Friday, May 13, 2011

Great Documentaries

A year or two ago, I went on a huge documentary kick. As a kid and young(er) adult, I hadn't seen many documentaries I enjoyed, but suddenly started discovering them at a very rapid pace.

Here are a few I've enjoyed - some popular, some obscure - in alphabetical order. If you're ever looking for an interesting non-fiction flick, I'd recommend one of these:

The Battle of Chernobyl (watch online at this link) - A fascinating, edge-of-your-seat documentary about the events leading up to the Chernobyl disaster in Ukraine, and how the local (and eventually, international) authorities saved the world from an even bigger disaster. There is tons of great historical footage and all of the science-y stuff is explained clearly. This is a fast-paced documentary that watches like an action movie. If you watch one movie from this list, watch this one.

(Bonus reading: check out the New Confinement Chamber that's being built over the old protective sarcophagus at Chernobyl.)

The Devil and Daniel Johnston - All about the rise and fall of a genius singer-songwriter who produced a massive amount of art (music, lyrics, drawings, and more), made an enormous impact on the indie music scene, but faded into pseudo-obscurity due to crippling manic depression and mental illness. I'd never heard of this guy before a friend recommended this film, but after watching it I can say with certainty that Daniel Johnston deserved to have this movie made about him!

Helvetica - Don't tell yourself that a movie all about a font (ie, a typeface) won't be interesting. This documentary covers the creation and evolution of the Helvetica typeface and how it has permeated art, business, and popular culture. Plus, once you're done, you'll never be able to un-notice this font (kind of like once you know about the secret arrow in the FedEx logo, you'll never un-notice it).

King Corn - This one is almost as hard to explain as Helvetica! It's all about corn. Corn that we grow, eat, and turn into fuel and other products. The filmmaker grows a crop of corn all by himself, and follows his produce through its lifecycle, from seed to processing to product. This flick also covers a number of interesting (yes, interesting!) corn-related issues, like government subsidies for growers and the reduction in corn species produced today (about four, if I recall correctly, although there were hundreds of native species of corn when Europeans landed in North America).

Man On Wire - There are so many good things to say about Man on Wire. The story is amazing enough - it's all about a tightrope walker who spends years devising a plan to break into the World Trade Centre towers in New York City, fix a steel wire between the two towers, and tightrope-walk across. Like Battle of Chernobyl, this is a movie that will have you on the edge of your seat.

Rush - Beyond The Lighted Stage - This is the movie that turned me into a true Rush fan. A close and personal look at the history behind one of Canada's greatest bands. You don't have to be into Rush to find this movie interesting - it's a great story about three nerdy kids from Toronto who start making incredible music and hit it big writing wildly progressive music. A really great, engaging film - you feel like you know the band on a personal level after you've seen it.

This Film Is Not Yet Rated - An interesting look at the American movie ratings board, how movie ratings (G, PG, R, etc) are assigned arbitrary, how the ratings process happens behind closed doors, and who the mysterious organization hires to rate movies (and who those raters are connected to!).

Those are a few of my favourites! Leave me a comment if you've seen any of these, or if you know of another good documentary that I should get my hands on.


  1. Nce list, Brahm. We Will definitely check out Battle of Chernobyl.

    Other recommendations:
    Marwencol - a sad and fascinating look at the struggles of a man dealing with the after effects of head trauma and subsequent mental illness.
    Our Daily Bread - a quiet doc that looks at the lives and processes that are involved in food production.

  2. Exit through the Gift Shop- a great look at the rise and commercialization of street art.

    Beyond the Mat - I'm a fan of pro-wrestling (or at least the stories / behind the scenes of it) and this movie does a lot to show the workings of the business and the people who make it their lives.