In The Shadow Of The Moon (2007)
Directed by: David Sington, Christopher Riley
A beautifully pure documentary, painstakingly put together from decades of footage never before seen and only recently released by NASA. This is the story of America’s manned missions to the moon. With the astronauts themselves providing commentary, it’s a incredible testament and legacy to what humans achieved during the ’60s and the ’70s. If you’ve ever looked up at the stars in wonder, this is the film for you.
And as a bonus, it also has a certain Gareth Edwards featuring in a visual effects credit.
38. Into The Abyss (2011)
Directed by: Werner Herzog
Another Herzog entry (the man’s a genius), this time he tackles the subject matter of a man on death row. Michael Perry, from Texas, was convicted of three murders and placed on death row. The film profiles him, and includes interviews recorded days before his execution. What makes this documentary so compelling beyond its subject is the lack of Herzog. He is almost entirely absent here, and in refusing to engage in the debate on innocence or guilt, and the right and wrong of the death penalty system, he encourages the audience to think about it even more intensely.
37. Catfish (2010)
Directed by: Henry Joost, Ariel Schulman
Strip back the MTV reality series with the same name. Take away the fact that to “catfish” someone has become a verb. You’ll still left with an outstanding documentary which excels in preying on our modern fears about social media, and presents the world online bursting into our reality with creepy effect – most of the film takes its cues from horror, and you expect Schulman to come to a sticky end. How much of it is genuinely a documentary is open to debate. While it sweeps you up in its riveting narrative, it doesn’t really hold up to post-film questioning. But documentary has always dealt in degrees of authenticity. After all, we are seeing the world through the lens of the filmmaker. Here they create a compelling and self-aware film about the modern world.
36. Inside Job (2010)
Directed by: Charles Ferguson
I often think it might be useful for the current UK Government to watch this film, which handily and accessibly explains the 2008 financial crisis. Spoilers: the global economic crash wasn’t the fault of a single polticial party. Split into five parts, director Charles Ferguson expertly sorts out the pieces of the puzzle to show just what went wrong, how it wrong, and why it went wrong.
From the insane deregulation of Icelandic banks, to the investment banks borrowing hugely against their assets, and the fuelling of the the subprime mortgage market, the seeds of destruction and what they reaped is laid clearly out. But the kicker is really in just how those responsible walked away with their fortunes intact – almost as if the entire crisis had been planned to defraud the ordinary Joe.
35. Girlhood (2003)
Directed by: Liz Garbus
Girlhood takes the documentary concept of following two lives over several years and crafts something truly special with it. It follows two Baltimore girls, Shanae and Megan, who both go into juvenile detention, and proceeds to examine the system, and the people who try to make it function. But despite this grim set-up, it’s a film full of hope. The system may be broken, but those who try to fix it are by and large truly decent people trying to make a difference. It’s a film which finds the prefect balance between light and dark, and while informing, never judges.
34. You’ve Been Trumped (2011)
Directed by: Anthony Baxter
The first and best of two documentaries that Anthony Baxter has made on a similar theme, this one following professional Twitterer Donald Trump’s decision to build a luxury golf resort in a wilderness area of Scotland. Baxter certainly takes a side with his film, giving voices to the local residents, while also shining a light on authority figures within Scotland who cleared the path for Trump to press ahead with his plans. The documentary is one that led to Trump labelling Baxter as a man with zero talent. But conversely, he also granted an interview to the documentarian, which you can see in his follow-up feature, 2014’s A Dangerous Game.
33. How To Survive A Plague (2012)
Directed by: David France
An absolutely stunning piece of filmmaking which charts the rise of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in North America, and the struggles of AIDS activists to get effective drugs on the market in time for them to have any impact. Through archive and interview, How To Survive A Plague is one of those documentaries that reveals another facet of a history you thought you knew, but actually only understand in the broadest sense. From the accelerated drug trials, to the fact that for many the only treatment available at the beginning would most likely cause you blindness, it’s frequently heartbreaking but often inspiring.
32. Control Room (2004)
Directed by: Jehane Noujaim
Hugely powerful, Control Room is a documentary about Qatar news agency Al Jazeera and its relationship with US Central Command during the 2003 Iraq invasion. If that doesn’t immediately interest you as a subject matter, then know that it’s handled spectacularly well. The nature of bias, propaganda, and the literal nature of “pics or it didn’t happen” are all hugely important, but it’s the characters in the middle of this war that really make this film riveting. Reporters Samir Khader, David Shuster and Tom Mintier, and US military press officer John Rushing, bring the human element tot he forefront, and show just what journalistic embedding in a war really means – especially when Al Jazeera is attacked by US forces in a “friendly fire” incident.
31. No No: A Dockumentary (2014)
Directed by: Jeff Radice
Ostensibly about the time Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Dock Ellis threw a legendary no-hitter (a game where the opposition fail to record a single hit) while apparently tripping on LSD, No No: A Dockumentary is far more than a sensationalist tale about drug use in sport. Through archive and interviews, it’s the history of black players in Major League Baseball at a time when civil rights were still being fought for, and prejudice high. Dock Ellis comes across as an anti-authority figure, whether through wearing curlers in his hair, or tripping on acid during games, but an anti-authority figure with something to say, and far more to prove to his contemporaries.
30. Jiro Dreams Of Sushi (2011)
Directed by: David Gelb
Proof that documentary often offers as much range for genre innovation (if not more) than fiction films comes with this masterpiece. 85-year old Jiro Ono is considered by many to be the greatest sushi master in the world. He holds three Michelin stars at his Tokyo restaurant. This film is a ode to his quest for perfection, and how he teaches his two middle aged sons to look for the same. The shots of sushi being prepared is truly art, as is the finesse with which Jiro watches his customers, making adjustments on how they react to his food. Simple, elegant, and riveting – who knew watching three men create sushi could be so enticing?
29. Murderball (2005)
Directed by: Henry Alex Rubin, Dana Adam Shapiro
There have been great strides recently in normalizing many people’s views on physical disability. While a huge amount of credit goes towards events such as the 2012 Paralympics, and the accompanying C4 series The Last Leg in opening up the subject, for me it began with the success of this film. While it’s top line may be “guys in wheelchairs beat the crap out of each other,” it quickly becomes a compelling film on what drives elite competitors, for whom being a quadriplegic is just one of many factors in their lives.
The super low budget compliments the lo-fi aesthetic, with the sport of wheelchair rugby proving charming in its rough and ready approach, but above all the film is a huge amount of fun.
28. Spellbound (2002)
Directed by: Jeffrey Blitz
The story of 250 children competing to win the 1999 Scripps National Spelling Bee in the USA could have been a horrendous look at pushy parents and their over-achieving brats. That it is instead a riveting and hugely enjoyable story is fully down to the charming and eccentric kids who demand your attention as they are put through intense pressure to spell on stage. It acts as a portrait of a nation obsessed with competition, and rising above any class or ethnic barriers to succeed.
27. Sins Of My Father (2009)
Directed by: Nicolas Entel
For any fans of Netflix’s recent Narcos, this is a definite must watch. Sebastián Marroquín, aka Juan Pablo Escobar, returns to Colombia after more than ten years of exile in order to meet victims of his father, and to apologize to the sons of his most infamous assassinations, that of presidential candidate Luis Carlos Galan and Justice Minister Rodrigo Lara Bonillo. While the film’s narrative is about tying the reign of Escobar to the more recent violence and fate of the drug trade, at its heart it is a piece about peace and reconciliation, the weight of family history, and whether or not we can ever truly forget or forgive.
26. Supermensch: The Legend Of Shep Gordon (2013)
Directed by: Mike Myers
Marking Mike Myers directorial debut, this is a unashamedly entertaining film about talent manager Shep Gordon, who due to his all-round excellent personality managed to become the manager of Alice Cooper shortly after moving to Hollywood. It’s an improbable story which only gets weirder when you find out he’s become good friends with the Dalai Lama, but the way it’s told is hugely enjoyable. It’s like you’ve been invited to dinner with all these people, when they’re all having the best time sharing stories about each other.
25. Amy (2015)
Directed by: Asif Kapadia
An icon in her own short lifetime, Amy seeks to separate fact from myth when it comes to Amy Winehouse. Far from the media portrayal of an out of control music star only, we get the portrait of a girl who makes the wrong choices in life and love, and ends up broken hearted and in the thrall of addiction, the only thing that truly made her out of control. It’s sad to see the bright, talented and charismatic woman crumble in front of us, and while the film doesn’t point too many fingers, it makes all of us culpable in her downfall.
24. An Inconvenient Truth (2006)
Directed by: Davis Guggenheim
Perhaps the best thing to come out of Gore’s defeat in his bid to be President of the United States was his renewed focus on educating people about global warming. Back in the ’80s he had put together a rough and ready presentation on a flip chart. Come the ’00s he had updated this to a Keynote presentation he dubbed the “slide show,” and took it back on the road. Producer Laurie David saw one these town hall shows, and decided the message had to spread wider.
Gore’s fascinating (and terrifying) slide show makes up the core of the film, but what brings it truly to life is the global sweep of the images – seeing these places on-screen and knowing that we’re all part of the same world. What truly sells the message of imminent disaster though is Gore himself, whose belief is shown through interviews, and getting to know the man behind the message.
23. Dogtown And Z Boyz (2001)
Directed by: Stacy Peralta
This is the history of skateboarding in Southern California. It’s thrilling, visceral, and lets you into a world you know, but know nothing about. In short, everything a great documentary should be. Peralta was a member of the pioneering Zephyr skateboarding team, made up of teenagers from broken homes and brought together by surfers Jeff Ho, Craig Stecyk and Skip Engblom. They pushed boundaries, invented new moves, and caused skateboarding to go into the mainstream, while defining what skateboard culture meant. Vividly told through up-to-date interviews, archive videos, 8mm and 16mm film, a killer soundtrack, and narration from Sean Penn, Dogtown And Z Boyz is the perfect tribute to these pioneers.
22. Man On Wire (2008)
Directed by: James Marsh
The biggest issue I had with Robert Zemeckis’ mega-budget recent The Walk was that for all it’s visual wonder, IMAX specific cinematography, charming performances, and vertigo inducing camerawork, it simply wasn’t as compelling as Man On Wire. How could it be? This is the epic tale of Philippe Petit’s 1974 walk across the Twin Towers for real. Director Marsh has frequently referred to his film as a “heist movie,” and that is truly the best description for it. Footage of the preperations, stills from the walk itself (alongside re-enactment) and interviews are placed side by side to show just how Petit pulled off one of the most audacious stunts of all time.
See also: Robert Zemeckis interview
21. 20 Feet From Stardom (2013)
Directed by: Morgan Nelville
The most talented performers aren’t always the ones centre stage. Proving that this is far more than mere consolation to those who got close but seemingly haven’t “made it,” Oscar winner 20 Feet From Stardom is a heartfelt, beautifully shot, and intimate look at the background singers. These are the people driven by their passions, who have been instrumental (pun intended) to the music industry as we know it. For them it’s about the singing. And ultimately, you learn that these singers have the longest and most fulfilling careers in the industry.
20. Going Clear: Scientology And The Prison Of Belief (2015)
Directed by: Alex Gibney
Going Clear is surely one of the most talked about documentaries of the last few years. For good reason too. Director Alex Gibney applies an amazing thorough investigative approach to Scientology, and pulls together a film which crystallizes all the disquieting things you’ve been reading/thinking/suspecting about Scientology and what lies under the surface. Split into three parts, concerning the history of the movement, former members, and allegations of abuse by its leaderships, Going Clear is a disturbing look at the nature of power.
19. March Of The Penguins/La Marche De L’empereur (2005)
Directed by: Luc Jaquet
Shot over the course of one year, this extraordinary film charts the annual journey of Antarctica’s Emperor penguins as they leave the ocean to return to their ancestral breeding grounds inland, in an effort to court and breed. That’s not all though, as once a chick is born, the parents must continue these trips to ensure its survival. The heartwarming simplicity of the film won over millions of fans, and established that a expertly crafted nature doc could cross cultural and language boundaries to unite audiences.
18. Blackfish (2013)
Directed by: Gabriela Cowperthwaite
This could turn out to be one of the most influential documentary films of recent times.
The story of how Seaworld trainer Dawn Brancheau was dragged into the water and killed by a bull orca called Tilikum, and whether his life in captivity drove him to be ultra-aggressive, rose to international prominence and put the practices of Seaworld firmly in the limelight. Made for a mere $76,000, Blackfish is estimated to have put a dent into Seaworld’s profit of over $10 million, and cost the firm a further $15 million in putting out adverts contradicting the claims within. If the film was poorly made, and easy to dispute, they may have had more luck. The fact that’s it’s a well researched and compelling piece of filmmaking has proven to be disastrous for Seaworld.
17. The Revolution Will Not Be Televised (2003)
Directed by: Kim Bartley, Donnacha O’Briain
Fascinating and hugely controversial, The Revolution Will Not Be Televised gave viewers unprecedented access to Venezuela’s larger than life Presdient Hugo Chavez during the events of the 2002 coup against him.
Filmed on the streets of Caracas and in the heart of the presidential palace of Miraflores, this is a real life political thriller where the fate of a nation lies in the balance. It also serves to examine the media’s role in the coup, deconstructing just how they portrayed each side, and where their allegiances lay (not with Chavez). But on the flip-side, this is a film that can be said to be almost propaganda for Chavez and his revolution. Did Bartley and O’Briain, the Irish directing duo, manipulate images to their own end? We may never know, but the result is a fascinating close-up examination into two sides of a coup.
16. The Act Of Killing (2013)
Directed by: Joshua Oppenheimer Co.D. Christine Cynn, Anonymous
Not for the faint of heart, The Act Of Killing is a raw and powerful examination of the 1965-66 Indonesian Killings, an anti-communist purge following a failed coup. One of the most notorious killers, Anwar, is the main subject of this film – invited by Oppenheimer he takes to re-enacting scenes of his kills, direct to camera, but in the style of his favorite films – western, musical, gangster. Surreal and bizarre, the real crimes at the heart of the film are not forgotten though, as the film builds to a compelling rooftop confrontation where Anwar is finally put in his victim’s shoes. It’s an unforgettable experience.
15. Overnight (2003)
Directed by: Tony Montana, Mark Brian Smith
Overnight charts the rise and fall of director Troy Duffy, who made the frankly terrible but weirdly beloved Boondocks Saints. It’s an unflattering portrait of an ego out of control, who time and time again is seen to make awful creative decisions, abuse friends and colleagues, and destroy his one chance to make a film career for himself due to his out of control behaviour. It was also filmed at his request. I implore you to seek out and watch this film. It is self-destructive behavior at its most impressive, and the worst thing of all is that Duffy seems to deserve it. You cannot help but wait with anticipation to see what he does next to screw up. As a cautionary tale, Overnight is superb, and hugely watchable.
14. Deep Water (2006)
Directed by: Louise Osmond, Jerry Rothwell
1968’s Golden Globe Race, sponsored by the Sunday Times, is considered by many to the the greatest boat race in history. Before GPS, carbon-fibre, and sailing as sports entertainment, ten sailors set out to circumnavigate the world. Some of were the finest on the water. Some were weekend sailors. None remained unchanged from the experience. The favorite was Frenchman Bernard Moitissier, who became depressed during the voyage at sailing’s commercialization, fired a sling-shot message into a passing passenger ship which announced his resignation from the race, and promptly sailed onto Tahiti.
But the most incredible and tragic story is the subject of Deep Water. Amateur sailor Donald Crowhurst entered the race to save his ailing business. He then secretly quit the race, reported false positions, and disappeared. This film attempts to understand him, and the nature of loneliness at sea. What happened to Crowhurst is elegantly and beautifully examined here.
13. Citizenfour (2014)
Directed by: Laura Poitras
A real-time documentary about the eight days where Edward Snowden revealed the shocking revelation of how far-reaching NSA surveillance was, his flight from Hong Kong, and eventual asylum in Russia, Citizenfour succeeds in taking on the subject of global surveillance and making it personal – perhaps the only thing that will get people to sit up and care. Far from the faceless anonymity of the agencies, or the unpleasant personality of Julian Assange and grandstanding of WikiLeaks, Citizenfour makes the threat of government interference in our lives very real, and through Snowden, a seemingly decent guy caught up in an international manhunt, hugely relatable.
12. Dig! (2004)
Directed by: Ondi Timoner
Full disclosure: I am in Dig! Specifically asleep in the middle of the crowd during The Dandy Warhols’ 2001 Reading set which features here… What I didn’t sleep through however, was this documentary, which proves that no matter how talented you are, how many people you reach through your art, and how much success you achieve, you can still be an absolute dick. Charting the rivalry between the bands The Brian Jonestown Massacre and The Dandy Warhols, Dig! is a fantastic and funny expose of the petty jealousies that everyone falls prey to, but some more than others. The fact that both bands reportedly hate the film is proof positive that it’s doing something right.
11. Bowling For Columbine (2002)
Directed by: Michael Moore
Thirteen years on and even more relevant than ever. Bowling for Columbine is the perfect showcase for Moore’s rabble rousing populist style of documentary making, with his plea for actual gun control on the US packing an emotional punch, fully served by the visuals at his command. Whether it’s montages set to The Beatles Happiness Is A Warm Gun, scenes of getting a free gun for opening a bank account, or the stats on murder rates in countries with gun control, Bowling For Columbine is never subtle, but always engaging and provocative – exactly what is needed for this subject.
See also: Michael Moore interview.
10. Jodorowsky’s Dune (2013)
Directed by: Frank Pavich
There’s been something of a cottage industry recently in documentaries about the making of a lost film/masterpiece – including DOOMED! The Untold Story Of Roger Corman’s Fantastic Four, and Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey Of Richard Stanley’s Island Of Dr Moreau – but this one is surely the best. Director Frank Pavich found a unique theory beyond “this film would have been amazing,” in that what if Jodorowsky’s Dune concepts, ideas, and creative team actually laid the framework for the genre and cinema defining sci-fi of the ’70s and ’80s? It’s an arresting idea, and after watching this film you might just be inclined to believe it. Jodorwosky’s Dune truly is a tribute to creativity, visionary genius, and the sheer difficulty in bringing an original concept to screen.
See also: Frank Pavich interview
9. Searching For Sugar-Man (2012)
Directed by: Malik Bendjelloul
Sixto Rodriguez was an American musician who had a very brief career in the ’70s, releasing two albums that for most of the world sank without trace. But in South Africa he’s a legend, with his records outselling Elvis. Searching For Sugar-Man is the story of two of his fans, who after hearing their idol has committed suicide, set out to seek the truth. A documentary about faith in your heroes, the nature of fandom and success, and a portrait of an enigmatic musician, Searching For Sugar-Man is joyous, uplifting, and truly special. It’s also a tribute to director Bendjelloul, who brought the story to life so brilliantly – but who sadly committed suicide in 2014.
8. Exit Through The Gift Shop (2010)
Directed by: Banksy
Is the entire film just one more act of cultural satire from the infamous Banksy? Allegations of the whole thing being a hoax continue to persist, but even taken at face value, Exit Through The Gift Shop is a razor sharp look at the street art scene, and how the dividing line between the genuine talents and the hyped up wannabes is almost non-existent.
Supposedly telling the story of Thierry Guetta, a French immigrant living in Los Angeles, and his fascination with British artist Banksy, the film charts the rise of popularity of street art, coupled with the weird and fascinating success of Guetta himself. Banksy takes aim at a lot of subjects in the film, himself included, and proves that he has an innate understanding of cultural obsessions and trends.
7. Anvil! The Story Of Anvil (2009)
Directed by: Sacha Gervasi
Almost the antithesis of Dig!, Anvil! is a beautiful, sugary sweet tale of a hair metal band who had everything, then lost it, and now just want to keep on rocking. The central pair of singer/guitarist Steve Kudlow and drummer Robb Reiner have an intense bond, forged over 30 years of playing together, while failing to reach the riches and heights of their contemporaries. But while success always seems out of their grasp, the conflicts in the film are always about the music, and their passion for it. You get the feeling that as long as the crowd is happy, they’re happy too.
First-time director Sacha Gervasi, who prior to this had been a successful screenwriter and roadie for the band in their ’80s heyday, has a perfect command on the narrative, building to a redemption of sorts for the band, but more importantly seeding the theme of doing what you love for the right reasons through the whole thing.
6. Food Inc. (2008)
Directed by: Robert Kenner
Over the last several years, it seems that every week I have someone ask me, “have you seen Food Inc?” while in any conversation around, involving, or even tangential to food. And for good reason, as the film exposes the insidious US corporate farming techniques which have pumped our food cycle full of hormones, damaged the environment, and needlessly harmed thousands of animals. It truly is must-see if you care at all about what you eat, and just how it gets to your plate. Concise, thorough, and deadly in its attacks on the food industry, Food Inc. is as relevant now as when it was made.
5. Senna (2010)
Directed by: Asif Kapadia
Absolutely thrilling and emotionally draining, Senna broke through into mainstream consciousness via a recognised story full of hidden insights. You know the ending, but how many knew the man. Ayrton Senna had a reputation for being an arrogant driver, but as Senna so artfully shows, he was a man of passion, and for whom racing meant everything. Senna strikes at the core of what makes elite sports people tick, and plays out almost as a live-action thriller due to the huge wealth of material available. While the fateful final lap is heart in mouth, for me it is the moment he manages to lift the trophy after improbably winning the Brazilian Grand Prix that had me in tears – a true testament to the power of the man.
4. The Imposter (2012)
Directed by: Bart Layton
In my opinion, this was easily the best film on 2012. In fact, I can’t remember a film since (or for that matter before) which left me so open-jawed in surprise at the twist and turns it took. In 1993, young Texan boy Nicholas Barclay disappeared. But in 1997 he was apparently found in Europe, and flown back home. However, in reality it was French con-man Frederic Bourdin, who despite having brown hair and brown eyes, instead of Nicholas’ blonde hair and blue eyes, was accepted into the family as the missing son. While in itself this would be enough for any documentary, The Imposter merely uses this as a springboard to an even greater mystery. No thriller can compare to just what occurs within this film.
3. Waltz With Bashir (2008)
Directed by: Ari Folman
An animated film about the 1982 Lebanon War doesn’t strike you as the most obvious route to take about the Middle East conflict, but Waltz With Bashir is one of the best films made this century. Drawn from director Ari Folman’s own experiences as a soldier in the war, Waltz With Bashir is primarily concerned with Folman revisiting his days as a soldier to understand why he cannot remember that period. Through meeting fellow soldiers, friends, reporters, and psychologists, a terrible truth is revealed to him. The use of animation is truly genre-bending, and makes Waltz With Bashir a cinematic experience unlike any other. Far from downplaying the serious nature of what’s at stake, the animation only serves to heighten the waking nightmare of war. The lesson of the Middle East has never been delivered so adroitly.
2. Touching the Void (2003)
Directed by: Kevin MacDonald
Having a captivating and simple central premise for your documentary helps a lot. In this case, climber Joe Simpson’s miraculous escape from being left for dead at the bottom of a crevasse, after his climbing partner Simon Yates was forced to cut their rope. But that can only get you so far.
In Kevin MacDonald’s hands, the ill-fated expedition to Siula Grande in Peru is a masterpiece of adventure survival. The reconstructions, so often the bane of documentaries, are so superb they rank amongst the greatest staged climbing action ever. But it’s the interviews with the two principles, Joe Simpson and Simon Yates, that the documentary amazingly becomes a riveting psychological thriller. These are two men who are defined, linked, and forever associated by this one event, and while they both made it off the mountain, its clear they’ll always be there, no matter what they say outwardly.
1. Grizzly Man (2005)
Directed by: Werner Herzog
Documentaries can pack huge emotional punches, open your mind to a world you never knew existed, make you consider wildly different views, and act as some of the most thrilling filmmaking on the planet. Rarely do they do all of this at the same time. Grizzly Man is that rare documentary. The story is famous, bear enthusiast and environmentalist Timothy Treadwell and his girlfriend Amie Huguenard were killed and eaten by a grizzly bear, after years of controversially living with and documenting them in the wild.
But the doc is so much more than their fate.
Herzog, with his hypnotic voice-over, plunges you into the world of Treadwell with an open-mind, investigating through interviews and footage filmed by Treadwell himself just what made the man tick. In the end the film becomes Treadwell vs Herzog, and their opposing world views. Tread well believed in the beauty of nature, and that any animal could be tamed if you gained their trust. Herzog posits his own ideas that nature is cruel and unforgiving, and that wild animals will act in their own interests. The dichotomy is fascinating, and lies at the heart of what makes Grizzly Man so compelling, along with the incredible footage of Treadwell and the bears of course.