It takes a certain breed of filmmaker to insert themselves into their work. Eddie Cockrell lists 10 of the bravest and the best.
The best rock and roll documentaries offer not only performances, but behind-the-scenes glimpses of their deified subjects. Having said that, it is a Sisyphean task to narrow any list of important works and favourites to a workable 10 titles without leaving major gaps in historical evolution and musical genres.
Here at SBS Documentary Online, we take non-fiction films seriously. Which is why we get such a kick out of filmmakers who make fake ones and the fake ones they make. And we don’t mean “mockumentary,” a term which can be traced back to 1950s Britain but really gained traction when director Rob Reiner used it in interviews to describe his massively influential 1980s comedy, This is Spinal Tap.
Celebrity profiles are the common potato of modern media: calorie dense and nutrition poor, from Esquire cover stories to entertainment show sound bites to cable channel one-offs, they can be dressed many ways but wind up tasting more or less the same. Raised on a celebrity-centric diet, we wolf these profiles down as a staple, a reliable filler of a vaguely defined hunger. Eat enough under-seasoned potato flake mashies, though, and a well-roasted red jacket takes on the proportions of a delicacy.
When an observational documentary is masterful, the world of the story and characters simply appears to unfold right before your eyes, drawing as little attention to the filmmaking process as possible. No narration, minimal voiceover, sometimes not even interviews - just scene after scene of raw footage strung together in which the characters and their often-turbulent lives drive the film.
Speaking at The American Film Institute’s Silverdocs festival in 2006, Martin Scorsese described his symbiotic relationship with fiction and non-fiction filmmaking: “To record it is documentary, to interpret it is dramatic, fiction. And, for me, the emotional and psychological effect it has on an audience, I don’t see the difference, the line is blurred for me between the two. I’m constantly going between that impulse to record something, so that we can share with others, or to interpret it. And sometimes you do both.” Here, then, is a list of filmmakers who’ve blurred that line throughout their careers, documenting their real-life passions alongside their dramatic interpretations.
Bill Simmons could never be accused of lacking ambition. The former Page 2 writer, now Grantland head, turned ESPN's 30th anniversary into doco revolution when he devised a plan to produce 30 films on unique sporting stories that had occurred since the network's inception. One good, let alone great, documentary is a tremendous achievement so Simmons’ plan for such a high volume of quality content did seem overly ambitious at the time. But the result was as enlightening as it was thrilling, giving the form new life and helping kick off the new golden era of the sports documentary (and it's only getting better).
Sports and those who play them confound our expectations: mastery is a matter of millimeters and moments, ego is a necessary but misunderstood trait, and the significance of achievement can stretch beyond the individual or team to encompass an entire country. In retrospect, the past two decades have been a golden age for sport documentaries – just look at 1994! – and this list of the 10 best is happily situated within those years, a time when some of the form’s finest directors examined how sporting endeavour can transcend, for better or worse, so many of life’s limitations.
This time last year I was wading through the endless top ten lists created by various documentary writers, envying their prolific viewing habits and inwardly shouting at them or congratulating them for their terrible/impeccable taste. Now, with over a year of doco blogging behind me, it’s time to stake my own claim to a best documentaries list. I think it was a great year for docos; I was surprised by form and moved by stories, each time learning a little more about the world outside - and sometimes inside - the edges of my own existence.
Physicist and author Brian Greene, brings us a mind-blowing new exploration of space, time, and the very nature of reality.
Acclaimed filmmaker Ken Burns chronicles the worst man-made ecological disaster in American history.
A fresh perspective on the birth of civilisation in the Near and Middle East and its dynamic influence on the West.