There are a lot of documentary movies to watch, and while most of them have been informative and powerful, a few stand out above the crowd.
Below is a list of eight documentaries you should considering watching:
The Civil War
From personal profiles of important figues to personal anecdotes from the war and comprehnsive overviews of the major battles and campaigns: Ken Burns outdid himself when he made this television documentary mini series. Ken Burns lays out the Civil War, from origins and beginnings to the surrender at Appomattax in a succinct and detailed way that pulls you along as you follow the story. Profiling significant figures from Lincoln to General Sherman to Grant and lee, and even John Wilkes Booth himself, the fantastic story of America’s bloodiest war shows not only the struggle of a nation against itself, but the birth of many facets of modern warfare and the ultimate struggle: To rid the United States of one of its most abhorrent evils: Slavery.
Made by Wim Wenders, the film was originally supposed to feature Pina Bausch herself. Unfortunately she unexpectedly died just before shooting was supposed to start. Wenders was going to cancel the project until members of her dance company convinced him to move forward with the project.
Only a few short interviews of members of her company are in the film, the rest is dance: performance after performance of Pina’s dance pieces. Truly a marvel of documentary filmmaking. Also: The only documentary that I know of that was presented in 3D!
Black is, Black Ain’t
Using his grandmother’s gumbo as a metaphor, filmmaker Marlon Riggs, (of Tongues Untied fame,) gives us a documentary about the black expereince in America and the complexity of black american culture. So many cultural references to “black people” address an entire ethnicity as if it were one homogeneous mass, but it just isn’t that simple. Black America is a maze of religions, regions, traditions, and classes, and Riggs examines all of these aspects as he puts a lens of the various cultures of Black America that tears through preconceptions, stereotypes, and prejudicial thinking about that “Black thing”. He doesn’t pull punches either, examining prejudicial proclivities within black America. (“Too black” and “Not black enough”, for example.)
Marlon Riggs passed on from complications due to AIDS during the filming of this documentary, but his production team made sure the film was completed. One of the more powerful documentaries you will ever see.
When people think about civil rights movements they mostly think about movements such as black power and the feminist movement. The fight for disabled rights, to win rights for inclusion and accessibility is largely unknown and under the surface. A documentary about Crip Camp, a camp for disabled individuals who would rise to lead a movement that eventually helped spur the passage of the Americans Disabilities Act. From scenes of disabled people conducting sit ins to people climbing out of their wheelchairs and forcing their way up stone steps, it is a story of defiance and perseverance to inspire everyone’s soul.
FYI: The executive producers of this film were Michelle and Barack Obama, who helped bring this movie to life so this tale could be told.
The best documentary I’ve ever seen. This movie has no dialogue, it does not speak of any agenda, save for defining the word Koyaanisqatsi. All it conveys are images, all to a soundtrack by Phillip Glass, yet it tells a comprehenisve, beautiful, terrifying, and sobering story of our lives, our planet, and our existence in a way that no other documentary ever has or ever could, and all without uttering a word.
Even though this is an older film, it still has a powerful message that resonates. A must see movie.
Beltracchi – The Art of Forgery
The incredible tale of a forger who replicated many “masterpieces” by many famous artists, and got away with it until a determined investigation into a suspected piece finally exposed one of his forgeries. Beltracchi forged so many paintings, and did it so well, that the art world still wonders just how many “authentic” masterpieces that are in circulation are actually Beltracchi forgeries. In a documentary that plays like a crime drama, this is definitely worth your time, as the perpetrator himself is interviewed and even shows his methods for creating nearly flawless forgeries. He does so with a carefree style that will simply make you delight over someone who is basically bilked many art collectors out of millions of euros.
The Cadillac Tramps: Life on the Edge
I’ve seen many documentaries about bands and music, more than I can remember, but few have ever so succinctly told the tale of a band that oscillated between the underground music scene and pop stardom as this film does. The Cadillac Tramps were a band that was admired and revered throughout the modern music world, with dedicated fans such as Lars Frederickson and Mark McGrath of Sugar Ray, and were even taken on tour by thee Pearl Jam, yet mainstream fame still eluded them. This is a documentary you can watch over and over again, going through the paces of a real rock and roll band that lived rock and roll as much as they played it. In a vast field of band documentaries, this is the one to see!
Hearts of Darkness
Apocalypse Now is one of the most iconic war movies ever made, and also, in my opinoin, the best war movie ever. This documentary relates the fantastic tale of Francis Ford Coppola’s quest to create his own version of the famous Jospeh Conrad novel through the horror and insanity of the Vietnam War. It was a filmmaking adventure that went from one disaster after another, from production problems to star power problems to having his helicopters fly off in the middle of a shoot to fight in an actual battle to having his lead actor suffer a devastating heart attack during production. There are many tales of filmmaking and the adventures of the filmmaking process, but this one is off the hook, and is definitely worth your time.