Jiro Dreams of Sushi (2011)
I had to start off by mentioning Jiro. Not only is this documentary fantastic, but it’s one of the more recognizable titles in this list. I have friends who either never watched, or claimed to hate documentaries, but ended up loving this movie. I think it’s a great jumping off point into the genre. Jiro Dreams of Sushi chronicles the life of Jiro Ono, an 85-year-old sushi chef who runs one of the best sushi restaurants in the world. However, as much as this is a film about the quest for gastronomic perfection, it’s also a film about family, legacy, personal sacrifice and how all these things fit together (or don’t).
The Imposter (2012)
This movie makes the list for a few reasons. The first reason is that it’s just so goddamned surreal that I’m not sure how anyone could not be spellbound as the story unfolds. The second reason is that it’s filmed very cinematically, which I think makes it easy to get into. This is one of those movies where the less you know about it going in, the better, so I’ll leave you with only this one sentence to describe it’s plot. A 13-year-old Texan boy goes missing and shows up 3 years later in Spain. Reality is often stranger than fiction.
The Great Happiness Space (2006)
This is the film that got me into documentaries. The Great Happiness Space shows us the depressing world of Japanese male host clubs, where women come to hang out with attractive men and buy exorbitantly expensive alcohol. The result is an in-depth look into a complex emotional masquerade, and the motivations and feelings from both the men and women involved. Highly recommended.
Best Worst Movie (2009)
Troll 2 is widely considered to be one of the worst films ever made, but at the same time it has a sort of charm and sincerity to it that’s also made it a massive cult hit. Even if you haven’t seen Troll 2, this documentary is worth watching, but I think you’ll get more out of it if you have. Best Worst Movie was made by one of the child actors in Troll 2 and takes a look at many of the people who were involved in the film’s production and attempts to explore just how a fantastic mess of a movie like this ever could’ve gotten made. The result is sometimes hilarious and sometimes depressing, but very much worthwhile.
Life in a Day (2011)
On July 24, 2010, the YouTube community was asked to film and upload a portion of their life. The resultant 94 minute film has been edited down to what I would describe as the beat of the world. At once beautiful, harrowing, exciting, depressing, crushing and relateable.
Confessions of a Superhero (2007)
This documentary looks into the lives of some of the superhero impersonators who stand around on Hollywood Blvd in Los Angeles, making a living by taking pictures with tourists. Extremely interesting look into the less glamorous side of Hollywood.
Sick: The Life and Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist (1997)
Bob Flanagan is an incredible and complex character, a performance artist and self-proclaimed super masochist with cystic fibrosis. It’s heartbreaking to see his body degrading, but fascinating to watch him take control over it through the directed pain he and his wife inflict upon it. All that said, this movie is tough to watch. Flanagan goes through a great deal of both emotional and physical pain, and the film shows every second. It’s absolutely fascinating and absolutely worth it, but if you don’t think you could watch someone drive a nail through the tip of their own penis, this movie might not be for you.
I Think We’re Alone Now (2008)
This documentary is about 2 obsessive fans of the 1980’s pop star Tiffany. It’s easy to see people like this, laugh them off as crazy and just move on, and it’s really nice to get a chance to see into their lives more in-depth.
In an attempt to explore the sincerity of the guru “industry”, filmmaker Vikrim Gandhi poses as an Indian guru and sees how far it will take him. It would’ve been easy for this to have devolved into a sort of “Ha ha, look how dumb all these people are!” type thing, but it’s not at all. It’s sincere and respectful to everyone involved, but is also a very interesting look into the reality behind guru culture and spirituality.
The Queen of Versailles (2012)
The Siegel family was incredibly rich. So rich, in fact, that they were able to set about building a replica of the Versailles Palace to live in; set to be the largest and most expensive single family house in the US. While this documentary was being filmed to chronicle all this, however, their time share business collapsed, and their fortune along with it. We witness a family’s descent into normality. It’s sometimes laughable just how out of touch they seem with how the rest of the world lives, but it’s also incredibly humanizing. The ultimate over-inflation and resulting explosion of the American Dream.
The Ambassador (2011)
I almost can’t believe this film exists. Documentarian Mads Brügger forges an identity as a diplomat to the Central African Republic in order to insert himself into the heart of the diamond trade. What follows is terrifyingly unbelievable look into industry, corruption and violence.
Filmmakers Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger take their cameras into the trenches for a “day in the life” look at what it’s like to fight in the Korengal Valley, Afghanistan, nicknamed the most dangerous place on earth. There, a platoon of battle-weary men fight the Taliban, an elusive spectre of an enemy that they rarely actually see. This documentary reveals extraordinary insight into the surreal combination of back breaking labor, deadly firefights, and camaraderie as the soldiers painfully push back the Taliban.
The Act Of Killing (2012)
The Act of Killing is a documentary based on the Indonesian genocide in 1965. The killings resulted in one of the most brutal genocide in history, with nearly a million people slaughtered within a year. If you’ve ever tried to imagine what a Nazi conquered world would be like, this documentary might be closest thing we’ll ever have to actually knowing. What we discover is that when history is written by the victors, we see something very frightening emerge: acceptance of brutality as not only necessary, but heroic. The same paramilitary death squads that carried out the assassinations are politically strong today and count with government ministers among their members. They proclaim themselves national heroes and boast loudly about their “achievements”, which include murder, torture and rape. Director Joshua Oppenheimer interviews some of these gangsters and invites them to reenact the murder scenes by adapting them to their favorite movie genres (Westerns, musicals, etc.)