In Alphabetical Order:
A Poem Is a Naked Person (2015) – Les Blank’s documentary about the legendary rock musician Leon Russell was filmed more than 40 years before it was released. The film about Russell, an enigmatic artist who played with the Beach Boys, Eric Clapton, Joe Cocker, and many more in his recording studio in northeast Oklahoma, was stalled due, in part, to a delay in securing all the music rights.
The Act of Killing (2012) – Joshua Oppenheimer’s quixotic, vaguely psychedelic film is markedly unlike any other documentary you’re ever likely to see about a genocide. Oppenheimer explores the mid-1960s massacre of communists and ethnic Chinese people in Indonesia (in which nearly half a million people died) by inviting some of the surviving (and proud) executioners to make their own movie about the events, and to tell the story through their own dramatic re-enactments.
American Movie (1999) – Chris Smith’s “portrait of a fiendishly determined filmmaker” named Mark Borchardt, a 30-year-old odd-job man from Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin, captured the “spirit of maverick independent filmmaking,” according to Janet Maslin in The New York Times, and has also proved to be a pivotal influence on young filmmakers across the globe.
Amy (2015) – Before Amy Winehouse became a superstar who famously spiraled out of control until her death in 2011, at age 27, from alcohol poisoning, she was a regular girl with a very extraordinary talent. Asif Kapadia’s brilliant documentary uses footage captured by her friends and family during the full scope of her stardom: its ascent, peak, and downward spiral.
Bill Cunningham New York (2010) – Richard Press’s film is a loving portrait of a singular man, the then 82-year-old beloved New York Times photographer Bill Cunningham—who that paper wrote “seeks out and captures humanity amongst the maelstrom of life,” as a “kind of Lorax of fashion”—who celebrated the beauty of individuality in the industry and beyond.
Blackfish (2013) – “If you were in a bathtub for 25 years, don’t you think you’d get a little psychotic?” That’s a question that comes up in Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s investigative look at the gap between SeaWorld’s public image and behind-the-scenes reality when it comes to its treatment of its orcas, as seen through the case around Tilikum, a bull orca implicated in the deaths of three people.
Bowling for Columbine (2002) – Michael Moore confronts America’s relationship with guns in his trademark good-natured style in this film, using the school shooting at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, as his starting point.
Buena Vista Social Club (1999) – Wim Wenders helped catapult an ensemble of iconic Cuban musicians to global fame with this film, which chronicled Wenders’s friend, rock musician Ry Cooder, as he brings together 13 Cuban artists to record an album and perform outside of Cuba, which travel to and from was still heavily restricted.
Burden of Dreams (1982) – For nearly five years, the acclaimed German filmmaker Werner Herzog desperately tried to complete one of the most ambitious and difficult films of his career: “Fitzcarraldo,” the story of a man determined to build an opera house in the jungle (and drag a riverboat through the rain forest, from one river system to another, in order to do it). The production, shot on location deep within the rain forests of South America, was beset with problems seemingly from inception. The documentary is an extraordinary document of the filmmaking process, and an inside look at the single-minded mission of one of cinema’s most fearless directors.
Cameraperson (2016) – “Cameraperson” is the work of a documentary cinematographer—Kirsten Johnson, who has collaborated with the likes of Laura Poitras and Michael Moore—but it’s more a memoir than a straight-up documentary. It’s a deeply personal, moving film that asks provocative, important questions about the power and responsibility of documenting the lives of others,” wrote Vogue’s Julia Felsenthal.
See the rest of the list at Vogue.
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