Each spring the film world celebrates itself in an orgy of award shows, culminating with the Oscars. The big show invariably runs long and you probably tune out before the finale. The award for the Best Documentary Feature and Short Films, however, comes early enough in the proceedings that you encounter the oddity of billions of people watching an award being given to the makers of films seen by hundreds of people. Well, maybe more than hundreds but still the ratio is pretty skewed.
Before the orchestra plays the eccentric and passionate director off the stage, you think to yourself: “self, that looks interesting–I ought to see it.” The thought occurs to you again in July while watching “The Sequel To The Prequel Of The Comic Book Your Father Owned” and again in December while watching the subtitled French drama based on a book you studied via Cliff’s Notes in world literature. Hey, you got an A. Still, you never quite get around to that documentary, do you?
Documentaries just do not reach many people. That is a shame because we live in the golden age of fact-based films and the distribution options just keep getting better. Between Netflix, iTunes, HULU, VUDU, arthouses and the like you can see these films. I just robbed you of your best excuse for not watching documentaries.
Your second-best excuse is subjective but pervasive. Documentaries often are not that much fun. The ice caps are melting, the gorillas will be extinct, people are being tortured and so on. You feel bad about whatever disaster the documentary reveals and given the chance, you will donate to the cause or vote for the right politician, but spending two hours of your life watching a film that has you looking for the UNICEF box is too much of a downer.
Not so for all documentaries. Sometimes there is heart-thumping drama side-by-side with the examination of weighty matters and it all turns out all sort of ok (or better). So here is your Top 10 list of “no-excuse, lets watch it at home this summer because it is better than reruns, and I will be a better and happier person for it” documentaries.
10. DOGTOWN AND Z BOYS (2001). The early 1970s in Southern California was a strange time for kids trying to fit in. The boys who formed the famed Zephyr Skateboard team managed that challenge by not even trying. A little bit outlaw, but with imagination and nerve to spare, they transform counterculture into pop culture.
9. SEARCHING FOR SUGARMAN (2012). One of the really bizzare true stories of all time. Sugarman was going to be the next big thing in folk rock until his moment passed him by. Or did it? This is an anti-spoiler page so I will not tell you what happens but the most brazen scribe could not have scripted the plot twist that brings the movie together.
8. SOUND CITY (2013). Ode to a machine? Does not sound too heartwarming, but this is no ordinary machine and no ordinary filmmaker. The maddeningly talented Dave Grohl explains how Nirvana got the sound that launched a movement by making the best of an “obsolete” music studio. Bonus points for footage showing the stunningly beautiful Stevie Nicks in her prime.
7. UNDEFEATED (2012). Not a fan of the obscure? This is the documentary for you. Nothing can be more mainstream than high-school football, the sport that provides the backdrop for a struggle straight off the front pages. If you are tired of headlines about race relations and riots, a night with this movie will ease your mind.
6. WORDPLAY (2006). On the other end of the spectrum, sometimes we think the bookish are destined to lives of quiet desperation. Not if they are in the band of Will Shortz’ followers; otherwise known as aficionados of the New York Times daily crossword puzzle. Meet some memorable characters and learn what they have in common with presidents and star pitchers.
5. PARTICLE FEVER (2014). Did the world begin with a bang or a whimper? Why does it matter? How can we know? So many questions, but the enormous brains in this movie give you some ideas. More importantly, they make you care about the answers and believe someone just might find them out. They do make you feel a little bad about not paying attention in physics.
4. 20 FEET FROM STARDOM (2013). That was you next to me at the stoplight this morning, rocking a Motown classic, right? The stars of this Oscar winner really lead that life, backing the biggest names in the business. Close enough to touch it but not blessed with fame or fortune, their love of the music shines through and keeps them going.
3. SPELLBOUND (2002). As suspenseful as any Hollywood thriller, the annual resolution of the National Spelling Bee reveals drive, ambition and guileless innocence. For a nation of strivers and immigrants, the film is a perfect metaphor for the best part of us.
2. LIFE ITSELF (2014). A film about a terminal illness has no business being on this list, but Roger Ebert had no business leading the life he lived. As much an ode to movies, Chicago and newspapers as it is a tribute to Ebert;, this one will bring back the smile you had watching Ebert as one-half of the duo that made At The Movies appointment viewing.
1. HOOP DREAMS (1994). The one that started it all, the phenomenal success of Hoop Dreams paved the way for a generation of filmmakers. More than 20 years later, the stories of Arthur Agee and William Gates still resonate.