Since the turn of the Millennium, there has been a distinct change in the art of documentary filmmaking. Where documentaries used to be unpopular to filmgoers due to the journalistic narration style, filmmakers now see the medium as a way to express themselves creatively. Storytellers have seen documentaries as a chance to explore the line between fact and fiction, whilst finding funding and distribution easier to come by.
Over the past 14 years, documentaries have engaged a much wider audience with Film Festivals such as True/False Film Fest, Locarno, Visions Du Reel, IDFA, Hot Docs, LIDF and Sheffield Doc/Fest playing their parts by promoting the art form. Cannes even awarded the coveted Palme d’Or to Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11. Documentary filmmakers have transformed a medium that not only educates people on an intellectual level , but also validates important information on an artistic level, giving viewers an important opportunity to delve into a creator’s perspective, thus connecting two important levels of communication. With the documentary boom of the last 14 years, I have put together a list of films that I see as essential viewing from 2000 onwards.
Seth Gordan takes an in-depth look at the world of competitive classic gaming, focusing on Billy Mitchell and Steve Wiebe’s Donkey Kong rivalry. This documentary is surprisingly tense and full of drama, while maintaining a great sense of humour throughout. The narrative unfolds to reveal a Rocky like underdog story that will have you on the edge of your seat by the unexplainably tense climax. At the very least, this is a fun film about ‘nerds’ reliving their prime, but, at its best, this is a clever look into corruption and obsession that drives people to absurd lengths.
Whipping boys Manassas Tigers hadn’t won a play-off game in their 110-year history, Daniel Lindsay and T.J Martin’s documentary follows their coach Bill Courtney and the team’s 2009 football season, both on and off the field. Undefeated is a film with a lot of heart. The relationships that grow on screen and the sheer passion shown from Courtney will have everyone rooting for them. This documentary is much more than your average football film; it delves much deeper into the resilience and drive of young men when they have something to strive for. The emotionally charged final few minutes are up there with the best sporting movies produced.
The Scripps National Spelling Bee that takes place in Washington D.C every year is one of the most fiercely contested academic awards in the US. Jeffrey Blitz’s film follows the stories of eight contestants as they vie for the $10,000 first prize. Somehow Blitz manages to make a thrilling documentary about spelling, while that is a feat on its own, the film proves to be funny, insightful, moving and utterly charming. Spellbound is a joy to watch.
Alex Gibney’s examination into the death of an innocent Afghan taxi driver at Bagram air base in 2002 is a stunning look into how the‘greatest democracy in the world’ allowed civilians to be imprisoned, tortured and in some cases murdered by their soldiers. The film is unflinching in its dressing down of the Bush administration, particularly when addressing the way the administration protected itself from any wrong-doing, in turn allowing the soldiers who followed their orders to go to prison. The documentary is comprised of eyewitness testimonies and photographic evidence of the kind of torture that was taking place at Bagram. The events that unfold unveil a dark chapter in American history, a truly harrowing watch.
6. Inside Job
The first film to expose the truth behind the economic crisis in 2008, the collapse that cost over $20 trillion ended up leaving millions of people without homes and jobs. The film shows interviews with journalists, financial insiders and politicians whilst documenting the fall of Wall Street and the astonishing lack of punishment brought to those responsible. Matt Damon narrates while Charles Ferguson asks the questions and pushes for the answers we need to hear. This documentary will fascinate and most definitely enrage with its thought provoking and insightful style.
5. Grizzly Man
The story of Timothy Treadwell is one that continues to astound and divide opinion. Treadwell spent 13 summers living amongst the wild grizzly bears of Alaska, where he eventually was killed by a bear in his campsite along with his girlfriend. Treadwell’s love for bears was inspiring and was beautifully captured by his own camera footage. Herzog does a great job of showing us the gentle and loving side of Treadwell whilst also making us aware of his struggles with alcohol, depression and his unhinged mind. Interviews with Treadwell’s close friends bring us a sympathetic view of a widely misunderstood man.
4. The Imposter
Bart Layton’s thrilling documentary uses real life testimonies and dramatic re-enactments to document the incredible story of Frédéric Bourdin, a 23 year-old Frenchman who managed to convince a family from Texas that he was their son who had been missing for 3 years. Although, not all is as it seems. No matter what you choose to believe at the start of the film, nothing can prepare you for the story that will unfold. This film keeps you on the edge of your seat for the 99 minute running time, while its brilliance ultimately leaves you with more questions than answers.
This documentary tells the story of Sixto Rodriguez, a singer songwriter from the 60/70’s who some touted to be better than Dylan. After two acclaimed producers discovered Rodriguez playing in a bar in Detroit, he recorded a couple of albums that they believed would see him become one of the greatest recording artists of his time. The albums bombed and so Rodriguez slipped into myth and legend. By chance, a copy of his album found its way to apartheid South Africa where he became bigger than Elvis. We follow two South African fans that embark on a journey to find what became of Rodriguez amidst rumours of his apparent suicide on stage. This incredible feel-good story will please almost anyone with its relaxed but engrossing style. This uplifting tale will have you searching eBay for old vinyls of Rodriguez’s music, a true gem.
2. Man on Wire
Young Frenchman, Philippe Petit walked across a wire suspended between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. He did so with no safety wire or net, after an hour of walking backwards and forwards across the wire he was arrested for what is now known as the “artistic crime of the century.” Although the film never strays away from laying out the planning and the eventual execution of the plan, Man on Wire has the exciting feel of a heist movie throughout. Despite knowing the outcome of the events, this is a thrilling documentary.
1965, Indonesia’s government was overthrown by the military. Small time gangsters who made their money selling movie tickets were promoted to leaders of death squads who helped kill more than one million alleged communists, intellectuals and ethnic Chinese in a little less than a year. Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentary follows Anwar Congo (an executioner who killed hundreds of people with his own hands), and his friends as they make a film reenacting scenes from 1965. This film is at times bizarre, sickening, engrossing, sorrowful, unforgettable and most of all, brilliant. From the staged scenes of murder and torture to interviews with the men who wrestle with memories of what they did, this documentary is an uncomfortable but essential watch. How The Act of Killing didn’t win this year’s Academy Award is a mystery; it could well be one of the best documentaries ever made.