Jay Cheel of The Documentary Blog gives us his top five documentary recommendations.
1. Salesman (1969) – Directors: David Maysles, Albert Maysles, Charlotte Zwerin
The Maysles Brothers are considered by many to be pioneers in the Cinema Verite movement, or as they prefer to say…their own ’Direct Cinema’ style. Saleman is a prime example of their knack at remaining almost completely un-intrusive while still capturing beautiful images and honest moments. The film follows a small group of Boston bible salesman as they try to meet their quotas by any means necessary. When the main subject, Paul ‘The Badger’ Brennan starts to lose his touch, he struggles to remain on top of his sales while sharing stories on the road with his salesmen buddies.
Also check out: John Landis’ Slasher. A documentary about a rambunctious used car salesmen.
2. Grizzly Man (2005) - Director: Werner Herzog
Werner Herzog’s ‘Grizzly Man’ compiles recorded video of Timothy Treadwell’s years spent in Alaska’s Katmai National Park ‘protecting’ the Grizzly Bears. After Treadwell and his girlfriend were brutally mauled by one of the bears he swore to protect, many claimed he ‘had it coming’. Werner Herzog interviews both the Treadwell supporters and non-supporters, providing not only a confessional film, with Treadwell revealing his inner-most demons to the camera, but a debate on whether or not Treadwell was helping or hurting the bears. For anyone who’s a fan of Herzog’s cold, unflinching German logic, you will love Grizzly Man.
Also check out: Little Dieter Needs to Fly
3. Paradise Lost 2: Revelations (2000) - Directors: Joe Berlinger, Bruce Sinofsky
I remember the first time I watched Paradise Lost 2. It was Christmas morning, and it was playing on the Documentary Channel. I was so caught up in what was going on in this film that I refused to get out of bed, and in the end, cancelled Christmas until further notice. Paradise Lost 2 re-examines the case of Damien Echols, who was sentenced to death for supposedly being the ringleader of a gang of two other teens (Jessie Miskelly and Jason Baldwin) accused of killing three young boys in a sadistic, ritualistic manner. After HBO released the first Paradise Lost, many people began to question the facts and lack of evidence in this case, suggesting that the three teens were wrongly convicted based on prejudice views on their goth lifestyle, love of heavy metal music (Metallica provides the soundtrack to the film) and interest in the wicca relgion. For fans of murder mysteries, courtroom dramas and who-dunnit’s, this movie will have you hooked. Mark Byers, the stepfather of one of the child victims, suddenly becomes one of the key suspects in this case as some unusually incriminating coincidences begin to pop up throughout the film. I will say that Byers is one of the creepiest film characters I’ve ever seen in a film, fiction or non-fiction.
Also Check out: Brothers Keeper
4. Vernon Florida (1981) - Director: Errol Morris
Before Errol Morris invented his world famous ‘interrotron’, he sat down face to face with a group of unusual southern senior citizens in my favourite in his amazing body of work, ‘Vernon, Florida’. Every shot in this film is like a photograph. Cinematographer Ned Burgess retains the colourful backgrounds and symmetrical framing found in ‘Gates of Heaven’, Morris’ first film. The interviewees stand directly in front of the camera and talk about anything and everything…from turkey hunting, the authenticity of a mail order jewel, catching fish out a dead donkey carcass… Some might accuse Morris’ of exploiting the ramblings of the old and uninformed, but among these seemingly pointless monologues, there are moments of pure poetry. This could be my favourite documentary of all time.
Also Check Out: Gates of Heaven
5. The Staircase (2004) - Director: Jean-Xavier De Lestrade
The Staircase is a six hour long documentary, but it certainly doesn’t feel like it. For the sake of releasing the film to the public, it was split up into eight episodes during it’s original broadcast on the Sundance Channel. The film follows the murder trial of Michael Preston, a high-profile author accused of killing his wife Kathleen Peterson, who was found dead in a pool of blood at the bottom of the staircase in their North Carolina mansion. This movie is SO thrilling and so gripping that I managed to watch the entire six hours in one day. Director Jean-Xavier de Lestrade was given INSANE access to the extended Peterson family, filming their every move and capturing their thoughts as Michael Peterson’s kids deal with the trial of their Father and the death of their Mother. Throughout the trial, many revalations and unusual coincidences have the viewer and the jury shifting back and forth between guilty and not-guilty, right up until the climax of the film which will have you on the edge of your seat. I HIGHLY recommend this film.
Also Check Out: Murder on a Sunday Morning, Capturing the Friedmans
The Documentary Blog is a website created by and for documentary fans and filmmakers. Our goal is to become your quintessential source for news and reviews pertaining specifically to documentary films. Our regular ‘features’ will focus on filmmakers, style, and hopefully provide insight into the process of documentary filmmaking.
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