Who said documentaries are boring? Here are some that will set your pulse racing

The Documentary is one of the most maligned genres in film, but there’s really no reason why that should be.

Touching the Void

Director: Kevin MacDonald

Plot: The true story of two climbers and their perilous journey up the west face of Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes in 1985.

AISFM’s verdict: This is so much more than a documentary on mountain climbing. It’s about the triumph of the human spirit and the overarching will to live that can overcome even the most seemingly insurmountable obstacles. Some exceptional footage and a nail-biting pace make this an exceptional film.

The Act of Killing

Director: Joshua Oppenheimer

Plot: A documentary which challenges former Indonesian death-squad leaders to reenact their mass-killings in whichever cinematic genres they wish, including classic Hollywood crime scenarios and lavish musical numbers.

AISFM’s verdict: This is a bone-chilling documentary that focuses on unrepentant killers. Their massacres are highlighted in a bizarre and grotesque ritual of music and montage. Such a cold-blooded ‘celebration’ of murder has rarely been seen, and the filmmaker’s ability to cut through it all to showcase humanity’s intrinsic brutality is unsurpassed.

The Endless Summer

Director: Bruce Brown

Plot: The crown jewel to ten years of Bruce Brown surfing documentaries. Brown follows two young surfers around the world in search of the perfect wave, and ends up finding quite a few in addition to some colorful local characters.

AISFM’s verdict: Surfing always makes for sumptuous visuals, but Bruce Brown’s The Endless Summer takes it 10 steps further in this seminal surf docu. Brown tracks Michael Hynson and Robert August across the globe as they look for the perfect wave, and along the way meet a motley bunch of people as vivid the breakers they encounter.

March of the Penguins

Director: Luc Jaquet

Plot: A look at the annual journey of Emperor penguins as they march — single file — to their traditional breeding ground.

AISFM’s verdict: Penguins make for cute and often hilarious protagonists, but Jaquet took them a step further in his seminal documentary. He gave them an almost human face and then added trials and tribulations that most of us would buckle under. In many ways this also a testament to love and fidelity on a truly epic scale.

Bowling for Columbine

Director: Michael Moore

Plot: Filmmaker Michale Moore explores the roots of America’s predilection for gun violence, in the aftermath of the Columbine High School massacre.

AISFM’s verdict: No matter where you stand on America’s gun debate it’s hard not to be moved, shocked and appalled by Moore’s Bowling for Columbine.

This is one of the few instances where Moore has opted for riveting social commentary and not been lured by the sensation that is conspiracy. This is an eye-opening take on the fight to uphold a Right while all the evidence points that it is doing serious harm to the social fabric of a country.

Searching for Sugar Man

Director: Malik Bendjelloul

Plot: Two South Africans set out to discover what happened to their unlikely musical hero, the mysterious 1970s rock ‘n’ roller, Rodriguez.

AISFM’s verdict: Have you ever heard of the musician Sixto Rodriguez? Well don’t feel bad about it, until the release of this documentary very few people outside of South Africa had. Sixto was one of the musicians whose work was available to the people in Apartheid South Africa and unwittingly supplied the soundtrack to one of the most colossal social battles in history.

Bendjelloul’s journey to track down Sixto in the heart of Detroit and bring him back to the land he helped free is a sweeping tale of how music can inspire a generation, even if that generation never even knew what the singer looked like.

Restrepo

Director(s): Tim Hetherington, Sebastian Junger

Plot: A filmmaker and a photojournalist spend a year with one US platoon in Korangal, the deadliest valley in Afghanistan.

AISFM’s verdict: Four years after this film was released, Tim Hetherington would die in the line of duty in Syria. But, along with Junger, his enduring film legacy will always be Restrepo. A no-holds-barred account of the life of soldiers in the Korangal Valley in Afghanistan, Restrepo, focuses on the hardship of life under constant mortar shelling and sniper fire.

Restrepo is also a very human tale of young men, many from small towns, sent to fight a war thousands of miles from home, against an enemy they can rarely see, let alone understand.

This is war journalism at its very best.

The Last Waltz

Director: Martin Scorsese

Plot: A film about The Band’s final concert and a look back at their career in and influence on music and musicians.

AISFM’s verdict: This documentary starts by asking you to ‘Play it Loud’, and you should. While The Band may not be readily identifiable, their music most certainly is. Having influenced the likes of Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Van Morrison, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, etc, The Band are widely regarded as one of the finest musical acts ever to have lived.

Scorsese, who used and continues to use a number of their songs in his movies, filmed their last concert at Wonderland and the host of stellar special guests that got up on stage to help them pull down the curtain one last time.

This is a masterpiece of visual music and one that has not aged a second since it was released in 1978.

When We Were Kings

Director: Sean Gast

Plot: A documentary of the 1974 heavyweight championship bout in Zaire between champion George Foreman and underdog challenger Muhammad Ali.

AISFM’s verdict: If you watched Michael Mann’s Ali, then you’ve probably figured you’ve seen all there is to see about the legendary Rumble in the Jungle bout between Mohammed Ali and George Foreman. You’d be wrong.

Gast’s Oscar-winning documentary about that fight is without a doubt about the best boxing documentary ever made. It has grit and determination, but above all it tells the take of two titans refusing to give an inch in a battle that had the world riveted and showcased one of the best comebacks in boxing history.

Blackfish

Director: Gabriela Cowperthwaite

Plot: A documentary following the controversial captivity of killer whales, and its dangers for both humans and whales.

AISFM’s verdict: Animal lovers should look away unless you’re prepared to be enraged beyond belief. If Seaworld remains open for the next 10 years it’s no thanks to Cowperthwaite’s stunning documentary on Killer Whales in captivity and the trauma they suffer.

Comprising interviews with former and current trainers and animal behavioral experts, Blackfish takes a scathing look at the animal entertainment industry, and primarily focuses its attention on the global SeaWorld brand. No one emerged unbloodied.

Grizzly Man

Director: Werner Herzog

Plot: A devastating and heartrending take on grizzly bear activists Timothy Treadwell and Amie Huguenard, who were killed in October of 2003 while living among grizzlies in Alaska.

AISFM’s Verdict: They say you can never really tame a wild animal, and in all fairness Treadwell and Huguenard didn’t try. They just loved nature and life, but above all they loved Grizzly Bears and ached to live among them.

Herzog’s heart-wrenchingly tragic tale of the ill-fated duo who lived in nature but fell prey to her instincts, is a masterclass in documentary filmmaking that packs a massive emotional wallop.

Man on Wire

Director: James Marsh

Plot: A look at tightrope walker Philippe Petit’s daring, but illegal, high-wire routine performed between New York City’s World Trade Center’s twin towers in 1974, what some consider, “the artistic crime of the century.”

AISFM’s verdict: Few documentaries have captured the public imagination like Marsh’s film on Philippe Petit’s daring walk between the Twin Towers. It’s all the more potent after Sept 11, 2001. One man’s daredevil ‘stunt’ using two structures that what become the most iconic images of the 21st century is a real piece of art.

 

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