Earlier this week I posted several lists of the “best” concert films of all time, and I thought I’d do something similar for documentaries since I’ll be resuming work on Recreating the Historic Columbia River Highway soon.
What I noticed with the concert films, though I have not been through too many of them yet, is that the best ones combine impeccably shot concert footage with some sort of narrative. And like the some of best documentaries, they don’t bang you to death with talking heads and narrators, but they let the story tell itself. Almost the opposite of the many pseudo-documentary television programs out there these days.
With concert films, too, there is a different feel to the films versus the television broadcasts and live streams. Much of this comes from a much more intentional editing process than possible in a live broadcast, but there’s more than that at work, too. There’s plenty of live concerts out there, mostly sold to the home video market, that benefits from intentional editing, but it is still just a show, some folks on a stage and some crowd shots to show how great it all is to be in the same room as the music… The best films add another dimension of time and place to the production. Sometimes this is subtle, sometimes it is more direct. With a movie like Gimme Shelter, the time and place (Altamont) actually becomes the story more than the band and their performance, though that it not right for every production. Sometimes it is just a little story or two about the production and the night, like Shine a Light, which takes about 12 minutes to get to the opening song and then never looks back.
Last night I watched Radio Bikini, a 1987 Academy Award Nominee for Best Documentary. It struck me how different this was from most documentary film material we see these days. There was little narration, just old clips from historical sources driving the narrative, coupled with some interview clips from two eyewitnesses. In some ways it felt vague, like we were missing a lot, but I realized that all we needed to know was told well – simply and economically, and totally unlike most of what we are used to seeing today where we are beat over the head over and over with the main talking points the producers are trying to sell us until we are numb to them….
Heading into these film projects, both the concerts and the documentary, I am not reviewing all of these old films to learn how to make these sorts of films. I already have a lot of ideas and some individual approaches to film editing that seem to serve my work well up to this point. But, I am looking to find the best examples of approaches to these films that match my own ideas about filmmaking.
If anything, this process is reassuring me that my instincts here are solid. While there are approaches other than mine that can be very successful, my desires on how to write, film and edit this sort of material is valid and worthy, which is always nice to know heading into these things.
For my current projects, I am learning a lot more about what I’d like to capture next time, before we shoot, and I think my future projects will be a lot stronger because I am taking some time to get really intentional about understanding what works and doesn’t work, what works for me and what doesn’t work, and learning how to tell certain types of stories in the best way for those types of stories to be told, whether it is one band on stage for a night or if it is 150 years of history for a region 300+ miles long…
Not a compilation of lists here, like with the concert films. Instead, just a link to a list of all the Academy Award nominees. While this might not provide an all inclusive work of the best documentaries, there’s more than enough solid work on this list to spend the time I have to spend on studying the best of what came before…
Also, it focuses on work that was made to be thought of as film, not television. Sure, there is a tremendous amount of solid documentary work that has been made for television, but I want to stay focused on film. This means, mostly to me, keeping an eye on duration and pacing. How do we tell a story in one to two hours? How do we keep it moving? How do we keep an audience interested? How do we arc the narrative across this length, which is generally either much longer than what we see in a 30 – 60 minute TV episode or much shorter than we see in a multi-episode treatment of a subject, such as Ken Burns’ work, and others?
Finally, it is interesting to note that at least two movies that showed up in the last post are on this list: Woodstock (Winner, 1970) and Buena Vista Social Club (Nominee, 1999).
Following the Academy's practice, films are listed below by the award year (that is, the year they were released under the Academy's rules for eligibility). In practice, due to the limited nature of documentary distribution, a film may be released in different years in different venues, sometimes years after production is complete.
Also, please remember…
Many critically acclaimed documentaries were never nominated. Examples include Shoah, The Thin Blue Line, Roger & Me, Touching The Void, Hoop Dreams,Crumb, Paris is Burning, Grizzly Man, The Interrupters, Blackfish, Waiting for "Superman", Senna and Fahrenheit 9/11 (see below).
Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11, at the time the highest-grossing documentary film in movie history, was ruled ineligible because Moore had opted to have it played on television prior to the 2004 election. Previously, the 1982 winner Just Another Missing Kid had already been broadcast in Canada and won that country's ACTRA award for excellence in television at the time of its nomination.
- Bowling for Columbine (2002), Michael Moore's controversial documentary relating gun control and the culture of fear in the United States, heads the list of 20 all-time favorite non-fiction films selected by members of the International Documentary Association (IDA).
- Grey Gardens (1975), the Maysles Brothers' documentary about former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy's eccentric aunt and cousin Edith Bouvier Beale and Edith Ewing Bouvier Beale, was ranked as one of the greatest documentaries of all time by the International Documentary Association. The film holds an 89% Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
- The Seven Up! series (1964-) was voted as the greatest ever documentary in a Channel 4 poll of the 50 Greatest Documentaries in 2005.
- The Last Waltz (1978) is considered one of the greatest concert documentaries ever created, and has been deemed as such by Total Film, Michael Worthington of the Chicago Tribune, and by Rotten Tomatoes, where it holds a 97% favorable rating.
200 Free Documentaries Online | Open Culture: "Watch over 200 free documentaries online. The documentaries cover everything from music and cinema, to literature, religion, politics and physics. They’re thought-provoking, eye-opening, and enlightening. For more great films, please visit our complete collection, 700 Free Movies Online: Great Classics, Indies, Noir, Westerns, etc.."