Editorial: Why Documentaries Can and Should Be Considered Cool

March 4, 2011

The King of Kong Documentary

I fancy myself a bit of a documentary nerd. When most people hear the term "documentary film" they cringe and immediately think of another word: boring. There was a time when everyone saw documentaries; the films appeared as propaganda reels during the previews of war-era pictures. Audiences initially tolerated this because it was often their only source of news, but that faded with the invention of the home television set and soon thereafter American families could chose when to watch true life documented. After a couple of decades there were enough channels of fictionalized stories that the real stuff could be completely tuned out.

But even today with the inundation of pointless "reality" television we're still convinced that documentaries are not for the masses; they only show up in cramped indie houses where intellectuals donning dark-rimmed glasses and blazers chat and nod and proclaim the film's topic "a travesty." But docs about 1970's politics or African civil war or oil interests abroad or economic decline or the migration of birds are no longer aimed solely at college-bound American yuppies. No, this is the modern world, where documentary films can and should be cool again.

Legendary director Alfred Hitchcock once said: "In feature films the director is God; in documentary films God is the director" but Hitchcock never anticipated that sixty-odd years later a member from the audience would have the chance to direct the films themselves. Today any schmuck with a digital camera can make a film - and I mean that in the best possible way for docs. Unlike star-driven Hollywood blockbusters, shooting docs is a portable breed of moviemaking with a story that is in constant and endless development.

Dig through all those silly YouTube videos and you might find the beginnings of a low-budget documentary, a homemade trailer, even. The internet is ripe with ambitious individuals whose membership to any social media site and knowledge of some basic web design allow them to market their passion project to almost anyone. Neither the digital camera nor access to the web aren't particularly expensive endeavors, right?

Ken BurnsOur new 21st century documentary filmmaking has resulted in an exciting and accessible product. The process of developing popular docs was slow to be sure and some would claim began with Brooklyn-born documentarian Ken Burns (pictured right). His PBS docu-miniseries chronicling historical landmarks, national parks, and American history eventually transitioned into tackling lighter topics, like baseball. Burns gradually grew popular with educated folk ranging from Kurt Vonnegut to Garrison Keillor to Tom Hanks and Morgan Freeman, all of whom lent their voices to his succeeding projects and thus perpetuated Burns' success.

We can't ignore Michael Moore who burst onto the doc scene with 1989's Roger & Me investigating (with somewhat obnoxious spunk) the impact of massive downsizing at the GM plant in his hometown of Flint, Michigan. His budget on that project: only $160,000, but even as an unknown his picture earned upwards of $6.7 million dollars. All it took was a little bit of a modern attitude. Don't think Moore is cool? Well his last three docs grossed a combined $150 million dollars, all while maintaining his distinctly confrontational tone, a feat that is considered very cool to producers and theater chains alike. As the wheels continued to roll even the previously stuffy and uptight (at least to us Yanks) BBC made a name for itself with their incredible series Planet Earth, which resulted in many-a stocking stuffer and several theatrical features.

So now that we covered the "can" let's talk about the "should." Next year is set to have 27 sequels and countless remakes resulting in the most unoriginal feature film lineup of any theatrical year. This is more than a bummer, it's a waste of our time and hard-earned dough. So why not skip Final Destination 5 and Big Momma's House: Like Father, Like Son and choose a documentary instead? You might not even have to brave a new theater, though you oughta give it a try. Films like Fahrenheit 9/11, An Inconvenient Truth and Waiting for Superman earned such impressive takes at the box office that major chains like AMC and Regal now make room for the occasional documentary.

The docs of today are not all politically or historically based, either. This year's popular Oscar nominated Exit Through the Gift Shop is a prime example as it exposes street art and the elusive figure Bansky (though remains ambiguous as to its factuality). Recent documentary topics range from musical or comedic figures (Michael Jackson: This is it, Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work), to military corruption (The Tillman Story) to internet sensations (Winnebago Man). Believe it or not there's a seemingly endless collection of fascinating and critically acclaimed documentaries waiting for you to enjoy! Which is why I'm here - to name a few of my favorites for you to choose from.

Don't know where to begin? Think of it as a library, peruse a little and you might just find something that sparks your interest. Let's begin at the top!

Helvetica PosterAccording to Netflix there are boatloads of different documentary genres: Military, Indie, Historical, Foreign, Faith & Spirituality, Crime, Political, Sports, Science & Nature, Social & Cultural, Biographical, Mockumentaries and Rockumentaries - so you can check out just about anything.

There are the Oscar Nominees of Recent: Sebastian Junger's Restrepo, Sean Fine & Andrea Nix's War Dance and Louie Psihoyos' The Cove.

The Ones You've Never Heard of: Gary Hustwit's Helvetica and Sam Bozzo's Blue Gold: World Water Wars.

The One's with Catchy Titles: Michael Moore's Capitalism: A Love Story and Bowling for Columbine.

Or the One's Based off Popular Books: Freakonomics (On DVD Now).

And if that doesn't help spark some interest, take a look at some of my all time favorite docs below. These should all provide some worthy documentary viewing when you get a chance:

Murderball PosterMurderball (2005): A team of quadriplegic rugby players go full contact in specially-designed wheel chairs at the 2002 World Championships and the 2004 Paralympic Games in Athens.

Mad Hot Ballroom (2005): Ballroom Dance turns several struggling New York City public school classes from reluctant participants into seriously determined competitors.

Born into Brothels (2004): British filmmaker Zana Brinski gives disposable cameras to the children of poor prostitutes in Calcutta's red-light-district and celebrates their distinct points of view in European galleries to earn the young photographers money for education.

Super Size Me (2004): Director Morgan Spurlock challenges recent obesity suits by eating nothing but McDonald's, three times a day, for thirty days, and his health quickly begins to deteriorate.

Waking Sleeping Beauty PosterWaking Sleeping Beauty (2010): A chronicle of Disney Animation's decade-long recovery between 1984 and 1994 which resulted in some of its most famous pieces including The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and The Lion King.

Man on Wire (2008): The story of Philippe Petit a high wire acrobat who walked between the tops of New York's Twin Towers in 1974.

The King of Kong (2007): Long time Donkey Kong champion Billy Mitchell's score is challenged by an unemployed father from the Midwest all while the history of competitive arcade gaming is revealed.

Not on DVD yet but worth finding and watching, if you can!

Do It Again (2010): Amidst a round of massive Newspaper layoffs, Boston Globe reporter Geoff Edgers pursues a quest to reunited one of his favorite bands, the Kinks (official website).

Marwencol (2010): After suffering brain damage during a bar fight, a man builds a 1/6th scale World War II-era model town in his backyard as elaborate and therapeutic stand-ins for his real life (official website).

Those are my selections. I hope you guys take a moment to check out some of these documentaries that you haven't seen yet or start exploring as many of them as you can. As always, we'd love to hear about any docs you've discovered and your own all-time faves to suggest to others. What documentaries do you love?

Find more posts: Discuss, Editorial, Feat



One word: Werner Herzog. Ok, a few more: Bells from the Deep, Little Dieter Needs To Fly, White Diamond, The Great Ecstasy of Woodcarver Steiner, Encounters at the End of the World, Wild Blue Yonder, My Best Fiend, How much Wood would a Woodchuck chuck - from the top of my head. And whats so cool about Herzog is his attitude towards facts and truth. He's not interested in so called cinema verite or what he calls the accountaints truth, he wants to discover a hidden, poetic truth, and give his audience some kind of enlightenment. I realize now, that I sound excactly like the pretentious tweeders you described first in the article, but everyone interested in documentaries, should seriously check out Herzog. And holy crap, Errol Morris! If you're just gonna see one film, documentary or otherwise: Mr Death. Fucking insane. And if you're at it: Thin Blue Line and Fog of War. That's my two cents on documentaries.

Epleterte on Mar 5, 2011


Love your passion! I'm actually not a huge Werner Herzog fan, at least not in the documentary field, because I was so thrown off by Grizzly Man. I know everyone thought it was amazing, but i just felt like it was staged and forced and unorganized. Maybe I will have to force myself to check out some of Herzog's others.

CisforCinema on Mar 7, 2011


I agree. Documentaries are awesome. The fact that I can be entertained and learn about the world is the reason I watch them as much as a Hollywood blockbuster. The man that brought me into loving documentaries was LOUIS THEROUX and his weird weekeneds. They were funny, reviling and most importantly a closer look into a world that I would have never gotten to see. To add to your list I must suggest: -SpellBound -The Bridge -Exit through the Gift Shop -The Parking Lot Movie

SmallWorld on Mar 5, 2011


totally agree! the people who say documentaries are boring are usually the same people who think the Expendables should've won an oscar and that Steven Segal has "depth"!

Chief Charles002 on Mar 5, 2011


Who ever says that? Why don't you back your stickman argument with a slippery slope for them to stand on. Arrogancy is more annoying than lack of taste.

John I.G. on Mar 6, 2011


Spellbound is great! That one is on my top-ten doc list.

Scott on Mar 7, 2011


I'm a big fan of Documentaries, I mean its a nice break from traditional films and a great way to learn

Anonymous on Mar 5, 2011


I love the documentary Style Wars.

Crapola on Mar 5, 2011


Great post! ๐Ÿ™‚ Unfortunately I haven't seen all the films... My all time favorite docs: 10. The Cove 9. Man on Wire 8. Fahrenheit 9/11 7. Bowling For Columbine 6. The King of Kong 5. Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple 4. March of the Penguins 3. Capturing The Friedmans 2. Religulous 1. Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father

bauer24 on Mar 5, 2011


You've seen quite a few, I will have to check out some of your favorites: haven't seen The Cover, Jonestown, Capturing the Friedmans or Dear Zachary.

CisforCinema on Mar 7, 2011


That's only my top 10... not all the documentaries I've seen... ๐Ÿ™‚

bauer24 on Mar 7, 2011


The Cove and Dear Zachary are both gut wrenching, but incredible documentaries. I also believe both are available instantly on Netflix.

Anonymous on Mar 8, 2011


No mention of Errol Morris in this article. Many would argue he is one of the greatest documentarians of all time.

samir on Mar 5, 2011


I think her focus is on modern documentaries and how they've become cool again, that's why she doesn't go over the full history of documentaries. But yes, Errol Morris is definitely worth mentioning as well!

Alex Billington on Mar 5, 2011


My absolute favorite has to be Note by Note: The Making of Steinway L1037 absolutely brilliant Here is a list of my favorite documentaries that I watched last year. Some are a few years old, but all (IMO) are 3 stars or higher and all are on netflix instant queue. Paper Clips, Philosopher Kings, King of Kong, Dear Zachary, blood into wine, William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe, Rock Prophecies, AKA tommy chong, Still bill, defamation, the parking lot movie, The art of the steal, the cove, a man named pearl, I like killing flies, Pressure Cooker, I have never forgotten you, the yes men fix the world, winter soldier, Trumbo, The Garden, the most dangerous man in America, this film is not yet rated, man on wire, the devil came on horseback, Who the #$&% Is Jackson Pollock?, Les Paul: chasing sound, champion, Hiding and seeking, tom dowd and the language of music, The Conscientious Objector, The Ritchie Boys,

Goliad on Mar 5, 2011


and Helvetica..

Goliad on Mar 5, 2011


You liked Helvetica? I just discovered it on Netflix and will have to check it out!

CisforCinema on Mar 7, 2011


cate - no mention of steve james?.....he's pretty good!

Anonymous on Mar 5, 2011


cate - michael moore is hack. his films make money because they are sensationalistic. what bugs me about his is he seemingly just looks at news headlines and capitalizes on others misery/tragedy. also - i don't think how much money a doc makes is reflective of how good it is (this is true of any movie)...........just a couple of thoughts i wanted to mention. thanks for giving documentaries their own article - this genre deserves more recognition. "blue gold:world water wars" was one of the best docs i've seen in a while. here's a couple more nobody has mentioned: 1 - deep water 2. westway to the world

Anonymous on Mar 5, 2011


Speaking of has anyone seen "The Pat Tilman Story?"

Anonymous on Mar 5, 2011


I actually haven't seen it yet but heard great things from a friend who reviewed it for our class. It's available on Netflix but not yet for "play now."

CisforCinema on Mar 7, 2011


I'm pretty sure everyone will agree that Murderball and Exit Through The Gift shop were great documentaries; but I thought Supersize Me was a good execution of a cheap publicity stunt. Don't get me wrong, it was a well-made documentary, but it's "concept" is at the same level as "boxing a match every day for a month will give you serious brain damage". I'd also like to add Religulous to the discussion. I thought it was a nice light-hearted look into some of the ridiculous aspects of "modern" religious practices.

Anonymous on Mar 5, 2011


I think I was frustrated by just how "light-hearted" Religulous was. I guess I was hoping for more or wishing there was a bit more history relayed by the film.

CisforCinema on Mar 7, 2011


I haven't seen a mention of Bus 174, it is superb. It follows a Brazilian street kid who held up a bus full of people in 2001. The whole siege is captured on camera, but despite the shattering reality of the images (footage of police officers beating the suspect to death in the back of a car), the film manages to be a much wider indictment of youth poverty and police corruption in Rio

Lebowski on Mar 5, 2011



Drevpile on Mar 5, 2011


Anvil is Rawsome! I thought it would be really silly but was pretty heart wrenching in the end.

Crapola on Mar 5, 2011


Is that the rockumentary? Should I check it out?

CisforCinema on Mar 7, 2011


Hoop Dreams. Grey Gardens. Bowling For Columbine.

Marcus on Mar 5, 2011


Chasing Ghosts: behind the arcade and the Louis Theroux series. But I always doubt the legitimacy of every documentary I watch, because the editor can change the view of a gullible audience.

Desraider on Mar 5, 2011


I've seen both Chasing Ghosts and The King of Kong and I prefer TKOK, Chasing Ghosts was just too weird for me, each of those guy's and their quirks, I just didn't get into as much as I did Kong. You think the editor changed the perspective on someone in it?

Alex Billington on Mar 6, 2011


Winebego man Best worst movie King of Kong Grizzly Man Anvil (my top 5) ๐Ÿ™‚

Maudeegt on Mar 5, 2011


I quite enjoyed This Film Has Not Been Rated recently.

NC-17 on Mar 6, 2011


* This Film Is Not Yet Rated

NC-17 on Mar 6, 2011


Top of my list right now. Can't wait. Glad to hear you liked it!

CisforCinema on Mar 7, 2011


I remembered how I used to hate docementaries growing up, after being forced to watch boring docs about the history of Stockholm in school. But then we watched Bowling for Columbine in Social Studies in junior-high school and actually liked it... a lot. The most recent documentaries that I've enjoyed are Kings of Pastry (documentary about the famous Meilleurs Ouvriers de France pastry chef competition), Exit through the Gift Shop and Waking Sleeping Beauty...

superliminal on Mar 7, 2011


Good article. I always love articles like this because they introduce me to new documentaries I've never heard of. Some of the my most moving cinematic experiences have been documentaries. Some of my favorites: King of Kong (my all time favorite) Dear Zachary The Cove Man on Wire No End in Sight Taxi to the Dark Side Exit Through the Gift Shop Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room A few others that I saw years ago that I enjoyed at the time. Hopefully, they would stand the test of time if I saw them again: Startup.com Overnight An American Movie P.S. Looking forward to Inside Job!

Anonymous on Mar 8, 2011

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