Mike’s Top Documentaries of the Decade (20-11)

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:

20. Amazing Grace

Some might argue this is more of a concert film than a documentary, but I’m gonna contend that this is a record of an event rather than just a concert. Aretha Franklin sung in a Los Angeles church over two nights and recorded a live album. Sydney Pollack and crew recorded both nights, but the footage was never released before now. To me, that’s a documentary. And man, what a hell of a documentary this is. Hearing Aretha’s voice, be it in a church or outside, is a religious experience. And I’ve decided that simple fact is the reason I’m okay including it on this list.

19. Hal

Documentary about one of the great, unheralded filmmakers of all time. Hal Ashby had one of the most amazing runs of films you’ll ever see in the 1970s. And his name so often goes unspoken by those who talk about film. It’s only those who make films who revere the man and his work. He started as an editor, working on films for Norman Jewison, like The Cincinnati Kid, The Russians Are Coming The Russians Are Coming, In the Heat of the Night and The Thomas Crown Affair. He won an Oscar for In the Heat of the Night. He then went on to direct his own films, and this is what he made from 1970-1979: The Landlord, Harold and Maude, The Last Detail, Shampoo, Bound for Glory, Coming Home and Being There. Right, though? Two of those is a career for somebody. That’s seven films in ten years, six of which are unmitigated classics with a capital C. And that’s what the doc is about — his unorthodox working methods. The way he’d live in his editing room for months coming up with the perfect cut of a film. The way he’d send really nasty letters and fight with studio executives who didn’t understand his vision. It’s a fascinating portrait and one of the best film documentaries you’ll ever see. The man’s work speaks for itself, but this certainly helps get the word out and hopefully will get people to connect the dots and realize just what an integral piece of film history this man is.

18. Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened

I mean — come on. How entertaining was this doc? On every level. It’s not all schadenfreude. Some of it’s just pure, “I can’t fucking believe the balls on these people.” Just watching all of these criminals create this insane pyramid scheme, watching it all fall apart, watching the rich idiot 20-somethings waste their money on a scam — it’s just beautiful. I know some of the people complicit in the scheme did help produce the documentary and let themselves off a bit lighter than the others, but it’s still the best Fyre Fest documentary that we have. You should pair this with the Hulu doc to get the full picture of the criminality of the whole thing. But on a pure doc level, this one is so watchable. The blowjob scene is legitimately the best scene I saw in film that year. You just couldn’t believe what you were watching when that happened. The whole documentary is one thing after another of ‘I can’t believe this happened’. I’m glad people watched this one, because it’s nice when everyone can be aware of an be on the same page about people doing illegal shit, as entertaining as watching it fall apart is.

17. Pavarotti

I watched this documentary on a plane (weirdly along with Amazing Grace), and it was incredible. I knew Pavarotti, as most people do. You hear his voice as the definitive version of certain arias, and you know the name and you’ve just come across him in the culture. I also saw a movie he did in the 80s. But I didn’t know his story at all, and I wasn’t sure why I’d care about his story. But Ron Howard showed me. Ron Howard’s made two documentaries so far, and both have been great. I could care less about opera aside from occasionally liking a couple of songs here and there. Otherwise, not for me, not really something I concern myself with. But I couldn’t take my eyes off this story. Pavarotti is just a force of nature. You couldn’t help but be charmed by the man. This is the ultimate case of a documentary being so much better than you ever think it could be. And it all works because Pavarotti the man is so fascinating. He was such a great singer and had such a joy for life. He’s irresistible. That’s what makes this doc so good.

16. Score: A Film Music Documentary

It’s a documentary about film composers and the work they do. I love it so, so much. I love film scores (as evidenced by the previous list I just got done with) and I love seeing composers talk about their work. And you get such cool stories in this — who recorded what score in what place, and what story you have behind this iconic theme. It’s great. I got chills during the moment when one composer talks about working in the same place where John Williams recorded the Star Wars scores and then they just cut to “Duel of Fates” out of nowhere, and you see him conducting with the choir — amazing. If you’re a fan of film, I suspect you’ll really enjoy this one.

15. De Palma

It’s just Brian De Palma talking about his movies. Nothing else. No one else speaks. Just him. They don’t even give you the questions he was given to prompt the answers he gives. It’s just him, and clips from the movies to show alongside what he’s talking about. And it’s just a masterclass. You see why he’s such an incredible director. It’s a filmmaker who’s made a lot of our favorite movies — Scarface, The Untouchables, Carrie, Blow Out, Dressed to Kill, Carlito’s Way, Snake Eyes, Phantom of the Paradise — and he’s just talking about them. This is the shit film nerds dream of getting from their favorite directors. And De Palma is just so eloquent and so interesting to listen to. Truly one of the best film docs I’ve ever seen.

14. They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead

So this is a doc that you have to take in context with a film. Orson Welle’s final film, The Other Side of the Wind, went unfinished at the time of his death. He filmed it on and off a bunch in the 70s and 80s and planned on finishing it (so it seems. The doc raises questions as to whether he actually did intend to finish it, though all signs seem to point to yes) but never did. So Peter Bogdanovich and other collaborators kept trying to band together over the years to get the film and finish it the way Welles intended. Which is a saga in and of itself. But finally, they managed to get it done after all sorts of negotiations and strife, and the film came out more than 30 years after Welles’ death. And so this documentary was released alongside it so people could understand everything that went into that film. I’m torn as to whether people should see the film first or the doc first. I went with the doc first, just because I felt it would make me appreciate the film more, but you could go whichever way makes the most sense to you. The doc is a story of Welles and the film, and details how it ended up finally being released. But it’s also about Welles himself. It tells of his genius as a filmmaker and reminds the world just what a trailblazing auteur he was, and how he did things no one was doing in film and was so far ahead of everyone else that no one understood what he was doing, and even after his first film (which was Citizen Kane. Consider that), they took away his second film and recut it and butchered it because they didn’t understand what he was doing with it and hated it. And that was the story of Welles’ career. His films kept getting taken from him and he never got the creative control he wanted or needed. And so the doc brings all that up — it’s a celebration of Welles’ genius — as well as a document of his eccentricities and character failings in certain ways — and mostly what it does, alongside being a companion piece to the final work of one of the great filmmakers of all time, is remind everyone just how important Orson Welles is to the medium of film. And that is an invaluable thing.

13. Tickled

I don’t often stand up while watching a documentary, cover my mouth and go, “Oh my god.” That’s what I did with this one. It starts as the most simple, unassuming documentary about this weird subject. And you think it’s gonna be some novelty doc about online tickling competitions and, “Look at how weird this is.” But then it takes a turn. And then another turn. And then another turn. And all of a sudden you’re doing down this road and you cannot believe what you’re watching. It’s almost better not to know if you haven’t seen it, because some crazy shit happens and they uncover some of the weirdest shit you’ve ever heard. This is exactly what you want out of a documentary, where it just keeps unfolding and surprising you and by the end you’re just totally invested in what’s going on, for a subject you either knew nothing about previously or thought maybe you knew what it was before you got to where you are now. You can’t have a list of best documentaries of the 2010s without this one on it.

12. Rolling Stone: Stories from the Edge

A four-hour documentary, presented in two parts, about the entire history of Rolling Stone. The first half is basically from its inception through the Lennon assassination, and the second is from that to the present. And you realize that Rolling Stone magazine is at the epicenter of music during that time. Sure, it kinda got away in the past 15 years or so, but they get into that. How the magazine stopped mattering, and journalism changed and they got into some weird situations because of that. But really what you came for was that early stuff. The rock and roll days. Springsteen, and Hunter S. Thompson and all his stuff — that’s the heart of the documentary. Everything else is just a bonus. But really, this is about as thorough a doc as you’re gonna get about the most important magazine in music which has given us such iconic images and articles over the years and helped so many artists achieve prominence. A must for music lovers.

13. Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind

We all, in some way, grew up with Robin Williams. I really grew up with him. I missed the early TV stuff, but my childhood was Aladdin, and Mrs. Doubtfire, and Hook and all his 90s stuff. Then when I got older and into film I got into Dead Poets Society and Good Morning Vietnam and Awakenings and Good Will Hunting all the great dramatic stuff. And then there’s the standup, and just him as a person being there all that time, on talk shows and award shows. I must have seen his Inside the Actors Studio episode like a dozen times. His Live on Broadway special — at one point, I could probably have recited it word for word, I’d seen it so much.

One of my most cherished memories is, my sophomore year of college, finding out on a random Tuesday morning that, on that Thursday, Robin Williams was going to be on campus doing a Q&A. He was in New York because of the writers strike, and I guess one of my classmates is neighbors with him, so they somehow got him to come for an hour and show up in the chapel on campus (which is not very big) and answer questions. And they said tickets were first come, first serve and were gonna go on sale at 11am at the box office. And I had class then, but I knew — if I went to class, I was not gonna get a seat. So I skipped class, went right to the box office, was probably the first or second person to buy tickets, bought like five or six of them (whatever the maximum was that I could get, so friends could get them if they wanted them) and went to that show. And it was great. He answered questions, did some bits, and it was lovely. And that moment is so much more poignant to me now, even though I could have so easily just not heard about it and missed out.

My point is — Robin Williams is one of the most important figures in my life. In movies, in comedy, in just being a figure I loved. And, like most people, it was heartbreaking for me when he died. And then a few years later they announced this documentary was appearing on HBO. And I thought, “Okay, sure. It’s gonna be a love letter, it’s gonna be fine and it’s gonna be nice and all but it’s not gonna give me anything I don’t already know.” But was I really wrong on that. I truly didn’t expect to be as touched by this as I was. This documentary goes deep. It goes into his substance abuse issues and all the issues he had, struggling with fame in the early days. It goes all over the map and covers everything, including the Lewy Body Dementia that led to his death. That part is just heartbreaking. But really what this doc is, is a celebration of life. And everything Robin Williams left behind for us to love and cherish. That’s what this doc is. We all know the work, and this gives us context for the work and gives us the right type of celebration that we all needed. I love that man, and I love this doc.

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