Next month, former American Vice-President Al Gore releases the follow-up to his critically acclaimed – and indeed Academy Award-winning – climate change documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, titled An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power.
This truly is the golden age of the prestige big screen documentary, and so – to mark the film's release – we thought we’d take a look back at some of the best ones of the past ten or so years…
In 1994 a 13-year-old American boy by the name of Nicholas Barclay went missing from his home in San Antonio, Texas. Nothing came of the search and in the years afterwards most people presumed him dead.
Then, a few years later, a teenager surfaced in Spain claiming to be the long-lost Nicholas. Except this boy (whose real name, it transpired, was Frédéric Bourdin) was seven years older, spoke with a French accent, and had multiple physical differences. Bafflingly, he still managed to fool several officials in Spain and the US, and, it appeared, members of Barclay’s own family.
Bourdin himself is interviewed in Bart Layton’s gripping, masterfully told docu-film, which asks how could a con-artist, so clearly unlike the person he was impersonating, manage to swindle an entire family? Could it be that they were so hungry to believe that their Nicholas was alive that they cast aside the plain evidence of their own eyes? Or was there something else, more sinister, going on?
Unrolling like a classic Hollywood mystery, the movie has a killer twist in its tail, and it’s a story that will have you holding your breath for its entire 99-minute running time.
Dreams of a Life
Before she turned feature film director with 2014’s The Falling, Carol Morley’s calling card was this haunting and melancholic drama-doc about Joyce Carol Vincent, a woman found dead in her apartment in January 2006. Which would have been tragic, but not necessarily newsworthy, except for the fact that she’d been laying there dead for over two years, unnoticed by her neighbours.
The surprise was that Joyce wasn’t elderly, or a junkie, or an eccentric old hermit. She was young – 38 – and had a wide circle of friends and family. So how did her death remain undiscovered for over two years?
Morley’s heartbreaking film fills in Vincent’s back story (through dramatic reconstructions and interviews with her social circle), and asks the question of how, in the 21st century, and in a bustling metropolis like London, someone can die in such obscurity.
Searching for Sugar Man
Like all great documentaries, Searching for Sugar Man tells a story that you’re just staggered has never been heard before. Centring on a 60s folk singer by the name of Rodriguez, the movie paints a picture of a nearly-man who, after the Stateside failure of his two albums, slipped gently into obscurity. Except over in South Africa, it seems, where it turned out that Rodriguez’ records were as big as the Beatles’.
Worshipped like a counter-culture God, these South African fans didn’t even know whether this Rodriguez guy was alive or dead. In a pre-internet age, with no information about him out there, myths built up – that he’d shot himself on stage, that he’d committed suicide by setting himself on fire – but what was the truth?
We won’t spoil it here, except to say that Malik Bendjelloul’s warm and joyful documentary will make you fall in love with the music of this lost genius.
There’s both a comic and a tragic quality to Werner Herzog’s compelling portrait of self-styled “kind warrior” Timothy Treadwell.
A life-long bear enthusiast, he would make constant videos of himself, flamboyantly declaring his love of the grizzly. Certainly not a naturalist from any traditional mould, there’s a loony, sometimes recklessly innocent quality to Treadwell’s monologues yet there was definitely star quality in him, if ever BBC 3 or MTV needed a surfer dude-type nature presenter.
Sadly, however, Treadwell would never taste the fame that he so obviously craved, at least not in his lifetime.
In 2003, Treadwell’s remains were discovered, along with those of his girlfriend, after a bear attacked the two of them. Along with their bodies a tape was found, which included six minutes of audio of their final, agonised moments.
The documentary doesn’t play the tape, but it does include footage of Herzog listening to it, and then suggesting to its owner, Jewel Palovak, that she destroy it.
The most alarming moment here is when we see Treadwell revealing to his ever-present camera, “I will die for these animals, I will die for these animals, I will die for these animals…”
As the video evidence here proves, Treadwell was often foolish about his own personal safety and had a occasionally naive, Disneyfied view of the animals he loved so much. When the end comes in the movie, it feels somehow horribly inevitable.
Bowling for Columbine
The Columbine High School massacre was a school shooting that occurred on 20 April 1999, at Columbine High School in Columbine, Colorado.
Michael Moore’s film is about that tragedy – asking why and how it happened – but it’s also about the larger question of why America’s violent crime rate (especially concerning firearms) is substantially higher than those of other nations.
Including interviews with the victims’ families, as well as people from the pro-gun lobby and anti-firearm campaigners, Moore’s film is a sobering watch. Its most memorable moment however must be Moore confronting then-president of the powerful National Rifle Association (NRA) Charlton Heston and grilling him on why gun-related homicide is so much higher in the United States than in other countries. Annoyed at being ambushed, Heston sensationally huffs off, leaving Moore and his microphone chasing after him.
A brilliantly incendiary and thought-provoking movie from one of the masters of political documentary making.
What do you think The Shining is about? Do you think it’s simply about a frustrated writer who goes mad at an isolated hotel and tries to kill his family? Well then your theory is not wanted for Room 237, a documentary that explores the sometimes barking, sometimes fascinating, sometimes scary world of Shining conspiracy theorists.
There’s obviously something rich about Stanley Kubrick’s movie that inspires so many differening readings. For one person here, The Shining is all about the genocide of Native Americans; for another it’s Kubrick’s “confession” of helping fake the moon landings; for someone else it’s about the Holocaust.
You may not agree with any of the crazies here, but their level of their self-belief is truly gobsmacking.
Roger Ebert was probably the most famous film critic in America during his lifetime. As the co-host of the groundbreaking Siskel & Ebert & the Movies TV show, Ebert brought the hitherto rarified art of film reviewing into the front rooms of ordinary people for the first time.
Steve James’ poignant film looks back at the life of this most passionate and quick-witted of movie fans, while at the same time documenting his battle with thyroid cancer (by the time James got to make his film, Ebert had been robbed of the power of speech).
There’s testimony here from Ebert’s friends and family and from some of the filmmakers whose work he loved and loathed. Even Martin Scorsese pays tribute, telling James that Ebert’s incisive criticism often spurred him on at key moments in his own career.
Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films
Throughout the 1980s, Cannon Films had a towering reputation for putting out trashy, derivative quickies, the sort of movies that people rented at the video store when they’d exhausted all the big budget blockbusters.
There’s much to love in this affectionate history of the shamelessly schlocky film company, especially the clips from many of their 100+ movies.
Its heads, Israeli cousins Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, prized themselves on their ability to cobble together together movies with barely-existent plots, wooden acting, gratuitous nudity, extreme violence and half-assed concepts at an insanely prolific rate.
It’s a hard thing to sit through an entire Cannon movie, so the joy of Mark Hartley’s documentary is seeing the sheer horror of the company’s z-grade output in non-lethal clip form.
A must for any lover of cheap and cheerful cinema.
A fascinating study of political hubris, Weiner takes a warts and all look at the disastrous 2013 campaign of Anthony Weiner to become the Mayor of New York City.
Weiner had sensationally resigned his role as a US Congressman in 2011 when he was caught up in a sexting scandal. Most politicians would have slid quietly away after that but Weiner returned two years later, asking the people of New York to vote for him to become Mayor.
Things were initially looking good for the one-time Congressman until – amazingly – ANOTHER sexting scandal hit the press. And then another. And another…
Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg’s film captures every agonising twist and turn of Weiner’s ill-fated campaign (which he doggedly sticks to, despite an avalanche of allegations and his wife leaving him) as you ask, why is he continuing to let the cameras film all this? Lucky for us that he did though.
Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck
Although various documentaries have been made over the years about Nirvana’s doomed frontman, Brett Morgen’s award-winning film was the first to be made with the full co-operation of the singer’s family, including widow Courtney Love and daughter Frances Bean Cobain.
With unparalleled access to the Cobain family’s archive (the home movie footage of a toddler Kurt plating in his parents’ back garden is heartbreakingly sweet), Morgen’s warmly intimate film does a grand job in giving psychological depth to a soul too often caricatured as a self-destructive junkie.
The movie paints a picture of a debilitatingly fragile man, with a complicated relationship with fame (he purposefully made a chart-friendly rock album with Nevermind, but then railed against the popularity it gave the band) and a desperate need to be loved and understood.
What’s your favourite documentary film? Let us know @Cineworld.
An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power opens at Cineworld on 18th August.