A recent conversation about the greatness of a documentary in theaters today prompted me to create this list; just keep in mind that I omitted music documentaries from possible inclusion because that's a list of its own.
10. CRUMB, 1995
This film about cult cartoonist Robert Crumb took the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance and it's not hard to see why. He came from a family of damaged souls, and of course battled his own demons. Perhaps too dark to be nominated for an Oscar, the film community understandably embraced it.
If you're discovering it for the first time, I highly recommend the Criterion Collection version, which features a commentary with the late Roger Ebert.
9. TIG, 2015
Who can endure a breakup, a near-fatal illness, the death of a parent and a cancer diagnosis ... then go on stage in front of a hundred guests and laugh about it? The incomparable comic, Tig Notaro, who tells her story in this oddly hilarious movie. My original review, when it debuted at the Seattle International Film Festival, is here.
At the time of this writing, you can stream this on Netflix.
8. MY FLESH AND BLOOD, 2004
Susan Tom is a single mother in California who has two biological children and 11 adopted, special needs children. This film chronicles a year in their life, which is run as efficiently as a military operation, but exposes the emotional gaps that result from a parent being spread so thin and gets at the reasons why Ms. Tom seems to be hoarding humans. Michael and I discuss this on a classic episode of Cinebanter.
This film is available on iTunes.
7. CAPTURING THE FRIEDMANS, 2003
What began as a film about kids' birthday party entertainers soon turns into a portrait of a severely dysfunctional family. With two family members accused of sexual abuse (yet maintaining their innocence) the film leaves the audience wondering—if the charges are true, is pedophilia genetic? Note: this is one of the rare instances where I recommend not reading anything about the film before going in. Let the horror unfold and wash over you organically.
Available on demand via HBO GO, this film is still in rotation on the network as well.
6. ETHEL, 2012
If there's such a thing as a refreshing political documentary, this is it. Democrat or Republican, it's hard not to fall for the charms of RFK's widow Ethel Kennedy, who is profiled here by her daughter Rory. It's delightful, sad, surprising and inspiring. I wrote a gushing review of it for Cinebanter, when it played at SIFF and have seen it several times since. Every viewing is a pleasure.
This film can be found in DVD format via Amazon.
5. THE TIMES OF HARVEY MILK, 1984
Though Sean Penn's Oscar-winning turn as the famous politician in the fictionalized version, Milk, was nothing short of phenomenal, I dare say I prefer this documentary over it. Seeing the real people discuss their friend and leader, and with archival footage of Milk himself, the powerful nature of his life and death become all the more luminous. Michael and I discussed it in this episode of Cinebanter.
You can rent this film via Amazon Prime.
4. MARWENCOL, 2010
This is one of those films you walk out of and say to yourself, "What just happened?" I loved it when I saw it at SIFF and was excited to learn a fictional version of it starring Steve Carell called Welcome to Marwen will be released later this year.
You can watch this film via iTunes.
3. DEAR ZACHARY: A LETTER TO A SON ABOUT HIS FATHER, 2008
Only listen to our Cinebanter episode where we talk about this after you've watched the film, because there are spoilers at every turn. This has everything—joy, drama, mystery, horror—you name it. At heart, it's just a story about a father and son and the influence that destroys their lives. By the time I'd finally recovered from seeing it (two years later) I ended up at a Cinequest table with the director, and over drinks gasped all over again hearing additional details that salted the wounds.
You can stream this free with an Amazon Prime membership.
2. FINDING VIVIAN MAIER, 2014
Imagine being infinitely gifted in a medium of art but living your entire life telling no one about that gift, having an alternate career and then dying with a full storage unit of your work that may or may not be discovered. That was the way of Vivian Maier, an immigrant nanny who was also a stunning photographer. Read my original review here. And like I did, find an exhibit of her photos (they regularly tour) and take them all in.
This film is available for purchase on Amazon.
1. PARADISE LOST TRILOGY, 1996, 2000 & 2011
I never thought I'd develop a crush on a convicted killer, but that's what happened when I saw Damien Echols in these films for the first time. It's a harrowing story of a brutal murder of three children and the three innocent teenagers (dubbed the "West Memphis Three") who were convicted of killing them. At the urging of my Cinebanter partner, Michael, I caught up with the first two and we discussed them on our show; the third one I saw in the theater when it was released and then met Damien and his wife at an event three years later.
All three films are sold in a collection via Amazon. Note: After watching, be sure to google the footage of their release if you want a good cry.