Top 10 Documentaries
As we’ve told you on many occasions, we’re self-confessed geeks here at Average Joes. So while Hollywood dramas constantly strives for realism, we say nothing can strike a chord quite like a well-made documentary. Nothing captures the weird, the beautiful or a sense of injustice better than a piece of non-fictional filmmaking.
Following the critical acclaim and widespread success of Netflix’ documentary series, Making a Murderer, we thought we’d give you our run down of what we think are the best feature-length documentaries ever made.
10) Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004)
Michael Moore invariably splits the crowd quite like no other. His brashness and relentlessness can easily be taken as pig-headed arrogance. But what should never be in dispute is Moore’s ability to tell a story, whether you believe it needs telling or not. 9/11, for better or worse, changed the course of modern history, and Moore’s documentary is an expose of George W. Bush and his use of the terrorist attack in New York to justify a war in Iraq. It’s a brilliantly told story, and if you’re liberal, makes for fantastic and infuriating viewing. It also grossed half a billion dollars worldwide and was the highest grossing documentary of all time.
9) Exit Through the Gift Shop (2010)
Exit Through the Gift Shop should have been a film about some of the world’s most infamous graffiti artists. Banksy, Shephard Fairey and Invader are all seen like they never have been before. But ‘filmmaker’ Thierry Guetta’s first cut just didn’t make the grade so instead Banksy turned the camera round on the bonkers Frenchman and we get to see the often belly-aching consequences. It’s still up for debate whether Thierry himself is a Banksy-made piece, but the point is we’ll lap up anything if someone with authority tells us to. A noble lesson.
8) Capturing the Friedmans (2003)
The Friedmans were a seemingly typical, upper-middleclass Jewish family whose world came crashing down when the father, Arnold, and his youngest son, Jesse, were arrested and charged with child abuse. The Friedmans took home videos while Arnold Friedman awaited trial and the result is a mesmerising film that is as fascinating as it is uncomfortable. It’s also made by The Jinx director, Andrew Jarecki.
7) Hoop Dreams (1994)
Originally intended to be a 30-minute short film for the Public Broadcasting Service, Hoop Dreams follows two inner-city Chicago boys, William Gates and Arthur Agee, as they struggle to become college basketball players on the road to going professional. It’s shot over a period of five years and raises a number of issues concerning race, social class, economic division and education in a contemporary United States.
6) Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills (1996)
Paradise Lost documents the events following the murders of Christopher Byers, Michael Moore and Stevie Branch in 1993. The children’s bodies were found naked and abused in a ditch in a wooded area of West Memphis, Arkansas. Three outcast teenagers Jessie Misskelley, Damien Echols and Jason Baldwin were arrested and tried during the film. Did they do it? Judge for yourself… The importance of documentaries like Paradise Lost shouldn’t be underestimated – they can affect actual change. We promise you’ll want to watch the two follow-up documentaries straight after!
5) Man On Wire (2008)
Philippe Petit’s 1974 high-wire walk between the Twin Towers of New York’s World Trade Center was labelled the “artistic crime of the century”. The film is presented like as a thriller heist film, with all the palpable tension you’d want from that. The footage shows preparations for the event and still photography from the walk, as well as present-day interviews with the participants. The footage itself is extraordinary and truly breath-taking.
4) Grizzly Man (2005)
It’s no secret that the natural world provides some of the most incredible backdrops to storytelling in film. We could have chosen numerous nature documentaries for this list but our favourite is much more than just a look at the beauty of nature. Timothy Treadwell spent 13 consecutive summers in a National Park in Alaska spending time with grizzly bears. Over time they allowed him to approach and he even had physical contact with them. This feature by Werner Herzog chronicles Treadwell’s time with the bears using footage he himself had taken. It’s poignant, beautiful and ultimately a harrowing tale as we see Treadwell’s personal demise captured on his own camera.
3) The Thin Blue Line (1988)
Be warned, this contains spoilers… Errol Morris is a bit of a God to any documentary fan. For us, his best feature is The Thin Blue Line. It depicts the story of Randall Dale Adams, a man sentenced to life in prison for the murder of a policeman he seemingly did not commit. The film analyses evidence and reconstructs events that led to Adams’ conviction. As a result of the film, Adams’ case was reviewed and he was released from prison a year later. Saving a man’s life is the impact a well-made documentary can have, and The Thin Blue Line was one of the first to discover that invaluable lesson.
2) King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (2007)
But documentaries aren’t all doom and gloom. Some of the best are just plain good fun. King of Kong is a classic tale of Good v Evil and for us it’s the most feel-good documentary ever made. Billy Mitchell is the Godfather of the 80s arcade game boom. 30 years later, he still holds the world high score for Donkey Kong. That’s until average Joe, Steve Wiebe, breaks the record in his Washington garage. But believe it or not, the world of gaming is more political than House of Cards and Wiebe’s score is discredited for no particular reason. King of Kong follows Steve Wiebe’s quest for acceptance into a world he doesn’t naturally fit. But really he just wants to beat Donkey Kong.
1) Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father (2008)
Dear Zachary is made by filmmaker Kurt Kuenne. Kuenne’s close friend Andrew Bagby was allegedly murdered by Shirley Jane Turner after Bagby ended their dysfunctional relationship. At the time of the murder, Turner was pregnant with Andrew Bagby’s child, a boy she named Zachary, who was born after Turner fled to Canada. The film was originally made for Zachary so he could get to know his father. Kuenne travels around the US (and the UK) interviewing Bagby’s family, friends and close colleagues until the story unfolds a little deeper, a little darker and more tragic that you can possibly imagine. Do yourself a favour – turn the lights off, turn your phone off and immerse yourself in this true-crime family drama. It will rip your heart out through your tear duct and leave you exhausted. It’s unsettling, unforgettable and strangely life-affirming. For us, this is everything great about documentaries and that makes Dear Zachary the greatest documentary ever made.
So there we have it, our favourite documentaries that have ever been made. If you haven’t seen The Jinx – watch it! It could well have made our list had we allowed series’. But we had to narrow our collection. Any favourites of yours that we missed out? Let us know!