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Armwrestlers! Bull Riders! Pinball and War! 17 of the Best Documentaries


The Fog of War - Robert McNamara

The best documentaries–by which I simply mean the ones I have enjoyed the most or learned the most from–usually deal with people and their obsessions.  My taste in this is not limited to the documentary film.

For instance: have you ever seen Fitzcarraldo? It’s a non-documentary about a man was determined to build an opera house in the middle of a formidable jungle.

It’s insane and wonderful and it’s by Werner Herzog. Werner Herzog = you watch.

But today we’re speaking, from now on, strictly about great documentaries.

Down below this sentence I’m going to make my own list of documentary films that I have absolutely adored. This is not an attempt at ranking them. I’m also doing my best to steer clear of documentaries whose primary purpose feels like propaganda to me. The New York Times did a list of 50 best documentaries once and the comments were absolutely vicious! So I’ll leave the Super Important Docs to others for debate and savaging.

Not all of these are fun or light-hearted, but I am better for having seen each of them.

Don’t fuss because I don’t pick enough Academy Award winners or nominees. Feel free to add them in the comments and edify the universe.

 1. Wordplay

A film about New York Time Crossword editor Will Shortz and crossword enthusiasts/obsessives. Culminates in a showdown with the most impossible looking crossword puzzle I have ever seen.

2. Trekkies

Would you go to a dentist whose entire office was furnished like the Enterprise? Would you let him give you a root canal if he was dressed like a Klingon? Just saying, you could avail yourself of the opportunity. If you can’t tell yet, Trekkies is an affectionate look at Star Trek mania.

3. The Fog of War

11 lessons from the Iraq War, courtesy of former United States Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara. An insightful, chilling look at modern warfare. Probably gets my vote for the best documentary I’ve seen.

4. Pulling John

Three world class armwrestlers collide! At the film’s beginning legendary John Brzenk has not lost for a long, long time. In his path are an enormous Russian and a cocky American upstart. Also, you can see a Russian man tossing a dog playfully onto a roof. The dog seems to enjoy this immensely.

5. Born into Brothels

A heartbreaking film about child prostitution in Calcutta that has some breathtakingly beautiful and hopeful moments.

6. Grizzly Man

Timothy Treadwell is a grizzly bear activist. He lives among bears in Alaska. The bears aren’t aware of his good intentions and eventually they kill him. Who in the world would think this was a good idea, the socializing with wild bears? This film also features, in my opinion, the greatest narration ever by Herzog.

7. Special When Lit

How much do you know about the history of pinball in America? Did you know it used to be illegal? Do you know who the world champion is? I didn’t know anything about it either, but it was a lot of fun to learn about it.

8. Murderball

Murderball is a rough sport, kind of like rugby in wheelchairs,  played by paraplegics. Also, their chairs are decorated like something out of Mad Max. Also, the scenes at the paralympic games made me cheer.

9. Man on Wire

Frenchman Philippe Petit strung a wire between the twin towers and walked the tightrope. This was of course, illegal. I could listen to this guy talk all day. He said more unexpected things per minute than just about anyone else I can think of.

10. The Civil War

Come on, it’s Ken Burns. You know it’s good.

11. Rank

Bullriders. They’re tougher than you think, and you probably already think they’re tough. And crazy.

12. The Blair Witch Project

Just kidding, it’s not real.

13. Hoop Dreams

I watched Hoop Dreams back when I thought that I’d be playing in the NBA one day. It didn’t completely make me think it was impossible, but it brought me back to reality for a while.

14. Wrestling With Shadows

I was a Hulkamaniac growing up, but my other favorite wrestler was Bret “The Hitman” Hart. Wrestling is a fantastic behind the scenes look at the world of professional wrestling, and Hart seems like a genuinely nice person.

15. Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey

I got into metal when I was 14. I never got back out. I no longer go to shows; it’s not my crowd, but at times it’s still my music.

16. Air Guitar Nation

If you’ve ever played air guitar, here’s your chance to see how you stack up against the best in the world.

17. Second Skin

Come inside the world of Massive Multiplayer Online Games. There’s a love story, a history of gaming, and more in one of the funniest documentaries I’ve ever seen. However, as with most of the films I’ve listed, in my opinion, Skin never looks down on its subjects. It just watches them and tells the story. We can make our own judgments.

And now, over to you. Which documentaries have you liked, loved, loathed, or learned from?



Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Candy November 29, 2011, 12:56 pm

    You should check out Project Nim. The same team as Man on Wire and it’s amazing! I don’t want to give a minute away so… just find it if you can. It was in theaters briefly and will land on HBO eventually. See it and I’m sure it’ll be on your list.

  • Iain D November 29, 2011, 2:27 pm

    I really enjoyed “Bigger Stronger Faster” which starts off about steroid use and the weightlifting world, and looks into the world of performance enhancing drugs from there.

    • Josh Hanagarne November 29, 2011, 4:05 pm

      Yes! I loved it and am slightly embarrassed that I forgot all about it.

  • Pauline November 29, 2011, 3:37 pm

    Yes, Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo is amazing, incredible, and terrific to watch.

    • Josh Hanagarne November 29, 2011, 4:05 pm

      Have you seen Aguirre?

      • Pauline November 30, 2011, 9:43 pm

        No, but I’ll look it up.

  • Jeroen November 30, 2011, 4:29 am

    ‘When we were kings’. Ali vs. Foreman in Zaïre. Beautiful and exciting.

    ‘Touching the void’. A mountain climber falls down a cliff in Peru and is left for dead. He tells and shows how he – heavily injured – managed to get back to his friends – before they left the area to go home. Chilling and impressive.

    • Josh Hanagarne November 30, 2011, 9:59 am

      I think When We Were Kings is probably my favorite documentary. I hadn’t heard of Touching the Void, thank you.

  • Todd November 30, 2011, 7:27 am

    ‘This is Spinal Tap’… oh wait, that’s not real?

  • Dean November 30, 2011, 7:29 am

    There was one I saw about a year ago on Netflix. It was about gamers who playnthe old retro games like Donkey Kong and PAC Man. There is this guy who had the high score on DK forever, since the 80’s. He was like a god to these gamers. Then one day a dude wha had been having a string of bad luck in his life breaks the record. Does everything he has to do to get his new record recognized but none of the gamer geeks will recognize his accomplishment. I found it fascinating in that. The main character had actually made a career out of Donkey Kong…. Wish I could remember the name…. Ok just Googled it the movie is called “The King of Kong” and the guy who held the record’s name is Billy Mitchell… Check it out.

    • Josh Hanagarne November 30, 2011, 9:58 am

      The King of Kong. That was a fantastic movie. I still remember Billy Mitchell’s hair, and his wife.

  • Dean November 30, 2011, 7:31 am

    OK, another one “Exit through the Gift Shop” a Doc about grafitti artist Banksy. Oh, and Josh, Man on Wire was great, I could watch that 100 times. Loved it

  • Brian December 2, 2011, 8:24 am

    “Restrepo” is excellent. Makes you feel like your in Afghanistan. One of the filmmakers was actually killed recently while filming in Libya. They literally go into combat and show you what its like to get shot at. Its a scary and moving film.

  • Morgan Fleur De Lys December 4, 2011, 2:42 am

    Great list. Several of these I have seen and they are wonderful, especially Man On Wire. Have you seen My Date With Drew? I thought it was very entertaining.

    • Josh Hanagarne December 4, 2011, 7:03 am

      Morgan, I haven’t even heard of that one. I’ll check it out and report to you post haste. Thanks!

      • Morgan Fleur De Lys December 4, 2011, 10:53 am

        This guy takes an $1,100 budget a Circuit City camcorder and has 30 days to score a date with Drew Barrymore because there’s a 30 day return policy on the camera, lol. It’s great.