9. Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr. (Errol Morris, 1999)
The name Errol Morris is synonymous with documentaries. Since releasing Gates of Heaven in 1978, his only misstep has been The Dark Wind, which incidentally has been his only non-documentary piece. Regardless of his track record, which also includes the seminal Thin Blue Line, most of his work stays vastly ignored. And so befalls the fate of Mr. Death, a controversial look at Fred Leuchter, “execution technician” and Holocaust denier.
A baffling story of a man who, with no certified training, redesigned electric chairs to be more effective and less of a futile torture device. Lacking any justifiable reason, he became considered an expert in the field of executions. With the title of expert, he was commissioned for the defense of Holocaust revisionist Ernest Zundel during his distribution of hate materials trial in Canada.
In what can only be considered an act of hubris, Leuchter conducts forensic studies of the gas chambers at Auschwitz and other camps concluding with a pseudoscientific journal of Holocaust revisionism—The Leuchter Report.
10. How to Draw a Bunny (John W. Walter and Andrew Moore, 2002)
How to Draw a Bunny attempts to chronicle the mysterious life—or lives—and death of reclusive Pop/collage/performance artist Ray Johnson. Weaving tales from artists, friends, and some performance pieces, the film describes a man no one really knew. Yet, the pieces they add build a narrative of an eccentric and influential visionary, who due to his ambivalence about fame or even an audience, remained primarily unknown outside the art world.
Walter and Moore don’t try to explain Johnson’s life or death—a suicide many believe to be his last performance piece—nor understand it. Instead, they chose to celebrate the man’s work and put Johnson’s influence into the historical context it deserves.
11. American Boy: A Profile of Steven Prince (Martin Scorsese, 1978)
A film set around monologues by Scorsese’s friend Steven Prince may sound horrendously boring. But as Shirley Clarke’s landmark doc Portrait of Jason had proven ten years previous, talking heads can be anything but boring. The reason for this is simple; the subjects are natural raconteurs whose wild tales are told with such conviction and natural flair that the viewer is mesmerized.
In American Boy, Steven Prince regales Scorsese and friends about being outed, killing a man in self-defense—later told in Richard Linklater’s Waking Life—being a road manager for Neil Diamond while in the throes of heroin addiction, among many others. The most famous story is about using a magic marker to place a dot on overdosing girl’s chest then injecting her—in a stabbing motion—with adrenalin to revive her. Sound familiar?
In 2009 Tommy Pallotta released American Prince, a sequel of sorts that catches up with Prince thirty years later. It borrows some of Scorsese’s footage, making it the only legitimate release of any part of American Boy to this day.
12. Blood in the Face (Anne Bohlen, Kevin Rafferty and James Ridgeway, 1991)
Blood in the Face takes place during a convention of white supremacists and neo-Nazis on the property of notorious former Michigan KKK Grand Dragon, “Pastor Bob” Miles. Based on Ridgeway’s seminal book on the history of American hate groups, Blood in the Face features footage of interviews, lectures, and speeches with noted leaders of the eighties hate movement interspersed with historical of footage of people such as American Nazi Party founder George Lincoln Rockwell and the infamous David Duke.
One of the speakers, Frazier Glenn Miller, Jr. is about to stand trial for three murders committed during a 2014 mass shooting outside a Jewish community center. Along with Louis Theroux’s BBC collaborations, The Most Hated Family in America and Louis and The Nazis, Blood in the Face is one of the most in depth and intriguing documentaries of hate in America.
13. Sherman’s March: A Meditation on the Possibility of Romantic Love In the South During an Era of Nuclear Weapons Proliferation (Ross McElwee, 1986)
Ross McElwee has cut an original and quirky niche in the world of Cinéma Vérité. His films are humorous, intimate, and for the most part autobiographical. In Sherman’s March, McElwee attempts to make a film about General Sherman’s “March to the Sea,” only to have a recent break-up consume him.
As he tries to document Sherman, McElwee uses the camera to analyze his past relationships and as a tool to find new ones. He does peer into the legacy left on the South by Sherman, but essentially creates an intimate and self-deprecating take on trying to find new love while trying to comprehend it, along with life, and his traumatizing nightmares about nuclear war.
14. The Children Were Watching (Richard Leacock, 1961)
Richard Leacock, one of the fathers of both direct cinema and Cinéma Vérité, is an iconic figure whose work directly influenced many generations of documentarians. His short masterpiece on the desegregation of schools in New Orleans offers an intimate and haunting meditation on racism.
A conglomeration of vile scenes feature white parents screaming racial epitaphs at young black children and later, violently attacking a white mother who defies them by taking her daughter to school. Interspersed among these are interviews with a black family that hope their children and grandchildren will be given opportunities that were never allowed to them.
Meanwhile, a white patriarch fears desegregation is a Communist plot that will have negative consequences on his family’s lives. Often vulgar and harsh to watch, the film is a crucial examination of heroics and cowardice in a dark period of U.S. history.
15. Brother’s Keeper (Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, 1992)
Brother’s Keeper chronicles the aftermath in the death of William (Bill) Ward. In what becomes an extremely controversial case, the death originally appeared to be due to natural causes. After a coroner examination, William’s younger brother Delbert stood accused of murder in what the prosecution considered a mercy killing. Once taken into custody, the barely literate Delbert made a confession under what is later determined to be duress.
At the heart of film are the three surviving Ward brothers. The men were socially isolated farmers living in extreme poverty and filth in a two-room house. Until the arrest of Delbert, they were social pariahs in their community. After prosecutors charged Delbert, the community rallied around the men, seeing the arrest as a miscarriage of justice toward one of their own, and began championing for Delbert’s release.
16. The Mills of the Gods (Beryl Fox, 1965)
The Mills of the Gods is a near forgotten examination of the early years during America’s involvement in Vietnam. Unlike In the Year of the Pig or Hearts and Minds, Fox doesn’t try to comment, educate or spark a debate on the conflict. She just presents the harsh realities faced by soldiers and the impact it bears on the lives of the Vietnamese without using narration, and few interviews.
Considering the access given by the U.S. military to Fox and her crew, the film contains rather up-close and disturbing footage such as causalities in the aftermath of a bombing and a man being waterboarded.
Made for and originally presented on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s controversial and iconic This Hour has Seven Days, it stands as one of the least assuming and beautifully executed anti-war documentaries ever made. This doc is a rare find. A version taken from an old CBC re-broadcast is streaming on Vimeo.
17. Divine Trash (Steve Yeager, 1998)
Yeager’s Divine Trash primarily covers the early career of cult icon, bad taste aficionado and celebrated filmmaker John Waters. The doc began during the making of Waters’ now infamous cult masterpiece, Pink Flamingos in the early seventies. Yeager covers a lot of ground in understanding Waters through interviews with his family, friends, influences, surviving Dreamlanders, and even Maryland’s last surviving state censor.
Along with clips from his earlier and more obscure films, are ones from underground classics such as Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures, and Hershell Gordon Lewis’ Blood Feast and Mike Kuchar’s Sins of the Fleshapoids. But at the center of it all is the in-depth footage of Pink Flamingos.
It covers the film from storyboard to exhibition, presenting many scene set-ups, while Waters gives background stories to several notorious scenes. Love him or hate him, how Waters manages to pull off Pink Flamingos against incredible odds without losing his vision or integrity makes this worth seeking out. Yeager made a more career comprehensive film about Waters called In Bad Taste that aired on The Independent Film Channel in 2000.