11 February 2019)
As I said earlier, I love documentaries. In roughly
alphabetical order, here are my current favorites:
STAR (2008). One small film about a mere song contest
manages to summarize so much about Afghanistan. I was tempted to
say "so much about what is wrong with Afghanistan" but that would be unfair to
both the film and the country.
This film will be enjoyed even by those who've never been to
Afghanistan. As with most good documentaries, whatever the
location or whatever the topic, in the end it comes down to
"...tells the dramatic and compelling
story of the exonerated -- innocent men wrongfully imprisoned
for decades and then released after DNA evidence proved their
Justice can be elusive. We can do better. Applause
and admiration for the Innocence Project.
JOURNEY: THE STORY OF THE WHO (2007). Why would a
musician with the talent of Pete Townshend need to destroy
equipment on stage? Why would he think electronic feedback was
musical? I never understood it, and so never was a raving Who
At the same time, there were those great songs. And there was,
along with Townshend, the best drummer in rock (Keith Moon), the
best bass player in rock (John Entwistle), and a magnetic lead
singer (Roger Daltrey).
This film takes us back in time, and is best for me when it
explores the dynamics of the times and of a great rock and roll
Follows four babies during their
first year of life in Namibia, Japan, Mongolia, and America.
The contrasts - and similarities - are fascinating.
In September 2017, a book is published that
seems to be good company to this film: "Do Parents Matter?:
Why Japanese Babies Sleep Soundly, Mexican Siblings Don't Fight,
and American Families Should Just Relax."
BETTIE PAGE REVEALS ALL
(2012). I'd never heard of Bettie Page until seeing this
documentary, which makes it clear she was more than a simple
The film, of course, is about more than just Ms Page. It
includes many photos and videos taking us back in time, showing how far
America -- and then, of course, the world -- went from the
sexually repressed, heavily censored post-war years to our
current sodom-and-gomorrahesque ways.
Besides that, Ms Page, who often had a delicious wink in her
eyes, was sure easy on mine.
BIGGER, STRONGER, FASTER
(2008). Not a screed for or against performance
enhancing drugs, this film smartly lets us make up our own
minds. Excellent use of film clips, great editing, and having
the director's family become the foundation of the film adds
much credibility to it.
Not just for those of us interested in athletics. This film is
really about modern Western society. Maybe not just Western,
BROTHER (2013). Rocky Braat and some of the children
in his life are simply unforgettable. That's a phrase we hear a
lot, to where it's lost its power, but applies here.
Some may describe this film as being about HIV in Indian
children. To me that just sets the stage. The film is about much
more than that. The power of love: parent for child, man for
woman, one for another.
BOBBY FISCHER AGAINST THE
WORLD (2011). After watching this film, how could I still despise the man who
hated Jews and expressed glee at 9/11.
Fischer was America's chess champion at age 14, then never
grew up, his mind using all its energy for chess and chess alone.
BORN INTO BROTHELS (2004).
We meet unforgettable
children who live in Calcutta's red light
district, where their mothers work as prostitutes.
They are fascinated with the camera of a
New-York-based photographer living in the brothels and
documenting life there. Zana Briski decides to teach them photography.
they begin to see their world
through new eyes,
the children -- who society refused to recognize -- grasp for the first
time their own talents and self worth.
(2006). I try with all movies to know nothing about them before
putting the disc into the DVD player. That's how I ask you to
approach THE BRIDGE. Try even to avoid looking at the case. Know
nothing about the film.
That will make the opening minutes all the more amazing, and
gripping, and tragic.
A film we won't ever forget afterwards.
(2012). A little like the magnificent HOOP DREAMS, but
with a much happier ending.
This film is for everyone who's ever played chess and found it
fun but too hard to master. No, that may be too narrow. This
film is for everyone who's ever worked hard to achieve a goal,
whether physical, mental or social.
I thought BROOKLYN CASTLE inspiring, well crafted and many
other positives too numerous to list here.
The film doesn't come out and explicitly state it, but we're
also reminded of the importance and value of good teachers. And
of the greatness of America to take in immigrants from all over
the world and give them and their children opportunities never
possible in their home countries. (Me, for one.)
BURDEN OF DREAMS (1982).
Follows director Werner Herzog for
five years as he filmed his epic FITZCARRALDO. I didn't much
like the movie, but loved this documentary about the making of
This genius has never given us a bad documentary, and some have
been masterpieces that will live forever. We owe him
My favorites so far:
THE CIVIL WAR
(1990, 11 hours).
The awesome series that made
his fame. He's not yet surpassed it. Probably the
greatest documentary ever made.
(2012, 6 hours). The fascinating period in American
history when we tried enforcing morality through law.
Watching it, I couldn't keep thinking about our current war on
(2001, 19 hours). At least until it gets to bop, which I admit
to thinking is mostly noise, we enjoy some of the best music
ever made. And made in America, our gift to the world.
We also learn about American history of the
past hundred years, not always, regrettably, as glorious as the
(1996, 12 hours). Won't be fascinating just to all us boys who
played Cowboys and Indians. No, the story of the American West
has everything: clash of cultures; cruelty, bravery, grit; nature;
transformation of a nation; adventure and greed; gold; buffalo,
steers and sheep; society-altering
technology (the railroad); religion, polygamy, race. And more.
What a saga. This is the best telling of it I've found so far.
THE DUST BOWL
(2012, 4 hours). We've all heard the term. Knew it happened back
in the 1930s in the Great Plains, something about the topsoil
being blown away by ferocious winds. But until this documentary,
we didn't understand why it happened and how it affected the
lives of those who lived there. Or how it ended. Now we do.
of now, this may be my favorite of the Burns documentaries. It
has everything that's important: ecology, politics, economics,
agriculture, family and, especially, true grit.
(1994, 19 hours). As with all Ken Burns productions, there are
"talking heads" (among them a surprisingly eloquent young Bob
Costas) and plenty of still photos and film clips.
It probably helps if you also think baseball is the best sport
in the world. I could elaborate on this for hours but better to
just recommend watching this series.
"Baseball" is also valuable for its lessons in American history
and sociology, both the ugly (Ty Cobb, for example) and the
heroic (Jackie Robinson).
CAPTURING THE FRIEDMANS
(2003). A deeply personal look, bolstered by a trove of home
videos, of a family torn apart by an accusation of pedophilia
against two of them.
We see good, well-meaning citizens in the police and the court,
but who are blind to their trampling of justice.
Be sure to get the 2-disc set. Some of the Extra Features on
disc 2 are mandatory viewing.
(2010). Another film that demands to be watched cold, knowing
nothing about it beforehand. What to say without saying too
Maybe only that the film will be especially interesting if you
have a Facebook account. Or, like me, don't have an account but
marvel at our need to connect, to adapt.
It's in the last twenty minutes that we learn just how much the
film is about more than mere Facebook.
DAWSON CITY: FROZEN TIME
(2016). You can't make this up.
Gold is found in Canada in 1896, boom town quickly follows. Town
has many movie theaters. Film's owners don't want to pay to have
films returned, says to keep or destroy them. Films are thrown
into the river, used as "landfill" in a swimming pool become ice
rink, stored in a vacant bank building. Meanwhile, the film
stock is extremely flammable, and in some cases no other copies
exist exist anywhere except these.
In 1978, a back hoe is digging up some ground, uncovering reels
of film going back to the first years of the 20th century.
If this were only a film about old movies, it would be of
interest only to the most devoted of movie buffs. But it's also
about a slice of history we rarely see or think about.
I found it mostly fascinating.
THE DAY THE UNIVERSE
CHANGED (1985). Hosted by James Burke,
this is a 5-disc set of BBC programs I enjoyed about 30 years
ago on PBS. And never forgot.
Or should I say, forgot the many
examples but remember the concept: that scientific and
technological progress often happens after earlier discoveries by others,
often entirely unrelated or unconnected.
Among the most
enjoyable documentaries ever.
CROSSING: The Untold Story of the Mayflower
(2006). Stumbled upon this
at the library. Found it remarkably well acted
produced for a TV program. Over two hours long, it has enough
detail for a serious history buff, but not too much for an
average American to enjoy.
If, like me, about all you
remember from high school history class about the Mayflower is
that some religious families landed at Plymouth Rock and shared
their first Thanksgiving with the Indians who had helped them.
But there's so much more.
I can picture an entire curriculum
based on the Mayflower: religious freedom, monarchy,
immigration, printing, oceans, disease, survival, cooperation,
written compacts, American Indians, and more.
It's often been said that truth is
stranger than fiction. Certainly more interesting. No better
proof than this well-told story.
NAKED ARMY MARCHES ON (1987). Kenzo Okuzaki, a
Japanese soldier, tracks down fellow veterans of the fighting on
New Guinea to arrive at the "truth" of what happened to members
of his unit. (Which, as in RASHOMON, depends on who you ask.)
Okuzaki is a man possessed, maybe clinically unstable, not
completely admirable. And yet, who can judge him who has not
walked in his shoes.
This documentary is unusual in that there's no voice over, no
explanations, and yet no confusion to what's happened or is
Should be of special interest for veterans of any war. Was for
THE END OF THE LINE
(2010). Ocean-going fish factories are plundering
our oceans, removing tons of fish with each haul of the nets.
Our command of industry and technology is enabling us to destroy sea life as has never
been possible in Earth's history.
And nothing seems to be able to stop the slaughter. One species
is eliminating another.
The film has gorgeous photography, good on-location shots, and
scientists-displaying-graphs. It would be more convincing, I
think, if it were edited a little more tightly; some of the points were made repeatedly.
(Also if Ted Danson,
certainly a gentleman and a scholar but always in my mind an
actor playing a
bartender, were not distracting me as the narrator.) Still, this
film is excellent, and critical in our understanding of the
to become more involved
in this cause.
A FAMILY UNDERTAKING (2004).
On the benefits and virtues,
especially psychological, of burying our family members
ourselves. From the P.O.V. series on public television.
THE FOG OF WAR (2003).
Fascinating to everyone, I think, as war will always be with us.
But will especially grip you if you were
(also) affected by the Vietnam War.
(2013). Produced by PBS as part of their superb American
Henry Ford needs no introduction, of course. The details of his
life, though, were remarkable. Clearly both admirable and
contemptible, the man can't be pinned down. While we often root
for him, sometimes we also cringe.
A complicated life, and well told here.
The film is full of fascinating video of the early 20th century,
icing on the cake.
THE STORY OF MUSIC
(2014) and BIG
BANGS (1999) by
These two series are for anyone who loves music, from a working
musician down to a miserably tone deaf amateur like me.
THE STORY OF MUSIC is a set of six hour-long episodes on
the history of music, from earliest times to the modern era. I
found the first episode the least interesting, but guess Goodall
had to start at the beginning, even if the music was simple and
of little value to our ears. After that, it gets better, and
then the pleasure is sublime.
BIG BANGS takes five subjects -- major landmarks in music
-- and gives us about an hour on each.
2) Equal Temperament (surprisingly enjoyable)
5) Recorded Sound
Both series are marked by Goodall's sense of humor and his
taking us visually to early times and distant places.
The only thing wrong with the two series, except for a few minor
editing changes I'd have made (I, who have less talent than one
of Goodall's nail clippings), is that they should have been
twice -- three times! -- as long.
THE STORY OF MUSIC is unavailable on both Amazon and the
BBC as I write this in March 2016. Amazon does sell the book by
the same title, and it is well and truly enjoyable, but not as
much, for me, as the videos. I have asked the BBC to make the
series available for purchase; was told it will be considered.
Until then, and for now, the series is available on YouTube.
BIG BANGS is on Amazon. It appears to have been copied
off a VHS tape, but it's there. My library had a copy, and yours
As much as I love music (..\DesertedIslandMusic
) it's no surprise how I love these two series. Among my
favorite documentaries ever.
GRACELAND, PAUL SIMON
(1997). This isn't the magnificent concert (called THE
AFRICAN CONCERT, though it contains clips from it.
This is a 75-minute discussion on the making of the album. We
enjoy some songs from THE AFRICAN CONCERT (not nearly enough)
and movie videos that are entertaining but not essential.
What I think is important about this documentary are two things:
one, the interviews with the Graceland musicians, and two,
commentary by Paul Simon on the creative processes of this
A wonderful experience for both musicians and just-fans.
(1994). It doesn't matter if we're not basketball fans, because
this film isn't about basketball. It's about family.
Two talented 14-year-old boys in Chicago -- and their families
-- are covered by the documentary team for the next five (5!)
years. After a while it's clear the cameras and microphones have
This landmark film could provide grist for an entire year's
curriculum in sociology, criminology, psychology, leadership or
education. Maybe religion and business too.
At the same time, it's as riveting and unforgettable a film as
you'll see in a long while.
Most of us will be unconvinced that meats and
vegetables from small local farmers are better than what we buy in super markets.
Few of us will be able to afford the higher prices of locally
grown meats and vegetables.
But all of us, I bet, will applaud those farmers and gardeners
who are raising livestock with Nature and as Nature intended.
The documentary FOOD INC has similarities to FRESH. But while
FOOD INC shows us the horrors of the livestock processing industry,
FRESH leaves us
Both films were made in 2009. As of this writing, on 19
September 2013, FOOD INC has 1523 reviews on Amazon, with about
a 4.5 average rating. FRESH has only 112 reviews (just 30 for
the DVD), again with about a 4.5 average rating.
Both films should be watched, but if you have the "stomach" for
only one, make it FRESH.
FROM MAO TO MOZART
(1981). Opened my eyes to the intelligence, self-discipline,
and talent of the Chinese people.
A film for both lovers of
music and those interested in China.
GOOD HAIR (2009).
Those of us who are white or male will have a hard time
understanding the importance of "good hair" to some (many?
most?) black women.
More than just funny, Rock is trying to help us understand this
mindset. I'm wondering if he ever reached understanding himself.
But along the way
he created a classic sociology tutorial for us to enjoy.
HARLAN COUNTY USA
(1976). Coal miners in Harlan County, KY in the mid-'70s labored
under conditions little better than feudal. A young film crew
stumbled on the strike as it was beginning and stayed over a
year until it was over.
I lack words to convey my admiration for this film. It's one of
the greatest documentaries I've ever seen.
I'm not sure I should
include these films, as I won't want to be watching them
on my deserted island. They must be brought along,
though, to remind me how evil man
can be, and how noble.
All my life, I've avoided facing the Holocaust
squarely. Still haven't seen SCHINDLER'S LIST,
for example. Averted eyes seemed better to protect my
sanity. In the last couple years I've started to look.
These are in my home
THE LAST DAYS
Sometimes felt the film to
save if I could take only one.
GHETTO (2002). "In 1939, the last hope for thousands
of Jews lay in the last place on Earth the Nazis would
SEEKING (2004). "...a Jewish father journeys with
his two sons back to Poland to try to find the Christian
farmers who hid their family from the Nazis."
(2011). Not his children - thankfully, he was
childless - but those of some of his closest aides. How do they
resolve their guilt for the sins of the fathers with the Fifth
Commandment? The DVD has a bonus short film, "Kun 65," that is
worth the price of the disc by itself.
MENGELE (2006). The story of Eva Kor, an astonishing
woman, a saint, who in 2018 continues to grace us
with her message and presence.
BLESSED IS THE MATCH
(2008). You're a bright girl growing up in Hungary. On
graduating high school in 1939, you emigrate to Israel. In 1944,
to make contact with partisan forces, you parachute into
Yugoslavia. You are captured in Hungary, trying to find your
FOUR SEASONS LODGE
(2008). After watching this low key film, I couldn't get
it out of my mind for days.
Not in my library is
Night and Fog (1956, Alain Resnais), but it should be
the first film on the Holocaust anyone watches.
(2002, Roman Polanski).
Or Son of Saul
(2015, Laszlo Nemes).
(2005, Yaron Zilberman). Brighter and lighter than the first
three (what films wouldn't be?), and maybe the best introduction
for children to the
Or Keep Quiet
(2016, Blair/Martin). Csanad Szegedi is one of the founders of
Hungary's far right movement. Then he's discovered to have a
Jewish mother and "outed." He faces his Jewish past, and
The rest of my favorite documentaries are
Please scroll up and to the left for more
choices in Deserted Island Movies.