Feature: The Top Five Documentaries Of All Time

David Bedwell picks his favourite docs.



Documentaries have formed an important part of cinematic history in their examination of truth and real life stories for many years now. Early cinema was all about the basic documentation of what was in front of the camera – a train moving or people walking – and while the style and substance has developed over the years, at the heart of documentary film making is this simple essence of the real world rather than a created one.

These days documentaries can cover important events with worldwide media coverage, or choose to go underground and shine light on issues that may not have been addressed on a wider scale. That’s the beauty of documentary filmmaking – the ability for a filmmaker to choose a subject and show their vision, whether balanced or otherwise. As long as audiences are aware of editing and potential agendas, documentaries can be both enjoyable and informative.

On January 31st, Alex Gibney’s ‘The Armstrong Lie’ is released. This certainly falls into the area of a personality/situation that has had worldwide coverage on television, online, through social media and newspapers etc. Once a spokesperson, idol and hero, Lance Armstrong’s spectacular fall from grace in recent times makes for a challenging and intriguing story, and one that is a must watch for many.

To celebrate the release of ‘The Armstrong Lie,’ we have picked our top five documentaries from film history, demonstrating a variety of stories and emotions. Share your personal favourites in the comments below! (unless it’s Justin Bieber.. then get out of here!)



1. Shoah
Film making isn’t just for laughs or tales of fantasy. Capturing something on screen can be gut wrenching, forcing an audience to watch something uncomfortable and upsetting. It’s easy enough to look away from things in life, turning the news off and continuing a happy existence, but the truth is there are bad things out there. These monstrosities aren’t just confined to history though, which Shoah looks to illustrate as it addresses the long-term effects of the Holocaust. Claude Lanzmann focuses on the survivors, recalling the terror of the past and how they struggle on to continue living in the now. This is an intimate, uncomfortable film to get through, but one of great importance and significance, and one that understandably tops many lists.



2. Fahrenheit 9/11
Michael Moore is pretty much documentary marmite, but there’s no arguing against his ability to get his message across to the masses. Moore is a master at using technology and media coverage to demonstrate what he believes to be issues in the world to as many people as he can. As much a political activist as a film maker, Moore’s work certainly has to be taken with a pinch of salt, but he gets to the heart of the matter here in a very sensitive situation – the US government dealing with the fallout of 9/11. There has been no bigger event in the media and so it’s the perfect subject to document. Whether Moore gets the answers he’s looking for is in doubt, yet by the end of the film it certainly makes you think and raises a lot of questions. That’s all you can ever ask for from a documentary.



3. Grizzly Man
One of those documentaries which covers a subject that you can’t quite believe is true. A bewildering, crazy and fascinating subject unfolds before your eyes and shows you something in the world that you would never think possible. The notorious Werner Herzog took the reins and told the tale of Timothy Treadwell, an ‘expert’ adventurer who was a bear enthusiast and interacted with them in ways you would never imagine. The tragedy of his death at the hands of a grizzly bear contrasted with the beauty of his love and respect for them is something special. A true example of the wondrous and bizarre nature of real life, Grizzly Man is arguably Herzog’s most accomplished work.



4. Night and Fog
Another Holocaust documentary but one very different from Shoah in that it takes a very short and artistic look at the atrocities through the medium of photographs interspersed with the emptiness of today. It is a subject that is never easy to address nor to watch, but one that should never be forgotten. Made in 1955, it arguably gets more powerful as time goes on, as such a painful and unforgiveable time becomes less and less recognisable to us.



5. Don’t Look Back
A key feature of documentaries is the ability to offer an access-all-areas opportunity to the rich and famous in this world, of which their fans could only dream of. Here we have one of the most intriguing and mysterious musicians in Bob Dylan, back in 1965 when he was touring the United Kingdom. Obviously this was a much younger Dylan than we’re familiar with now, and it’s nothing short of extraordinary to be able to look back and see the man in his youth, growing as an artist and a character. An insight not only into music but fame as well, and while times have changed, much stays relevant to those in the spotlight today. One of the most influential pieces of film in history.

The Armstrong Lie is released in cinemas from January 31st 2014 from Sony Pictures UK.