One of the great things about cinema is its ability to capture reality perfectly, to stop time in a bottle, and reveal things as they truly are. Nowhere is this tendency more apparent than in the documentary film. These five documentaries in particular make it clear that sometimes truth isn’t stranger than fiction. It’s just plain better.
5. Roger & Me (1989)
Years before he would win the Oscar for Fahrenheit 9/11 or even make waves with Bowling for Columbine, Roger & Me introduced the world to Michael Moore, a virtuoso documentarian with a strong point-of-view and a deft emotional touch.
Roger & Me is familiar ground for Moore. Set in his hometown of Flint, Michigan it details the impact of the decision by General Motor’s CEO Roger Smith to close factories and leave 30,000 people without a job.
Agree with Michael Moore’s politics or not, Roger & Me flips the documentary script and causes one to reconsider just what a documentary can be. In it, Moore is just as much subject as he is observer, and the product is just as much polemic as anything else.
4. Nanook of the North (1922)
The documentary will continue to evolve as long as films are made, but this silent ethnography of an Inuit community was one of the first films to really capture what a documentary could be.
True, some of this shine has worn off as subsequent years revealed that numerous events in the film were staged.
But even as the film becomes a symbol in the debate of documentary ethics and integrity, it forever remains an indelible window into a world that otherwise would not have been given voice.
3. Spellbound (2002)
Who would’ve ever thought that a national spelling bee would be the setting for one of the most suspenseful, funny, and moving stories captured on film? Let alone that it would be a documentary?
Following eight children as they compete in the 1999 Scripps National Spelling Bee, Spellbound weaves their idiosyncratic personalities and distinctive narratives into one masterful account of what it is to work hard, to hope, and to dream.
2. Grizzly Man (2005)
In 2003, Timothy Treadwell and his girlfriend were killed by a bear. This came as little surprise to many, given the fact that Treadwell had dedicated his life to protecting and living with these wild animals. Grizzly Man is the story of his life and ultimately his death.
Director Werner Herzog did not shoot much of the video that appears in this film- most of it comes from Treadwell’s own video diaries. But Herzog’s voice (that beautiful German voice) is what elevates the footage from the rambling thoughts of a person that many would call a fool, to a loving obituary for a passionate man, who felt separate from society in surprisingly relatable ways.
1. Hoop Dreams (1994)
Many films follow their protagonists over a long span of time, but given their authentic nature few documentaries are bold enough to treat their subjects in the same way.
Hoop Dreams follows two troubled but talented Chicago teens who one day hope to be drafted into the NBA. The result is a poignant, heartbreaking, and still uplifting account of the way that people and their ambitions can change over time. Or more simply, like many great stories, what it is to be human.
These five documentaries capture life in a way that is guaranteed to make you feel something-and something real at that. Watch them, love them, and see if you don’t just feel compelled to share them as well.
You might want to read our picks for the best TV documentaries here.