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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

265 Free Doc­u­men­taries Online

Free: Dzi­ga Vertov’s A Man with a Movie Cam­era, the 8th Best Film Ever Made

Wern­er Her­zog Nar­rates the Touch­ing, Exis­ten­tial Jour­ney of a Plas­tic Bag

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.

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