With the DocuWest International Film Festival kicking off tonight, movie buffs throughout the city are talking about their favorite documentaries. To honor the genre's long and varied history, we've compiled a list of ten must-see films for doc lovers. Some of these movies are famous, some are notorious and others are obscure -- but all of them should be seen.
10) Up Series Michael Apted's Up Series follows a group of Brits from the time they were seven into adulthood. Every seven years the director shoots a new film, checking in with his aging subjects and learning about their lives as the characters evolve from wide-eyed children into adults wrangling with mediocrity, addiction, family and beyond. The most recent installment, 56 and Up, was released in 2012. In our quick-deadline culture, filmmakers are too often pressured into working fast, sacrificing one of film's greatest powers: the ability to chronicle life over long stretches of time. Apted excels at this.
9) Man With a Movie Camera Dziga Vertov's city symphony, Man With a Movie Camera, takes viewers through a day in the life of Soviet Russia. Vertov documents hundreds of people doing things like working, giving birth, drinking, running people over and relaxing at the beach. The film is a frenetic portrait of a city teeming with despair, struggle and exhilaration, and represents the most experimental elements of Soviet art before they were crushed by Stalin's rigid totalitarianism.
7) Grey Gardens In the 1975 documentary Grey Gardens, Albert and David Maysles set out to tell the story of "Big" Edith and "Little" Edith, two fading socialites, relatives of First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, and their depressing lives with their cats in a deteriorating Long Island mansion that had been condemned as a safety hazard by the Suffolk County Health Department. Instead of creating a highly constructed portrait, the Maysles brothers give the mother-daughter duo the chance to narrate their own story, in their own voices, as they whittle away their days in despair.
6) Triumph of the Will Triumph of the Will is one of the most beautifully shot, morally repugnant films to ever grace the silver screen. Funded as part of the Nazi Party's propaganda machine, the film walks viewers through the athleticism of Hitler Youth, the grandeur of Nazi rallies and the emotional fervor of fascism. Watching Leni Riefenstahl's deftly constructed piece of propaganda, viewers have a glimpse into the sophistication and energy required to mobilize Germany to commit genocide.
5) Microcosmos Microcosmos explores the fantastical lives of insects up close and personal. With little narration, the film does what some of the greatest documentaries do: It takes us into an unfamiliar world and shows us parts of the planet and life that we have never seen before. The cinematography is spectacular in turning tiny insects into big screen-worthy subjects as alien as they are epic.
4) Nanook of the North Nanook of the North is as remarkable as it is problematic. Director Robert Flaherty pioneered the ethnographic documentary, undertaking not just one but two journeys to the Arctic. His first trip went up in flames when he dropped a cigarette, igniting over 30,000 feet of highly flammable nitrate film stock. He went back and shot it all again -- a testament to his resilience. In the North, he worked with Nanook and other Inuit people to reenact traditional ways of life; unfortunately, Flaherty pretended these reenactments were truth and ended up with a less than honest depiction of Inuit people as happy-go-lucky Eskimos more disconnected from industrial society than they actually were. Whatever its problems, Nanook of the North left its mark by being one of the first nonfiction films to move beyond pure documentation toward storytelling.
Read on for more of the ten must see documentary classics.
3) Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take 1 Don't let the title scare you. Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take 1 is documentary filmmaker William Greave's hilarious and thoughtful experiment in power and performance. The premise of the film is as follows: Greaves sets out to film a fictional fight scene between a husband and a wife, and hires a crew to document his shoot and another crew to document the documenters. The result is an anarchic exploration of what it means to act, to perform and to direct.
2) Harlan County USA Barbara Kopple's 1976 Harlan County USA depicts Kentucky coal miners striking against the Duke Power Company. The film follows the miners, their families and the company as their fight escalates into violence. The soundtrack features the fierce protest songs of Hazel Dickens.
1) Shoah In Shoah, a nine-and-a-half-hour-long documentary about the Holocaust, Claude Lanzmann interviews dozens of survivors, perpetrators and bystanders who witnessed the rise of the Nazi Party and the concentration camps. Each interview is hardly edited, giving subjects the chance to speak at length about their memories, their crimes, their suffering and how they understand what happened. Devoid of the concentration-camp footage so many Holocaust documentaries traffic in, this film uses landscapes and interviews to create an epic, complex, intelligent and haunting historical record. To see more recent documentaries, head to the DocuWest International Film Festival, which runs through Sunday at the SIE FilmCenter, 2510 East Colfax Avenue. Tickets can be purchased individually; festival passes cost $35. Find more information here.
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