In light of my recent rave for Last Train Home, I thought it was a good time to resurrect the long-dormant Monday Top 10 series that a number of people seem to like. And even better, I can get back in the habit of writing those articles-by-request that so many of you kindly commissioned by donating to the Carry On Campaign. This one was requested by commenter Rob Niven, who is finally getting his list of my picks for:
The Top 10 Documentaries of All Time, As Told by a Damn Idiot Who Still Hasn’t Seen Hoop Dreams, So Don’t Point Out That It’s Not There.
10. Gimme Shelter
(Albert Maysles, David Maysles, & Charlotte Zwerin, 1970)
It’s a common observation that some documentarians are just plain lucky to be filming a subject (interesting, not terribly unique) when Something Major happens; and nobody was ever luckier than the trio whose initial mission was to film a major Rolling Stones tour that would culminate in the biggest free concert since Woodstock. Even admitting that the filmmakers had unusual access to the band, the film wouldn’t be tremendously revelatory if not for the fatal stabbing of a concertgoer by one of the Hells Angels bikers at the infamous Altamont concert, at which point Gimme Shelter turned into a cinematic eulogy for the death of the Sixties. Admittedly, it’s pretty damn good even without that turn: the filmmakers capture something particular about the weariness and self-regard of a band on the road that is both archly cynical and plaintive.
9. The Pig AKA Le cochon
(Jean Eustache & Jean-Michel Barjol, 1970)
The film is as straightforward as its title: this is the story of one animal’s journey through a family-owned slaughterhouse in the French countryside, from the pen to the sausage casing. Unblinking in its depiction of butchery – the scene where the pig is killed would turn the staunchest viewer’s thoughts, however briefly, towards veganism – The Pig is not ultimately exploitative, but simply an ode the rhythm of life and death, and a tribute to the country artisans who perform their duty with devotion and care, in an era when industrial ranching was already turning into business as usual. So hyper-realistic that it starts to attain a measure of abstract poetry, the film is an unforgettable snapshot of a moment in life which can mean everything in the world and nothing much at all, depending on who is viewing it at any given second – and it does it all without a single word of dialogue.
8. Harlan County U.S.A.
(Barbara Kopple, 1976)
The peak of the cinéma vérité movement of the ’60s and ’70s, and one of the great political movies of its generation. Kopple set out to film the internal power struggles of the United Mine Workers of America, and instead found herself drawn to the story of a strike at Kentucky’s Brookside Mine, a hugely violent and drawn-out struggle even by the standards of American labor disputes. Unabashedly siding with the miners, despite a few scattered attempts to feign ambivalence, the film captures the alternating tedium and terror of a community ground into the dirt by oppressive corporate practices, placing us in the center of months and months of tension and fatigue and misery. The film is equal parts agitprop and humanist tribute, a fierce and angry and warm study of people at their lowest, and their strongest.
7. The Last Waltz
(Martin Scorsese, 1978)
The concert film is, obviously, a different thing than the “documentary” as such, and I had at first thought to eliminate the form out of hand. But there are concert docs, and then there are concert docs, and Scorsese’s milestone is, simply put, the absolute pinnacle of the form. Not just because of the once-in-a-lifetime assembly of rock artists at the very top of their game, come together to say farewell to The Band, though the performances are certainly great enough to give the film a boost on that level; it’s the sheer joy with which Scorsese finds a cinematic equivalent to his beloved rock music, aided by a line-up of cinematographers almost as enviable as the onstage talent, that makes The Last Waltz arguably the greatest film about music of any kind, ever: nothing else has ever approached how fully this movie captures the essence of playing and of listening, with equal reverence.
6. Grizzly Man
(Werner Herzog, 2005)
5. Little Dieter Needs to Fly
(Werner Herzog, 1997)
I had every intention of limiting myself to just one film per director, but when I got down to the final cut of the list, and realised that I was going to have to pick between my two favorite films by my favorite living filmmaker, I choked. And even if it makes the list less interesting by that much, it at least has the benefit of honestly reflecting my feelings.
Both films find Herzog pursuing his most beloved and characteristic subject: a look at intense, borderline-mad personalities from such a tiny remove that you half fear for your own sanity. Besides that, they have little in common: Grizzly Man is built out of found footage and Herzog’s own discursive, avowedly partial narration, to create a picture of Timothy Treadwell which is by turns pitying and scornful; Little Dieter is virtually nothing but interviews with a subject that absolutely captivates and astounds Herzog, even as the filmmaker capriciously forces Dieter Dengler to relive the most hellish experience of his life. Both of them chart the human capacity for survival or destruction in the face of uncaring nature, and the kinds of obsession that can drive a man’s whole life, with a saucy, ironic glee that leaves them among the most memorable character studies in cinema, if only dubiously reliable as journalism.
4. F for Fake
(Orson Welles, 1974)
History’s most famous amateur magician, Welles had a lifelong fascination with deception and fraud, and near the end of his career (he completed only one later feature), he indulged himself with a film that can’t accurately be called anything other than “documentary” on fraud, though the word needs to be applied with exceptional care. Telling the story of several prominent fraudsters of the 20th Century, including art forger Elmyr de Hory, hoax novelist Clifford Irving, and Welles himself, the film is edited together with such coy misdirection that you can’t take its word for anything, as Welles points out in an incredible slick joke at the very end. Then again, what better way to consider art of lying than with a film where every word and every shot is potentially hiding a half-truth?
3. Fast, Cheap & Out of Control
(Errol Morris, 1997)
Morris’s masterpiece, but not for want of great candidates (I was sorely tempted to break my “no duplicating directors” rule again) is, like Herzog’s finest work, a study of obsessed personalities on the edge of society. But Morris quadruples the normal number of subjects, focusing on four very different, very odd men, in whose wildly quirky pursuits the filmmaker captures a tiny snapshot of hectic modern life. Without ever appearing to put on its Message Movie cap, the film ends up saying more about how we – we messy, disjointed people – exist in the world than just about anything else ever put together, and its implications about both the narrowness and the breadth of human perspective turn what might have been a study of caricatures into a grand statement about our whole damn species. The rare sort of movie that, viewed in a receptive mood, can change everything you know about your own mind.
2. Man with a Movie Camera AKA Человек с киноаппаратом
(Dziga Vertov, 1929)
I hemmed, and I hawed, and I had great periods of heaving doubt, and I took it off the list and put it back on and took it off &c. The fact is, I don’t know if this is a documentary – but if it isn’t, then I have no damn idea what else to call it. Other than a revolutionary attempt to capture the basic truth of human life in a manner entirely and utterly cinematic, flashing from one image of The City (it was actually three) and The People living there over one Day (several years) to another so quickly that even now, in a time when fast-cutting is the norm, we can still hardly keep up with the joyous enthusiasm of Vertov’s exploration of how meaning is created visually, with narrative mediation. I do know that I can call it that.
1. Night and Fog AKA Nuit et brouillard
(Alain Resnais, 1955)
Night and Fog is 32 minutes long. The first – and thus far, only – time that I watched it, it took me very close to one and a half hours, taking time to pause the DVD and just… exist, trying desperately to find the strength to muscle through the rest of it. That is the only measure I can give of the world-ending power of Resnais’s fucking merciless snapshot of the Holocaust, which combines touristy color photography taken ten years after the liberation of the camps, incomprehensibly ghastly newsreel footage and still photographs of their discovery by the Allies, and Michel Bouquet’s immaculately measured narration. And though it is, in a walk, the hardest, most sobering, most deeply unpleasant film I have ever seen, I treasure it: it is a tremendously necessary document of the depths to which humanity can sink that plants its feet and declares “Never again”, while recognising with dull horror that it will happen again, and again, because that is who we as a species are. I have never seen another work of cinema that shook me half as much.
The Up series
(Paul Almond, 1964; Michael Apted, 1970-present)
Too grand an experiment to pigeonhole it on a list, not least because it’s not complete yet: this magnificently ambitious attempt to film the lives of a number of regular British citizens, visiting them every seven years since they were seven years old, is one of the truly great projects in cinema history: documenting not only the lives of human beings as they unfold in ways both expected and wholly unpredictable, but the growth of a country and even the world over the span of a lifetime. This is one for the time capsule: decades after we’re all dead, this will still stand as testament to what it means to be a human.