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11 Best Documentary Films

A documentary’s place is often on the small screen where it has the time to carry out it’s investigation in full across a few episodes. Making a Murderer was a great example of that – there wasn’t anything visually grand about the series that was missed having it on my small screen, and it’s run time allowed it to delve deep in to the detail, rather than cramming it all in to 2 hours.  Despite the tendency to find them more on TV, there is a growing trend in documentaries made for the big screen now. What was once an ignored platform is finding an ever growing audience. That’s reflected in my admittedly blinkered list of all time faves, seeing as only one was made outside of the last 10 years. Attention for film docs is getting bigger and bigger, and some of my favourite experiences in a cinema have been sitting through some of the films below.

It isn’t often that audiences will challenge what’s being presented to them when it’s got that ‘documentary’ label, but through the same techniques as any film, it’s very easy to manipulate viewers and tell a particular tale from a particular angle. That audiences defences are often immediately down just because its in the movie doc category is dangerous.  Can a documentary ever remain objective? It turns out that Making a Murderer certainly wasn’t, and Alex Gibney (crowned one of the most important documentarians of our time by Esquire magazine) says it is impossible. I recommend his interview on the subject by Bret Easton Ellis on his podcast as they discuss the power of the documentary and credibility that comes with that. When you find a great documentary, it can then be disappointing to read about how close it was to real life events afterwards. What bits the filmmakers neglected to tell us. Which interviews they cut. Which facts were missing. I don’t think that should ever ‘spoil’ a documentary for us though, and I now try to go in to each thinking of it as any other film – some entertainment. If the story it tells us is engaging, emotive and memorable, then what does it matter if it isn’t unbiased?

As the popularity for the documantary continues to rise, I wanted to put together a list of my all time favourites.  Notable mentions must go to The Imposter (2012), Supersize Me (2004) and The Thin Blue Line (1988).   The latter set the trend for a compelling documentary format, and despite it’s fascinating real life impact on the conviction of an innocent man, viewing through the eyes of a millennial that’s seen all of those techniques before (such as the mix of real life and reconstruction footage) I just thought it was pretty dull.  I’m also yet to watch the highly rated The Act of Killing (2012), it’s sequel, The Look of Silence (2014), and De Palma (2015) – I’m particularly keen to see the latter having recently bought his heavily Hitchcock-inspired Dressed to Kill (1980) and entertaining Blow Out (1981).  Here are my absolute faves:

11. Room 237 (2012)
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Although Stanley Kubrick put huge amounts of time and thought in to the smallest of details for each of his films, I’m not sure even he would have expected a whole film on multiple readings of The Shining (1980). From the sensible (such as the impossible layout of the Overlook Hotel) to the downright mental (that the moon landings were faked, Kubrick shot the fake footage, and left clues about this in The Shining) there is plenty to get intrigued exasperated by in equal measure. Essentially though, this is a documentary that shines a light on how differently movies can be interpreted, and can mean very different things to different people.

10. Hitchcock/Truffaut (2015)
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I was fortunate to catch this at Home in Manchester with Charlotte, and somehow managed to drag Charlotte along too as part of her Hitchcock initiation. The film is comprised of footage from François Truffaut’s famous interviews with Alfred Hitchcock that went on to make up his 1986 book, ‘Hitchcock: A Definitive Study of Alfred Hitchcock’, as well as thoughts from directors such as David Fincher and Martin Scorsese, and is a brilliant analysis of the genius of one of my all time faves.

9. Blackfish (2013)
Black-and-white picture of an orca (killer whale) with the title Blackfish and credits underneath
Effectively killed Sea World, and if some of the points it tried to make are even nearly true, its for the best. A film that tarnished those childhood holiday memories of going to see Shamu et al. The only cure was to watch Free Willy (1993) on repeat.

8. The Crash Reel (2013)
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Caught this almost by accident on Sky with my housemate at the time, and we were completely hooked the whole way through.  Personally, I'm always interested in reading and watching insights in to the psyche of top atheletes - their competitiveness and will to win, and what's required to get to the top is fascinating.  The Crash Reel focuses on American professional snowboarder, Kevin Pearce, his rivalry with Shaun White, his life changing crash and subsequent battle to return to the sport.  I knew nothing about Pearce, the incident itself, or the sport in general and it just added to the heartbreak of it all.

7. Amy (2015)
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I had never been a huge fan of Amy Winehouse, and knew little of her background other than that she wasted her talent on her substance abuse.  Watching Amy at the cinema completely changed all that, as it educated me on Winehouse's genius, talent, and apparent good nature, as well as the barrage of bad influences she was faced with.  This is a good example of how documentaries can lead it's audience, as there's a definite feeling that we're only being told part of the story.  Even so, there's a reason my Back to Black play count has rocketed since seeing this film, and I'm really grateful for that.

6. Man on Wire (2008)
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As much as I enjoyed 2015's The Walk and it's vertigo-inducing shots on a massive IMAX screen, I couldn't help but think that I would rather be watching the documentary film of the same subject.  Man on Wire is about Philippe Petit's mission to carry out a high wire walk between New York's World Trade Center Twin Towers - whether he would be allowed or not.  The story behind how he went about carrying out the stunt, and the footage of the 200ft tightrope 1,350ft above the ground is breathtaking enough, but the enduring image is the lunacy and genius of Petit, a character and artist like no other.

5. An Honest Liar (2014)
Just last Sunday Charlotte and I ticked off seeing Penn & Teller live from our bucket lists.  The magician double act are as good as it gets, but are not allowed in the magic circle as they often give away how they did their tricks (often just as impressive as the illusion itself).  They believe that the performance of magic must be done with the understanding of their audience that this is not real, otherwise the audience is being duped, and it can stray in to unethical territory.  An Honest Liar is about another magician with similar beliefs: James Randi, or 'The Amazing Randi.'  As well as being a world renowned magician in his own right, Randi was determined to unearth and debunk people such as 'psychic' Uri Geller, and 'faith healer' Peter Popoff, but it's when the film unearths Randi's own secrets that it reached another emotional level for me.

4. Bowling for Columbine (2002)
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Just as relevant as it was upon it's release, Bowling for Columbine is controversial documentary filmmaker, Michael Moore's finest film.  Moore explores how something like the horrendous Columbine High School massacre in 1999 could happen, and the United States' gun laws and history of violence.  It doesn't make for easy watching, but that's the point.

3. Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief (2015)
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Based on Lawrence Wright's book, 'Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood and the Prison of Belief', Alex Gibney's film is terrifying.  The film breaks down Scientology from it's very beginning with L. Ron Hubbard right up to present day with accounts from people that used to be members of the church, and shocking footage from within it's walls.  It's very extensive, enthralling, and jaw-dropping that this is actually real.

2. Senna (2010)
I can remember watching this in the cinema, and the emotional reaction I had to so many of the scenes.  Again, as I'm a sucker for a sports biopic, this spoke to me even if I know absolutely nothing about Formula 1 racing.    As with The Crash Reel, the documentary shows how two people at the top of their game game spur the other to push the limits (often too far) to reach further greatness.  Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost's approach to racing could not have been any more different, but those clashes made for enthralling races, and an exhilarating documentary film.  Senna, who died following a crash in the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix was loved by those within the spot, and those back home in Brazil.  As well as a being a fascinating insight in to competitiveness and instinctive genius in sport, Senna captures his personality and the very reason for the outpouring of grief in it's final act.  It became a staple birthday present that I would give when it was released on DVD - an absolute classic.

1. Searching for Sugar Man (2012)
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I would struggle to think of other films that have surprised me more than Searching for Sugar Man.  My housemate and I went in to this completely blind other than that we knew it had just won the 2013 BAFTA and Academy Award for best documentary, and was about something to do with a guy that played guitar.  I'm hesitant to say too much about the film';s story as I strongly believe that was the best perspective to have going in to it.  Searching for Sugar Man has one of my all time favourite movie soundtracks that I must have listened back to over 100 time since.  There's a combination of interviews, found footage, photographs, music, and animation that blend together seamlessly to tell a story of tragedy, unearthed talent, hope, redemption, kindness, and the enormous effect music can have on people, particularly in the middle of an apartheid regime.  I could watch this over and over, and it may well be one of my all time favourite films, let alone documentaries.


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