Mike’s Top Documentaries of the Decade (10-1)
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:
10. O.J. Made in America
So the beauty of calling this list my ‘favorite’ documentaries is that it allows me to rank things however I want, without looking at objective quality. Because if we’re being honest, and I’m ranking the ‘best’ documentaries of the decade — there’s no way this isn’t in the top five, if not #1. It’s just an incredible piece of filmmaking. And as much as it is great and I did love it — I’d rather watch everything else on this list above it. Greatness only goes so far when you’re dealing with subjective preference. But still. The crazy thing about this documentary is — we all know the O.J. story. We all know it. I grew up with it. I remember being six years old and seeing the trial on TV in my living room and not really knowing what was going on. I grew up with O.J. as a punchline and this big cultural elephant in the room. And just knowing that, you find out pieces of the rest of the story as you get older and look into it and get into sports and watch the Naked Gun movies and see him write a book called “If I Did It” with the word ‘if’ small on the cover so it looks like he’s confessing and get arrested again for some robbery in Vegas. It’s all there and you kinda just know it purely from living. But this documentary is so good that it somehow makes it feel like you’re learning it all for the first time. It goes so deep that you feel like you understand every facet of the man and the personality and everything about the cases and what made him tick. It’s really quite great. It’s the story of O.J. but also in a way the story of America, and the story of race and the story of celebrity. It’s everything in one. It’s all there. So yes, this is objectively one of the absolute greatest documentaries of this decade. And you knew that. So now we get nine other docs that maybe you couldn’t entirely guess beforehand. Isn’t that exciting?
9. 20 Feet from Stardom
I remember when this won the Oscar over Act of Killing and I (and I imagine a lot of other people) simultaneously went, “Yeah, it’s probably not as good, but… I do really love it.” And that’s always the struggle. ‘Importance’ vs. entertainment. What I love vs. what I respect. And since this is my list, I’m not gonna lie — I love this documentary. And it’s not even that it’s so much objectively greater than anything lower than it on this list. It’s just that I love it. I think background singers did deserve to get their turn in the spotlight and I think they are an invaluable piece of music history. I love music docs and I love hearing stories I didn’t know from songs and artists I do. And this documentary is full of those. The best part is when they bring on Merry Clayton who talks about being pregnant and in bed at midnight when she gets a call that the ‘Rolling something or others’ wanted someone to sing a part on a song, so she goes to the studio in pajamas and sings the fucking vocal part on GIMME SHELTER. And it’s just the most riveting thing you’ve ever heard. And then they play it and even though you’ve heard that song a million times (because you’ve watched Martin Scorsese movies), it’s just so exciting and like you’re hearing it for the first time again. And I love all that stuff about this doc. And then of course Darlene Love takes center stage, because she should be. She’s one of the most recognizable, almost unknown voices of all time. The part where she said she was cleaning houses at one point and heard her own song on the radio while she was cleaning someone else’s house — that’s what documentaries are for. That’s the moment you wish you got when you make one of these. It’s so incredible. The whole doc is incredible, and a must for anyone who loves music.
8. Five Came Back
This was always going to be an amazing documentary. The book this is based on, by Mark Harris, is incredible, and the story is one that needed to be told. What this is about — when World War II broke out, five filmmakers — John Ford, John Huston, Frank Capra, William Wyler and George Stevens all went into the army to make films for the military to help in the war effort. And the book/documentary looks at their films before the war, their work during it and their work after it. Because arguably they all made their best stuff just after the war ended. Wyler made The Best Years of Our Lives, Capra made It’s a Wonderful Life, Huston made Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Ford and Stevens — Ford’s first film was My Darling Clementine, which is amazing, but he made a lot more mature work afterward. And Stevens — it’s said in great detail that he never made a comedy again after the war. He made A Place in the Sun and Giant and the Diary of Anne Frank. Serious, incredible dramas. So it talks about how the war changed them as filmmakers. And what they do here, which is quite great — they have five modern filmmakers talk about each of the directors. So Spielberg talks about Wyler, Coppola talks about Huston, Guillermo Del Toro talks about Capra, Paul Greengrass talks about Ford and Lawrence Kasdan talks about Stevens. And Meryl narrates the whole thing. It’s incredible. Just seeing the work they made during the war is incredible, but putting all that in the context of their work as a whole and Hollywood as a whole — it’s one of the best documentaries about film and film history you’ll see.
7. I Know That Voice
Love this doc. Love it so much. It’s a documentary, in the vein of 20 Feet from Stardom, about voice actors, some of the unsung important people out there working. They’re the ones who voice all your favorite animated characters, and you don’t necessarily realize how many they voice. So what they do is interview all the voice actors and a lot of them do all the voices they do. So you realize, as you see it, “Oh, these four people are basically responsible for my childhood.” The doc is relatively short, but there must be tons of footage that didn’t make it in. But really — voice acting is a bit of magic. They’re creating a series of characters just from vocal inflections on the fly. And you see these people just slipping in and out of those voices, and it’s incredible to see. It’s like when you see a really great impressionist. Only, unlike impressionists, these people are creating full characters and characterizing them over long periods of time. It’s really quite something. And this doc helps, in whatever way it can, to help people realize just how much these people deserve their proper dues.
6. Apollo 11
I’m finding, as I get older, that I prefer documentaries that don’t feed me what to think and how to feel. I like when docs are just presented to me. And that’s what this one is. It came out on the heels of the (also criminally underseen) Neil Armstrong biopic by Damien Chazelle, so after seeing that, I was mentally in the zone for Apollo 11 and the Moon Landing and had a lot of that information in my head. And what this does is give you unprecedented looks at all the footage and interviews and home movies, etc, that were shot during the Apollo 11 preparation and launch. It’s all upgraded and in HD, and they don’t once throw a narrator on there. It’s all footage. The only people speaking are newscasters and other people on the screen. That’s it. You’re just watching this all happen, and it’s just one of the most amazing experiences you’ll ever have with a film. It doesn’t even feel like a documentary, it’s that good. It’s like you’re there. And this came out 50 years after it happened. And somehow, even though you know you’re gonna get it, there’s something truly breathtaking about the ‘one small step’ sequence. It’s truly a masterwork of documentary filmmaking.
5. They Shall Not Grow Old
I gasped within five minutes of starting this one. Peter Jackson made a World War I documentary that is told entirely from the people who were there, looking back on it. He takes footage and photographs and updates them to look like they could have been shot yesterday. The photographs are really so stunning that you forget that they’re from 100 years ago. And that’s the film. It’s those who survived the “Great War” telling their stories of it. And it’s truly incredible. This is, hands down, one of the best ten documentaries to have come out this decade. They really don’t come much better than this.
4. The Wrecking Crew
The epitome of the music documentary. This is a weird one because it came out in festivals in like 2008 but didn’t actually come out anywhere until 2015. And I found it randomly because it was just sitting on Netflix. It’s about the group of famous studio musicians that are responsible for an insane amount of hits that we all still listen to today. They were just the best of the best. The three most important aspects of music in the late 60s are, in no particular order: Motown, the Wall of Sound and the Wrecking Crew. That’s it. That’s the list. The Wrecking Crew were so good that Brian Wilson brought them in to work on Pet Sounds with him while the rest of the Beach Boys were on tour. They’re responsible for a good chunk of that album. And so many other albums. The doc goes through each of the prominent members, and generally they all talk about the songs and bass lines and guitar licks they all contributed. One of the moments that gave me goosebumps when I first saw it is when they introduce a bass player and before he even talks, it seems, he plays his contribution to music. One of many, I’m sure. But just those notes alone cement his status as one of the most important people in music history. Just click this link and know — he came up with this opening. And that’s why the doc is so good. Nobody knew these musicians’ names. But they knew the work. And this doc, like so many in this top ten, are shouting out the people who deserve to be shouted out because they’ve provided so much for so many people.
3. Life Itself
Roger Ebert is one of those people who was so ubiquitous within our lives for so long that it was a real hit to us when he died. I grew up watching Siskel and Ebert at the Movies even before I got into movies. I generally don’t care about reviews unless I’m curious to see how the at-large reaction to something is or if something is just savage against a film. Ebert was the only critic whose reviews I would seek out. He’s the only one I trusted. Because I knew that even though we may have disagreed on a lot of things he would always be very eloquent in his opinions and he was someone whose opinion I understood. It’s like a friend. You know them and their tastes, so when they have an opinion on something, you can generally gauge your own opinion on it based on that because you know what sorts of things they tend to like or dislike more than you. He was the first critic to win the Pulitzer Prize for criticism and that speaks volumes. Especially since I don’t think anyone else won a Pulitzer for film criticism for something like 30 years after he did. So on that front alone, a doc about him was a huge deal to me. But also, what you learn from the doc — it’s a huge deal to a lot of people. There’s a section in the middle where Martin Scorsese basically says, “His reviews helped save my career.” And I know some of that is embellishment for the moment, but you can actually feel what he’s saying as he says it. You understand where he’s coming from on that. And what you get out of this doc is the pure joy that Ebert felt toward movies and how much he loved what he did. More than anything, that’s the takeaway from this documentary. A man at the top of his profession truly loved what he did and helped so many other people understand and love the things he loved. You can’t ask for much more than that.
2. The Battered Bastards of Baseball
This documentary is only an hour long (so you can watch it quickly) and it has one of the best stories you’ve never heard before. I guarantee that even if you don’t love baseball, you will enjoy this story. Here’s the primer: Bing Russell, father of Kurt and star of Bonanza, flew to Portland and bought a minor league baseball team, the Portland Mavericks. He paid some nominal amount for it, since Major League Baseball decided baseball was not gonna be successful in Portland. So Russell buys the team and holds open tryouts. Major League style. So all sorts of people come to try out for the team. And they create this rag tag group of ballplayers. One of them was blackballed from MLB because he wrote a tell-all book about the sport, others were just regular people who happened to have some talent. It’s all over the map. Todd Field (director of Little Children and In the Bedroom) was the fucking batboy. Kurt Russell was ON THE TEAM. They had an Asian and female GM long before either of those things was years from even being an idea in sports. And they were fun. They had one guy who stood in the outfield and got the people going. They’d turn seventh-inning stretches into stadium-long conga lines. People loved it. And they started winning. And that is only like 30% of the actual documentary. There’s so much more there, including the fact that two of the guys on the team became multi-millionaires after the fact and the fact that Russell, after baseball tried to shut the team down, sued Major League Baseball and actually won. It’s an incredible story that needs to become a movie yesterday. I thought that’s why they put this out, but apparently that’s not the case so far. But trust me, when you see this doc, you will want to see the movie, because the story is that rich and that entertaining and will become the most feel-good movie ever. This honestly is legitimately my #2 favorite documentary of the decade. It’s that good.
1. Won’t You Be My Neighbor?
It was a foregone conclusion what was going to be #1 on this list. I’m not even gonna pretend like I considered anything else for this spot. In the history of my overall ‘year’ top ten lists, only two documentaries even appear on them, and this is the only documentary that was, at one time, my #1 film of its year. And that again speaks to the profound impact Mr. Rogers has/had on all of our lives. I grew up on his show. I’m not gonna say that it was religion to me, but he was there. You understood him and his presence and there was something really calming about that lo-tech train set and living room set. What he means to the world is so much more than just that show, and just this documentary. But you see it in the documentary. Sometimes people are so good they make other people better. I cried just watching the trailer for this movie. I saw this movie in a theater at 9am on a Sunday morning. It was about half full, which is a lot for a documentary at 9am on a Sunday (it’s a lot for any one of those three), and everyone walked out crying. Every single person. That’s the effect that man has on people, and that’s why there was no other choice for me at #1 on this list.
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