Favorite Films: Documentaries

Last night I watched Somm (2012) directed by Jason Wise. It is a documentary about 4 gentlemen taking the exam to become master sommeliers, a test which is almost impossible to pass. If you at all consider yourself a foodie or a wino (forever), it is a documentary you should definitely check out. Even if those two topics don’t interest you, it is worth a watch because it’s a beautifully shot film about the crazy passion of some truly dedicated individuals. Watching this film inspired me to write today’s 40 Day’s of Blogging post about some of my favorite documentary films.

This is only a small sample. Here they are in order:

4. How to Survive a Plague (2012)-David France

Sadly, most everything I know about HIV/AIDS comes from Rent. How to Survive a Plague opened my eyes to this terrible disease and how those living with it became their own biggest advocates for research, treatment, and recognition. You get swept up in this story of people who are quite literally fighting for their lives and who rather than waiting for a change from the government or medical institutions, took matters into their own hands. I have to admit that I was sobbing by the end.

What I love about How to Survive a Plague is that (like Rent), it takes a seemingly hopeless situation and gives it hope. The people in this film are (mostly) ordinary individuals who worked together to create the change necessary to save lives. They spoke out and stood up for a disease that was killing millions and that no one was paying attention to. And while the events in the film come off almost as a history lesson, it is important to note that they only took place over the last 20 or so years. It is a film that needs to be seen to celebrate and remember the cost of victory and so that the mistakes and intolerance of the past are not repeated in the present.

3. Man on Wire (2008)- James Marsh

If you were lucky enough to be alive in August of 1974 then maybe you remember Philipe Petit, the man who walked across a tightrope strung in between the two towers of the World Trade Center. I heard about it from one of my favorite books, Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann, which opens describing people on the streets of NYC looking up and seeing Petit all those feet in the air. Man on Wire follows Petit from his preparations to his eventual tightrope walk and beyond using a combination of actual footage and photographs, reenactments, and present day interviews.

I love Man on Wire because it plays like a heist film, a documentary Ocean’s Eleven if you will. We see Petit practicing, assembling his crack team, and making plans to get onto the roof of the building (which is surprisingly easy and scary to think about in this post 9/11 world we live in). Marsh draws you in and gets you caught up in the action and adventure of it all; sometimes you almost forget you are watching a documentary. It is one of those films that not only excites, but inspires because you think, “If this man can walk on a 3/4″ 6×19 wire cord 1,368 feet in the air, what’s stopping me from achieving my goals?” Impossible is nothing indeed.

2. The Invisible War (2012)-Kirby Dick 

The Invisible War is about the rape of female, and in some cases male, soldiers in the United States military. It is one of those documentaries that makes you feel helpless as you watch it and want to do something as soon as it ends. To think that something like this can happen in our country, to the women who are giving their lives to protect us, is anger inducing, frustrating, and deeply saddening. Testimonies by women in every branch of the military reveal the system that protects the men and punishes the victims of these crimes. It is a film you have to see to believe and even then you can’t comprehend what you are watching (especially the scene where a woman says she was told that rape is an “occupational hazard” of being a female solider).

This film isn’t beautiful or inspiration like some of the others on this list, but it is important and necessary to watch. It has been seen by military members and leaders alike and is creating an important national conversation. Which is exactly what a documentary film should do. However, after watching this film you’ll understand that just talking about something like this will never be enough.

1. Jiro Dreams of Sushi (2011)-David Gelb 

This documentary is about a much lighter subject than some on this list, but it doesn’t make it any less of an impact. Like SommJiro Dreams of Sushi is a film that brings you into a very insular world and the people who inhabit it. In this case that means Jiro: an 85 year old Japanese sushi master who owns a 10 seat, 3 Michelin star sushi restaurant where reservations need to be made at least up to six months in advance.  His entire life is dedicated to the art of perfecting his craft and finding someone, namely his sons, to continue his legacy. He quite literally “dreams of sushi.”

I love this film because while watching you feel that you are part of this mysterious and almost secretive world. The way Jiro makes sushi is very much a ritual, one you become a part of through the beautifully film sequences. Like Jiro, Gelb does not rush his shots. He lets us seem numerous rolls of sushi being crafted and laid on a plate like offerings to a god. The music, by Philip Glass, never overpowers the beauty of the scene, but instead compliments it like music for a dancer in a ballet. This film is a study in gratitude that someone like Jiro still existing in this world of “instant” everything. Jiro is a master plain and simple. You don’t have to like food or even sushi to appreciate someone who is this good at what they do.

Final Words

  • Honorable mentions: 5 Broken Cameras, Restrepo, and Forks Over Knives
  • If you want to watch any of these documentaries mentioned in this post (including the ones listed in above bullet point) they are all streaming on Netflix
  • I still really need to see The Square 
  • Cutie and the Boxer looks really strange, but I have heard some great things about it so it’s on my to watch list
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