In many ways, over the past 10 years, documentary filmmaking has replaced narrative fiction as a way to tell stories at the cinema. There are a number of reasons for this. The principle one is that funding for mid-range independent films dried up. This meant that studios were more comfortable churning out mega-series (Harry Potter, Marvel Cinematic Universe, Hunger Games, Twilight) that had guaranteed revenue streams over a decade, rather than finding small stories to tell and trying to find an audience for them. The small stories that do still make it to the big screen come in the form of soppy Oscar bait inspired-by-true-events paint-by-numbers award-season favorites (King’s Speech, etc). So that leaves documentaries, that are cheap to produce and can make many multiples of their budget back if they're successful. This shift also came about in an environment where traditional documentary-making was being revolutionized by the likes of Shane Smith and Errol Morris. So these films are worth taking a risk on for many producers, and that's why we've gotten some phenomenal documentaries over the last few years. Here's just a handful I feel are worth looking into.
Bowling For Columbine
Michael Moore’s 2002 documentary about the Columbine School Shooting remains tragically relevant 13 years later. The documentary explores America’s relationship to guns and - more broadly - to violence through comparisons with European countries and Canada. It’s interesting to remember that at that time pop culture elements - such as Marilyn Manson and video games - were being blamed for creating a culture of violence, while today the conversation has shifted to the systemic causes of violence in the American system, including so-called legitimate purveyors of violence such as the police. Although Moore is more of a pamphleteer than a documentarian, it still remains an important film.
Watching Asif Kapadia’s documentary about the unfathomably talented and often troubled Amy Winehouse is like discovering her all over again. Much like his last documentary - the equally brilliant Senna - Amy is built from archive footage with no ‘talking heads’. It is powerful and tragic, without ever veering into the hagiographic. In archival performances of her music - juxtaposed with explanations about her personal life - the lyrics are overlaid on the screen given them an entirely new meaning.
20 Feet From Stardom
Darlene Love, Lisa Fischer, Tata Vega. So many people responsible for some of the greatest contributions to music have been relegated to the shadows, 20 feet (that’s about 6 meters for all normal people) from the center stage. From the haunting howls on The Rolling Stones’ Gimme Shelter to Bond Villain Phil Spector breaking record deals, they permeate the music industry. But this Oscar-winning film isn’t about tragedy - although it is occasionally heartbreaking - but rather it is a celebration of the many thousands of people who work behind the scenes to make the music we love.
Nas: Time Is Illmatic
Nasir bin Olu Dara Jones, better known to pretty much everyone as Nas, is a hip-hop legend and one of the all-time great lyricists, so any film about his life is bound to be worth watching. This documentary, directed by graffiti artist and first-time director One9, is more of an emotional snapshot of the Nas’ childhood, his influences and the circumstances in the emerging hip-hop scene that led to his debut studio album Illmatic in 1994. It is a fascinating portrayal of prodigious talent and how it can affect the world, whether or not you like hip hop won’t really factor into your enjoyment of the film.
Russell Brand: End The Drugs War
Russell Brand is undoubtedly a divisive figure. Part Victorian court jester, part standup comedian, part social crusader, it is hard to comprehensively like or dislike him. While I find his linguistic dexterity consistently entertaining, I feel he has made the most resonant impact when talking about drug addiction and campaigning for legal reform in addressing the issue. In this BBC 3 documentary, he sets out to find out how various countries are tackling their problems of drug abuse. He - rather unsurprisingly for anyone with a liberal political worldview - finds that the criminalization implicit in the 'war on drugs' produces enormous harm in the treatment of addicts.
As I wrapped up this list I thought I should add CitizenFour, Indie Games, The Act of Killing, The Internet's Own Boy, everything by Werner Herzog. So I guess I'll be putting together another list soon!