Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Ten Best Documentaries of All-Time

Welcome to (drumroll please) Ben Guest's List of The Ten Best Documentaries of ALL-TIME.

1) "Hoop Dreams"

Many people think the central theme of "Hoop Dreams" as the pursuit of the American Dream. They are wrong. The theme of the film is the American Family: the love, the jealousy, the hope, the shame, the faith, the hurt and the triumph of two American families.


-The film does what the documentary format in general demonstrates so well: the passage of time. We get to know and care about the characters as they age and succeed and fail right in front of us.

-The directors and producers of "Hoop Dreams" were lucky in (at least) two ways:

-First, the two 8th graders they chose to follow (Arthur Agee and William Gates) turned into outstanding basketball players (I wonder if there were other players initially filmed but that didn't make the final cut).
-Second, both Arthur and William are charismatic and interesting on-screen (and in different ways). It's like lightening struck twice.

-As an aspiring documentary filmmaker watching "Hoop Dreams" is like what watching "Citizen Kane" must have been for Hollywood directors circa 1941. It sets the bar impossibly high. You wonder if anything can ever be that good again.

-My favorite edit in the film is a cut from the coaches and players on the St. Joe's bus to the exact same shot of the coaches and players on the Garfield bus.

-I have a short documentary playing in this year's Oxford Film Festival. Turns out so does Peter Gilbert, one of the producers of "Hoop Dreams." I can't wait to meet him.

-The film was produced by Kartemquin Films, a great production company based in Chicago that has been making films examining social justice and societal inequity for 45 years. Follow them on Twitter here.

2) "Up Series"

Even more than "Hoop Dreams," in fact more than any film, the "Up" series documents the passage of time. Starting with a group of seven year olds and touching base with them every seven years for now more than forty years now ("56 Up" is scheduled to be released in 2012). We come to care deeply about the characters and find ourselves anticipating where the next film will find them.

3) "Murder on a Sunday Morning"

I've only seen this once, several years ago, but I have never forgotten the power of it. A black teenager arrested and forced to confess to a crime he didn't commit. More than anything I remember the ending and an incredible moment, captured on film, between father and son...

4) "To Be and To Have"

As a teacher this is the best film (narrative or documentary) about the skill of teaching.

5) "Bowling for Columbine"

The best of Moore's many great films. Two of my friends here in Mississippi sometimes call me the Michael Moore of "Ole Miss" because of my short film "Ten Dollars an Hour."

6) "Capturing the Friedmans"

Memory. This movie is about the quality of memory. How can so many people have such different memories of events that may or may not have taken place?

7) "Neshoba"

Saw this at the Oxford Film Festival in 2009 and was blown away. The directors gained access to all parties involved in one of the country's most notorious civil rights murders. Includes one of the greatest final shots in film history.

8) "Harlan County USA"

Classic film about the lengths to which the wealthy exploit and dehumanize, in every way possible, the workers who created that wealth.

9) "Heart of the Game"

Like "Hoop Dreams" this film follows a basketball player over the course of five years. As a former basketball coach I was amazed by the decision of the coach to play, in the state championship game, every single player on the team. What a wonderful decision and a wonderful lesson for his players.

10) "The Beginning"

"The Phantom Menace" sucked. This making-of film, included on the DVD, is fantastic. A great example of Direct Cinema as the filmmakers follow George Lucas and company through four years of production.

Honorable Mention (in no particular order):

Once Brothers
The Cove
LaLee’s Kin
Truth or Dare
Deliver us From Evil
An Inconvenient Truth
4 Little Girls
When We Were Kings
Heart of Darkness
Gimme Shelter
Touching the Void
Exit through the Gift Shop
Pumping Iron
General Idi Amin Dada


-I did not include television mini-series productions like "Eyes on the Prize" or "Baseball."

-I did not include concert films like "Kings of Comedy."

-In preparation for making this list I re-watched:

-"Hoop Dreams"
-"Capturing the Friedmans"
-"Heart of the Game"
-"The Beginning"

-I've seen "Bowling for Columbine" more than once.

-I have seen the "Up" series, "Murder on a Sunday Morning," "To Be and To Have," and "Harlan County USA" only once.

-Several documentary "classics" that I have not seen and, thus, are not on the list:

Titticut Follies
Grizzly Man
March of the Penguins
Winged Migration

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Ten Best Basketball Books of All-Time

Last weekend I finished the basketball book Unfinished Business. Putting the book back on the shelf I realize that, over the years, I've collected quite a library of basketball related books. While books on baseball and golf are ubiquitous, great writing on basketball is harder to find (someone once said that the smaller the ball the better the writing). So, without further adieu, based on my library of 50 or so books, here are the "Ten Best basketball Books of All-Time:"

1) The Golden Boys by Cameron Stauth. Stauth's account of the original 1992 Dream Team moves both forward in time through the Olympics and backward in time through the lives of each of the twelve players. Stauth finds loneliness, ego, talent, selfishness, teamwork, insecurity and, interestingly enough, unconditionally loving mothers. Particularly fascinating sections include: the selection process (Chuck Daly, the coach, ranked each of his Detroit Pistons highly); a thorough examination of "the zone," the fleeting basketball plane where a player cannot miss; and Charles Barkley's last year as a Philadelphia 76er, doing everything he can to force a trade. Stauth also gets to sit in on the greatest HORSE game of all-time. Long out of print the cheapest used copy on Amazon currently goes for $50. If you can find it it is a gem.

2) Play Their Hearts Out by George Dohrmann. Published in 2010, Dohrmann, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, embeds himself with an AAU team of twelve-year olds in California. He follows the coach, players, parents, shoe company execs, and "grassroot organizers" for seven years (until the kids finish their senior year of high school). The result is an in-depth examination of youth sports. Kids are reduced to investments in an unregulated market. It is an indictment of capitalism itself, as the greed of coaches, touts, advisers, family members, and shoe companies builds up and destroys twelve-year old children.

3) The Last Shot by Darcy Frey. Originally an article in Harper's this book is like the written cousin of the film "Hoop Dreams." While "Hoop Dreams" follows two high schoolers from Chicago, IL, "The Last Shot" follows four high school seniors from Coney Island, NY. The team has a good shot at winning a city championship, especially with precocious 8th grader Stephon Marbury on the varsity. Well-written account of how the odds are stacked against anyone making the NBA.

4) A Season on the Brink by John Feinstein. Coach Bob Knight gave Feinstein complete access to the Indiana program during the 1985-1986 season. This book was the result. By the end Knight was no longer speaking to Feinstein. However, a man of his word, Knight never revoked Feinstein's access.

5) The Breaks of the Game by David Halberstam. My unofficial review of the blogosphere reveals this classic to be considered the best basketball book ever. Halberstam's account of the 1979-1980 Portland Trailblazers covering multiple angles: the players; the wives; the coaches; the management; and the owners.

6) Hang Time by Bob Greene. Two years with Michael Jordan at the height of his fame.

7) Sacred Hoops by Phil Jackson. Jackson explains the beauty of the game.

8) Venus to the Hoop by Sara Corbett. A companion of sorts to "The Golden Boys" this book follows the 1996 women's Dream Team through an entire year, from training camp through 51 straight wins in various exhibition games to Olympic gold.

9) When Nothing Else Matters by Michael Leahy. Account of Michael Jordan's two years playing for the Washington Wizards. "Like a general who found himself in deep snows with inexperienced troops..."

10) The Smart Take from the Strong by Pete Carril. Carril became famous for coaching overachieving teams at Princeton and beating, in his final year of coaching, the defending champion UCLA Bruins in the NCAA tournament. This is his basketball philosophy.

Honorable Mention:

Basketball According to Bob Knight and Pete Newell (Volume One and Two). The best books for any aspiring coach.

Forty-Eight Minutes by Bob Ryan and Terry Pluto. A minute by minute breakdown of a regular season game between the Boston Celtics and the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Basketball, Multiple Offense and Defense by Dean Smith. Another great book for the aspiring coach.

Wages of Wins by David Berri, Martin Schmidt and Stacey Brook. In my opinion, the best of all the statistical models of basketball. Dr. Berri also hosts my favorite basketball website: The Wages of Wins Journal.

Loose Balls by Jayson Williams. Williams has become notorious for (allegedly) accidentally shooting a limousine driver and then trying to cover it up. But his memoirs of his time in the NBA, written before the shooting, are hysterical.

The Winner Within by Pat Riley. The best of the various "business strategies" type books. Riley coins the phrase "the disease of me."

Finally, for about 16 years Zander Hollander published an annual book, titled "The Complete Handbook of Pro Basketball." The handbook contained short, well-written bios of every player in the league. The bios were always informative and, on occasion, hilarious. Here is an excerpt from the bio on Rasheed Wallace after his rookie year with the Washington Bullets: "Showed the emotional maturity of Hitler during the bunker days."