Mike’s Top Documentaries of the Decade (60-51)

When I first got into film, I somehow decided I was adamantly against documentaries as a medium. Part of it’s an attention span thing — most of the time when I watch a documentary, I get what it’s trying to say within fifteen minutes and the rest of the time it just feels like I’m being beat over the head with the same themes over and over again. I also, for a time, felt like every documentary was the same. They were either about how badly the government and corporations were screwing us and how awful certain issues are, or they were looking back at the Holocaust for the millionth time. So, for a time, I avoided all documentaries unless I had to or if they seemed really interesting.

Though, over the decade, there’s definitely been a real uptick in how many documentaries I see. To the point where I now rank my favorite 15 documentaries at the end of each year. I still, of course, have a preference for certain subject matters over others and do tend to not care about docs others might deem important and essential, but I’m definitely not as dismissive as I used to be about them. So as I rank my favorite 100 documentaries of the decade, the message I’d like to impart is this — people grow. The fact that I’m even doing this list when, a decade ago I’d have scoffed at the notion of it — you don’t have to love everything in order to appreciate everything.

So here are my favorite documentaries of the past decade:

60. Who is Harry Nilsson (And Why is Everybody Talkin’ About Him)?

I love when there’s a music documentary about someone I kinda know but don’t really know, and then get to rediscover all their music and hear stories about them in a meaningful way. Harry Nilsson is one of those guys. Before this doc, maybe I probably knew about three songs of his (“Everybody’s Talkin’,” of course, then “Without You” and “Jump into the Fire”). But afterward, I discovered all his other albums, like The Point, and discovered other great songs of his, like “You’re Breakin’ My Heart,” whose chorus is literally: “You’re breakin’ my heart / You’re tearing it apart / So fuck you.” Which is just amazing. Plus you find out that he just didn’t care about being famous and deliberately did whatever he wanted. Any time he had a hit record, he’d follow it up with something that was not what you’d make if you wanted another hit record. And the Beatles loved him. He was really tight with John and Ringo, and was part of their drinking club whenever they were in town. There’s a great story about how he and John would get fucked up together and then try to out ‘rasp’ one another on their records. Which led to Nilsson rupturing a vocal chord and fucking up his voice almost permanently. There’s really great stuff in this doc and it’s a great tribute to a great singer and songwriter most people don’t really think too much about.

59. Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon

This came out right around the same time as the Netflix movie (A Futile and Stupid Gesture), so between both you do get a good idea of what it was like writing for National Lampoon and all the insanity that existed within those walls. It’s fun doc, and you see how the Lampoon was definitely the basis for what would become SNL (since they used Belushi and Murray and Radner in their skits first and SNL basically poached them all) and were basically the leading voice in comedy film in the late 70s, early 80s with Animal House and Caddyshack. Culturally, it was/is a big deal, and definitely was worth having a documentary about.

58. Andre the Giant

I didn’t expect this to be as touching and as well-put-together as it was. Because everyone kind of knows Andre. It’s hard not to know him because of his size. But that’s the beauty of the doc. It starts like some fun thing about the origins of this giant dude and how he got into wrestling and became a huge star and all the drinking stories, but then it becomes this really poignant tale of a dude who just was never comfortable in his life. He was always in pain, could never find a proper place to sit, was always the center of attention — and it’s really sweet at times. It’s the most human I’ve seen Vince McMahon in a long time, that’s for sure. And Hulk Hogan is really great in it as well. They mix the personal with the professional really well, covering Andre’s main highlights in the ring and on the screen along with who he was as a man and what it was like to be him. It’s a really great documentary.

57. Voyage of Time

This is Terrence Malick’s leftover material from the Tree of Life shoot, and he basically turned it into this cosmic IMAX documentary about the origins of the planet. Two versions were released, one that’s 45 minutes for IMAX science centers and then the feature version. One is narrated by Brad Pitt, the other by Cate Blanchett. But basically it’s just those Earth sequences of Tree of Life, just extended. So if those were your favorite parts of that movie, this is more of that. It’s stunning, and apparently was a dream of Malick’s because he said somewhere he’d been trying to make this for like 40 years. So it’s nice to see it come to fruition and it gives someone an alternative to Planet Earth whenever they want to just get high and watch beautiful images. (I’m not gonna pretend like people are simply watching this for the science lesson.)

56. RBG

The closest thing to a superhero documentary we’re gonna get. Ruth Bader Ginsburg, everyone’s favorite Supreme Court Justice, gets her own documentary in which we find out her story, learn how she got where she is and then gets into how she’s usually the main dissenting voice whenever there’s a majority conservative vote on the court and also gets into just how she became this iconic celebrity and meme. The doc also makes more memes by showing her working out. But that’s another story. For me, the best parts of it are finding out about her and her husband when she was in law school. How her husband, right as he got into law school, got some really serious illness. So at one point they say something like — she would go to his law classes and help him with his work, then come home and I think care for the infant and make dinner and tend to him, and then at night start working on her law school work. Which is just nuts, and alone shows how qualified she is for the job by itself. And then you get into her being part of landmark gender equality lawsuits, and how she eventually got onto the Supreme Court. It’s an incredible story, and one that thankfully is still continuing today. It’s not the greatest documentary ever, but it’s one of the greatest stories ever, and it’s one very well told here.

55. Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound

It’s just a documentary about sound editors and what their contributions to film mean. Not gonna break any new ground if you know anything about sound and how that works — I’m sure we’re all aware of what foley artists do and would watch an entire documentary of them squashing melons to get the sound of knife stabs. But it’s fun to hear stories about all the major films they bring out and just a great way to show people the amount of work and effort that goes into one of the most unheralded portions of the filmmaking process.

54. Ex Libris: The New York Public Library

Literally a four hour documentary about the New York Public Library. That’s it. It’s just a lot of sequences showing all the different programs the library provides — cultural and otherwise. And while that might not appeal to most people, I loved it. It’s like you’re sitting there in all these talks and seminars, and that’s kind of cool. People take libraries for granted and at the very least this shows just how essential they are within communities and the multitude of services they provide that maybe people don’t even know about. Just having something to push that information along is invaluable in and of itself.

53. Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story

It was a matter of time before someone told the Hedy Lamarr story. Because it’s a great one. From her getting a job in the movies by escaping her husband with fascist ties and getting on a boat with Louis B. Mayer and sneaking into his cabin and then immediately getting signed to a film contract on the spot, to her becoming a legitimate actress of note for a while, to her helping invent and patent a technology — frequency hopping — that was instrumental in helping us win World War II and would eventually become the basis for BLUETOOTH technology and WIFI. So yeah, hugely important story and one of those things you really wouldn’t know unless you found out about it from something like this. I’ll be honest, I didn’t even really know about it until Google did a doodle for her 100th birthday. So I’m glad now that this documentary exists so people can find out one of the most fascinating stories in all of film history.

52. Human

Beautiful documentary that’s simply just people sitting in front of a camera talking. That’s it. From all works of life, all corners of the globe, just telling their stories. They interviewed like 2,000 people and asked them all the same set of questions and they edited the documentary from those interviews. And it’s one of the most beautiful, personal things you’ll ever see. Just watching this shows you that, no matter where you’re from, no matter what you do, what you speak — we’re all the same. Everyone’s got their story. And it’s a really beautiful thing to watch.

51. LA 92

Fantastic documentary about the LA riots (which had been 25 years prior to when they released the doc, but still felt prescient at the time, and still feel prescient right now as I type this, with riots just having gone on again because of the police wantonly murdering another person). This came out the same time Detroit came out, which again detailed riots because of social unrest due to systemic racism and police brutality not being held to account, and that was 50 years from when it came out and it still was a modern issue. Which is insane. But, as for the doc itself — incredible footage. The footage they have and edit together is some of the most stunning I’ve seen. Everyone’s seen the Rodney King footage, but the clips they got of the riots are absolutely stunning to look at and it’s worth it as a time capsule of what that event was like on top of the message it’s trying to impart about why it happened and what the untreated cancer at its center is (and continues to be). Gotta love something that works on its own and in relation to a current social issue. Hard to see an all-around better documentary than this.

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