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July 25th, 2008 at 9:20 am

The Best Documentaries of All Time: A Post from Jonathan Kahana

Jonathan KahanaJonathan Kahana is assistant professor of cinema studies at Tisch School of the Arts at New York University and author of the just-published Intelligence Work: The Politics of American Documentary.

A few years ago, I was asked by a writer researching a piece for an in-flight magazine to create a list of the best documentaries of all time. One restriction was placed on my choices: they had to be available on DVD, and preferably from the usual points of sale or rental.

I was torn. Given the limited commercial appeal of many of the traditional subjects of documentary, relatively few documentary films reach large audiences. Any history of the form that depends upon the artifacts that have trickled down through decades of film and video to the home-use format of DVD is likely to misrepresent that history. On the other hand, as a long-time fan of SkyMall, I could appreciate the function of a shopping list. And since, like many scholars, I’ve done some of my best academic work – some of my best grading, anyway – on airplanes, I felt that this was a pay-it-forward sort of situation. So I produced the list.

(Since the magazine’s editors needed to make room for choices by Michael Renov, my fellow-traveler in the friendly skies of documentary film scholarship, and for a story about the best golf courses in the Southwest – or was it the best places to get a Thai massage in Denver? – only about half of my picks appeared. What follows is thus the DVD version: the original, plus outtakes and extras. Full disclosure: I have almost nothing to say about these films in Intelligence Work. So much for cross-promotion.):

Nanook of the North (Robert Flaherty, 1922): Considered by some the first documentary, this tale of an Inuit family’s battle with the Nature remains a historical and technical landmark. That filmmaker Flaherty fabricated many of the “authentic” events hardly detracts from the simple beauty of the landscape and the story.

Manhatta (Charles Sheeler and Paul Strand, 1921) and Rain (Joris Ivens, 1929) [both on the Kino International DVD Avant-Garde and Experimental Cinema of the 1920s and 1930s ]: Two lyrical, experimental shorts about the atmosphere of cities, typifying one early tendency in documentary: to seek out unexpected visual poetry in the ordinary world. Manhatta is an homage to Walt Whitman and the skyscrapers of New York, composed in delicate black and white pictures. Rain – one of the first works by a filmmaker better known for his later political films – is a graceful and energetic study of water, as it transforms the look of buildings and streets.

The Man With A Movie Camera (Dziga Vertov, 1929): A film that was decades ahead of its time, Man With a Movie Camera is a dizzying, delirious travelogue through the revolutionary modern city (played here by a number of different Soviet locales). Fascinated by the meshing of machines and man, Vertov creates a world that could only exist on film. Makes MTV look slow.

Night and Fog (Alain Resnais, 1955): One of the first films to deal in a forthright way with a now-conventional theme in documentary, the Nazi concentration camps, Night and Fog is still shocking in its use of experimental techniques, including the combination of present-day color and past-tense black-and-white footage, its expressive musical score, and its chilling analysis of the trauma of the Holocaust and its significance for those who survived (or ignored) it.

Salesman (Albert and David Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin, 1969): A classic of the cinéma vérité style, Salesman follows hapless Bible salesmen on their rounds, giving us a glimpse into the ordinary humor and misery of work. Beautifully shot, it’s both a stunning record of the styles and voices of its age and a timeless story.

Harlan County, U.S.A. (Barbara Kopple, 1975) and American Dream (Barbara Kopple, 1991): Kopple’s two heart-breaking and Oscar-winning films about striking miners and meat-packers make an epic double-bill on the rise and fall of the labor movement in America. Kopple is the epitome of the committed filmmaker, rolling up her sleeves and joining the fray, helping out on the picket lines and getting shot at by vigilantes.

Shoah (Claude Lanzmann, 1986): A vast history of the Holocaust, nearly all of its eight-and-a-half-hours made up of stories – in graphic, moving detail – told by survivors, perpetrators, and bystanders. Overwhelming in its scope and its ambition, Shoah is one of the cinema’s greatest achievements.

The Thin Blue Line (Errol Morris, 1989): This gripping investigation of murder and injustice, set to a Philip Glass score, has as much story and style as ten films noir. Its often-imitated, never-duplicated use of color, close-ups, interviews and reenactments changed the look and form of documentary forever.

The Gleaners and I (Agnes Varda, 2000): A charmingly digressive film essay on garbage, scavenging, aging, French civil law, and home video, knit together by Varda’s funny, incisive, and deeply personal narration. One of the very best first-person documentaries.

Little Dieter Wants To Fly (Werner Herzog, 1998): One of Herzog’s studies of extreme characters, this is a remarkable, awful, hilarious story of accident, courage, and obsession. So traumatized by WWII that he resolves to become a military pilot – for the United States, during the Vietnam War – Dieter is shot down, taken prisoner, and tortured. His unbelievable story of survival is told in the first-person, in the actual locations it took place, and Herzog directs his performance in a cruel but  brilliant fashion.

The Corporation (Jennifer Abbott and Mark Achbar, 2003). A riveting, creative analysis of this fundamental modern institution, The Corporation manages to make macro-economics seem sexy. A smart and hard-hitting film that boldly poaches images and techniques from the very commercial propaganda it challenges, The Corporation charts new territory for the feature documentary. (To everyone’s surprise, the film actually made a huge profit from its theatrical, television, and DVD versions; but as Mark Achbar reports in the latest issue of POV, the baroque public-private funding structure of Canadian feature documentary production meant that the filmmakers actually saw much less of this profit than they were due.)

Bright Leaves (Ross McElwee, 2004): The latest in McElwee’s series of films (including Charleen, Sherman’s March and Time Indefinite) about family (his), the South, and filmmaking, Bright Leaves is a hilarious and moving personal history of Big Tobacco and other addictions.


  1. Eric says:

    Nice list, thanks for sharing. I’ll write down some of these recommendations and watch as soon as I have some free time. :-)

  2. Justin Nathanson says:

    Very nice list, important films!

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