My Top 5 Documentaries

Having already posted about my top 10 films of all time, I felt it was important to share some of my favorite documentaries (as of 2013). In no particular order:

The Bridge (2006) – In 2004, Eric Steel, inspired by a news article entitled “Jumpers,” set up a camera to film the Golden Gate Bridge continuously for one year. He and his crew managed to capture footage of no fewer than 23 of 24 known suicides that occurred, the site being a popular method for those who wish to end it all. Steel wisely avoids providing any narration or hand-holding, letting the interviews with the victim’s loved ones (none of whom were informed about the existence of the footage beforehand) speak for themselves. The film has an almost eerie stillness about it that fits the subject matter, but also keeps it from feeling sensationalized or preachy.

In The Realms of the Unreal (2004) – In 1973, shortly after the death of eccentric recluse Henry Darger, his landlords entered his apartment and found among his belongings a typed 15,145 page manuscript entitled The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What is known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion, along with several hundred watercolor paintings. Both served to flesh out an elaborate fantasy world that Darger spent most of his private life creating. Jessica Yu’s documentary explores the work and the man behind it, putting aside the interest they have generated (today Darger is hailed as an example of outsider art, and his watercolors fetch upwards of $80,000) to focus on why and how it all came about. Though many have called it a travesty, the animation of Henry’s drawings, used to illustrate passages from The Realms, helps to bring his world alive for the audience. Be warned: his tendency to draw his young heroines in the nude, coupled with his being altogether innocent of the difference between males and females, results in some…uncomfortable imagery.

Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son about His Father (2008) – This is a doc that, as a film major, I shouldn’t like nearly as much as I do, as it fails the test of objectivity; right off the bat, director Kurt Kuenne makes his bias and objectives quite clear, though given the circumstances, you can hardly blame him. On November 5th of 2001, Dr. Andrew Bagby was shot to death by his sociopathic ex-girlfriend, Shirley Jane Turner, who was released on bail and later fled to Canada. Soon after, she announced that she was pregnant with Andrew’s child. Kuenne, a filmmaker and Andrew’s best friend, set out to make a documentary so Andrew’s son could learn about the man his father was, obtaining interviews with all of the many people whose lives he touched. However, as time went on, the focus shifted to David and Kate, Andrew’s parents, who struggled to obtain custody of their grandchild, as well as justice for their son. What the Bagbys were forced to suffer through as a result of this woman, as well as the Canadian court’s complete inability to do right by Andrew and his son, is heartbreaking. Note: if you have any interest in this film, DO NOT look up anything about the case before you see it. And make sure you have tissues on hand.

The Woodmans (2010) – Another tear-jerker, and another on the topic of suicide, the film examines the Woodman family, all prolific artists whose lives were shattered by the suicide death of young Francesca, a promising photographer with severe emotional problems. Like The Bridge, no narration is given, and the audience is left to their own judgments. Was Francesca a free spirit who burned out too soon, or was something lacking in her life that led to her demise? Are her family genuinely torn apart by her death, or are they shallow individuals who are simply annoyed by the attention it takes from their own work? And is great art – and more importantly, the pain and suffering that often begets it – worth the life of the artist?

Midnight Movies: From the Margin to the Mainstream (2005) – It’s odd to think that movies like “Rocky Horror,” “Eraserhead,” and “El Topo” had a major effect on popular culture, seeing as how they were regulated to the midnight hour in seedy, underground cinemas. But without them, for better or worse, we likely wouldn’t have the permissiveness that we do today. Stuart Samuels’ Midnight Movies provides insight into a world long gone, where late night screenings provided a forbidden access into counter-cultural debauchery, bizarre mysticism and social commentary provided by directors who were ahead of their time. Much of the impact, sadly, may be lost on today’s audiences (Divine eating dog shit in the final reel of “Pink Flamingoes” won’t mean much to an audience raised on Fear Factor, for example), yet it’s because of this impact that writers and directors have the freedom to tackle subjects that only thirty years ago would have been off limits.