Director Brian Standing (War is Sell, Pedalphiles), and founder of Prolefeed Studios kindly sent a list of his 12 favorite documentaries. And here they are–along with Brian’s comments on the films:
1. Gap-Toothed Women (Les Blank, 1987)
Les Blank is a huge influence for me, not just for his joyous documentary style, but also for the way he has successfully remained completely independent of the Hollywood/television system. I love all of his films,
but this curious exploration of the nature of beauty is the one that sticks with me the most.
2. Fast, Cheap and Out of Control (Errol Morris, 1997)
Another huge influence on my work. Morris is best known for the Thin Blue Line, and of course for The
Fog of War, which won an Academy Award. This film, however, for me completely redefines how a documentary
can look. Masterful storytelling that starts simply and gradually ventures into more and more metaphysical
3. Lessons of Darkness (Werner Herzog, 1992)
Together with Blank and Morris, Herzog completes my holy trinity of documentary filmmakers. (The three of
them, by the way, are close friends. Their film lives intersect in Les Blank’s Werner Herzog Eats His
Shoe, in which Herzog settles a bet that Morris would never complete his first film, Gates of Heaven.) In
Lessons of Darkness, Herzog recasts the Kuwait oil fires left behind by the retreating Iraqi army as a
science fiction movie. Hypnotic, disturbing and occasionally very funny.
4. Six O’ Clock News (Ross McElwee, 1994)
I usually don’t care for the “video diary” school of filmmaking. I prefer filmmakers to stay in the
background. I make an exception for Ross McElwee, because he’s such a weird, obsessive personality. 6
O’Clock News finds McElwee trying to discover what happened to people after their 15 minutes of fame.
5. Salesman (Albert & David Maysles, 1968)
Together with Primary, this film cemented the Maysles brothers as the American masters of documentary cinema. Brilliant editing, intimate cinematography and a deeply cynical worldview make this one of the few acknowledged “classics” that really deserve the term.
6. Rainbow Man/John 3:16 (Sam Green, 1997)
Sam Green was nominated for an Academy Award for The Weather Underground, but for my money, this is his
masterpiece. Rollen Stewart, the omnipresent Rainbow Man who showed up in the stands in nearly every
sporting event was eventually arrested on federal kidnapping charges. His rise, decline and fall serves
as a cautionary tale for anyone who’s ever watched too much T.V.
7. This is Nowhere (Douglas Hawes-Davies, 2002)
Doug Hawes-Davies’ High Plain Films has established a reputation for lyric, beautifully photographed odes to
the natural environment. In This is Nowhere, Davies breaks with his usual subject matter to interview the
drivers of recreational vehicles (A.K.A. “land yachts”) who travel the country, from WalMart to WalMart, to sleep in the parking lots of Sam Walton’s retail empire.
8. Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey (Steven M. Martin,
The great appeal of documentaries for me is the process of discovery. You never know where the story is going to take you. In Theremin, it’s easy to imagine the filmmakers nudging each other, saying “Can you believe this?” as the story unfolds before their camera. It starts out as a simple historical documentary about the creation of the world’s firstelectronic instrument, but quickly turns into a first-class cold-war thriller.
9. Harlan County, USA (Barbara Koppel, 1976)
Another direct-cinema “classic” that deserves all the praise that has been heaped upon it. Koppel’s fly-on-the-wall view of a 1974 West Virginia coal miner’s strike set the vocabulary for activist movies, but still manages to surprise.
10. Time and Tides (Julie Bayer & Josh Salzman, 2006)
I saw this film when I served as a juror for the 28th Big Muddy Film Festival, where we unanimously voted it
the best documentary feature. Lyrical cinematography, themes of globalization, cultural preservation, the
internet economy and global warming, all wrapped up in a multi-layered, well-told story, with rich
compassionate characters. Absolutely stunning.
11. The Last Cowboy (John Alpert, 2005)
This was the runner-up for best documentary at the 28th Big Muddy Film Festival. Alpert, an award-winning war correspondent, spent 24 years turning his camera on Vern Sager, one of the last to make a living herding cattle in the American West.
12. Through the Wire (Pip Starr, 2002)
Pip’s a filmmaker from Melbourne Australia, whom I met several years ago when he was filming a documentary
about coffee. Through the Wire is a short piece that had its North American premiere at my now-defunct
monthly film screening Electric Eye Cinema (also one of the first practical uses of video on demand over
the internet, many years before YouTube). Through the Wire is the best example of an activist film I’ve
ever seen, a brilliant use of imagery and voiceover.
One other thought on the topic of documentaries. My favorite book on the topic is “Documentary” by Eric
Barnouw. A great summary.