Mike’s Top Documentaries of the Decade (40-31)
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:
This is the final documentary of Albert Maysles, famous for the groundbreaking docs Gimme Shelter, Salesman, Grey Gardens — you can go on and on. It’s about style icon Iris Apfel, who is 93 and has more energy and character than 90% of the people in New York. She always marched to the beat of her own drum and did whatever she wanted and wore whatever she wanted, and because of that people started listening to her and coming to her for tips on what to do. She’s just a really compelling figure and it’s her that makes the documentary so good. I wasn’t sure whether or not I’d care about this one, but she’s just such a compelling person that it’s impossible not to be charmed by her. (She’s still alive, by the way, as of this posting. She’s 98, going on 99.) Mostly what I love, other than her character, is the fact that she’s not one of those hoity-toity fashion people. She doesn’t look down on anyone and what they wear. In her mind, if you’re happy, you’re good. And she doesn’t feel like something should have to cost thousands of dollars to be trendy. She talks about how much joy she gets going into various bodegas and dollar stores and picking out ‘junk’ jewelry. To her, that stuff is worth so much more than going into a fancy store and buying something off the rack. THAT’S a style icon to me. It’s not about all that pretentious shit you see on runways. It’s about finding stuff you like and making it work for you. I could give less than a single shit about fashion, but Iris is one of the most interesting people I’ve watched in a documentary all decade.
Sometimes a person has a perfect name. That’s my major takeaway from this documentary. The film is about disgraced congressman
Carlos Danger Anthony Weiner, who was caught sending dick pics to a young woman who was not his wife and had to resign his position. And the doc is about him, post-scandal, trying to run for Mayor of New York and put all that past behind him and start over. Because, like most people like this, they’ve got such bright political futures and have such strong connections with the public and charismatic personalities… and then there’s that one fatal flaw. Which is why I said that sometimes people have the perfect name. Because that’s his flaw. And the doc is interesting in how it covers the initial scandal and his attempts to revitalize his political career, only for the big bombshell to land in the laps of filmmakers during the campaign… which is that he did it again. And that’s when things really start to get interesting. To me, the most interesting part of the entire documentary was when they showed images of his wife, Huma Abedin. It’s clear she is not supportive of what’s going on and is borderline pissed about everything he’s doing, but can’t and won’t say that stuff on camera and put her or her (then) husband in a compromising position. It’s really fascinating to see that stuff. It’s so great, because the cameras are flies on the wall for the whole thing — you’re watching this dude’s life unravel again while also seeing him try to be a politician about the whole thing. So fascinating. One of the best political docs you’ll see from this decade.
38. Live from New York!
It’s not the documentary about SNL that we deserve, but it’s the one we have for right now. And for that, I’ll take it. Mostly it’s just about the show that continues to be relevant in the culture and how it’s grown and evolved over the years. It’s really interesting. Really a love letter more than a proper doc, but still, SNL is such a cultural institution, this, if anything, shows us the kind of documentary we should be getting about this show, because there’s that much material to be mined and that many people we could still be talking to about it who are still around to be giving those interviews. But as it stands, I’m gonna enjoy a doc about SNL more than I enjoy most other docs, so that’s why this is here.
37. For Sama
One of the most touching documentaries you’l see from this decade. It’s a documentary about Syria, but more importantly, it’s a letter from a mother to her daughter. It’s a document of the world the little girl was born into, and an apology from the mother; “I’m sorry this is the world you have to inherit.” It’s really touching, while also being a document of an important subject that is ongoing in world history. It’s a tough business, bringing a child into the world while also being in the middle of a conflict like this and wondering if you should get out of there and what you should do. It’s a really great documentary and one I would highly recommend above most of the others on this list.
36. Jane Fonda in Five Acts
An incredible documentary about one of the best movie star we’ve ever had. Jane Fonda, on top of being an amazing actress, is also a great activist, cultural icon, and, in a weird way, political lightning rod. Namely for that one photo of her during the Vietnam War. The doc is beautifully structured. Each of the first four chapters is centered around the men in her life — first her father Henry Fonda, and the complicated relationship they had together, then Roger Vadim, her first husband, then Tom Hayden, her second husband, then Ted Turner, her third husband. And finally, the fifth chapter is just “Jane.” Because it’s about her. No men necessary. Just her. And that speaks volumes, and I love that they did that. But also, she comes from acting royalty, became a star in the 60s, there was the ‘Hanoi Jane’ photo, then she did all those great 70s movies and won two Oscars, then she became a workout video queen in the 80s, married one of the richest dudes in the world in the 90s, and now she’s back and has a hit TV show in her 80s. It’s an amazing career and an amazing life, and this documentary beautifully captures all the different facets of it.
Pretty simple, it’s a documentary about the shower scene in Psycho. It starts with various filmmakers and scholars talking about the film and about Hitchcock, but eventually it gets into a complete breakdown of the sequence itself, often with them talking about pacing and all the different cuts and frames. It’s real film nerd stuff, and I am completely here for it. This is exactly the kind of documentary I want to watch.
Incredible documentary about one of the most fascinating music figures of the modern age. Amy Winehouse came onto the scene like a rocket when ‘Back to Black’ dropped and ‘Rehab’ came out. Her voice was just incredible. And then almost immediately it seemed like she became tabloid fodder and things went really sad really fast. And so the documentary is a capsule of all of that. Her incredible talent, her character, and the unfortunate flaws that ultimately led to her death. It’s an incredible documentary and serves to show the immense talent that was taken from us far too soon.
33. The Great Buster
Let me start by saying — Buster Keaton is one of the most important filmmakers in the history of film. He is one of the greatest comedians to ever live. He’s a better filmmaker than Charlie Chaplin. Chaplin made better films, but Keaton was the better filmmaker and better comedian. Chaplin told better stories. That’s the difference. Keaton’s influence ranges so far and wide across the board that at this point people don’t even realize that things are and were influenced by him. This documentary attempts to get at the incredible influence he’s had on film and comedians. Peter Bogdanovich (a great filmmaker in his own right who has stated Keaton’s influence on his own films) crafts an interesting, if incomplete, portrait of Keaton, finding a way to tell the story nonlinearly (mostly keeping the sad end to Keaton’s story from being the end of the film) and highlight just how important a filmmaker he is. It’s not the Keaton documentary we deserve, but it’s a good start.
32. The ReMastered Series
This was sneakily on Netflix for like four months before I realized what it was. I had come across the episodes here and there before I realized it was a unified series and then eventually binged every episode in a single afternoon and watched each new one immediately after it came out. It’s an eight-part music documentary series (all about an hour or so long. Some longer, some shorter) that deals with some untold stories in the history of music, ranging all over the globe and all across eras and genres, that are all fascinating but never really talked about. I’ll go over each of them in the order they were released.
First is “Who Shot the Sheriff?”, about the assassination attempt on Bob Marley’s life and the attempted suppression of the reggae movement by the CIA. Second is “Tricky Dick and the Man in Black,” about Johnny Cash’s performance at the White House in 1970, the backdrop of which is Vietnam and Nixon’s attempts to curry favor with voters by getting a star like Cash to agree with his policies and the question of how Cash was gonna respond. Third is “Who Killed Jam Master Jay?” which details the still-unsolved murder of Jam Master Jay of Run-DMC. It details the growth of Run-DMC as well as the murder in great detail, and talks about the probable reasons as to why police didn’t really ever care to solve the murder. Fourth is “Massacre at the Stadium,” about Chilean folk singer Victor Jara, who spoke out against the dictatorship in power and was essentially murdered for his beliefs. Fifth is “The Two Killings of Sam Cooke,” about Sam Cooke’s rise in the music industry, which threatened a lot of ‘white’ norms, and his also unsolved murder that took place under mysterious circumstances at a motel in Los Angeles. The ‘two’ killings refers to not only his murder but also the fact that his partner at the record label he started basically stole the whole thing out from under him on the weekend he was murdered. It’s a crazy story. Sixth is “The Miami Showband Massacre,” about members of an Irish music group who were killed in a bombing attack by loyalist forces during the ‘Troubles’. Seventh is “Devil at the Crossroads,” which examines that famous urban legend that guitarist Robert Johnson sold his soul to the Devil for the ability to play music. And finally, there’s “The Lion’s Share,” which talks about the copyright history of the song “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” and how it actually traces back to a 1930s composition from an African songwriter, but white music execs in the 60s basically swept all that under the rug and deprived the songwriter’s family of residuals for years (continuing to today, even).
They’re all really interesting stories, and I can sit and tell you which ones I liked better than others, but the beauty of it is that there’s literally something for everyone there. They’re all like an hour long, they’re all entertaining, they’re all really well made and they’re going to tell you something you didn’t know before about someone’s story. It’s a really terrific series and it’s definitely something I’ve been recommending to a lot of people since they came out.
31. Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice
This is one of my favorite rock docs from this decade. I knew about Linda Ronstadt and kind of knew a few of her songs, but not too much else. So this documentary was really enlightening to me. It gave me the full picture of how incredible her voice is, and how great her influence on music is/was, even if it’s not really something you’d notice on the surface. The music use in this is incredible, and just listening to her sing is almost a religious experience. This is truly one of the best rock docs you’ll ever see.
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