Earlier this year we featured the aesthetically radical 1929 documentary A Man with a Movie Camera. In it, director Dziga Vertov and his editor-wife Elizaveta Svilova, as Jonathan Crow put it, gleefully use “jump cuts, superimpositions, split screens and every other trick in a filmmaker’s arsenal” to craft a “dizzying, impressionistic, propulsive portrait of the newly industrializing Soviet Union.” He mentioned then that no less authoritative a cinephilic institution than Sight and Sound named A Man with a Movie Camera, in their 2012 poll, “the 8th best movie ever made,” But now, in their new poll in search of the greatest documentary of all time, they gave Vertov’s film an even higher honor, naming it, well, the greatest documentary of all time. A Man with a Movie Camera, writes Brian Winston, “signposts nothing less than how documentary can survive the digital destruction of photographic image integrity and yet still, as Vertov wanted, ‘show us life.’ Vertov is, in fact, the key to documentary’s future.”
High praise indeed, though Sight and Sound‘s critics make strong claims (with supporting clips) for the other 55 documentaries on the list as well. In the top ten alone, we have the following:
- A Man with a Movie Camera (Dziga Vertov, 1929)
- Shoah (Claude Lanzmann, France 1985). Lanzmann’s “550-minute examination of the Jewish Holocaust falls within the documentary tradition of investigative journalism, but what he does with that form is so confrontational and relentless that it demands to be described in philosophical/spiritual terms rather than simply cinematically.”
- Sans soleil (Chris Marker, 1982). “It’s a cliché to say about a movie [ … ] that its true shape or texture is in the eye of the beholder – but it’s true of Sans soleil, which not only withstands multiple viewings, but never seems to be the same film twice. It addresses memory even as its different threads seem to forget themselves; it parses geopolitics without betraying any affiliation; it might be Marker’s most elaborately self-effacing film, or his most plangently personal.”
- Night and Fog (Alain Resnais, 1955). “In 1945 moviegoers worldwide became familiar through weekly newsreels in their local cinemas with the unspeakable conditions in the recently liberated Nazi extermination camps. [ … ] Not, however, until Night and Fog (Nuit et brouillard), commissioned to mark the tenth anniversary of the Allied liberation of the most notorious camp, at Auschwitz, did film producers truly confront and define the moral and aesthetic parameters involved in treating such an intractable subject.”
- The Thin Blue Line (Errol Morris, 1989). “A good prosecutor can put a guilty suspect behind bars, we hear in The Thin Blue Line, but it takes a great one to convict an innocent man. Something similar might be said of Errol Morris’s brilliantly unstable, highly influential investigation into the 1976 roadside shooting of a Texas cop and the wrongful conviction of one Randall Adams.” Demonstrating a miscarriage of justice is impressive, but it’s quite another thing to undermine the very notion of a stable truth.“
- Chronicle of a Summer (Jean Rouch & Edgar Morin, 1961). Rouch and Morin “are the architects of a social collaboration and are rigorously open-handed with the materials they’re using. Their loose vox-pop style, beginning each encounter by asking whether the interviewee is happy, disarmingly mixes with scenes that show how cinema, in any regard, must be artificial – employing classic shot-reverse-shot techniques in otherwise uneventful conversational moments.”
- Nanook of the North (Robert Flaherty, 1922). “Nanook of the North is notorious for its fakery, its open-faced igloo and cutesy depiction of the Inuit as untouched by Western culture. [But] Flaherty’s photography is beautiful, and his make-believe methods captured the traditional skills of Allakariallak’s ancestors on film before they died out altogether; to the cinema audiences of the time, Nanook was a journey to a foreign and fascinating place.”
- The Gleaners and I (Agnès Varda, 2000). Varda’s “handheld DV autoportrait of the artist as an older woman,” though it “seems small and simple, albeit rigorous in its intimacy, brilliantly encompasses agriculture, art history, class politics, ecology, economics, recycling raps and (via an interview with a descendant of Louis Daguerre) the origins of cinema.”
- Dont Look Back (D.A. Pennebaker, 1967). “The man born Robert Zimmerman knows well the value of obscuring myths and shifting personas, and part of the fascination of Pennebaker’s pioneering Direct Cinema account of Dylan’s 1965 tour of Britain is the way it captures the singer transforming on camera into ‘Dylan’, the unreachably cool, detached yet wired, lightning-in-a-bottle young genius who, as Greil Marcus memorably wrote, ‘seemed less to occupy a turning point in cultural space and time than to be that turning point.'”
- Grey Gardens, (Albert and David Maysles, Ellen Hovde, Muffie Meyer, 1975). “Imagine if John Waters shot a script by Tennessee Williams and it was broadcast in a TV slot usually reserved for The Hoarder Next Door or How Clean Is Your House? [ … ] a fly-in-a-Harvey-Wallbanger look at the world of Jackie O.’s eccentric cousins, Big Edie and Little Edie (and their interloper, ‘the Marble Faun’). It’s fingernails-down-blackboard wonderful, as the Edies reminisce, sing, dance, yell at each other and watch approvingly as cats and raccoons befoul their rotting Long Island retreat.”
You can read up on the rest of the 50 greatest documentaries of all time, which range across the world, across history, and across the spectrum of truth and fiction, at Sight and Sound.
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Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on cities, language, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.