I'm a big fan of documentaries, so when I saw an article with a new list of '50 Documentaries to See Before You Die,' I was intrigued. How many of them have I seen, and how many of them would I have to run out and rent before a wayward asteroid obliterates us?
I included the list below, and was disappointed at the relatively small number I'd seen.
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50. Spellbound (2002)
49. Truth or Dare (1991)
48. The Kid Stays in the Picture (2002)
47. One Day in September (1999)
46. Little Dieter Needs to Fly (1998)
45. The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years (1988)
44. Burma VJ (2008)
43. When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts (2006)
42. Catfish (2010)
41. The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (2007)
40. When We Were Kings (1996)
39. Biggie & Tupac (2002)
38. March of the Penguins (2005)
37. Inside Job (2010)
36. Taxi to the Dark Side (2007)
35. Paragraph 175 (2000)
34. Brother’s Keeper (1992)
33. Tongues Untied (1989)
32. Dogtown and Z-Boys (2001)
31. Jesus Camp (2006)
30. Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004)
29. Man on Wire (2008)
28. Gasland (2010)
27. Tarnation (2003)
26. Murderball (2005)
25. Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (2005)
24. Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills (1996)
23. The Eyes of Tammy Faye (2000)
22. Shut Up & Sing (2006)
21. Exit Through the Gift Shop (2010)
20. Capturing the Friedmans (2003)
19. Touching the Void (2003)
18. Food, Inc. (2008)
17. Street Fight (2005)
16. Bus 174 (2002)
15. Crumb (1994)
14. Dark Days (2000)
13. The Fog of War (2003)
12. Bowling for Columbine (2002)
11. Paris Is Burning (1991)
10. Grizzly Man (2005)
9. Trouble the Water (2008)
8. An Inconvenient Truth (2006)
7. The Celluloid Closet (1995)
6. The War Room (1993)
5. Supersize Me (2004)
4. Waltz With Bashir (2008)
3. Roger & Me (1989)
2. The Thin Blue Line (1988)
1. Hoop Dreams (1994)
Now I'd only seen ~10 of these, which is kind of sad I guess. There are a couple on here that I've been dying to see, like Street Fight, but I haven't been able to. (We might have to add the newly released 'Senna' to the list, which I want to see but can't persuade my wife that a film on a dead Brazilian formula one driver would be good). But in looking at the list, I noticed a couple things that got me thinking about it and documentaries in general.
1 - Why is Best Worst Movie not on here? I mean, sure, a documentary on the lasting cultural impact of Troll 2 might not have the same emotional heft as climate change, the plight of the modern worker, or some of the other topics covered in the listed documentaries, but still.
2 - Did they not make documentary films in the 1980's? Or the 1970's? Just about everything on this list comes from the last ten years. Does that imply that people have only recently started making good documentaries? Or is the implication that anyone who's a serious doc fan has already seen all the older stuff and thus doesn't need to go out and rent them before the reaper comes?
Let's assume it's the first one and not the second, that raises another interesting question. As technology and the ability to film/edit/produce higher quality video has become more accessible, has that led to advancement in the documentary field? More simply, is it easier to make a high-quality documentary now? Probably. You might even be able to do the whole thing on a smartphone by now.
But I also wonder if, as an audience, people are developing more of a taste for stuff that's, 'real'. Since the late 90's, which is when I believe Survivor came out and started the genre (even if MTV's Real World would've been earlier), lots of major network programming has swung towards reality shows.
I would argue that's a result of the lower production costs, but people also watch it, and both major networks and cable channels have fed the beast.
The umbrella of television's reality universe has several distinct sub-genre's...
1: Game Shows - Survivor (is that even still on?), Amazing Race, Wipeout (funniest ACL tears you'll see anywhere)
2: Slow Motion Train Wrecks (i.e., shows that allow you to feel better about yourself because everything on it is such a cluster-F of 'Who could actually be like that?' moments) - I'm assuming this would include MTV's Teen Mom, that I Didn't Know I Was Pregnant show, Hoarders, and basically everything on Bravo
3: Class Tourism - Shows that are the closest to documentaries, in that they seem more apt to put you into a world you don't know much about, and that remains the focus more so than the actual people involved. I'd put all the job porn shows in here, Ice Road Truckers and their ilk.
Now all of those aren't really documentaries, but they share a lot of similarities. There both ostensibly non-fiction (although reality shows have writers, which I can't figure out). They also have very similar camera usage, cutaways to interviews, and the occasional 'Oh Crap What Just Happened' moment.
And as people watch more of that stuff on TV, from my perspective, it stands to reason that they'd become more interested in films made in a similar style.
As usual, I have absolutely no facts or research to back this up, but if there has been a recent renaissance in documentary film-making, maybe all that TV is a part of the reason why