I’m often asked to name my favourite documentaries. I’m much too indecisive and changeable to be able to nail down a definitive list. But here are twelve I like a lot. (I was going to do ten, but then I thought of two more…)
A Question of Consent
Superb disturbing doc made by the team that did Cocaine Cowboys, it recounts the alleged rape of a stripper at a fraternity party in Florida, much of which was filmed by the party-goers themselves. I watched it on a plane and had to keep minimizing the screen due to the adult content. I suppose I could have stopped watching but I was too engrossed.
A Letter to Zachary
A posthumous love letter from the filmmaker to his murdered friend, it has one of the most explosive and upsetting twists two thirds of the way through. I recently saw this was on the IMDB as one of the most popular documentaries of all time, it’s number two right after Night and Fog. So it’s not exactly obscure but it is totally riveting.
Thin Blue Line
I love this film. I can still hear the distinctive musical cadences of the principal character, Randall Dale Adams, and his palpable sense of bafflement at the course his life had taken: convicted of killing a cop in cold blood. If you haven’t seen it you’re in for a treat. And this one has a happy ending.
Chris Smith followed a filmmaker called Mark Borchardt and his monosyllabic sidekick Mike Shank over the course of several years to create this beautiful portrait of a man attempting to make a low-budget masterpiece. Full of accidental comedy and poignant moments.
The Monastery: Mr. Vig and the Nun
This one’s also about a man with a dream: an eccentric Danish bachelor who wants to convert his house into a home for Russian nuns. I saw it at Sheffield Docs Festival and never heard much about it afterwards. There’s something very special about a film that’s driven simply by actuality as it unfolds, as this one is.
My friend Freddie Claire turned me onto it. The central character is a news reporter who obsessively documents his own life, to the point of filming his own spiraling drug addiction, the loss of his career and the breakdown of his marriage. The footage he films of his argument with his wife in front of the kids is unbelievably harrowing.
The Queen of Versailles
This is on at the cinema at the moment! Go see it! A wonderful portrait of a family as their dream of building America’s biggest private house crumbles in the wake of the credit crunch. It’s a riches-to-less-riches tale, very humane, very funny.
Don’t Look Back
Dylan’s 1965 gets the cinema verite treatment at the hands of documentary pioneer D.A. Pennebaker. Dylan comes across as both tremendously beguiling and also callow and slightly cruel. It’s black and white and looks beautiful. So many great scenes. I like the fans disagreeing about whether Dylan going electric made him just another pop band.
I remember coming out of a screening of this in New York maybe fifteen years ago and just thinking Wow. The level of intimacy and the filmmaker’s commitment to the lives of their subjects: it’s like a novel.
Some people said they found this fake but I bought it. There’s maybe one scene that’s a bit too good to be true, but overall I loved the strangeness of the quest and the amazing reveal when they find what they find. It’s hard to say too much without giving it away but basically it’s about an Internet romance gone awry.
Exit Through The Gift Shop
I used to find Banksy a bit annoying but I had a new respect for him after seeing this. It has that wonderful thing of a contributor slightly taking over the film and going in a strange and unexpected direction.
I just like this story a lot. I read the book when I was a kid, The Strange Voyage of Donald Crowhurst, about the solo round-the-world yachtsman who lost his mind at sea. But I didn’t realize there was so much archive. Very sad, too.