Weekend Roundtable: Best or Favorite Documentaries

In the excitement leading up to the Academy Awards, it’s easy to get caught up in all the drama about… well, dramas. But Oscar season is also a good opportunity to shine a light on some of the lesser-seen movies of the year that we should have been paying more attention to – especially documentaries. With that in mind, let’s take a look at some of our favorite non-fiction films.

Junie Ray

  1. Andrew Jenks, Room 335‘ – I’m not a big documentary watcher, so it was hard to come up with an all-time favorite. The best I’ve seen in a while is ‘Andrew Jenks, Room 335’. It’s the story of a college student and his two buddies (the cameraman and sound guy) who take up residence in a retirement home for six weeks during their summer vacation. They break through generational gaps and make some great connections with residents. It’s sweet, funny, melancholy, wistful, and well worth a watch.

Chris Boylan (Big Picture Big Sound)

  1. Super Size Me‘ – There have been so many thought-provoking and even entertaining documentaries made in the past few years that it’s hard to pick one favorite. Who can eat beef or chicken without pause after watching the atrocities unveiled in Robert Kenner’s ‘Food, Inc.’? And who would still feel safe and secure in a tent in the wilderness after viewing Werner Herzog’s ‘Grizzly Man’? But in terms of the most memorable and impactful documentary of the last few years, I would have to go with ‘Super Size Me’. Director/star Morgan Spurlock’s descent into obesity and ill health after eating three meals a day at McDonald’s for 30 days is a powerful wake-up call to the real dangers of cheap, fast food. The movie even came up as dinner conversation yesterday (no, not at McDonald’s) when my seven-year-old complained about the ever-present vegetables on his dinner plate. Yes, Brendan, you do need to eat your vegetables. And no, French Fries really don’t count.

Aaron Peck

  1. Life in a Day‘ – I saw a new documentary at Sundance that truly changed my view on movies. It’s called ‘Life in a Day’. There is no narrator. There is no main subject. The only focus here is human life. ‘Life in a Day’ was produced by Tony and Ridley Scott. It was directed by Kevin MacDonald (‘State of Play’). It chronicles one day on this Earth. Hundreds of cameras were sent out to people around the world. They were asked to film their entire lives on July 24, 2010. When the filming was done, 4,500 hours of footage were sent back. ‘Life in a Day’ has been cut down from that 4,500 hours to a brisk 90 minutes, but in that 90 minutes is a living, breathing documentation of one day within our world. It’s beautiful, stunning, and sometimes overwhelmingly sad. I was floored by this film. Watching so many different things happen during that day, it was simply amazing to experience the broader picture – to forget about myself at that moment, and to just watch other people live their lives. Wow, what a film!

Adam Tyner (DVDTalk)

  1. Best Worst Movie‘ – Way back in 1989, director Claudio Fragasso lugged a film crew from Italy all the way to the entertainment capital of the world: Porterville, Utah. Fragasso was stinging from a particularly nasty box office flop, and what better way to reinvent himself than with a grisly fairy tale about goblins tormenting an all-American family? Most of the parts were cast in this sleepy stretch of Utah, so a relentlessly chipper dentist named George Hardy finally got to achieve his lifelong dream of being an actor in an honest-to-gosh movie. Oh, and that movie…? That’d be ‘Troll 2‘, infamous the world over as the most inept, bizarre, and completely incomprehensible horror flick ever made. ‘Troll 2’ is the poster child for “So Bad It’s Good.” Over the course of a couple decades, it has amassed a massive and rabid cult following. Revival screenings routinely sell out from coast to coast, there are standing ovations during the Q&As with the cast afterwards, and the crowd loses it whenever George Hardy delivers his most beloved line from ‘Troll 2’ (“You can’t piss on hospitality! I won’t allow it!”). The documentary ‘Best Worst Movie’ is about Fragasso and Hardy coming to grips with finding unexpected success in unparalleled failure: to put your heart and soul into your art, miss the mark completely, and have legions of fans adore you for it. Hardy basks in the glow of all this attention, fully aware of how surreally ridiculous a movie ‘Troll 2’ is. Fragasso, meanwhile, is convinced he’s made a brilliant film, and is baffled that no one appreciates it for the right reasons. This isn’t a DVD extra that somehow started making its way through the festival circuit. You don’t have to have seen ‘Troll 2’ beforehand to get ‘Best Worst Movie’. Really, seeing snippets of its strangest scenes without any context may even make the documentary play even better.

Dick Ward

  1. Beyond the Mat‘ – Long before the world marveled at the brilliance of ‘The Wrestler‘, a documentary called ‘Beyond the Mat’ tackled the subject in a way no other had. When the movie came out, I had already been a wrestling fan for a long time. What bothered me most about the WWE was the lack of transparency. If you’re a football fan, you know whether your favorite player gets injured or if he’s having trouble with his team. In wrestling, you have to turn to dirt sheets like the Wrestling Observer newsletter, which aren’t always accurate. ‘Beyond the Mat’ gave us a real look into the workings of professional wrestling, from the angle of guys like Mick Foley, Jake “The Snake” Roberts and the allegedly retired Terry Funk. Jake Roberts provides the best story – one of a fall from fame into drug abuse and an estranged family. It’s funny and sweet and very sad. Even if you’re not a wrestling fan, you should really give this eye-opening documentary a look.

Drew Taylor

  1. Not Quite Hollywood‘ – For pure, balls-out entertainment value, I’m hard-pressed to think of a documentary I love more (or have recommended to more people) than ‘Not Quite Hollywood’. Starting in the, oh, late ’70s, there was an urge to pinpoint the influx of films coming out of Australia (led by directors like Peter Weir, whose gorgeous ‘Picnic at Hanging Rock’ took the world by storm) as an Australian New Wave. This was heavily equated to the similar movement from France in the 1960s. Except that, a few years later, another new wave would come out of Australia, one that would counteract all the austerity and goodwill that these initial, critically acclaimed films accumulated. Affectionately known as Oz-spoitation, these movies featured nudity, bikers, monsters, killers, and blood. Each one was more brilliant than the last. This wild, orgiastic documentary charts the development of the low budget triumphs, with generous color commentary from Quentin Tarantino, who borrowed more than a little from Australian road race movies for his own ‘Death Proof‘. The documentary also features interviews with many key members of the Australian cinema, including a few critics who publicly tut-tutted these notorious masterworks. It’s a shame that this movie, which plays like both a greatest-hits compilation and a kind of beginners guide to all things trashy and Australian, didn’t make more of a splash when it was released. Few documentaries feel as wild and carefree as this one. It’s an honest-to-god sensation.

Mike Attebery

  1. The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill‘ – I just love this movie. The topic isn’t anything controversial, but the themes running below the surface struck a chord with me the first time I saw it, and have stayed with me ever since. San Francisco resident Mark Bittner became curious about the flocks of wild cherry-headed Conures that flew over the city’s Telegraph Hill neighborhood. He decided to study their patterns, eventually learning to feed and interact with the birds. By the time the filmmakers began documenting him, Mark had become the foremost expert on the untethered residents of the City by the Bay, and had come to know many of the animals closely. He even cared for them when they were sick and, most heart-breakingly, when they were dying. The characters we meet over the course of the film include a lonely outsider of the flock named Connor; Mingus, an injured bird who chooses to live indoors with Mark; and Bittner himself, who has chosen to live a life far removed from the options presented to many of us (and is likely all the happier for it!). Each of them works their way into our hearts. When change inevitably rears its head in their lives, we ache for the choices that have to be made. This is a special movie. If you’re an animal lover or have ever struggled to find your place in the traditional lives so many of us feel obligated to live, I think you’ll find inspiration in this documentary.

Nate Boss

  1. Exit through the Gift Shop‘ – I think the point of any documentary is to get the audience, regardless of their knowledge prior to the viewing, up to speed with an idea, group of people, or culture. While I’ll admit that I haven’t sat through enough documentaries to make any bold statements, few have stood out like this bizarre tale. As much as I loathe graffiti “artists,” this is one story that had to be told. For years and years, one man was recording history without even knowing it, like some random passerby walking around camcording the first few times the Rolling Stones ever practiced, let alone played. Thierry Guetta’s obsession with filming and cataloging his life paid dividends when he got mixed in with numerous street artists. The amateur filmmaker found himself an accomplice to their destructive deeds. As we watch the evolution of an assortment of “artists,” we see one in particular skyrocket to fame, one who recently created quite a stink on ‘The Simpsons’: Banksy. Soon, his reluctant teaming with Guetta is responsible for yet another face in the art scene. This cobbled-together piece isn’t moving, and most certainly isn’t educational as much as it is an explanation for the random acts of vandalism performed by a few dedicated individuals in particular. It’s voyeuristic, yet distanced, with no intimacy or subtlety whatsoever. The fact that the majority of the footage was never meant to be shown to the public creates such a unique, realistic feel that it’s hard not to connect to the ever-changing scene as we witness its evolution firsthand.

Josh Zyber

  1. Capturing the Friedmans‘ – The title ‘Capturing the Friedmans’ is a phrase with a considerably loaded double-meaning. The documentary captures a portrait of what would seem on the surface to be an average middle-class American family, but the film also happens to be about literally capturing the family, two members of which were convicted of molesting hundreds of young boys. Yes, hundreds. However, in the course of digging into this story, director Andrew Jarecki found that the police department’s aggressive and highly controversial investigation – which was based entirely on the testimony of unreliable witnesses with inconsistent, almost absurdly implausible stories – left many doubts about whether this was all really a case of mass hysteria. Yet this is neither a true crime exposé nor a political action piece to clear anyone’s name. Family father Arnold Friedman (who died in prison before the documentary was made) was an elusive character, whose admissions to being obsessed with child pornography and having molested two other children years earlier make it impossible to get a good fix on what really ever went on in his head. What’s most amazing about ‘Capturing the Friedmans’ is that for every new twist the story takes, the deeper we dig into it, and the more complex and riveting it becomes. This is not just the story of a criminal; it’s a film about the nature of truth itself, and whether anyone – even the family or the alleged victims – can ever know what really happened.

Now’s your turn to tell us about your favorite documentaries. If you claim that you don’t have any favorite documentaries, you really need to start watching some.


  1. Alex

    I’ve got to say that my favorite is probably Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room. I do work in the financial industry, but as a tech guy, and so the financial wizardry (chicanery?) goes right over my head most of the time. However, I think this documentary did a magnificent job of explaining the crash of Enron in a digestable way without ever dumbing it down. Not only that, but it’s tremendously entertaining too.

      • Yeah, saw ‘Enron’ again recently and it is awesome.

        I only saw James Toback’s ‘Tyson’ for the first time recently, and although I’ve never been a fan of Toback or Mike Tyson it instantly became one of my favourite documentaries. Anyone cynical about the subject matter should give it a chance, it’s completely hypnotic.

  2. canadianghetto

    I haven’t seen very many documentaries because I am not usually that interested in the topic, but my favorite that I have seen is definitely “The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters”.

    • HuskerGuy

      Ditto. I’ve watched it on Netflix streaming countless times now.

      The only other one that stands out to me is Beer Wars, which is also very good.

      I’m obviously not much of a documentary guy 🙂

    • A friend of mind does the DVD commentary on that.

      Such a great flick. I just wish something similar would come out on a more current competitive game. Say, an awesome ‘StarCraft’ or ‘Street Fighter IV’ documentary 🙂

  3. Shayne Blakeley

    My pick would be Wordplay. I absolutely loved that movie. For a movie about crossword puzzles it feels like an edge-of-your-seat Rudy-esque sports film.

    • nate boss

      Wordplay is really, really cool, and quite fascinating, but i could have done without the few celebrity cameos in it. some of the stuff they show in that flick is truly amazing, and really, really makes me feel quite stupid.

  4. Drew, I loved ‘Not Quite Hollywood.’ It inspired a ridiculous spree of Ozsploitation film watching among my circle of friends. That and a habit of saying “alright?” after every sentence like Tarantino does.

    Nicole Kidman’s ‘BMX Bandits’ is hitting Blu-ray in March and I’m psyched to see it.

  5. Jane Morgan

    ‘Baraka’ is the only documentary I’ve watched more than twice, and I keep coming back to it. It’s a work of power beyond measure. The blu-ray is incredible. If you’ve never seen it, read Josh’s HDD review. I had never even heard of it until I found this site. Now it’s one of my favorite films of all time.

    Disc 1 of ‘Planet Earth’ (the British version) is pretty sexy on blu-ray too.

  6. I know there are a lot of Michael Moore haters, but I have to go with “Roger & Me”…it really was the first documentary (for me at least) that opened up the genre and proved you could be both informative AND entertaining at the same time.

    • nate boss

      i’ve never considered his films to be documentaries. they’re too propaganda-laden, too much obviously intended to bait and goad his critics and those who don’t stand in line with his political views, and this is coming from someone who agrees with the man on quite a few of his flicks.

  7. Touching the Void” is more of a docu-drama, but I’d put that as the most moving example I can think of.

    If we’re going with a more strict definition of documentary, I’d go with Eugene Jarecki’s “Why We Fight” or “The Beginning” on the Phantom Menace DVD.

    And Jane, I’m not sure if Baraka is a documentary… I’d classify it as a silent propaganda film along the same lines of Battleship Potemkin.

  8. Kevin

    Trekkies! Seeing the more… uh… passionate… fanboys and girls of Star Trek fandom is both fascinating and hilarious. Plus, there are some interesting stories from actors/behind the scenes people involved with the shows.

    • Kevin

      Just remembered… Also “For All Mankind”, using the footage from the moon landings (I know, conspiracy nuts. I know).

  9. Well, I’m 99% sure EXIT THROUGH THE GIFT shop is a faux doc, but that didn’t stop the Academy from nominating it (if it wins, it will be the first non-doc to win Best Doc!).

    • Josh Zyber

      [Insert sarcastic ‘Bowling for Columbine’ or ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ joke here.]

      I kid, I kid… 🙂

      Although it didn’t win, ‘Winged Migration’ was a nominee in this category, and it’s just as staged as ‘Exit Through the Gift Shop’.

  10. besch64

    For All Mankind is the greatest documentary ever made. Period. That’s all there is to it. The way it takes already existing footage from many separate moon missions and turns it into such a beautiful and impacting story is unparalleled. If you put a crew of cameramen and a director on those same missions, I guarantee you that they would be unable to outdo what For All Mankind did with found footage. One of the most impressive pieces of work in the entirety of film canon as a whole.

    But since somebody already named For All Mankind, I will also say Gimme Shelter.

  11. A short list of my favorites:
    Gates of Heaven – Errol Morris – 1978
    Genghis Blues – Roko Belic – 1999
    The Endurance – George Butler – 2000
    Jazz – Ken Burns – 2001
    Sweetgrass – Lucien Castaing-Taylor- 2009

    Also just saw Cave of the Yellow Dog, which is a docudrama, and is amazing.

  12. Andy Phillips

    Hearts of Darkness. I’m glad they included it with the blu-ray release of Apocalypse Now.

    I also found It Might Get Loud pretty entertaining.

  13. David Weishahn

    My favorite documentary is Last Play at Shea. It’s a look at Billy Joel’s kife, the New York Mets and Billy Joel’s last concert at Shea Stadium before it was torn down in 2008. Plus it was narrated by Alec Baldwin which is always a plus in my book.

    Another great documentary was Fog of War.

  14. It’s nearly impossible to find a documentary that isn’t loaded with “some” kind of propaganda, slant, or misinformation.

    In fact I absolutely loathe Food Inc and Super Size Me because of the misinformation those two docs have spread around. But it’s a subject I’m obsessed with.

    I know Mike Moore is the poster boy for “propaganda” docs, but if you take the time to fact check any of the ones listed above (even King of Kong), you might be surprised to learn Moore’s films stand up better than the avergae doc on fact checking.

    But what makes a doc enjoyable? If it was simply just fact reporting it would be pretty dry and lame. Once all of the common warts of opinion and slant are accounted for, I actually love Fog of War the most I think.

    Although Enron and The Corporation are up on my list as well.

    I have a strong distaste for junk science, so the docs that make my most hated list would be:

    “Supersize Me”
    “Food Inc”
    and by far the worst offender that made my blood boil while watching it was “The Business of Being Born”.
    Ricky Lake is on my permanent hate list for that one.

  15. EM

    My favorite documentary is a short subject, “The House in the Middle” (1954). Produced by the Federal Civil Defense Administration and an ad hoc consortium of paint and varnish manufacturers, the 12-minute film shows actual atomic-testing footage and attempts to make the case that tidy, well-painted houses are a bulwark against the threat of nuclear armageddon. Tidiness apparently calls for disposing of all reading material (combustible) except the Bible and covering upholstered furniture with plastic. The film’s guidelines prevent a house from bursting into flame. Nothing is said about protecting a house’s occupants from such dangers as flying broken glass, beta and gamma radiation, shockwaves, contaminated fallout, and the savagery of any fellow survivors.

  16. Keith

    Beer Wars for me.

    As someone who lives in a state where the politics of beer are keeping my favorite beer from being distributed and sold, it was really eye opening.

  17. Maybe I am not understanding what you mean by documentary, but I am surprised at many of my favorites that no one has mentioned.

    Planet Earth
    Blue Planet
    The Dream Is Alive (my all-time favorite space documentary)
    Grand Canyon Adventure: River at Risk (watched this yesterday in 3D – WOW!)
    Carl Sagan’s Cosmos
    Salzburg: Sight and Sounds (Remasterd in HD for the Sound Of Music Blu-Ray)
    When The Lion Roars
    BBC’s Voyage To The Planets (I guess that is more of a mock-umentary)
    The Universe
    WWII In HD

    • Oh, and of course, can’t forget about Jesus Camp, although that movie is so loaded with propaganda (mainly, two radical extremes – that of the filmmakers, and the people they are making fun of (the cast)), that its really hard to watch.

  18. Drew

    Dick I love that “Not Quite Hollywood” exposed you to Australian exploitation cinema and started you on a nerdy quest to see them all.

    (It’s a sad state of affairs that I had seen most of the movies mentioned and was just nodding in agreement as Tarantino and others listed their virtues.)

    Alright, okay, alright?