8. Enron: Smartest Guys in the Room (Alex Gibney, 2005)
Where Michael Moore takes on major figures, politicians, liars, athletes, insurance companies, etc. with a humorous slight of hand that begs viewers not to take it all too seriously, Alex Gibney has made a career out of coming after these people with a stiff club. There’s nothing funny about Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, which on the surface breaks down how the corrupt titular corporation embezzled and gambled with hard working people’s money as a way of lining their own pockets.
Digging only slightly deeper this doc, released before the 2008 financial crisis, was staring us down the barrel of the same gun that was about to explode in our faces. Looked at today, Enron – the film and the company – looks like only one microcosm of an enormous systematic letdown.
Gibney’s style is slick and entertaining, by using cinematic re-enactments and leaving characters in talking head interviews that are elegantly framed behind high contrast lighting. Similarly, the ominous, fast-paced scoring lends a sense of dread and impending doom over the whole proceeding. In a sense, Gibney has fashioned Enron into a noir antagonist who exists only out of greed and will wriggle away only to find a new loop-hole by which it can continue to steal.
By now, we know how the story ends, unlike most noirs, with the bad guys getting away pretty easily and the protagonists left to lick their wounds. Gibney has gone on to make a career out of films just like this, but none have the lasting effect, like the meltdown itself, of Enron.
7. Capturing the Friedmans (Andrew Jarecki, 2003)
Next to Michael Moore’s two event features and Super Size Me, perhaps no film has transformed the landscape of contemporary documentaries quite like Andrew Jarecki’s Capturing The Friedmans. Like most transcendent nonfiction films, this stature is as much because of the ensuing controversy as the film itself. Jarecki originally set out to tell the story of party clowns. But what was once a modest portrait exploded into an investigative study of villainy when one of the clowns revealed his father and brother were both in prison for child molestation.
Capturing the Friedmans is about what occurs when we take the time to peak behind the curtain of a quaint American town and a stereotypically happy American family. Arnold Friedman, a well-known member of his wealthy Great Neck, New York community, for years conducted computer lessons out the basement of his family’s home. As Friedmans portrays with the pace and suspense of a thriller, Arnold would soon be accused of abuse, sending his entire town to the front page and turning a heinous crime into a circus of finger pointing.
At the core of Capturing the Friedmans there’s an indictment of a legal system that’s based too much on fame. The Friedman family, including his devastated wife, contests that officials with agendas outside the well-being of the victims, conducted a witch hunt. While Friedmans would turn out to be a box office and critical hit, garnering an Academy Award nomination, reaction from those involved was filled with the vitriol of poking a far from healed wound.
Many of the children (adults in the film) took offense to the insinuation that they fabricated details or were coerced into testimonies. The truth of the case may never fully be revealed, though the power of this film is to unfurl horror and hysteria in equal measure. Not unlike the thousands of buzz stories that would incarcerate social media in the years to follow, Capturing the Friedmans presciently portrays a culture fascinated with putting a microscope on everybody but the observer.
6. Bowling for Columbine (Michael Moore, 2002)
Almost as soon as Michael Moore revolutionized the way we consider mainstream theatrical documentaries by making them into “events,” he set forth a critical firestorm that takes aim at his manipulative, overt, and combative tactics. Perhaps no one scene has gotten greater attention in this regard than Moore’s uncomfortable confrontation with an aging and visibly ill Charlton Heston about the actor’s stature as the most famous long-time spokesman for the National Rifle Association.
However, Moore’s personality and natural comedic abilities, mixed with an undeniable understanding of visual storytelling, make moments like these become exactly the point. Heston is cognizant enough to be a spokesman for an organization that puts guns in people’s hands, he should be able to take on a man whose questions aren’t prepared and whose answers won’t come rehearsed.
Of all his films, Bowling for Columbine, feels like Moore’s most compassionate and, dare I say, non-manipulative. He states outright that he’s a gun owner and card-carrying member of the NRA. It’s a conservative stance, if also a prescient vision, when considering how the gun debate has only widened to untenable heights in the years since the film was released.
While Moore’s films bring up questions of ethics, he’s far from the first filmmaker to manipulate to make an overarching point. Credit Moore for being honest at least about what he is trying to say and allowing his tongue-in-cheek humor to lighten what would be insufferable if handled as overly earnest. Many imitators have spawned since Moore’s docs went mainstream. Very few can compete with his sheer watchability.
5. Jesus Camp (Heidi Ewing & Rachel Grady, 2006)
Depending on who you ask, Jesus Camp might be the most beautiful and encouraging Christian film of the last decade or it could be the most horrifying thing ever captured. That’s the effect of director Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s unobtrusive vision. Contrary to Michael Moore’s approach, the directors never let us know entirely what side they are on. The subject, three children attending Kids On Fire School of Ministry, a Christian summer camp that uses many of the same concepts as normal summer camp to excite kids into giving themselves over to the Lord.
The camp is located just outside Devils Lake, North Dakota and controlled by Becky Fischer and her ministry, “Kids in Ministry International.” On the surface, this may seem like adults indoctrinating the youth into a dubious, cult-like lifestyle. Certainly, the film does little to argue that this isn’t occurring. But Ewing and Grady are careful to consistently offer the children a chance to speak, without assuming they are being systemically brainwashed.
The interviews with the children are startling. They offer opinions on atheism, homosexuality, and living one’s life for God. What we see is a new generation of people who believe as strongly in the Word as the crazed adults national media has provided us in spades. Yet, these kids aren’t crazy. If anything, they are loners, outsiders, and looking for a way to fit in. The matriarchal Becky Fischer comes off a bit less appealingly, yet even she remains kind, giving, supportive, and loving.
For every scene, like the children screaming in tongues, that makes Kids on Fire look a foot away from Jim Jones-level kooky, there’s far more that offer the familial togetherness that would put otherwise out of place children at ease. The point isn’t knowing where Ewing and Grady stand (a pomposity that often inflicts contemporary documentaries), but to offer the subject its own untouched platform.
If one worked just a little bit, the directors’ stances can likely be surmised, but credit them for seeing this film as a glimpse into the future of a nation whose growing philosophical and religious divides may define the next century. Who better to show us the future, then the children who will be a part of it?
4. Waltz with Bashir (Ari Folman, 2008)
How does one make a documentary that reflects the dreamlike confusion of a 19-year-old soldier in a foreign land fighting a war he can’t entirely understand? For Ari Folman, the filmmaker and aforementioned solider in Waltz with Bashir, it was to animate the entire experience. Using transcripts of real interviews and composite real-life characters, Forman re-enacts the violence of war, the muddled state of consciousness, and his own effort 20 years later to make sense of the entire event. The action centers around the Sabra and Shatila massacre in Beirut, Lebanon.
Over a period of two days the Kataeb Party, a Lebanese Christian militia, murdered between 762 and 3,500 mostly Lebanese and Palestinian civilians. Though this context is necessary to put us in the time and place of Waltz with Bashir, you would not be alone in feeling entirely out of sorts. And while Folman’s pursuit of context is be the core of the story, his lack of understanding by the end is precisely the point.
Like Chris Marker’s work, Waltz with Bashir sees memory, or the recounting of memory, as fact to be a critical error in human arrogance. For our minds compartmentalize, re-contextualize, and deny our pasts each step of the way. We see what we want to see and remember what feels right. On the night of the massacre, Folman remembers being with his comrades bathing by the seaside. What set his pursuit into action is a lack of understanding about how he could be unaware of so many people being killed.
The animation is not merely gimmick, but instead as realistic portrait of how our minds work as any documentary masquerading as truth. What is real and what is manipulated has been a basic question of nonfiction film since the very beginning of movies. Using the most distanced of approaches allows Folman to be at once objective and entirely honest about how little we ever really know about what horror may have occurred in front of our eyes.
3. When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts (Spike Lee, 2006)
One may come into When the Levees Broke with all the prejudices usually associated with a Spike Lee picture regarding race. However, like most of his work, this prejudice – one that expects a bias, one-sided view – couldn’t be further than what Lee has actually constructed. An all-encompassing vision, When the Levee Broke follows the people in New Orleans actually affected by Hurricane Katrina.
The path of destruction and the long-shadowed aftermath are confronted from the inside out rather than from an outsider attempting to impose a greater sociological point. Perhaps that’s the lasting effect of the picture, how Lee’s camera often captures people attempting to rebuild and to help one another.
Straight-forward and stylistically clean, the only flourish involves a marching band moving through a broken, flood-damaged, and desolate New Orleans street playing with a purpose, and with a spirit that will not be defeated. The film is truly the requiem in four acts that its title purports, thoroughly examining how Katrina developed, how the world and those at ground zero responded, while highlighting the lacking and emotionally charged relief efforts.
While Lee doesn’t attempt to be much more than an investigative journalist, his camera catches moments that somehow hardly made it to the national media circuit, such as the actor Sean Penn wading through knee-high water, working with locals to rebuild and save anybody who may still be trapped. Sometimes films can ask their most deeply penetrating questions by hardly asking any at all. Instead just showing us something and demanding we have the moral compasses to say, “Why?”
2. Grizzly Man (Werner Herzog, 2005)
Werner Herzog has long been a staple in the world cinema scene, but it wasn’t until the 2000s that he become a mainstream household name churning out dozen of movies in American multiplexes. For that he may have Grizzly Man to thank. An unnerving portrait of Timothy Treadwell and his reluctant girlfriend, Amie Huguenard, who set out to prove that man can live peacefully with wild grizzly bears. Herzog hardly attempts to hide that he believes Tredwell is a little bit nuts, but that only furthers how compassionately the director handles his story.
After all, Herzog himself is a little bit nuts, and as many of his other films will attest, we are all a little bit nuts. The result is a mix of investigation into what compelled Tredwell to do as he did and gorgeous found footage film that paints picturesque landscapes of Alaskan nature.
Timothy Treadwell died after he and Huguenard were attacked and eaten by a hostile bear. Audio of their death is captured, and in what could be a bit of performance art, Herzog listens in front of Treadwell’s mom only to tell her never to listen to it. Except this isn’t performance at all. He’s not Michael Moore hosting us through a scripted idea, but instead he’s reacting to his material as one might after seeing a horrifying bit of video that they have to decide to air publicly.
Herzog always has a way of judging from a non-judgmental space. Like his 2011 film, Into the Abyss, he takes on subjects that he doesn’t necessarily agree with, so as to explore with the audience rather than in front of them. This scene with Treadwell’s mom then encapsulates virtually all that makes Herzog tick.
1. Lake of Fire (Tony Kaye, 2006)
At first it may seem a curious choice for Tony Kaye to film his abortion documentary in black and white. The characters and the towns in which they reside are so filled with rich texture certainly their distinct colors, landscapes, and locales would be better rendered in color. Yet, black and white was his choice.
Possibly in an effort maintain the ominous tone purported by a marketing campaign that contained an image of a grim reaper and emphasized that the topic of abortion in America has left far more than just the unborn babies dead. Most likely Kaye chose this palette because it speaks directly to the opposite end of the movie’s thematic spectrum. The pictures may be black and white but nothing else this epic look into this devastatingly violent and murderous issue is.
While the stylization might make one think the director imposes an imprint all over the film, making choices that at best bring entertainment value to a much-discussed topic and, at worst, force-feed a message the creator wants to have heard. Kaye does neither. In fact, the overt style begins and ends with the chosen gray scale palette. Instead, Lake of Fire interviews people involved in various ways and on multiple sides of the debate. He doesn’t stick to patients or victims or activists or doctors, but instead encompasses all of these people and more.
The effect is a story that wrenches the viewer from one side of the story then harshly to the other side and then back, repeatedly throughout its brisk 152-minute runtime. Known mostly for his sadly few fiction films, notably American History X, with Lake of Fire, Kaye achieves the ultimate balance of a moral ambiguity that runs a thematic thread through all his work. The easy answers are just left of rational and just right of emotional, meaning they’re nowhere near black or white.
Author Bio: Zac Petrillo is a graduate of Chapman University’s Dodge College of Film and Media Arts. A New York City native, he currently writes and produces fiction and nonfiction film and television out of Los Angeles. Follow Zac on Twitter @zpetrillo.