18. Just Another Missing Kid (John Zaritsky, 1981)
This winner of 1982’s Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature began life as an episode of Canada’s much acclaimed and long-running investigative news show The Fifth Estate. Just Another Missing Kid tells the story of a Canadian teenager, Eric Wilson, who left Ottawa, ON traveling in a campervan to Boulder, CO. Somewhere in rural Nebraska he disappears.
The film begins with the ambivalence in all sectors of policing—state, provincial and federal—had to the possibility that Eric was even missing. From there it traces how the family spent their own time and funds to find Eric and, with the help of an American P.I., eventually his murderers.
Just Another Missing Kid also provides an early example of the controversial use of reenactments in documentaries to frame the narrative. It doesn’t however diminish the harsh exposé of a system where the plight of the victim is often in greater opposition to the rights of the perpetrators. Currently the film is streaming on CBC’s website under their Fifth Estate page.
19. Lake of Fire (Tony Kaye, 2006)
Taking fifteen years to make, Lake of Fire is a marvel of documentary filmmaking. At two-and-half hours, Kaye amasses a great deal of research and information on the philosophies and theories for and against abortion. Interviews cover all aspects of society including: doctors, clergy, radical terrorists, academics, sociologists, feminists and philosophers, to bring about a greater understanding of why this debate still exists.
Kaye follows protests, and uncovers insane conspiracy theories that several fundamentalists propagate, while contrasting these scenes with the aftermaths of attacks on doctors and their workers, and even follows a woman going into a clinic and getting an abortion. Many scenes are disturbing, but unlike the photos used in protests, Kaye does not use them in a matter that sensationalizes or exploits the subject. A tricky premise considering the subject matter, but this is why it is effective.
20. Streetwise (Martin Bell, 1984)
Ninety minutes of watching street kids explaining their lives and trying to survive is not easy. Thirty years on, Streetwise is as true today as it was when shot in 1983. It was made after renowned photographer Mary Ellen Mark, the late wife of director Martin Bell, and writer Cheryl McCall, published an article in Life magazine on the Seattle street kids they befriended. Nine teens are featured, but the primary focus is on Tiny.
A thirteen-year-old prostitute who lives on and off with an alcoholic mother who doesn’t seem disconcerted by her daughter’s life. Kids hustle, others dumpster dive, some get into cars with johns and before the credits role, one of the young men, Dwayne, takes his own life the day before his seventeenth birthday. Not for the faint of heart, but a compelling watch none-the-less. Bell and Mark continued to follow Tiny (Erin Blackwell) through the years concluding with the short, Erin in 2005.
21. Tokyo-Ga (Wim Wenders, 1985)
In Tokyo-Ga the great German New Wave director sets out to chronicle the Japan and Tokyo that is carefully constructed in the work of the Japanese master Yasujiro Ozu. He presents interesting interviews with Ozu’s cinematographer Yuharu Atsuta and his favorite actor Chrishu Ryu, but eighties Tokyo becomes the subject of the film. Far from the Tokyo Ozu featured in what is perhaps his greatest masterpiece, Tokyo Story.
Wenders discovers the Americanized twist on Japanese culture. Fluid scenes of rural Japan collide with teenagers obsessed with rockabilly, carefully created wax displays of food used as menus and most of all: the noise, neon and bustle of modern Tokyo. An insightful film journal that speaks as much about Ozu and Japan as it does about Wenders himself.
22. Titicut Follies (Frederick Wiseman, 1967)
Over the past fifty years and more than forty films to his credit, Frederick Wiseman’s unique approach to film has had a profound influence. Titicut Follies is his debut and employs what would become his trademark editing and shooting method. As with all his films, Wiseman shot this over a period of a few weeks capturing vignettes in the lives of the inmates at a Massachusetts State Hospital for the Criminally Insane.
The film reveals the harsh conditions—inmates in their own filth left naked in barren rooms—and inhuman treatment at the hands of bullying guards and doctors. Without the use of narration nor a conscious string of narration to carry one scene to the next, the images are often jarring and harsh even when they are presenting something banal as an inmate birthday. Because of the content it’s no surprise that it was banned until 1991.
23. Olympia: Fest der Völker/Fest der Schönheit (Leni Riefenstahl, 1938)
It is hard to separate Leni Riefenstahl the genius, visionary, and auteur from the Nazi political machine in which she worked and along with the philosophies her work propagated. Her personal history within Nazi Germany continues to be debated but her contributions to filmmaking are not.
Olympia set out to be another propaganda film selling a homogenized Germany to the West. But once the games begin, conscious or not, Riefenstahl celebrated the athletes. To do this she pioneered the use of tracking shots, odd angles, different lenses and close-ups to create a visual construction that would become a common aspect still used in modern cinema.
From the gorgeous dreamscape introductions that open both films, to her imaginative diving sequences, Olympia is well worth investing the three and half plus hours.
24. Warrendale (Allan King, 1967)
Warrendale is the first feature from one of Canada’s preeminent documentary filmmakers. Using the method King called “actuality drama,” Warrendale, named after the institute featured, dissects the lives of troubled children. Over the course of almost two months King followed twelve children of varying ages to examine the use of an experimental treatment called “holding.”
The practice was used to control and deal with the children’s emotional and or physical outbursts. Many documentaries deal with the deplorable conditions or abuses that overrun various institutions, but King doesn’t take that angle. He builds a warm and effective story about the lives of emotionally disturbed children and the workers who are involved in their lives.
Commissioned for the CBC, it was never aired due to profanities King refused to edit. Instead, it was given a theatrical release and a screening at Cannes where it won the Prix d’art et d’essai and for King, the praises of Jean Renoir.
25. Tarnation (Jonathan Caouette, 2003)
Tarnation is a D.I.Y. film journal that examines Caouette’s life and the profound effect of his mother’s mental illness. He blends a loose narrative together using an archive of footage, photographs, video diaries and Super 8 movies he collected over the previous twenty years.
The editing, especially the first two-thirds, gravitates toward a trippy, mildly avant-garde and claustrophobic collage. He explores the violence of his early childhood, growing up gay, the grandparents who raised him, and his mother’s absence and return. The movie does have a tendency to push the boundaries of exploitation and at times comes off narcissistic.
With that aside, it has an abundance of originality, and an eclectic esthetic that makes it an inspiring piece of no-budget filmmaking. Caouette followed it in 2011 with Walk Away Renee, about a road trip with his mom.
Author Bio: Trevor MacLaren is a freelance writer and music geek from Halifax, NS Canada.