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The 15 Greatest Documentaries

A thoughtful video essay from The Cinema Cartography about 15 of film’s greatest documentaries, including The Thin Blue Line, Grizzly Man, The Act of Killing, Shoah, Hoop Dreams, and OJ: Made in America (my personal favorite).

I am not sure I agree with their #1 pick? But it’s been a loooong time since I saw it (in the theater when it came out, if you can believe it), so maybe it’s time for another viewing. (via open culture)

Discussion  4 comments


Agreed on number one, but it's a great movie. Mark's sidekick, Mike Schank died earlier this year and had obits in every film trade mag, so that was nice. Not sure how When We Were Kings does not make any top docs list tho

Andrew Clason

Cheat sheet of Lewis Michael Bond's list:

1. American Movie (1999) - Chris Smith
2. Shoah (1985) - Claude Lanzmann.  
3. The Act of Killing (2012) - Joshua Oppenheimer.
4. Close Up (1990) and Close-Up/Long Shot (1996)
5. OJ: Made In America (2016)- Ezra Edelman.
6. As I Was Moving Ahead Occasionally I Saw Brief Glimpses of Beauty (2000).
7. Hoop Dreams (1994)- Steve James.
8. Tie Xi Qu: West of the Tracks (2002) - Wang Bing.
9. Grizzly Man (2005) - Werner Herzog.
10. The Killing of America (1981)- Sheldon Renan & Leonard Schrader.
11. Cabra Marcado Para Morrer (1984) - Eduardo Coutinho.
12. The Thin Blue Line (1988) - Errol Morris.
13. The Five Obstructions (2003) - Lars Von Trier & Jorgen Leth.
14. Symbiopsychotaxiplasm (1968) - William Greaves.
15. Titicus Follies (1967) - Frederick Wiseman.

Very esoteric.

I like lists, and I like documentaries, so let me remind you of some of documentaries that didn't make the above list:

Harlan County USA (1976) - Barbara Kopple
Don’t Look Back (1967)
Roger & Me (1989) - Michael Moore
Crumb (1994) - Terry Zwigoff
Stop Making Sense (1984) - Jonathan Demme
Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse (1991) - Fax Bahr and George Hickenlooper
Paris is Burning (1991) - Jennie Livingston
Gimme Shelter (1970) - Albert and David Maysles
Bowling for Columbine (2002) - Michael Moore
Man on Wire (2008) - Philippe Petit
Capturing the Friedmans (2003) - Andrew Jarecki
Woodstock (1970) - Michael Adleigh
The Up Series (1964-2019) - Michael Apted
Koyaanisquatsi (1982) - Godfrey Reggio
The Fog of War (2003) - Errol Morris
Triumph of the Will (1935) - Leni Riefenstahl
When We Were Kings (1996) - Leon Gast
An Inconvenient Truth (2006) - David Guggenheim
The Last Waltz (1978) - Martin Scorsese
Exit Through the Gift Shop (2010) - Banksy
Jiro Dreams of Sushi (2011) - David Gelb
20 Feet From Stardom (2013) - Morgan Neville
Life Itself (2014) - Steve James
Murderball (2005) - Henry Alex Rubin and Dana Adam Shapiro
Anvil! The Story of Anvil (2008) - Sacha Gervasi
Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (2005) - Alex Gibney
Waltz with Bashir (2008) - Ari Folman
Touching the Void (2003) - Kevin Macdonald
The Wolfpack (2015) - Crystal Moselle
Free Solo (2018) - Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasahelyi
Three Identical Strangers (2018) - Tim Wardle
My Octopus Teacher (2020) - Pippa Ehrlich, James Reed
Night and Fog (1956) - Alain Resnais
March of the Penguins (2005) - Luc Jacquet

I appreciate how esoteric and selective Bond's list is. It appears he probably omitted concert films on purpose, and his opening montage suggests he's aware of most of the movies on the above list.

To me, though, the touchstone documentaries are the "Up" series by Michael Apted, Roger & Me by Michael Moore, Hearts of Darkness, Capturing the Friedmans, Paris is Burning, and Touching the Void. If you allow concert films, then clearly Stop Making Sense, The Last Waltz, and Woodstock qualify.

Jay Rendon

I saw this video last week and watched Symbiopsychotaxiplasm. It broke my brain a bit.

Matt Bucher

American Movie is absolutely my favorite doc of all time so I'm psyched to see it here. My second favorite is Werner Herzog's "Happy People." I wanted to like Symbiopsychotaxiplasm but it doesn't hold up well, imo. Don't Look Back (from the same period) is much better. Rory Kennedy's "American Hollow" is another classic of the genre that deserves to be on more lists.

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