A co-worker of mine recently expressed an interest in learning more about Scientology so I recommended the recent HBO documentary Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief (2015).
This lead to a broader discussion about great documentaries. The discussion was good enough that I thought I would publish the results. Here are some of the better recent documentaries that I can remember seeing:
6 Days to Air: The Making of South Park (2011)
Don’t doubt my credibility simply because I started this list with a documentary about the making of South Park. You’ll have plenty of reasons to doubt my credibility when it starts coming to the conspiracy-based documentaries. What 6 Days to Air delivers is an incredibly human perspective on a couple of creators who seem to put themselves above everyone else’s criticism. Who is South Park co-creator Trey Parker the most critical toward? Scientologists? Mormons? David Hasselhoff? The correct answer is that Trey Parker is the most critical about himself and his own art.
If you’re lucky, Citizenfour will convince you that Edward Snowden’s thought process got derailed somewhere along the way, because otherwise you’re bound to start believing that there is a massive global surveillance scheme in which everything you say and do is being monitored. Regardless of the outcome, Citizenfour paints a rare picture of a man who will either be considered a traitor or a great patriot for years to come.
Dark Days (2000)
I have always been interested in “hidden cities.” There are societies rumored to exist beneath Berlin, Portland, and, of course, New York City. In Dark Days, we actually get to follow the lives of several people who live off the grid and then some in abandoned subway tunnels beneath New York City. It is amazing how well some of these people are able to live compared to their above-ground counterparts. This film definitely gets you thinking.
Dogs on the Inside (2014)
The first of two prison documentaries on the list, Dogs on the Inside follows several prison inmates who have decided to take in rescue animals and train them to be good pets. The heartwarming part of this documentary is the two-way benefit. The dogs find out that they don’t have to fear abuse or neglect, and the prisoners get a chance at emotional rehabilitation. This one is definitely a tear-jerker.
The Elephant in the Living Room (2010)
In my home town there has always been a rumor that there is a guy at the end of a long driveway who has giraffes and other exotic animals. My curiosity about people keeping exotic animals as pets lead me to checking out The Elephant in the Living Room. The documentary is mostly interesting but at one point it gets really disturbing. I couldn’t recommend it more highly.
Exit Through the Gift Shop (2010)
This documentary is about street artist Thierry Guetta and his strange attempt at greatness. What draws you in are the diaspora of street art artists centered around Banksy who are interviewed and the contrast between Guetta’s obvious flaws and his amazing drive to fake it until he makes it.
Indie Game: The Movie (2012)
It is not exactly easy to make a living off of video game creation, but a handful of creatives have achieved the sublime and succeeded at creating some truly fantastic independent games, some of which might give EA or Activision a run for their money, but you don’t make it this far without sacrifice. If you don’t think there was any blood, sweat, or tears shed in the making of Super Meat Boy, Braid, or Fez, then you are certainly wrong.
Jiro Dreams of Sushi (2011)
Jiro Dreams of Sushi is one of the most brilliantly shot documentaries I have ever seen. One would think that the film crew has the same kind of work ethic as Jiro, the sushi chef who has devoted every ounce of his being and every moment of his time to becoming the best there is at what he does. When reflecting on the tough economic climate in the United States, it is hard not to wonder what things would look like if we all focused on increasing our skill the way that Jiro does while preparing sushi.
Loose Change 911: An American Coup (2009)
It is certainly controversial to suggest that the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 were an inside job, but nobody is forcing you to jump to conclusions. Loose Change examines details regarding the destruction in New York City and elsewhere that just don’t seem to add up. Paranoia is a dangerous and discrediting disorder, but healthy suspicion on the other hand ought to be a pre-requisite for patriotism.
Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles (2011)
When I lived in New York City I remembered seeing this strange inscription in the middle of a cross walk, but I was drunk so I didn’t pay it much heed. A few years later, I became enamored with the documentary Resurrect Dead which deals with these cryptic messages claiming that the dead can be resurrected on Jupiter as witnessed by Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey. This documentary really creeped me out.
Serving Life (2011)
The second of two prison documentaries on this list, Serving Life shows what can happen when convicts are given a chance to do good for their community by serving as end of life hospice care practitioners. If you’re the least bit concerned with prison reform, consider what might come from giving prisoners on good behavior an opportunity at meaningful and possible life-changing employment. In fact, imagine what it would be like if we all had some kind of meaning at our day-to-day job.
TINY: A Story About Living Small (2013)
For most people there is a serious dilemma that occurs when you get to a certain age. You have to decide if you want to spend your life travelling or if you want to buy a house and stay in the same place for your whole life. However, there is a growing group of people who have decided to take a middle path. They build small houses on top of a trailer and take them wherever they go. TINY certainly forced me to reassess my concept of housing. Just keep in mind, if you have a significant other you both have to agree to live this way. You can’t force an issue like this.
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My personal belief is that not all documentaries have enough content or are not gripping enough to warrant a 90-120 minute length. The documentaries I chose for this list not only justify their runtime, but each of them brought me a great deal of inspiration during a time when I was, as Jackson Browne would say, “running on empty.” You don’t have to be particularly interested in the specific subject matter of each of these films. Just try them out when you need a little more oomph to your viewing schedule. You won’t be disappointed.