8. The Fog of War (2003) (Watch on Netflix)
There is no doubt that Robert S. Mcnamara led an amazing life. But, it is his tortured conscience and sense of vulnerability that may elevate this biographical documentary from Errol Morris into masterpiece territory.
Withered both by old age and conscience, McNamara shares with us eleven key lessons that he learned from his life as the US Secretary of Defense from 1961 to 1969, spanning the death of JFK and the fateful entry of the US into Vietnam under the Johnson administration; which he does with no small amount of sadness.
McNamara was credited as being one of the “whiz kids” who revolutionised the Ford Motor Company in the 1950s. The company were so enamoured with him that he became the first president of the motor company from outside of the Ford family. He served in this post for less than five weeks, at which time he left due to his appointment as Secretary of Defense under President Kennedy.
From this point on, the documentary seems to portray McNamara as a victim of success, one haunted by his own achievements. From tearing up at the telling of Kennedy’s burial to the analysing of “telling photographs” depicting his relations with Lyndon Johnson, these are the words of a dignified man reduced by circumstance.
His quotation of TS Elliot is aptly placed.
7. Aileen: The Life and Death of a Serial Killer (2003) (Watch on Netflix)
Most of the verbal blows in Aileen: The Life and Death of a Serial Killer are landed by Aileen Wournos herself. Yet, it a desperate polemic from director Nick Broomfeld to the world’s press towards the end of the film that forms the primary statement of the film.
In it, Broomfeld states that the State of Florida, under Governor Jeb Bush, is preparing to execute a woman who has “lost all touch with reality”. He states that this is a disturbing message to send out to the world. Indeed, horrific is Wuornos’ actions were, objectively speaking there is much truth in Broomfield’s assertion.
The stories of Wournos’ crimes are chilling, but not without the notion that Wournos herself was the victim of a cruel societal apathy. Of course, the victim’s families do remind us that Wournos, despite circumstance, has committed heinous deeds that are difficult to forgive. Curiously though, Broomfield takes his usual approach, unassumingly getting to know the subject in order to gain a casual insight into their purpose and nature. With a serial killer, this can be a journey down a dark passage.
Conversationally, before our very eyes, Wournos’s is dragged into a pit of her own delusion. She becomes completely deluded that her arrest was part of largescale law enforcement conspiracy rather than because of her terrible crimes. Broomfeld grows increasingly hopeless, and eventually makes no attempt to reason with her paranoia.
Wournos is guilty, of that there is no doubt. But, one does wonder if she is mentally competent to stand trial, let alone be executed. This is a troubling notion produced by a documentary that entirely allows you to make up your own mind.
6. The Thin Blue Line (1988) (Watch on Netflix)
A work of sheer mastercraft, The Thin Blue Line may well be Errol Morris’ magnum opus. The fascinating central story of the documentary is the case of Randall dale Adams, an Ohio man arrested in texas and convicted of the murder of police officer Robert Wood.
Perhaps more intriguing, however, is David Ray Harris, the distinctly suspicious youth who was with Adams at the time of the murder, who was pardoned only to be convicted of murder himself later in life. The classic “whodunnit” unravels with the precision of knitwork, telling a sordid tale of alcohol, drugs, drive-ins, malt milkshakes, and murder.
Morris’ trademark reenactments have never since been quite so cinematic, he directs recreational scene with Hitchcockian capability. The viewer is forced to question every detail, and even the nature of law enforcement and the justice system. Most frightening of all are the interviews with David Ray Harris, a seemingly polite young man in conversation, but with just enough menace to make you suspect that a barbarian lies within.
In the end, the finest testament to this film’s legacy may well be that it actually resulted in an overturned conviction in the case, a year after the film’s release. This is a documentary that has literally changed lives. Many set out to do just that, few succeed.
5. All This Mayhem (2014) (Watch on Netflix)
Is this a tale of circumstance? A “be careful what you wish for” fable? Or, perhaps, the most subtle tale of the dangers of substance abuse you are likely to see? Having watched All This mayhem, one may find it to be any one of the above, or even all three.
The documentary tells the story of brothers Tas and Ben Pappas, Australian brothers who at a very young age rose to the top of the skateboarding world, beating the likes of Tony Hawk along the way. Yet, the fall from grace is typically drastic.
As Tas falls deeper and deeper into addiction, Ben loses his dedication, returns home to his native Australia, and receives a damning drug conviction. Under the influence of a barely seen but clearly dominant girlfriend, we hear of Ben’s fall into the abyss as Tas desperately attempts to pick up the pieces of his own life.
We get the impression that these two men were almost betrayed by their industry, forcibly removed from the limelight time and again. When things turn criminal and the story becomes darker, it feels almost like the family is the victim of some faustian curse.
For Tas, however, the salvation is right back where he began- with his family, national identity, and his board. As with most great documentaries, this is such a dramatic and constantly twisting tale, you may find it hard to believe that they are not making this stuff up.
4. Life Itself (2014) (Watch on Netflix)
After a lifetime of film criticism, many wondered whether or not a documentary on the topic of the life and times of Roger Ebert would indeed merit “Two Thumbs Up”. Though Ebert sadly did not live to see this documentary reception, but I’m sure his famous thumbs would have been held aloft in celebration. Indeed, celebration is the operative word.
The film balances the sadness, casual optimism, and eventual devastation of the legendary critics final days. If this sounds too miserable a premise, fear not, for the film is also anchored in a biographical narrative that looks back over Ebert’s fascinating life, from surviving alcoholism and writing a Russ Meyer flick, to charming home videos of his fatherly duties.
In the end, one is left with a feeling often associated with Ebert in life- optimism. This man loved life, sobriety, family, Cannes, and, most famously movies. The tears in the eyes of his foster children say it all. Ebert’s was an optimism born out of humility after struggle, of a man who suffered and saw the best of what lay on the other side. He learned to love his co host Gene Siskel in much the same way he learned to love life- slowly at first, then dearly.
The progression of their relationship is presented beautifully through archive footage, and is compelling; as is the film as a whole. A tearjerker that earns its keep, this is proof that journalist’s can be as compelling as their subjects.
“I’ll see you at the movies.”
3. Dreams of a Life (2011) (Watch on Netflix)
Joyce Vincent. Not familiar with the name? Well, once you see Dreams of a Life, you may never be able to forget it.
It is story as unsettling as any horror, as empathising as any kitchen sink drama. In January 2006, the body of Joyce Carol Vincent was found in a London bedsit, in a desolate part of town. It is estimated that the body had been sitting in the living room since December of 2003, over 2 years undiscovered.
The film’s poster asks a chilling question of the viewer: “would anyone miss you?” Why did nobody enquire about Joyce Vincent? Why did nobody care enough to search for her? What bridges must have been burned?
The documentary seeks to answer these very questions. Sadly, there are no easy answers. Many of Joyce’s friends and boyfriends had, as you might guess, been long estranged by the time of her death. As for family, most declined to be interviewed. Many critics maligned the lack f clarity. Yet, the results could be taken very differently.
The vague nature of memory, the bias of nostalgia creates a sense of piecing together the puzzle of a woman that many met, but almost none ever really knew. Joyce lingers like a ghost over the film, a puzzle none can fully solve, and quite tragic without ever seeming to give way to self pity.
The ending is perfect, this is a cautionary tale about those who slip through the cracks, and the absolute necessity to save those we love from themselves.
2. West of Memphis (2012) (Watch on Netflix)
When 3 young boys were found dead in a river in impoverished Arkansas in 1993, the authorities rushed to conclusions as the residents rushed to sensationalism. Three teenage boys, Damien Echols, Jessi Misskelly, and Jason Baldwin were arrested promptly for the crimes, and convicted. What was their crime? Well, firstly it seems, listening to metal music, and adhering to goth culture. Damian, seen as the ringleader, was particularly damned for his belief in the occult, and a perceived lack of remorse.
Following the conviction, evidence to the contrary of the jury’s decision became to mount, and a movement was born.
After no less than three documentaries on the subject already made, producers Fran Walsh and Peter Jackson seek to bring us the final chapter, the quest for the release of the falsely accused men, now known almost universally as the West Memphis Three.
It is a stunning example of surmounting evidence and how a true crime documentary can present evidence in a controlled pace, essential for storytelling within the medium. The suggested culprit speaks volumes also, that a man can have so much evidence against him and never be convicted.
West of Memphis is a clear call to action, but that should not suggest that it isn’t hopeful; such is the film’s immense strength.
1. Brother’s Keeper (1992) (Watch on Netflix)
“Am I my brother’s keeper?”
When Bill Ward is found dead in the dilapidated shanty home that he shares with his brothers Delbert, Roscoe, and Lyman, everybody in Munnsville, New York tunes in to the media hysteria. Was it natural causes, or a “mercy killing” carried out by his brother Delbert?
The ward brothers lives are almost hard to fathom. Unmarried, living together in a makeshift shack with no central heating and limited electricity, it is, as the media puts it, a life that belongs to another century. Of course, xenophobia brings out sensationalism in the press. Every possible scenario is painted for the murder, from a crime of sexual passion to one of petty childhood jealousy.
Perhaps ambiguity is best. The story lies not with a guilty or innocent verdict (though you do get one), but rather in the story of four men who appear to have been born and raised at complete odds with this world, completely divorced from our Western privilege. Furthermore, the townspeople of Munnsville prove beyond question that there’s is a town that will not tolerate bigotry against their own, however marginal the Ward brothers are in this town.
An anti-bullying polemic? A call to action against American poverty? Whatever Brother’s Keeper represents for filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofski, the critics seem universally adamant about one thing- this documentary is a curious masterpiece, but one nonetheless.
You can watch Brother’s Keeper, and all aforementioned, on Netflix right now.
Author Bio: Ross Carey is a Film Studies graduate from County Cork In Ireland. He is an award winning short filmmaker and is in the midst of writing his debut feature film. Before joining Taste if Cinema he was ran a popular blog entitled “Kino Shout! Films”. He will discuss the subject of film at any opportunity.