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


Betsy Critchfield said...

Quite a list, Mr. Guest! Thanks for your recommendations. Have you watched Client 9? Highly recommend it! An old friend of mine worked on it and it was quite good, think you'd enjoy it

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