Wednesday, October 24, 2007

True stories

I'm a big fan of documentary films. If done well, the characters they portray and the stories they tell are just as varied and compelling and emotionally involving as anything that could come from the mind of a screenwriter.

To commemorate its 25th anniversary, the International Documentary Association has published a list of the top 25 documentaries as chosen by the organization's members, and I've seen almost all of them.

The top honor goes to 1994's "Hoop Dreams," an often-praised film that tells the story of two African-American teenagers from Chicago who have their sights set on careers in professional basketball. This is a film that could easily fall into cliche territory. I was really drawn into the lives of these two young men and angry about the way they were used by some of the adults around them.

"Hoop Dreams" is also noteworthy because of the controversy it caused when it failed to garner an Oscar nomination for best documentary. The omission, which was widely criticized, led to reforms in the way the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences picks the nominees.

The rest of the list isn't really very surprising to documentary fans. It includes lots of classics, like the 1955 film about the Holocaust, "Night and Fog," the 1970 concert film "Woodstock," and legendary documentarian Frederick Wiseman's legendary 1967 film about the mentally ill, "Titicut Follies." There are also many well-known, recent titles on the list, like "Super Size Me," "Fahrenheit 9/11" and "Spellbound." A short essay accompanies the Top 10 picks.

Here are some more documentaries that aren't on the list, but which I've enjoyed:

"The Agronomist" - A film by Jonathan Demme telling the inspring but ultimately tragic story of a legendary Haitian radio journalist and political activist.
Recording the Producers: A musical romp with Mel Brooks - A glimpse inside the recording studio, with lots of wit from Mel Brooks and company as they make the cast album for the Broadway musical.
CSA: The Confederate States of America - A mockumentary that examines what life would be like in the United States if the South had won the Civil War. It's a cutting satire that makes you laugh even as you cringe.
4 Little Girls - Spike Lee recounts one of one of the most horrific events of the civil-rights movment, the bombing of a church in Birmingham, Ala., and the four young children who were killed.
My Architect: A Son's Journey - Nicholas Kahn's film about his father, architect Louis Kahn, a man who designed beautiful buildings but had a rather messy personal life.
Born Rich - A very funny and surprisingly reflective film about the lives of some wealthy young adults, made by the heir to the Johnson & Johnson fortune.
To Be and to Have - A dedicated teacher tends to his young charges in a one-room schoolhouse in rural France.
Gigantic: A Tale of Two Johns - The story of the two Johns who make up the quirky two-man alternative rock duo "They Might Be Giants."
Maya Lin: A Strong, Clear Vision - An Academy Award winner about the designer of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and the controversy surrounding her selection.
Amandla! A Revolution in Four-part Harmony - How music helped in the struggle to end apartheid in South Africa.


Man of Plastic said...

Great lists. I love a good documentary, although I've missed a lot of the ones you've mentioned.

I would like to add a couple that are excellent. Obviously, The Last Waltz, Martin Scorsese's story of The Band and their farewell concert. I saw it in the theater years ago. It's one of the great rock movies of all time also.

Also by Scorsese, No Direction Home: Bob Dylan.

And the Life and Times of Hank Greenberg documentary that came out about 6 or 7 years ago.

Also you have the slew of Ken Burns' documentaries, which actually deserve their own category.

Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...

Esther, You've enlightened me once again. I regret to say that the only ones I've seen on the list that you've mentioned are "Hoop Dreams" and "Fahrenheit 9/11."

But my recent viewings of Broadway-related fare, plus my love for the mockumentary genre ("Best In Show" and "Waiting For Gufman") have me interested in seeking out more of the real deal. I'll take your list and check it twice for possible viewings. Thank you!

Esther said...

Thanks, Man of Plastic! You've mentioned some great ones that I'd forgotten about. Of course I loved "No Direction Home." It makes a great double feature with "Don't Look Back." And I really enjoyed "The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg," a very apropos choice considering we're in the middle of the World Series! The Ric Burns documentary on New York City is my favorite work of the Burns brothers. Maybe I'll watch it again. Now that I've spent more time in New York, I think it would have even greater meaning for me.

Esther said...

Steve, I also love the mockumentary genre, including the ones you mentioned. I've also enjoyed "The Mighty Wind," and of course, "This is Spinal Tap." And thank-you for encouraging me to see "Broadway: The American Musical." It's a great documentary that really got me pumped up for my first visit to Broadway. I've watched it more than once! It's also a wonderful companion piece to the Ric Burns series on New York City.