Mike’s Top Documentaries of the Decade (30-21)

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:

30. Waking Sleeping Beauty

Documentary about the Disney Renaissance. That’s it. It deals with the struggles the studio was facing in the years following Walt’s death, which lasted about twenty years. Walt died in 1966, and they had Jungle Book come out right after. But the entire 70s was just them treading water and reusing a lot of footage, and the films were good but not of the level that they were during Walt’s era. And then the 80s just sort of bottomed out for them, with stuff like The Black Cauldron and Great Mouse Detective just not working. And the doc shows how they brought together the right group of animators with the right ownership at the right time, with the results being The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, The Lion King — some of the greatest films the studio has ever made. It’s a really interesting story and it’s just a fascinating doc for anyone who loves those movies and loves important eras in history, in whatever aspect that may be. I have a couple of docs like that on this list. The Disney Renaissance is a period that deserves its own story, and it’s nice that we got one (even if it was made by Disney themselves and likely sanitized somewhat).

29. Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese

There’s a lot going on here. First, it’s a Bob Dylan doc by Scorsese. ‘Nuff said there. The concert footage alone is worth watching. And the stories that are in there. It’s terrific. But then you get the cheeky stuff. The title is what it is for a reason. And it’s because Dylan is famously a trickster and doesn’t give a shit about giving you the full story or opening himself up to the public in any meaningful way. So what starts to happen in the documentary is that they introduce one fake element as if it was real. And then another, and then another. First there’s Sharon Stone who says she was on the tour at age 16 (she wasn’t), and then there’s this European filmmaker dude who was supposedly chronicling the whole tour that was a disaster (not true). And all these fake stories just keep piling up and piling up to the point where they straight up bring in a fictional character to talk about it. You know the Robert Altman series Tanner on Tanner? Well, they bring fucking Tanner in to give his ‘recollections’ of the tour as well. So the whole thing becomes this real, but fake, story about this never-ending tour that Dylan’s been on since the 70s. It’s really interesting, though you have to know going in that it’s very much something that suits Dylan’s own personal brand of humor. Don’t expect hard facts, but if you’re just there for the concert footage, you’ll be more than entertained.

28. Milius

John Milius is one of the most interesting figures in film history. He came out of film school with Spielberg and Lucas and all those guys. And nowadays most people know him purely as the dude who was the basis for John Goodman in The Big Lebowski. He’s a big dude, larger than life, very outspoken, and just this real character. And what gets swept under the rug is what an amazing writer he is. He rewrote that entire U.S.S. Indianapolis speech from Jaws, and he’s responsible for a lot of the most famous lines in Apocalypse Now, including “I love the smell of napalm in the morning.” He never really directed a movie of his own that hit that big — Dillinger, Wind and the Lion, Big Wednesday — the biggest hits you could say he had were Conan the Barbarian (more famous for Arnold than anything else) and Red Dawn. They’re undoubtedly ‘his’ movies, but… you know what I’m saying. The doc is a recollection of him as a man, as a writer, as a filmmaker, and really just as this larger than life figure that all his contemporaries looked up to who a lot of times was his own worst enemy. It’s a really terrific doc that gives this dude’s story a platform it so desperately deserved.

27. The Defiant Ones

I’ll admit that I was very late to the party on this one. I remember when it came out and everyone was talking about how good it was. And then I somehow didn’t watch it until like five months ago for the first time. And it’s — it’s so good. It’s ultimately a story about Jimmy Iovine and Dr. Dre, detailing where they both came from and how they got the point where they sold their Beats by Dre headphones to Apple for $3 billion. I knew a lot of the Dre stuff, between Straight Outta Compton and other music docs, but the Iovine stuff was really revelatory to me. Him starting as a sound engineer, working with Springsteen and U2 and Stevie Nicks and Tom Petty, and being as influential as he was on some of the biggest rock hits of the 70s ad 80s, moving into being a label owner and media mogul. It’s just a fascinating look into these two guys and what it took to get them where they are now. The whole four-part series is incredible, and it’s one of the best things you could watch from this entire list.

26. Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond

Oh baby, now we’re talking. This is the documentary I’ve been waiting for since 1999. Because the stories of Jim Carrey on the set of this movie are beyond notorious. And now, here they are in one place. The footage from the set of this film was, for a long time, one of the most notorious pieces of film you could ever hope to get your hands on. What’s in the documentary pales in comparison to what’s still out there. But the fact that we even got this is a miracle. Because Carrey — he’s known for disappearing into his roles, and he’s been much more open about it lately. He openly says there’s no ‘him’ when he’s in a role and talks about himself as if it’s a completely different person — he channeled Andy Kaufman. In a way that made the performance unforgettable but also work on the movie intolerable for some people. And so you’re just chronicling all this stuff that happened, and some of it is wild. I don’t even want to get into it. But, if you’ve seen Man on the Moon — and if you haven’t, do yourself a favor and go see it, because it is (full stop) one of the best 50-100 movies released during the entire 1990s — you know how great it is. So seeing the behind-the-scenes on that alone is gonna be interesting. But man… just go see it. I promise you won’t be disappointed. It’s a great look into the movie in specific but also the lengths people go to create art, and whether or not that’s an excuse for the behavior that comes with it. I truly can’t say enough great things about this one.

25. 808

A documentary I saw on a whim. A friend of mine texted and said, “Hey, do you wanna go see this movie with me?” And I knew nothing about it and just really wanted to see him, so I said, “Yes.” And it was at the Cinelounge theater in Hollywood. Which, for those who aren’t familiar (or maybe have just heard of it), it’s this tiny offshoot independent theater in a shoebox off Hollywood Boulevard right behind the famous Egyptian theater. The kind of theater where you buy a ticket at the door, the theater is two feet to your left and the register has like six boxes of candy sitting on top of it that you can buy. Usually they’re the theater that plays those VOD movies that get that one-week qualifying run in a single theater. A lot of Nic Cage paycheck movies have premiered there. So I go to this thing knowing nothing about it except the title, and I sit down and within fifteen minutes I’m amazed. I had no clue what I was in for. Turns out, it’s a documentary about the 808 drum machine, which is one of the most influential pieces of instrumentation to ever hit the music industry.

That machine in specific is the one, and they explain that the reason it sounds the way it does is because the Japanese manufacturer of the kids used a specific set of blown fuses for it, and that combination (which only exists in a finite number of models) gave the unit its distinct sound. And what the doc does is trace the influence on that machine in music, and all the different genres from all over the world that were influenced by it. All the Garage Band beats you hear now — that all comes from the 808 machine. Rap as a genre owes so much to the 808 machine. Kanye West named an album after it. And so they bounce around from area to area, and you hear stories from people like the Beastie Boys, and you hear about Gloria Estefan and the Miami Sound Machine. Phil Collins says there’s an 808 on almost every song he’s ever composed. There’s an amazing story about Marvin Gaye using the machine to make ‘Sexual Healing’, and how the man whose songs were so warm and sexual had one of his biggest hits using this ‘cold’-sounding artificial drum machine. It’s just full of amazing stories. So much of music today is influenced by this one machine. And I had absolutely no idea about any of it until I watched this documentary.

24. Searching for Sugar Man

A great story that I’m glad someone told. It’s about 70s singer-songwriter Rodriguez, who released two great albums in the 70s to moderate acclaim and then seemingly disappeared. The doc is about two filmmakers trying to track down what happened to him and the story they uncover along the way. Mostly it’s a rediscovery of the man’s music and a really nice story of what happens to someone when they duck out of the public spotlight. The reveal of who Rodriguez really is and what’s become of him is really touching. And really, the only thing you need to know about him is that when the film was going to the Oscars to win Best Documentary, he declined to go to the ceremony so as not to take attention away from the filmmakers. That’s why this story is so great. That and the fact that now people get to hear his music again.

23. Side by Side

A documentary produced by Keanu Reeves about the shift from film to digital. It looks at the differences between the two, charts the history of film stock and its use in the creation of films and talks to different filmmakers about their preferences and ideas on the shift. It was a huge deal at the time because it really did seem for a while that film stock was going to completely die out. Fortunately it seems as though that’s not the case anymore. Though there is that sense of it being the endangered species that only still exists because zoos and eco preserves are making sure they’re kept alive. But still — it’s a nice documentary that shows the different things each type of camera brings to the look of a film and educates viewers about the importance of film stock. It’s a must watch for anyone interested in film.

22. The Black Godfather

I loved this doc so much. I had no idea about Clarence Avant even though his presence is so ubiquitous within the culture. He’s a guy who knows everyone and has helped so many people get their starts or helped them with certain things they needed The nickname ‘black godfather’ truly is because that’s his role. There’s a story within the documentary about someone trying to get out of their record contract and the label wouldn’t budge, so they brought him in and he went into the conference room and within a couple of hours, he got what he wanted. And it starts with stories of him managing music acts in the 50s and 60s, and you start getting into all the super famous names he’s helped out along the way…. and then Obama shows up, and you realize, “Oh, it runs that deep.” And it’s just amazing to see his connection to all these people. And it’s not just a love letter, either. They straight up talk about when he started his own label and it didn’t work. They get into the warts and all. And I like that. But even so, it’s a really fantastic and entertaining documentary about the type of person everyone should have in their corner.

21. Maiden

This is the kind of film that should be shown to every young woman at some point. Teach it in schools. Because this is the kind of story people need to hear. It’s about the woman who piloted the first all-female crew of an around-the-world boat race in the 80s. You watch this woman see all these men sail and think, “Why can’t I do that?” And so she has to fight her way through a male-dominated area to carve out her own spot and prove she can do it just as well as they can. And all along the way, you see other sailors and the media still treating them differently. But the message behind the whole story is just so wonderful and so uplifting. It’s made to become a movie. That’s why this exists. Someone’s going to turn this into a feature, and I hope it’s half as good as this documentary is and I hope the message comes across half as well. Because this is really one of the most wonderful documentaries you can watch.

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