I should preface this by saying that this list is not my idea of the “best” documentaries of all time, or even necessarily my favorites of all time. Instead, this very short list is a compilation of titles I feel don’t get as much mainstream recognition as other documentary classics like Man With a Movie Camera (1929), Shoah (1985), Nanook of the North (1922), and The Thin Blue Line (1988) to name just a few. This list is merely a suggestion of some other highly accomplished documentaries you should absolutely take the time to watch that just aren’t talked about as often. Each approaches the genre very differently, though they all seem to tackle how to capture “truth” and what exactly that even means.
1) Chronicle of a Summer (1961, dir. by Edgar Morin & Jean Rouch)
In this fascinating portrait of Parisian youth and society shot over the summer of 1960, even the filmmakers are a part of the discussion. Not only are important societal issues tackled, but also the question is raised of how accurate the film’s depiction of “reality” is, and whether or not having a camera involved changes their subjects’ responses. Those being interviewed are even given the opportunity to watch the clips they appear in and then discuss how realistic they are.
2) Welfare (1975, dir. by Frederick Wiseman)
Wiseman is, perhaps, one of the most important names in documentary filmmaking. Although his films are widely respected, some people certainly feel that his fly-on-the-wall style wrongfully assumes complete and objective truth. Regardless of where you stand on that debate, his films were and still continue to be incredibly rich. His subjects are not usually individuals, but institutions, and in Welfare Wiseman focuses in on America’s flawed welfare system.
3) Meet Marlon Brando (1966, dir. by Albert & David Maysles)
The Maysles brothers are better known for their 1975 classic Grey Gardens, but this short doc that follows Brando as he speaks with the press is highly underrated. Brando himself did not care for it, and was apparently unhappy with how he comes across. This always boggled my mind because he couldn’t be more endearing or charming in it if he tried. The documentary is a great study on how the press perceives celebrities, and alternately how they choose to present themselves.
4) Leviathan (2012, dir. by Lucien Castaing-Taylor & Verena Paravel)
Although this film certainly gained some serious critical response (it was in the talks for an Oscar nomination when it was released) it still managed to fall by the mainstream wayside. Perhaps because its style is very far from most typical documentary sub-genres (the filmmakers attached a GoPro camera to a myriad of different things and let it find its own way around a North Atlantic commercial fishing boat) but is one of the most gorgeous films, and takes a completely refreshing approach to the documentary formula.
5) Blood of the Beasts (1949, dir. by Georges Franju)
This 20 minute short documentary was Franju’s first film, and one of the more graphic even still today. It takes a startling look at a slaughterhouse contrasted with everyday Parisian life and will make even the biggest meat lovers question their morals.
Author: Catherine Haas
Catherine Haas is a native Philadelphian who received her master’s in film history from Columbia University. She is a freelance film programmer, writer, and an avid pug enthusiast.