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The Indy staff picks its all-time favorite documentaries

American Movie
(1999, dir. Chris Smith)

Reminiscent of the Bard’s play within a play, director Chris Smith’s American Movie focuses on an aspiring small-town Wisconsin filmmaker (Mark Borchardt) and his dreams of making a Hollywood hit.

But don’t fret (or get your hopes up), neither Smith nor Borchardt is channeling the ghost of Shakespeare. Instead, American Movie follows Borchardt and his classical guitar-playing, totally burnt ex-stoner friend Mike Shank as the two try to finish Northwestern—a horror epic too grandiose for Borchardt’s budget—and Coven, a B-grade slasher flick that eventually premieres at a local theater. The great success of American Movie—besides the fact that it’s shockingly hilarious—is that it first gives its subjects enough film to hang themselves, and then enough to redeem themselves, or at least become endearing. (Jed Gottlieb)

Buena Vista Social Club
(1999, dir. Wim Wenders)

A documentary you could watch with your eyes closed—a compliment to the music, not a judgment on Wenders’ unstable camera. Jazz guitarist Ry Cooder travels to Cuba, son in tow, in search of son music and its envoys. He finds aging musicians who still get together long after their days as performers in Havana’s Buena Vista Social Club. One man hasn’t touched piano keys for 20 years, yet Cooder coaxes him to play. The performances are incredibly ear-friendly—the vocal harmonies are rich, though performances are sometimes short. Seeing Cuba’s aging and crumbling grandeur is an added visual delight. (Keila Szpaller)

(1995, dir. Terry Zwigoff)

Terry Zwigoff’s award-winning portrait of cult hero/comic artist Robert Crumb is the perfect tool for screening new friends. If they say you don’t have to hit pause when they take a bathroom break, they’re out. If they ask to replay the scene of Crumb’s brother swallowing his “cleansing” string, they’re in.

Through interviews with Crumb and his family—mother, wife, two brothers—Zwigoff creates a haunting, funny film that gets under any worthy viewer’s skin. While Crumb alone is a fascinating study, it’s his family as a whole that gets you thinking. You have three outcast brothers who become three outcast artists, yet Robert goes on to fame for his (often sexual) graphic art, while brother Charles becomes suicidal and brother Max ekes out a living in a San Francisco “hotel,” meditating on a bed of nails. With insistent frankness, Zwigoff shows us that the line between insanity and brilliance is thinner than we thought. (Robin Troy)

Don’t Look Back
(1967, dir. D.A. Pennebaker)

Budding music journalists would do well to internalize the incidental lessons of Pennebaker’s classic Dylan study: Don’t assume that you’re the story, and when your subject turns on you, suck it up and try to ride out the egomaniacal onslaught with what dignity you can.

Budding rock stars have less to learn, aside from the clear evidence that personalities of Dylan’s caliber are not just born, but self-made. Aggrandizing one moment, defensive the next, and always shepherded by manager Albert Grossman, Bob Dylan flickers in Pennebaker’s lens just as his talent, and his career, were emerging on the world stage in full bloom. (Brad Tyer)

The Endurance: Shackleton’s Legendary Antarctic Expedition
(2000, dir. George Butler)

Pumping Iron director George Butler brilliantly pieces together this documentary about Shackleton’s fateful 1914–1916 Antarctic expedition. Fraught with a pervasive sense of peril and a surprising sense of the unknown, the movie stitches together letters, interviews with relatives, maps and—most eerie of all—original footage shot by the expedition’s photographer to convey one man’s charismatic drive and one mission’s piercing humanity. Images are impossible to forget: the ship paralyzed by ice or the men playing upon the frozen sea with the dogs they will soon have to eat. (Susanna Sonnenberg)

Gates of Heaven
(1978, dir. Errol Morris)

Inspired by a headline in the San Francisco Chronicle that read, “450 Dead Pets Going to Napa Valley,” Errol Morris sidelined his philosophy Ph.D. at Berkeley to make this documentary about California pet cemeteries. Though German director Werner Herzog encouraged Morris to shoot this film, he also told him he’d eat his own shoe if Morris completed it. Herzog’s shoe-eating was captured in Les Blank’s 1979 short Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe, and Morris’ subsequent films established him as one of the most influential and accomplished non-fiction filmmakers of our time.

In Gates of Heaven, Morris interviews pet cemetery owners and their clients to deliver a comic, tragic portrait of humanity that one reviewer called “painful and unforgettable, like a car wreck.” (Robin Troy)

The Haunted World of Edward D. Wood, Jr.
(1996, dir. Brett Thompson)

One of several interesting Wood documentaries that popped up around the time of the Tim Burton biopic (sadly, someone else beat director Brett Thompson to the title Look Back in Angora), Haunted World reveals some very telling details about Wood’s upbringing. Childhood friend Crawford John Thomas’ account of growing up across the street from the enormous, opulent sets erected for D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance goes a long way toward explaining Wood’s boundless ambition. Humorously, Crawford also recalls how when Wood’s Marine detachment landed on Tarawa during WWII, the future director of Glen or Glenda? and Plan 9 from Outer Space was wearing red lingerie under his fatigues. Wood prayed to either land unscathed in the assault or be killed outright—if wounded, he was sure his fellow Marines would kill him anyway. (Andy Smetanka)

Hoop Dreams
(1994, dir. Steve James)

Not just a slam-dunk documentary, Hoop Dreams is regarded by many as a monumental achievement of American cinema. Filmed over a period of six years on a modest budget, the film follows the development of two talented young basketball players from the deepest, darkest playgrounds of Chicago’s South Side to a suburban white high school and beyond.

Utterly unpretentious, with disarmingly bland narration by wholly honky director Steve James, Hoop Dreams penetrates the lives of impoverished inner-city black families with devastatingly down-to-earth drama that no histrionic hip-hop artist has ever come close to touching. The hulking menace of the American dream machine hovers over every pivotal moment, promising to bless the few winners with wealth and pleasure—and perhaps even more seductively, significance—while unceremoniously discarding the tens of thousands of also-rans to lives of quiet desperation. There’s hope and triumph, sure, but mostly there’s failure. Lots of it. Behold Cabrini Green.

The best lesson of the movie, though, may be that great filmmaking turns out to depend more on vision and commitment than money and glamour. And these underdog ghetto teenagers deserve all the vision and commitment we can give them...and much, much more. (Matt Gibson)

Killing Coyote
(2000, dir. Doug Hawes-Davis)

Doug Hawes-Davis explores the eternal tensions surrounding animal rights as he navigates the clashing cultures of hunting, ranching and nature. The film reveals coyotes to be brilliantly adaptive creatures, which they must be to hold their own against people who ardently hate them. Without giving away its own objectives, the documentary acts responsibly as a piece of reporting and leaves you thinking about a subject you’d never noticed before in ways you’d never considered before. (Susanna Sonnenberg)

Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills
(1996, dir. Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky)

Creepier than a dirt grave full of Blair Witch Projects, and true to boot. In 1993, three West Memphis, Ark., teens are arrested for the gruesome murder and sexual mutilation of three young boys. No physical evidence ties the trio to the killings, but in the modern South, a taste for Metallica and a fondness for black clothing are all you need to find work as a scapegoat. The footage, from crime scene video to interviews with the seemingly guilty-as-sin stepfather of one of the victims, is almost hyper-real—so revealing that it’s hard to shake the feeling it must have been staged with actors. It wasn’t. The West Memphis Three, as the celebrated defendants have since become known, are still serving life sentences, or waiting their turn on death row. Three little boys are still dead. And if any justice has been done, the probing cameras haven’t caught a glimpse of it. True crime drama at its most compelling—enough to make you angry. (Brad Tyer)

Roger and Me
(1989, dir. Michael Moore)

Originally titled A Humorous Look at How General Motors Destroyed Flint, Michigan, Roger and Me is Michael Moore’s first film, and, sadly, he’ll probably never be able to make another one like it. That’s because Moore has gone from a nobody with a mic (ideal for his guerilla interview style) to a celebrity whose face is likely pasted behind the security desk of every corporate office in America. Moore’s attempts to get to the bottom of GM’s Flint plant closure is alternately funny and sobering, and more solidly grounded in fact than some of his leaps of faith in Bowling for Columbine. Credit this doc for reinvigorating social satire in American cinema. (Mike Keefe-Feldman)

Titicut Follies
(1967, dir. Frederick Wiseman)

Wiseman’s style plunges the viewer into an immersion course on whatever his chosen subject happens to be—a high school, a race track, a domestic violence shelter, a park. Drawn to institutions and how they work to support and foil the people they serve, Wiseman’s career began in 1967 with the controversial (and banned) Titicut Follies, set within a Boston mental hospital. He has made nearly three dozen movies, which often find their way to PBS. Wiseman likes to turn on the camera and shoot hours and hours of activity and conversation without stopping. His movies run to four hours in length and can feel numbingly normal, even tedious, until you try to stop watching. (Susanna Sonnenberg)

The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl
(1993, dir. Ray Müller)

Riefenstahl got her start as a dancer in Weimar, Germany, and found her way to the screen as the attractive, athletic blonde in numerous 1920s “mountain films” directed by Arnold Fanck—many excerpts from which are included here. When the Nazis came to power, Riefenstahl won their favor (Hitler was entranced by The Blue Light, which she both directed and starred in), and filmed an extraordinary document of the 1934 Nuremburg Party Convention: Triumph of the Will, which still ranks as one of the most powerful propaganda films ever produced. Here’s a documentary to match Riefenstahl’s own ambition, a sprawling three-hour biography of the most important woman in the history of film. (Andy Smetanka)

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