50 Must-See Documentaries, Selected by 10 Influential Documentary Filmmakers

How to get a handle on documentary film? Given not just the quantity but the wide variety of works in the field, with all their vast differences in style, duration, approach, and epistemology, getting up to speed with the state of the art (or perhaps you consider it a form of essay, or of journalism) can seem a daunting task indeed. But as luck would have it, ten experts on documentary film — documentarians themselves, in fact — have just done some of the work for you, selecting a total of “Fifty Documentaries You Need to See” for The Guardian.

Few pictures in the history of cinema have played as important a role in the formation of a genre as has Dziga Vertov’s 1929 Man with a Movie Camera, which Man on Wire director James Marsh named as an essential. “This was the first truly subversive, playful documentary,” he says. “It’s notionally a day in the life of a city in the Soviet Union and so it has, on a purely sociological/historical level, great value. But what it does beyond that is to show you the means of production: the filming, the cutting room, the editing – all the things that are going into the making of this film.”

You can, of course, watch Man with a Movie Camera free at the top of this post. For the other 49 Documentaries You Need to See, you may have to do some more searching, but they’ll repay the effort many times over with their intellectual stimulation, their unexpected drama, and their exploration of the borderlands between cinematic fiction and cinematic fact. Few films of any kind perform that last mission as astutely as Abbas Kiarostami’s Close-up (available on Hulu if you start a free trial), about a man’s impersonation of famous Iranian filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf, re-enacted with the very same people originally involved: the impostor, the family he tried to trick, the judge who presided over the ensuing trial, and even Makhmalbaf himself.

Close-up (as well as one of Makhmalbaf’s own movies, Salaam Cinema) appears among the picks from Joshua Oppenheimer, a documentarian specializing in examinations of massacres in Indonesia. When you’ve watched all the recommendations, you might consider circling back and checking out Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence. By the same token, after you’ve seen Agnès Varda’s The Gleaners and I, have a look at Lucy Walker’s Waste Land; after Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man, Khalo Matabane’s Story of a Beautiful Country. But fair warning before you launch into this viewing project: once you come out of it, you won’t see the possibilities of cinema in quite the same way ever again — at the very least, you’ll see infinitely more of them.

For another list, see The 10 Greatest Documentaries of All Time According to 340 Filmmakers and Critics.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and style. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Christopher Lee Reads Five Horror Classics: Dracula, Frankenstein, The Phantom of the Opera & More


Image via Wikimedia Commons

The great horror actors of the genre’s golden age—the time of Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy, and yet more Dracula—succeeded on the strength of their highly unconventional looks. Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, and Christopher Lee were not faces you would pass on the street without a second look. But they succeeded equally because all three, including Karloff, made use of some very well trained voices—voices honed for the theatrical.

They have elevated even the campiest material through the use of their voices, and further elevated many already great stories by reading them aloud. Bela Lugosi contributed his Hungarian-accented baritone to a reading of Poe’s “The Telltale Heart,” sounding in every line like he might break into “I vant to suck your blood.” Karloff, the more versatile voice actor, narrated Aesop’s FablesRudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories, and too many other books to list.

Christopher Lee has also read Poe, a lot of Poe. And—rather typecast or landing the best voiceover gig of all—he recorded five classic horror novels: Dracula, Frankenstein, Phantom of the Opera, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and The Hunchback of Notre Dame. (Though we might argue about whether Victor Hugo’s novel belongs in this category).

Lee read Dracula once before, in an adaptation made for a graphic novel in 1966. Here, he reads Bram Stoker’s novel unabridged, unlike some of the other books. You can purchase these in a compilation CD. Or you can hear them on Spotify for free, either in your browser or using their software. (Hear Phantom of the Opera here and The Hunchback of Notre Dame here). However you hear his readings, like all of Lee’s voicework—even his heavy metal Christmas album—these narrations practically vibrate with ominous tension and suspense.

Looking for free, professionally-read audio books from Audible.com? Here’s a great, no-strings-attached deal. If you start a 30 day free trial with Audible.com, you can download two free audio books of your choice. Get more details on the offer here.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

The First Film Adaptation of Alice in Wonderland (1903)

Once lost, this eight minute, very damaged, but very delightful silent version of Alice in Wonderland was restored several years ago by the British Film Institute. It is the first film adaptation of the 1865 Lewis Carroll classic. And at the time, the original length of 12 minutes (eight are all that’s left) made it the longest film coming out of the nascent British film industry.

After about a minute, the eye ignores the damage of the film, like the ear ignores a scratched 78 rpm record. Viewers can expect several vignettes from the novel, not a flowing narrative. It starts with Alice following the White Rabbit down the hole, the “eat me” and “drink me” sequence, the squealing baby that turns into a piglet, the Cheshire Cat, the Mad Tea Party, and the Red Queen and her playing card minions. The coloring of the negative is a BFI reconstruction of the original colors, by the way.

The film was produced and directed by Cecil Hepworth and Percy Stow out of their Hepworth Studios in Walton-on-the-Thames, near London. They show knowledge of the camera trickery pioneered only a few years earlier by Georges Méliès, like the shrinking and growing Alice and the appearance of the Cheshire Cat. That cat, by the way, was the Hepworth’s family pet. Hepworth himself plays the frog-headed footman, and his wife played the Red Queen.

May Clark, who played Alice, was 18 at the time, and had already worked on several Hepworth productions, and not just acting. According to her bio at the Women Film Pioneers project, she did a bit of everything around the studio, “from special effects and set decoration to costume design and carpentry.” The early days of film have a real “student project” feel about them, no pigeonholed roles, just everybody chipping in.

As for Cecil Hepworth, he appeared destined for a career in film, as his father ran magic lantern shows. Cecil worked for several companies before setting up his own and wrote one of the first books on the subject, Animated Photography: The ABC of the Cinematograph. His company continued to make films in this early style through 1926, but eventually ran out of money. To pay off debts, the receivership company melted down his films to get the silver, which was the reason most scholars thought his films were lost. In 2008, one of his films was discovered, and then “Alice.” There may still be others out there.

You can find Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in our collection, 800 Free eBooks for iPad, Kindle & Other Devices. And the 1903 film listed in our other collection, 4,000+ Free Movies Online: Great Classics, Indies, Noir, Westerns, Documentaries & More.

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Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the FunkZone Podcast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, read his other arts writing at tedmills.com and/or watch his films here.

An Animated Carl Sagan Talks with Studs Terkel About Finding Extraterrestrial Life (1985)

This week, Blank on Blank wraps up its series “The Experimenters,” with an episode animating a conversation between Carl Sagan and Studs Terkel–two figures we’ve highlighted on our site many times before. But never have we brought them together. So here they are.

Recorded in October, 1985, as part of Terkel’s long-running Chicago radio show (find an archive of complete episodes here), the conversation touched on some the big questions you might expect: the compatibility between science and religion; the probability we’ll encounter extraterrestrials if given enough time; and more. You can hear more outtakes from their conversation here:

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The Met Digitally Restores the Colors of an Ancient Egyptian Temple, Using Projection Mapping Technology

Thanks to the tireless efforts of archaeologists, we have a pretty clear idea of what much of the ancient world looked like, at least as far as the clothes people wore and the structures in and around which they spent their days. But we seldom imagine these lives among the ruins-before-they-became-ruins in color, despite having read in the history books that some ancient builders and artists created a colorful world indeed, especially when a special architectural occasion like an Egyptian temple called for it.

“As depicted in popular culture, ancient Egypt is awash with the color beige,” writes the New York Times‘ Joshua Barone. “A trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art would seem to reflect that notion: The Temple of Dendur, with its weatherworn sandstone, could fit in naturally with the earth tones of Aida or The Mummy.

But Egyptologists know that this temple, like many others of the ancient world, was painted with vivid colors and patterns. In ‘Color the Temple,’ a marriage of research and projection-mapping technology, visitors to the Met can now glimpse what the Temple of Dendur may have looked like in its original, polychromatic form more than 2,000 years ago.”

temple in color

Image via @Burning_Luke

While the ravages of time haven’t destroyed the various scenes carved into the temple’s walls, they’ve long made it next to impossible for scholars to get an idea of what colors their creators painted them. Originally located on the banks of the Nile, the temple endured century after century of flooding (by the 1920s, almost nine months out of the year) which thoroughly washed away the surface of the images. But after some serious historical research, including the consultation of a 1906 survey by Egyptologist Aylward M. Blackman and the Napoleonic Description de l’Egypte, the Met’s team has come up with a pretty plausible idea of what the scene on the temple’s south wall, in which Emperor Caesar Augustus in Pharaoh garb presents wine to the deities Hathor and Horus, looked like in full color.

But it would hardly do to buy a few buckets from Sherwin-Williams and simply fill the wall in. Instead, the Met has used a much more advanced technology called digital projection mapping (also known, more Wired-ly, as “spatial augmented reality”) to restore the Temple of Dendur’s colors with light. You can get a sense of the result in the two videos at the top of the post, shot during the Color the Temple exhibition which ran through March 19.

For a closer look into the process, have a look at the video just above, created by Maria Paula Saba, who worked on the project. As you can see, the use of light rather than paint allows for the possibility of a variety of different color schemes, all of them quite possibly what the ancient Egyptians saw when they passed by, all of them fitting right in to the details and contours the ancient Egyptian artists put there — a thrill impossible to overstate for those of us who grew up with ancient-Egypt coloring books.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and style. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

11 Shakespeare Tragedies Mapped Out with Network Visualizations


Every story has its architecture, its joints and crossbeams, ornaments and deep structure. The boundaries and scope of a story, its built environment, can determine the kind of story it is, tragedy, comedy, or otherwise. And every story also, it appears, generates a network—a web of weak and strong connections, hubs, and nodes.

Take Shakespeare’s tragedies. We would expect their networks of characters to be dense, what with all those plays’ intrigues and feasts. And they are, according to digital humanities, data visualization, and network analysis scholar Martin Grandjean, who created the charts you see here: “network visualization[s] in which each character is represented by a node connected with the characters that appear in the same scenes.”

The result speaks for itself: the longest tragedy (Hamlet) is not the most structurally complex and is less dense than King LearTitus Andronicus or Othello. Some plays reveal clearly the groups that shape the drama: Montague and Capulets in Romeo and Juliet, Trojans and Greeks in Troilus and Cressida, the triumvirs parties and Egyptians in Antony and Cleopatra, the Volscians and the Romans in Coriolanus or the conspirators in Julius Caesar.

Grandjean’s visualizations show us how varied the density of these plays is. While Macbeth has 46 characters, it only achieves 25% network density. King Lear, with 33 characters, reaches 45%.


Hamlets density score nearly matches its number of characters, while Titus Andronicus‘ density number exceeds its character number, as does that of Othello by over twice as much. Why is this? Grandjean doesn’t tell us. These data maps only provide an answer to the question of whether “Shakespeare’s tragedies” are “all structured in the same way.”

But does Grandjean’s “result speak for itself,” as he claims? Though he helps us visualize the way characters cluster around each other, most obviously in Romeo and Juliet, above, it’s not clear what a “density” score does for our understanding of the drama’s intent and purposes. With the exception of the most prominent few characters, the graphics only show various plays’ personae as nameless shaded circles, whereas Shakespeare’s skill was to turn most of those characters, even the most minor, into antitypes and anomalies. Perhaps as important as how they are connected is the question of who they are when they connect.

You can view and download a complete poster of all 11 of Shakespeare’s tragedies at Grandjean’s website.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

5 Books You Can Read Again …. and Again and Again: Here’s Our Picks, Now Yours

Recently, a Metafilter user asked the question: which books do you reread again and again, and why— whether for “comfort, difficulty, humour, identification, whatever”? It got me thinking about a few of the ways I’ve discovered such books.

Writing an essay or book about a novel is one good way to find out how well it holds up under multiple readings. You stare at plot holes, implausible character development, inconsistent chronologies, and other literary flaws (or maybe features) for weeks, months, sometimes even years. And you also live with the language that first seduced you, the characters who drew you in, the images, places, atmospheres you can’t forget….

But reading alone can mean that blind spots never get addressed. We hold to our biases, positive and negative, despite ourselves. Another great way to test the durability of work of fiction is to teach it for years, or otherwise read it in a group of engaged people, who will see what you don’t, can’t, or won’t, and help better your appreciation (or deepen your dislike).

Having spent many years doing both of these things as a student and teacher, there are a few books that survived semester after semester, and still sit prominently on my shelves, where at any time I can pull them down, open them up, and be immediately absorbed. Then there are books I read when younger, and which seemed so mysterious, so possessed of an almost religious significance, I returned to them again and again—looking for the most enchanted sentences.

If I had to narrow down to a short list the books I consistently reread, those books would come out of all three experiences above, and they would include, in no necessary order—

Absalom, Absalom!, by William Faulkner: I’ve written several essays on this novel, over the course of several years, and I love it as much or more as when I first picked it up. It’s a book that becomes both more grim and more darkly humorous as time goes on; its vertiginous narrative strategy creates an inexhaustible number of ways to see the story.

Wuthering Heights, by Emily Bronte: I read this novel as a child and understood almost nothing about it but the ghostly setting of “wiley, windy moors” (as Kate Bush described it) and the furious emotional intensity of Heathcliff and Catherine. These elements kept me coming back to discover just how much Bronte—like Faulkner—encircles her reader in a cyclone of possibility; multiple stories, told from multiple characters, times, and places, swirl around, never settling on what we most want in real life but never get there either—simple answers.

Song of Solomon, by Toni Morrison: Morrison’s novel extracts from the 20th century African American experience a tale of profound individual struggle, as characters in her fictional family fight to define themselves against social inequities and to transcend oppressive identities. Their failures to do so are just as poignant as their successes, and characters like Pilate and Milkman achieve an almost archetypal significance through the course of the novel. Morrison creates modern myth.

The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, by Michael Chabon. I taught this novel for years because it seemed like, and was, a great way to introduce students to the complications of plot, the joys of speculative fiction, and the empathetic imagining of other people and cultures that the novel can enable. I can think of many ways some critics might find Chabon’s book politically “problematic,” but my consistent enjoyment of its wild-eyed story has never diminished since I first picked up the book and read it straight through in a couple of days, fully convinced by its fictional world.

Labyrinths, by Jorge Luis Borges. The Argentinian writer’s best-known collection of stories and essays requires patient rereading. My first encounter with the book early in college provoked amazement, but little comprehension. I still can’t say that I understand Borges, but every time I reread him, I seem to discover some new alcove, and sometimes a whole other room, filled with inscrutable, mysterious treasures.

This list is not in any way comprehensive, but it covers a few of the books that have stayed with me, each of them for well over a decade, and a few of the reasons why. What books do you reread, and why? What is it about them that keeps you returning, and how did you discover these books? While I stuck with fiction above, I could also make a list of philosophical books, as well as poetry. Feel free to include such books in the comments section below as well.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Watch City Out of Time, A Short Tribute to Venice, Narrated by William Shatner in 1959

Last month, Canada lost one of its important filmmakers, Colin Low. Over a career spanning six decades, Low worked on over 200 productions at the National Film Board of Canada. He won countless awards, including two Short Film Palme d’Or awards at the Cannes Film Festival. His work inspired other soon-to-be-influential filmmakers, like Ken Burns and Stanley Kubrick. And he helped pioneer the giant-screen IMAX format.

Above you can watch City Out of Time, Low’s short tribute to Venice. The 1959 film, writes the National Film Board of Canada, “depicts Venice in all its splendor. In the tradition of Venetian painter Canaletto, the film captures the great Italian city’s elusive beauty and fabled landscapes, where spired churches and turreted palaces soar into a blue Mediterranean sky.” The film also features a narration by a young William Shatner, then only 28 years old, whose voice sounds nothing like the one we’d hear several years later in Star Trek, never mind those unforgettable spoken-word albums he started releasing in the late 1960s.

City Out of Time will be added to our list of Free Documentaries, a subset of our collection 4,000+ Free Movies Online: Great Classics, Indies, Noir, Westerns, Documentaries & More.

The second film on the page is Low’s 1952 animation, The Romance of Transportation in Canada, which won a Short Film Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival.

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