Monday, January 8, 2007

The 10 Best Documentaries Of The Last 1,000 Years 10.11.99

Behold the greatest films of the entire millennium. Strangely, none of the classics of the 12th Century made it onto our list. Believe you me, it was tough weeding out all of Thog the Destroyer’s acclaimed work. That said, we didn’t forget to squeeze in some masterpieces from days gone by.

Now, we realize the intention of most “Best Of…” lists is to encourage debate, discourse and discussion. However, that’s not the case with our collections. There will be no argument. These are definitive.

Documentaries range from Marty Stouffer’s Wild America-type nature films to A&E Biography talking head interview footage to Crumb-style cinema verite to Woodstock-ish performance films to educational and industrial reels. Selecting from such a broad scope of material is difficult, but, of course, not impossible. And while there may seem to be glaring holes in this list, for instance, Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph Of The Will, that Goethe-Wagnerian-Weimar Republic propaganda film glorifies Hitler and the Nazis, which, color me crazy, knocks it down a few points in my book.

When We Were Kings (1996)
“I'm so mean, I make medicine sick!

Rock-n-roll performance filmmaker, Leon Gast directed this tremendous documentary twenty-two years in the making. At the heart of the film is boxing promoter Don King’s “Rumble In The Jungle” championship bout between a past-his-prime, steeped-in-controversy, Muhammad Ali and fierce opponent, George Foreman. When We Were Kings celebrates not only Ali and Foreman, but a moment-in-time when Black Pride was at its most heightened. In addition to the battle, King put together a companion music festival featuring R&B and African artists. Gast captured the festival on film, as well as the controversy surrounding Zairean president Mubutu’s preparations for that event and Don King’s fast-talking double-dip.

Nanook Of The North (1922)

The granddaddy of all documentaries, Robert J. Flaherty’s sensitive Silent Era film portrays the lives of an Eskimo family as they struggle against the elements for their very survival. The harrowing whale harpooning scenes are enough to keep you on the edge of your seat. These are countered sweetly with intimate scenes of igloo building, mukluk-making and, probably the most famous image, patriarch Nanook hearing a phonograph player for the first time and leaning his head back to howl with laughter.
Hearts Of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse (1991)
“The horror. The horror.”

Fax Bahr and George Hickenlooper directed this outstanding insight into the minds of highly creative people left unchecked and spiraling toward the brink of madness on Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now film set. Though the film is a masterpiece, the production was a disaster. Compiled from footage shot by Eleanor Coppola during the making of the movie, outtakes from the film itself and talking head interviews providing hindsight, Hearts Of Darkness is an amazing look at the triumphs and failures of the talented. It bristles with immediacy.

The Civil War (1991)
“As a nation, we began by declaring that "All men are created equal." We now practically read it, "All men are created equal, except Negroes." Soon, it will read "All men are created equal, except Negroes, and Foreigners and Catholics.” - Abraham Lincoln

Ken Burns had been knocking around the world of documentary filmmaking for over a decade, even earning an Academy Award nod. But it wasn’t until he completed this epic 11-hour feature on the War Between the States that his signature style became an immediately recognizable fixture in the arena of documentary. Mixing period music with actual photos and letters voiced by actors, Burns told the tragic story of The Civil War, from the causes of the conflict through Lincoln’s assassination.

Roger & Me (1989)
"Tough Times Don't Last -- Tough People Do!"

Blue-collar funnyman, Michael Moore turns the camera eye on GM CEO Roger Smith in this hilarious man-bites-dog doc. Moore attempts to confront Smith with the facts about the harmful effects of massive corporate downsizing on the autoworkers and community of Flint, Michigan. Moore’s camera isn’t kind to anyone from Smith to the Flint Chamber Of Commerce to the townspeople themselves, including of course, the renowned Pets-Or-Meat Rabbit Lady. Moore’s liberal point-of-view shines through, however, and, no matter how much fun he pokes, he is certainly a champion of the underdog.

Hoop Dreams (1994)
“At that particular time, everybody in our neighborhood was getting killed...everybody was dying. I thought that if something happened to me, I need to leave something behind to say that I was here."

A bittersweet tale of high school sports and the dream of becoming a professional athlete, director Steve James followed the lives of two Chicago youths through four years of high school. James exhaustively filmed the boys in playground pick-up games and recorded their recruitment by a local private school, the JV and varsity teams and, finally, college. The film also focuses on their personal lives and the family tragedies -- poverty, drug addiction, violence -- that befell them as they reached for the net.

Eyes On The Prize (1987)
"Make it light on yourselves, and let me have those seats."

Henry Hampton’s wonderfully expansive documentary series detailing the trials, tribulations and triumphs of the American Civil Rights Movement. Beginning with Emmit Till’s murder in 1952, Eyes On The Prize focuses as much on the words of orators like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as it does on the heroic actions of Rosa Parks and the Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott, the Little Rock Nine, the Nashville sit-ins and the Albany student protests. An uncompromising look at Jim Crow, segregation and racism, Eyes On The Prize should be required viewing for all high school civics courses.

The 7 Up Series
7 Up (1963), 7 Times 7 (1970), 21 Up (1977), 28 Up (1984), 35 Up (1991)

Michael Apted collaborated with BBC producer, Paul Almond for 7 Up, bringing fourteen seven-year-old kids from all socioeconomic strata together to discuss at great length their aspirations, fears and desires. Every seven years after that, Apted tracked down the fourteen participants and asked them to update their personal histories, discuss their aspirations, fears and desires at each particular juncture, 14, 21, 28 and 35, at which point the subjects were fast approaching middle-age, their attitudes bleaker and definitely disillusioned. A fascinating look at the way the world kicks your ass.

The Thin Blue Line (1988)

Documentarian, Errol Morris was researching a film on a Dallas head shrinker who was a frequent expert witness in murder trials when he happened upon the case of Randall Dale Adams, a young man condemned to death (although commuted to a life sentence) for killing a cop. Believing Adams had been railroaded, Morris began to construct a film that re-enacted (in his signature hallucinatory style) the events of the case, leading to an eventual reopening and Adams’ release from prison.

Atomic Cafe (1982)
“When not close enough to be killed, the atomic bomb is one of the most beautiful sights in the world.”

An anthology of clips compiled by Kevin Rafferty that expose the federal government’s devious misinformation campaign about the effects of nuclear radiation and the A-bomb. Hilarious yet disturbing, the selections of ‘50s propaganda films includes the infamous Duck and Cover educational reel that instructs schoolchildren that all that’s needed to survive a nuclear holocaust is getting off your Schwinn and take cover in a culvert or huddling with other kids against the school hallway wall.

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