10 Documentaries You Definitely Need to Watch

by JD Westfall, VW’s Film Connoisseur 

If you’ve read any of my articles before, you’ve seen a clear obsession with anything regarding film and film-making, whether the ones in question be art films or mainstream, English or foreign, modern or classic, anything. Naturally, this love extends to documentaries as well, and this year so far has provided a veritable treasure trove of new and original documentaries, and even sequels to beloved documentaries from years before (An Inconvenient Sequel and Buena Vista Social Club: Adios).

Thus, this seemed as good a time as any to bust out a list of great documentaries. Obviously this is not an exhaustive list, rather a jumping off point for a variety of diverse and captivating documentaries on a range of subjects.

Please note as well we won’t be including any documentaries we’ve already covered on this site, hence there will be many notable exclusions, such as Closeup [part 8], Standing the Shadows of Motown [part 1], The Act of Killing [part 10], Hearts of Darkness [part 6], As I Was Moving Ahead Occasionally I Saw Brief Glimpses of Beauty, and Baraka [part 3].

  1. Burden of Dreams (1982)

Directed by: Les Blank

In the annals of insane filmmakers, you’ll commonly hear the names Stanley Kubrick [Oscar snubs] and Howard Hughes. Another name that gets tossed into the ring quite often is Werner Herzog, a German born director and writer. While reports of Herzog’s sometime insanity could fill volumes, we’re concerning ourselves with what occurred during the production of just one of his films, 1982’s incredible Fitzcarraldo. Herzog was basing his film loosely off the report of a man who hauled a 20-ton steamship over a mountain in order to reach a rich supply of rubber trees in the Amazon basin.

Clearly the actual man was crazy. Herzog, not to be outdone, decided for the film that they would recreate the event for real, rather than faking it. Raising the ante, he also determined it would look far more impressive on film if the steamship weighed, not 20 tons, but 200.

Amazingly, his crew pulled it off, and in the process made a great film. Every bit as good though is the “making of” documentary filmed by Les Blank in the midst of the crazy, chaotic production. How crazy was it? The natives who had been hired as extras grew so sick of the antics by lead actor Klaus Kinski that they offered to murder him. We’ve all heard of celebrities making a scene, but this is about the worst case scenario imaginable. Watch Burden of Dreams and get the full force of it all.

  1. Encounters at the End of the World (2007)

Directed by: Werner Herzog

Now we move from a film about Werner Herzog to a film by Werner Herzog. I think it’s safe to say we’ve all seen nature documentaries that feature the Antarctic. However, this being a Herzog film, we know we’re in for something totally unique. Right off the bat Herzog informs us through his narration that this film is not about “fluffy penguins” or anything of the sort. Instead, he means to introduce us to the people who are living there.

While there are no native inhabitants of the Antarctic, anywhere between one and five thousand people live there at any given moment, mostly for the purposes of research. Werner Herzog and just one other man making up his film crew set about interviewing them, not about their research or what they’re studying, but narrowing their focus to what brings someone to Antarctica. What kind of person gives up their life, their family, and their comforts to travel to the largest and most barren desert in the world?

I think,” explains one of the interview subjects, “There’s a fair amount of the population here who are full time travelers and part time workers. Professional dreamers.

These are some beautiful people, and you’ll love every single encounter Herzog brings to you.

  1. The Last Waltz (1978)

Directed by: Martin Scorsese

If you know much, or really anything at all, about classic rock, then the lineup on The Last Waltz should give you the shivers. Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Ringo Starr, Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, Muddy Waters, Neil Young, Stephen Stills, Paul Butterfield, the Staples Singers, and Ronnie Wood among others. All these artists gathered together to lend support to just one group during the final ever performance – The Band.

The Band was of course the backing group for Bob Dylan during much of his career, along with having their own career along the way. However, after sixteen years together they decided to call it quits. Not content to let a good opportunity pass, they amassed the greatest collection of musicians in history for their final hurrah. One which was thankfully caught on film by Martin Scorsese [part 9].

Interspersed with the concert footage are interviews with the band members about their history together, their early performances, and their individual influences. Put it all together, and you have 117 minutes of pure, unadulterated musical delight.

  1. My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend (2013)Directed by: Seth Barrish

I met Jenny in St. Louis …

So begins one of the finest stand-up comedy specials ever made. While admittedly this initially felt like something of a cop out (especially as great stand-up specials probably deserve their own list), I just couldn’t bring myself to exclude this. Far more than a comedy routine, performer Mike Birbiglia takes us on an incredible journey throughout a painful event in his life.

My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend does not follow a conventional structure. The entire thing is one prolonged story about a fight he had with his girlfriend and the after effects. However, he chooses particular moments to digress into seemingly unrelated stories, only for us to quickly realize that the story is giving us a vital piece of information, one that will enable us to fully appreciate what transpires next in his main narrative.

Far being a so-called observational comedian, Birbiglia mines his own life for material, sharing with us his darkest and most embarrassing moments, until he eventually builds to a final confession. You’ll laugh through the whole performance, but probably cry at a few points as well.

  1. Night and Fog (1956)

Directed by: Alain Resnais

On the tenth anniversary of the liberation of prisoners from Nazi concentration camps, a variety of tributes were set in place. One of these was a documentary short by up-and-coming French director Alain Resnais. Despite running at a mere 32 minutes, this is an incredibly disturbing and affecting film; so disturbing that I must warn you before you attempt to watch it.

As the end of the Holocaust had been so recent, Resnais was able to film inside the only recently abandoned Auschwitz and Majdanek camps, accompanied by narration explaining in graphic detail what had transpired there. After a time, this film switches to archive footage of the Nazis in action and the things they were doing to their prisoners, which unsurprisingly is the most graphic part of the film (again, I really cannot stress enough how bleak and disgusting this segment is).

Finally when that section ends, it moves on to an analysis of the liberation efforts, thus bringing the narrative to a close. While this whole thing sounds horrible (and it is), it is absolutely worth a watch if you can stomach it, as it gives an unflinching look into the atrocities that happened during the time.

  1. The Look of Silence (2014)

Directed by: Joshua Oppenheimer

We recently covered in detail what made Joshua Oppenheimer’s 2012 documentary The Act of Killing so great. Now, we move to a companion piece to that film, one which narrows its view considerably. While The Act of Killing examined the large group of men responsible for the Indonesian genocide of the 1960s, this one follows one man whose brother was killed in the same event. This anonymous man confronts many of the men involved with the slaughter, one by one, seeking some sign of remorse on their parts.

Some controversy has followed this film, as Oppenheimer seems to be angling for some political action with the making of his movie, trying to pressure the U.S. government to admit to some involvement in the killings. I’m not going to go into that as I obviously have little to do with the government and have no clue as to their extent of involvement in foreign affairs. I’m a lowly film critic trying to Ernest Hemingway-my way through life and the Caribbean, and I am merely here to judge the quality of this film, and believe me, it is magnificent.

  1. Stop Making Sense (1984)

Directed by: Jonathan Demme

The Last Waltz is commonly held as being the best concert video ever done, for a variety of persuasive reasons. First off, the concert it displays is a great one. In fact, you’d be hard pressed to find a more influential or iconic performance. Second, it intercuts the action with interesting interviews with the band members and others involved. Third, it was filmed by legendary director, Martin Scorsese.

As good as it is, I one concert video that is just a tad better, that of a 1983 performance by Talking Heads, post-punk and new wave pioneers. While it has none of the interviews or background information so prevalent in The Last Waltz, there are a handful of things that make this documentary (and performance) better. 

For starters, it’s shot in an innovative way. Famed director Jonathan Demme (Silence of the Lambs, Philadelphia) kept the band solely in focus, never cutting away to shots of the screaming audience. Care was also taken to exclusively mic the band and exclude the aforementioned screams and cheers. Additionally, anything shiny was painted matte black so as not to cause distractions. This is the most cleanly shot concert you will ever see. 

As for the music, even if you don’t like Talking Heads, odds are you’ll find something to enjoy here. Why? Think of most bands you’ve heard live. The majority of them sound pretty good in recordings, but that sound probably doesn’t transition well to concert halls. Different equipment, new acoustics, and a variety of other factors can all affect or outright ruin a band’s sound. Talking Heads band leader David Byrne ensured this wouldn’t happen. Rather than playing all their songs the exact same way they did on the records, they set about restructuring all of their songs, rebuilding them from the ground up, only this time with the focus of making it sound good in a large auditorium.

(For more info about their process, read David Byrne’s excellent book How Music Works.)

Even the way they play is unique. David Byrne walks out alone with an acoustic guitar playing their classic song “Psycho Killer.” As he plays, the stage crew sets up the gear for bass player Tina Weymouth, not even trying to hide their presence. Byrne finishes, Weymouth walks out, they begin playing Heaven together, and the crew starts setting up the drums. Instrument by instrument they keep this up until all nine musicians are playing together. No frills, no fancy tricks. Just the band and their music, and it is over far, far too soon.

  1. Gates of Heaven (1978)

Directed by: Errol Morris

One final entry with Werner Herzog. I promise.

Once upon a time there was a little known documentary filmmaker named Errol Morris. Errol Morris had a simple, yet implausible, dream. He wanted to make a film examining a pet cemetery.

Stay with me here.

Many people felt like this would be a nearly impossible subject to finance and market as a film, with noted director Werner Herzog even pledging he would eat his shoe if Morris were successful.

Happily for us, Morris succeeded, and his eventual film turned out way better than it had any business being. As bizarre as the premise is, the execution is even more ridiculous. And yet, very appealing. See, Morris doesn’t focus on the business itself. The focus is instead on the workers there and the people who’ve sent their deceased pets to be buried there. When interviewing them, Morris didn’t seem to have any particular aim in the conversations (if he did, I certainly can’t pick up on it). It seems more like he just let these peculiar characters talk, and the things they say are both baffling and curiously thought provoking.

There’s your dog,” says one man. “Your dog’s dead. But where’s the thing that made it move? It had to be something. Didn’t it?”

Or there’s my personal favorite quote, the one that gives the film its name. “Surely at the gates of heaven, an all compassionate God is not going to say ‘Well, you’re walking on two legs, you can go in. You’re walking on four legs, we can’t take you’.”

This is a unique and delightful documentary, one unlike anything you’ll probably ever see again. Little wonder Roger Ebert named it one of the top ten films ever made. And in case you’re curious, yes, Werner Herzog cooked and ate his shoe. And yes, there’s a film about that too. It’s called Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe. It’s, um, better than it sounds

  1. Shoah (1985)

Directed by: Claude Lanzmann

During entry number five, I said that it would be the last one involving atrocities. I’m afraid I lied to you. See, a while back I wrote about Schindler’s List and some of the controversies surrounding it, highlighting in particular the complaints by Claude Lanzmann about how Spielberg’s film wasn’t as accurate as his. I admittedly came off as rather harsh towards Lanzmann. This is my attempt to redeem myself of that. While I think my response towards Lanzmann still stands, it is true that his epic 9 ½ hour documentary on the Holocaust is the most extensive coverage you’ll ever see.

One thing that sets this film apart from any other on the subject (besides the extraordinary length) is one interesting tidbit: it features no reenactments or archive footage. It is comprised almost exclusively of interviews with survivors of the Holocaust and, much more disturbingly, the perpetrators. As in, the SS officers who were tasked with gassing people, burning the piles of corpses, all that. How did he manage that? Apparently by not telling these men that he was filming them, doing it secretively with hidden cameras and coaxing their testimony out of them.

I recently described all this to a friend and he replied “Is that even legal? To record and then broadcast someone like that?” I’ll confess I have no idea. But, you know, they were Nazis, so legal gray area (I think).

  1. Man With a Movie Camera (1929)

Directed by: Dziga Vertov

This is likely the least known film on this list, and yet it is unquestionably the most important.

Dziga Vertov was a filmmaker in the Soviet Union, active from the 1910s until his death in 1954. He eschewed the typical structure of narrative fiction films, preferring to film the world spontaneously, catching it unawares as it were. After a sequence of failed films, he set about something staggering original. On the surface, it seemed simple. For three years he filmed daily life around the Soviet Union. So what makes it so unique and important?

Along the way, Vertov either perfected or outright invented an insane variety of film-making tricks and techniques. For example, this film displays the first known use of Dutch angles, aka when the camera is tilted to an unusual angle. Nowadays this is commonly used to convey insanity or to heighten tension in a scene (or to thoroughly ruin the any possible enjoyment you could get out of Battlefield Earth, but let’s not dwell on the negatives).

Vertov also discovered how to display something in Slow motion or Fast motion, along with double exposure, jump cuts, split screens, tracking shots, freeze frames, extreme closeups, and how to incorporate stop motion animations into ordinary footage.

So really, not only did Man With a Movie Camera set a new standard for documentary film-making, it kind of pushed the boundaries for what film in general was capable of. And for that, it easily tops our list of greatest documentaries of all time. In all honesty, it could hold its own on a list of greatest films of all.

J.D. became a film buff at age four after viewing his first Buster Keaton movie. Since then he’s found a passion for everything from Shakespeare to Sharknado.

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