My husband is a documentary filmmaker. I say this not to claim any kind of personal authority on the subject of documentaries, but merely to express the fact that I have been forced to (ahem, I mean fortunate enough to) watch a LOT of documentary films over the years. We have a joke that his Netflix account is the only thing we never combined when we got married. Much to my dismay, there's never been a single rom-com on the queue.
Despite some occasional grumbling on my part (I'm embarrassed to admit that I've whined, "can't we just watch a reeaal movie?!" on more than one date night), I feel grateful for the number of times that I've been surprised, moved, inspired, and entertained by the genre. As it turns out, I nearly had a panic attack trying to narrow down the list for this post, because there were so many films on my list of favorites that I wanted to include here - I had to resort to calling this "some" favorites and will have to post a second (and third!) installment another time. So I guess that Netflix queue represents me after all. Here are just 6 recommendations I have for a variety of types of documentary films:
MANDA BALA (Send a Bullet), directed by Jason Kohn, is one of the wackiest films I've seen. It's about corruption and class warfare in Brazil, told through several simultaneous narratives, from a plastic surgeon who specializes in reattaching ears severed in kidnapping cases to a frog farm that launders money for a corrupt politician. It's a dark subject matter, for sure, but the Brazilian pop music and unique narrative make it worth the gloom and doom.
GRIZZLY MAN, directed by Werner Herzog, is about amateur bear activist and enthusiast Timothy Treadwell, who journeys to Alaska to live among grizzly bears and film their behaviors and interactions. Even though he was killed in an attack in 2003, the film, composed largely of Treadwell's own footage, ends up feeling lighthearted and even funny at times because of Treadwell's quirky, earnest personality. He's fascinating and strange, and his compassion for the bears is contagious.
MISTAKEN FOR STRANGERS, directed by Tom Berninger, is not your typical music documentary. Even though Berninger details his time as part of the tour crew for the band The National, he is more than just your typical roadie; he's an amateur horror-film maker, the bummy younger brother of the band's lead singer, and he's an avid heavy metal fan (which means he pretty much hates his brother's band's music). Instead of your average tour video, it ends up being the story of living in a sibling's shadow and finding your voice. And it had me laughing out loud, which I was not expecting. Berninger is super funny and highly likable in his ne'er-do-well spazziness.
MAD HOT BALLROOM, directed by Marilyn Agrelo, follows a number of NYC elementary school children as they learn ballroom dancing to compete in a city-wide competition. I have a soft-spot for films about earnest elementary-aged kids, and there were a number of films on my favorites list that fit this type - there's just something so endearing and entertaining to me about how candid and earnest pre-pubescent kids can be when they get passionate about something. I whittled it down to this film, in which the kids go from reluctant dancers to fired-up competitors as they learn to meringue, tango, rumba, foxtrot, and swing. The film shows the diversity of the city - and it makes you want to boogie, too.
BOMBAY BEACH, directed by Alma Har'el, is so unique and beautifully shot, I hesitate to try to describe it. It's the story of a poor community on the shore of the Salton Sea, in Southern California, as told through the narrative of three people who live there. The landscape is bleak and unlike anywhere I've seen, and Har'el's imagery, put to the music of the band Beirut, makes it eerily touching and beautiful. It transcends the documentary genre, as parts of it are actually choreographed, which even further blurs the line this film weaves between dream and reality.
WAR/DANCE, directed by Sean Fine and Andrea Nix Fine, spotlights three of the children living in Patongo, a displacement camp in Northern Uganda, and competing in a national music and dance competition. It makes you feel uplifted and devastated at once, because it is a story of decades of terrorism, genocide, and conflict - of losing parents and being uprooted - but it's told through the sounds of children's voices singing strongly and dancing freely. The music and rhythms are irresistibly moving, and you root for these precious kids in so many ways.
Of course, there are so many to choose from and so many I have yet to see. I still haven't seen Exit Through the Gift Shop or March of the Penguins, which are two high profile ones that many people loved. Do you have a favorite documentary I should add to our (or should I say my husband's) queue? Tonight's a good rainy night for a movie date!
(top photo, jamie grill photography)