Last night, Current TV wrapped up “50 Documentaries to See Before You Die,” a month-long countdown series summarizing the best of non-fiction cinema. And our sympathies go out to the folks at Current, because as we well know, any time you put together a “best of” anything list, you’re going to get second-guessed from here to kingdom come. But let’s face it: there are some absolutely puzzling exclusions. No Grey Gardens? Gimme Shelter? Hearts of Darkness? Gates of Heaven? Woodstock? The oldest titles on the list are The Thin Blue Line and The Decline of Western Cilvilization Part II: The Metal Years — golden oldies from 1988. We liked Catfish fine, but is there anyone on this earth who thinks it’s a better doc than Salesman? Who thinks Shut Up & Sing tops Don’t Look Back? Who finds Food, Inc. more vital than Titicut Follies?
And don’t even get us started on the fact that Dear Zachary isn’t on there.
But let’s put those complaints aside, because a list like this ultimately does more good than harm — any time a cable network can shine a light on great documentary films, we’re all for it, and these are (almost) all genuinely great documentaries. Where we really disagree is in the ranking — they picked the right movies (post-’88, anyway), but they’ve got them in the wrong order. Super Size Me at #5? Seriously? (Yes, yes, of course it’s just a coincidence that the show is hosted by Super Size Me director Morgan Spurlock.) So we’ve taken the 50 titles Current compiled and reorganized then into own top 10, with the reasons why, after the jump.
10. Capturing the Friedmans (#20)
This portrait of the unhinging of a seemingly average family is emotionally exhausting and deeply unsettling, yet is unquestionably a work of unblinking fairness and uncommon honesty. Director Andrew Jarecki tells the story of an upwardly-mobile Great Neck family whose patriarch (and later, one of his sons) is accused of pedophilia; the filmmakers rely heavily on the family’s own home videos and audio recordings (they were obsessive documenters, recording everything), adding an element of voyeurism to the already-uneasy mix. You’re watching this family come apart, right there on the screen, and you can’t take your eyes off it.