I love documentary films. And, like much of the music I listen to these days, most of my favorite documentaries I found through my kids. Now, you may think documentaries are too boring to “count” as movies—they’re too slow, too straightforward, without any special effects, etc. To me, though, this is exactly what makes them (the best ones, at least) so entertaining. That is, they’re great because they’re entertaining in an active rather than a passive way. Hollywood and its endless cycle of “cutting-edge” special effects has really perfected the passive entertainment experience, but active viewing is something different altogether. It’s hard to explain, really, but there is just something fascinating about watching incredible stories about actual events and actual people, without all the polished visuals and witty dialogue. That extra layer of realism has a powerful effect on the way I respond to the characters on-screen. Indeed, when truth is stranger than fiction, you can’t help but look at your own life in a different light.
Take Werner Herzog, for example. He’s the legendary filmmaker behind Grizzly Man, Little Dieter Needs to Fly, Encounters at the End of the World, and many more (all recommended, by the way). I don’t think you could invent stories more compelling than the ones he’s documented. Somehow you leave his films feeling more alive than you did going in.
Of course, many documentaries come with a built-in agenda, but, if you know that going in, it can give the film some added complexity that keeps things interesting. This is another bonus of the documentary format. Whether or not you are persuaded by a particular message, I don’t think you can deny that documentaries have a unique ability to inspire action (or inaction!).
All that said, here’s a list of some of my favorites (the italicized blurbs are from imbd.com).
The Cove (2009)
Using state-of-the-art equipment, a group of activists, led by renowned dolphin trainer Ric O'Barry, infiltrate a cove near Taijii, Japan to expose both a shocking instance of animal abuse and a serious threat to human health.
For all you baby boomers out there, you may remember Ric O’Barry as Flipper’s original trainer. He believes that Flipper, the famous TV dolphin, didn’t just die but actually committed suicide from being in captivity, and he’s since dedicated his life to animal rights. The Cove is a shocking and thought-provoking take on our ethical responsibility toward living creatures of all types, dolphins in particular. Highly recommended.
Inside Job (2010)
‘Inside Job’ provides a comprehensive analysis of the global financial crisis of 2008, which at a cost over $20 trillion, caused millions of people to lose their jobs and homes in the worst recession since the Great Depression, and nearly resulted in a global financial collapse.
You’re sure to have an opinion after this one. You might even get angry. Really angry. As someone (like the majority of us) who’s always tried to be prudent with their money, I walked away from Inside Job feeling like the financial crisis wasn’t a random accident but the logical result of one of the greatest scams we’ve ever seen. And, unfortunately, it doesn’t look like we’re out of the woods yet.
Food, Inc (2008)
An unflattering look inside America's corporate controlled food industry.
At times educational and at times stomach-turning, Food Inc. is a must watch for anyone interested in where our food comes from (a pretty universal concern, I’d say, even if you have never really thought about it). I sometimes wonder how many people turned vegan or vegetarian after watching this, in addition to all the people who surely started making a greater effort to buy local. Even if you don’t go vegan, you’ll never look at the label “corn-fed” on a package of beef the same way again! One of the most harrowing parts of the film is the connection between agribusiness (and the mass production it entails) and E.coli breakouts (E.coli, as far as I know, is rare on smaller, locally-owned farms.). A remarkable documentary.
Dear Zachary (2008)
A filmmaker decides to memorialize a murdered friend when his friend's ex-girlfriend announces she is expecting his son.
If you remember the ‘50s TV show Lost in Space, you’ll remember the B9 robot who sends out a public warning whenever he senses danger. Picture me right now as B9, flailing my arms about and shouting DANGER, DANGER, WILL ROBINSON! I recommended Dear Zachary to a friend of mine recently without warning him beforehand what he was in for, and I learned my lesson.
He and his wife were shocked.
It’s true, this film is an absolute mindbender. And it’s definitely not a standard feel-good flick, though you will feel good—very good—at times. Indeed, Dear Zachary is one of those rare movies that captures the entire range of human experience, from one extreme (extraordinary goodness) to another (unbelievable evil). You can’t watch this movie and not be profoundly moved. You’ll be horrified at the ineptitude of certain legal systems and the insanity that people are capable of. You’ll also marvel at a real-life display of unconditional love on the part of Zachary’s grandparents. Highly recommended. (And remember, you’ve been warned :)
Man on Wire (2008)
A look at tightrope walker Philippe Petit's daring, but illegal, high-wire routine performed between New York City's World Trade Center's twin towers in 1974, what some consider, "the artistic crime of the century."
The old footage of the Twin Towers is reason enough to watch Man on Wire, but luckily the story is completely gripping, too. It’s amazing that without the Internet around (this was back in 1974) many of us probably never even heard about Philippe Petit’s daring caper when it happened (I don’t remember anything about it, at least). A great film.
The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara (2003)
A film about the former US Secretary of Defense and the various difficult lessons he learned about the nature and conduct of modern war.
I barely missed getting drafted into the Vietnam War. I registered for the draft in high school, but the war ended right as I was graduating. Watergate and Vietnam were all over the news when I was growing up, though, so to hear McNamara essentially apologize for his actions during that era, to see him emotionally moved—this all really hit me hard. The Fog of War really made me think about the unintended consequences of any decision to use military force, not only for entire countries but for the men and women who have to make those tough decisions. The parallels between McNamara’s eleven lessons and our situation today (and the various wars we’re involved in) are hard to miss. We’d do well to listen.