January 24, 2016

Six Documentaries We Like

We love a good documentary. Unfortunately there are many documentaries out there that cover incredibly interesting subjects but fail spectacularly when it comes to narrative focus. Here are a few that we feel deliver on content as well as presentation!

American Movie:
This might be the quintessential 90s documentary. The filmmakers follow Wisconsin native Mark Borchardt on his futile quest to make a feature film called Northwestern. He's not a filmmaking novice, having made short films from an early age with a group of his closest friends, and he has endless support of friends and family, but he just can't seem to pull it together. The documentary covers three years of Mark's life and efforts, but even after the film is done this gem keeps on giving. The special features of the DVD include a commentary track featuring the two filmmakers Chris Smith and Sarah Price, as well as the two main stars Mark and Mike. It gives you an idea of what was going on from each side of the filming, and it's almost as good as the movie itself. Another choice special feature is the inclusion of the short film Coven that Mark manages to finish over the course of American Movie, despite himself.

Not Quite Hollywood:
Ozploitation filmmakers are some of the most gonzo people to walk the earth, but this isn't just a look into the world of guerrilla filmmaking of 1970s Australia, this also a surprisingly well structured documentary. Directors admit to things like firing live rounds at actors when effects budgets ran thin, a liquor soaked Dennis Hopper is declared dead, you meet Grant Page who's such an amazing stunt guy that Brian Trenchard-Smith made a movie solely to highlight his astounding feats. Seriously, if you love geeking out on movie stuff, watch this movie right now.

Some of the most enjoyable documentaries have clear cut villains and heroes, and King of Kong is no exception. The wild characters that inhabit the world of stand up-arcade record holders will blow your mind, but the best of the best is Billy Mitchell. He's likely not as bad as the filmmakers edit him to be, but there's no doubt that he's not as nice as he thinks he is. If you want to see a well made documentary featuring the live action Snidely Whiplash and Dudley Do-right battling each other for the high score in Donkey Kong, this is your jam.

Black Fish:
I do love a good soul crushing documentary, and this one is pretty much soul crushing from all angles. Not only an animal rights doc, it's also a pretty great peak into the ways the corporations brainwash their employees to believe whatever nonsense they want disseminated to the public. Though, unlike most corporation doublespeak, these people are putting their own lives in danger every time they don't question their bosses. It's mind boggling, it's soul crushing, it's the kind of documentary that leaves you questioning every aspect of your life for months, and that's a good thing.

Now, despite the name, this is one of the most uplifting documentaries we've ever seen. It follows a community of homeless New Yorkers that build a temporary housing project from scrap and castoffs in an abandon subway. It will make you rethink your view homeless men and women, community building, community outreach, use of abandoned space, ownership, and documentary filmmaking in general (as the subjects of this film are also the principle crew). If you only watch one film on this list, make it this one. (And then all the rest...)
We've seen this movie almost as many times as we've seen American Movie, and the stories have some strong parallels. Namely, each film is about a man on a quest to make a film, and each man grandly fails. But where Mark Borchardt works towards a selfish goal and is his own undoing, Alejandro Jodorowsky inspires everyone around him to produce their best work, making their collective failure a particularly crushing one. Though, through the failure of Jodorowsky's Dune many wonderful and influential films were born so it's hard to reasonably assess what would have been better for the cinematic world. If Jodorowsky's Dune was made and turned out to be a box office failure, would there be a Star Wars or Alien? Likely not in the forms we know them today.

Bonus movies!

Casting By:
A nice little documentary we found on Netflix one night that blew our minds. Some of the most influential and iconic American films were all casted by the same two people. But for many years, casting was looked at as an inconsequential element in filmmaking and casting agents weren't even given credits. It's the kind of movie you should watch if you want to be amazed (the same woman did the casting for Midnight Cowboy, The Graduate, The Lost Boys, Batman, Full Metal Jacket and Lethal Weapon) and angry (when filmmakers banded together to get the Academy to give Marion Dougherty an honorary Oscar, she did not receive one). 

Also, watch any Errol Morris documentary. We like Thin Blue Line, Mr Death, and Tabloid, but we can't imagine there are bad ones...

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