Favorite Documentaries List

This an ongoing selection of my most recommended documentaries, broken down by subject matter, and any commentary I think is pertinent. If I were rating docs on a star system, these would all be 4 or 5 star in my book.

I’ll also point to availablility… be it video streaming, rental, purchase, or torrent. I’m not going to explain in detail what torrenting options apply, you’re on your own with that one.

NS= Netflix Streaming/Disc Rental

N= Netflix Disc Rental Only

H= Hulu Streaming

O= Other Streaming Site

A= Amazon For Sale/Rent

AS= Amazon Prime Free Streaming

T= Torrent

NS, N, H, OA, AST }   

CRIME:

Cocaine Cowboys { N, A, AS, T }

Simply the best crime documentary ever in my opinion. Covering the late 70’s and early 80’s cocaine explosion in Florida: great interviews, pacing that reminds you of a catchy song, it’s as well made as anything I’ve seen. The police didn’t stand a chance when this scene erupted. The follow up Hustin’ With The Godmother is interesting as well, but not in the same elite league as this first installment.

First 48 { NS, O, A, T }

Of all the cop/homicide shows on the air, this one is my favorite. If you don’t know, the premise is centered on the all important 48 hour window detectives have to acquire a major suspect in a fresh murder… once that period is over, the clearance rate drops off substantially. Crime 360 is a similar show, but not nearly as good if you ask me, they only focus on one case per episode (First 48 typically covers two), and they focus too much on the detective restating what has happened over and over to a redundant degree. First 48 takes the “fly on the wall” approach and lets the viewer figure out what’s happening.

Cold Case Files { NS, O, A }

The whole series is solid as a rock. My favorite episode covers The Weepy Voiced Killer… if you like your serial killers as creepy as possible, Mr. Weepy Voice is for you.

The Thin Blue Line (1988) { NS, A, AS, }

Very famous doc for a good reason. Follows the wrongful conviction, and near execution of Randall Dale Adams for a homicide in Texas. Hypnotic soundtrack by fancy pants composer Philip Glass gives it a unique vibe that sets it apart from the average legal documentary.

Dear Zachary { NS, A, T }

Very depressing, very heart breaking… you must watch it. No spoilers here.

Jonestown: The Life And Death Of The People’s Temple { N, O, A, T }

A straight forward re-telling of the origins and build up to the infamous Jonestown Massacre.

Bastards Of The Party { NS }

If you’ve ever been turned off by the low quality + high quantity parade of Crips and Bloods documentaries, I hear ya. This is the only one I’ve seen that successfully tells the story of black gangs in Los Angeles in a thorough and deliberate manner. Very well made.

The Nine Lives Of Marion Barry { H, A }

You gotta love Marion Barry, the semi-disgraced former mayor of DC. He gives plenty of candid interviews about his past in this recently produced HBO doc.

Critical Situation: Moscow Siege { O }

If you ever wondered what exactly happened in the famed Moscow Theater Hostage Crisis of 2002, look no further. This Critical Situation series installment retells the incident in a clear manner. Contains plenty of actual footage too.

American Greed: Party’s Over, Tyco’s Kozlowski { H, A }

I love the American Greed series. If you’re not familiar, it’s a CNBC produced true crime show that focuses on white collar criminals. I think the Dennis Kozlowski episode is my favorite, but they are all worth checking out.

Bowling For Columbine { NS, O, A, T }

For as contentious an issue as gun proliferation in America is, this is one of the only docs on the subject I’ve seen. This is in my opinion Michael Moore’s best doc, and not nearly as political as his other stuff if that happens to be a turn off for you.

The Staircase { N, A }

This real life murder mystery is only for those with plenty of time on their hands. Michael Peterson’s wife is found dead at the bottom of a (wait for it) staircase. Did he do it? Bizarre revelations throughout this series make the nearly 11 hour run time go by quicker than you might think.

Paradise Lost { N, A, AS, T }

Another “did they do it?” homicide doc. 3 children are murdered in Arkansas by a trio of heavy metal kids referred to as The West Memphis Three. It this a tragic miscarriage of justice? A sequel (Revelations) released 4 years later invites even more questions. See them both.

Enron: The Smartest Guys In The Room { N, O, A, AS, T }

You’ve probably seen this already – if not, jump on it with both feet. Absolutely classic romp, expertly made. A perfect snap shot of the most extreme end of corporate greed and general nihilism. I will never trust balding men with glasses again.

War:

Crossing The Line { NS, O, AS }

Though primarily focusing on one man, this documentary follows the lives of three US Army personel that (separately) defected to North Korea decades ago. It gets truly bizarre before all is said and done. I was pleasantly surprised by this well produced feature length, which tackles what would ordinarily just be a ho-hum subject matter.

Gallipoli { NS, T }

A step by step retelling of this Allied forces debacle back in World War 1. Does a good job of covering conditions from the Turkish side of the conflict as well.

Taxi To The Dark Side { N, O, A, T }

If you wrap yourself in the US flag this one will make you uncomfortable. Focuses on the extrajudicial detention of some poor bastard in Afghanistan who was just driving his cab in the wrong place at the wrong time. He eventually dies after significant torture. A very important film, appropriately it won an Oscar that year.

Napoleon- PBS Empires Series { N, O, A, T }

There are obviously a number of documentaries on Napoleon’s life, this one is well made and straight forward enough to be my default recommendation to anyone interested (even if you’ve read a book or two on him). It’s split into 4 parts. One question I’ve always considered is why Napoleon is generally not considered a Conqueror Villian in the same way that Hitler, Ghangis Khan, Temur The Great, etc are. This series partly explains that, it mentions his time spent in banishment to Saint Helena focused in part on dictating his memoirs in a “oh damn, history is going to think I’m a monster” fashion. Jefferson Davis did the same thing after the American Civil War. Most deposed leaders today don’t have the luxury of a “post banishment justification book”… see Hitler, Saddam Hussein, etc. But it’s not unheard of , Fujimori who’s justification book is in documentary form can be found bellow.

Road To Moscow { N, O, A }

Napoleon’s expedition and defeat in Russia. This is one of the great military campaigns in history, so definitely worth an extra look, even if you’ve seen other Napoleon docs.

Secrets Of War: Super Guns { H }

The Secrets Of War series is just okay, this happens to be my favorite episode. Exactly what it sounds like… a history of massive guns.

Ground War: Warrior Weapons { NS, O, A, AS }   

A standard dry installment of the Ground War series produced by PBS. This episode focuses specifically on the evolution of individual soldier weapons over history. From spear, to sword, to musket, and of course the modern assault rifle. Basic and informative, if you’re interested check it out.

Battle For Dien Bien Phu { NS, H, A }   

It’s unfortunate that most of the world (especially in the United States) thinks solely of the Vietnam War as an American quagmire, when in truth, French involvement was just as brutal and Byzantine. This recounts with great precision the decisive (and lengthy) battle which caused France to be effectively kicked out of the Vietnam War. From there the American presence escalated, and you know the rest.

World War 2:

Architecture Of Doom { N, O, A, T }

A top to bottom explanation of the Nazi rise to power from a mass psychology perspective. It goes into great detail about Nazi race, and artistic ideology. I would recommend this as the default starter doc to anyone seeking a solid synopsis of “the whole Nazi thing”. This German language documentary is one of the most dark and disturbing works I’ve ever seen… you stand warned.

Operation Barbarossa (2004) { NS, A }

Another documentary focusing on a futile attempt to conquer Russia. This time swap Hitler for Napoleon and watch the two scorpions of Russia & Germany sting each other to death.

Bombing Of Germany: American Experience { NS, O, A, AS }

One of the great barstool debates history buffs (and non buffs alike) engage in is the perceived immorality of American and British wholesale bombing of German and Japanese population centers in WW2. If you are going to engage in such a back and forth at least watch this documentary first. It details the steady progressioin of the Allied Airforce attempts to crush Axis ability to carry on the war effort in step by step fashion. My all time favorite war doc quote comes via British Commander Arthur Harris in this one… “The Nazis entered into this war under the rather childish dilution that they were going to bomb everybody else, and nobody was going to bomb them.”

Classic!

The Wehrmacht- 5 Part Series { T }

This is an absolute must see. Appears to be British produced, it basically tells the entire story of the war from the perspective of German officers and ordinary infantry. Extremely honest interviews with average German Army personel in probably the last chance to get their stories on tape (they are like 90 after all) are the backbone of the content. Included are highly interesting transcriptions of conversations that German officers had, while being secretly recorded by the British post capture.

Italian Fascism In Color  { NS, A }

I don’t know why,  but the entire subject of modern Italian politics depresses me no end. This is no different, a dry documentary not just focused on Mussolini, but the other major players involved in Fascism’s rise to power in Italy prior to WW2. So why do I have it on a most recommended list? It’s the footage. Not only (as the title implies) is it awash with surprisingly high quality footage of all the major events leading up to and including WW2 in color, but there are a couple sequences that are down right shocking. In one near the end, Mussolini is personally attending the firing squad execution of his own son in law. In another, Italian partisans are shown bombing train tracks – in the ensuing train derailment they couldn’t have hit bigger pay dirt, the cargo it’s carrying shows what looks to be a couple dozen tanks and other armored vehicles crashing into the embankment. I can’t event fathom how enraged the German general who was supposed to receive those was.

Society/Politics:

The Yes Men (2003) { N, O, A, T }

I’m not going to lie and say I particularly understand why this group of uber-wonks has a beef with the World Trade Organization, but it made me laugh my ass off. These dudes have a quasi-scam going whereby they park an official looking WTO website on a proper domain name, and go out and impersonate WTO officials when approached with various PR offers. Each stunt they pull is equal parts brazen and bizarre.

Landslide: A Portrait Of Herbert Hoover { NS, O, A, T }

I’ve always found Herbert Hoover fascinating. This is a simple and straight forward account of our 31st President’s life and rise to power… before his utter shellacking at the hands of FDR in 1932.

I.O.U.S.A. { NS,  A, AS, T }

A no frills look at the United States federal deficit, and how totally and completely screwed we are. Good times!

The Fall Of Fujimori { NS, A }

Before watching this doc (produced years after the “fall” in question) I had never heard of Alberto Fujimori. He was an intellectual turned President of Peru who’s administration ended up plagued in scandal, and he was forced out of Peruvian politics. His tenure is very strange, his own wife ends up running against him. He gives fairly open and honest interviews in this doc, which does a nice job of tying up his entire career up until the present day.

Casino Jack And The United States Of Money { NS, A, AS, T }

Casino Jack in this feature length doc is ex-lobbyist/political fixer Jack Abramoff. His antics are pretty over the top, so it’s no surprise he ended up in prison. If you can dig a rather dark “this is how democracy really works” story than this will appeal.

Street Fight { NS, A, T }

Fly on the wall documentary chronicling the 2002 Newark, New Jersek mayoral race. A real knock down drag out affair. I was shocked how much money gets tossed around considering Newark only has a population of 280,000.

Hoop Dreams { NS, H, A, T }

One of the most famous docs made in the 90’s, Hoop Dreams follows two highly touted young basketball players from Chicago in their quest to navigate the pressures and pit falls of pursuing a professional basketball career.

Lake Of Fire { N, O, A, T }

Tailor made to be extremely contentious, both sides of the abortion debate are chronicled in no-holds-barred fashion. At times it will seem like the agenda of the filmmakers might be pro-life, and others it seems they might be pushing the pro-choice stance. When all is said and done, you come away feeling that both sides have been presented in such a fair and balanced manner that it is truly commendable. Not every documentary has to non-commital to “hot button” issues, but for those who strive to be, Lake Of Fire should be studied meticulously.

When We Were Kings { NS, O, A, T }

Chronicles the Rumble In The Jungle boxing match between Ali and Foreman.

Darwin’s Dilemma { O, A, T }

Ostensibly a rather dry scientific doc, it veers off in another direction that makes it quite interesting. I’m not going to spoil it by explaining.

American Movie { N,  A, T }

Hilarious look at low roller filmmaker Mark Borchardt and his quest to make an indie film on a micro budget. It’s really the characters that make this one of the more lovable docs you’re likely to ever see.

Pumping Iron { N, O, A, T }

Extremely funny 1977 body building documentary starring Arnold Schwartenegger. ‘Nuff said.

Mind Over Money: Nova { NS, H, A, AS }

Since the 2008 stock/real estate/kitchen sink collapse, the psychology of how people relate to wealth and money has become a topic du jour. This is one of the best at encapsulating that subject.

Guns, Germs, And Steel { NS, O, A, T }

I read the best-selling book, and this is a worthy, if lite version of it. The subject matter details the general hypothesis physiology professor Jared Diamond has constructed as an answer to the question of why certain societies (especially in the late Middle Ages) advanced far ahead of others. My only gripe is the way he says “Guns… Germs.. and Steel” every  couple minutes or so during his interviews. We know it’s your catch phrase dude, but it’s annoying and redundant to hear him say it over and over as if we just tuned in.

Tyson { N, A, T }

Whoooooooah. Not for the faint of heart, this is an extremely earnest, stark interview with Mike Tyson talking about his life and upbringing. The general level of animosity and self hatred he puts on display is palpable.

Hearts Of Darkness { N, A, T }

About the making of classic Vietnam War movie Apocalypse Now. It’s a total mess, which is why this behind the scenes feature is so entertaining.

Crumb { N, A, T }

The life of amusing introvert comic book artist Robert Crumb. No need to go into details, if it sounds like something you’d find interesting, then you probably will.

My Kid Could Paint That { N, A, T }

The contentious story of a very young girl who appears to be an artistic genius…. or is she? Former painter dad is at the center of this documentary that frames the controversy of this little girl’s artwork: is it genuine? or is it the work of a man who is consciously trying to make fun of the art community? You really can’t guess definitively by the end, and I have made it a point to not read about the case in recent years because I like the idea of not knowing.

The Corporation { NS, H, O, A, AS, T }

This is a very smart look at the morality of conflicting interests that the corporate structure presents. It’s not as dry as it sounds.

Seventeen {???}

I saw this doc over 10 years ago in film school. To my knowledge it can’t be found for rent or purchase at this time, if someone knows of a way to see this please mention in the comments. It’s an entertaining 70’s era look at essentially a bunch of lovable young hicks living in Indiana. If you have seen the movie Gummo, that’s kind of a fictionalized version of what this documentary legitimately shows on film.

Abel Raises Cain { NS, H, O, A }   

I’m extremely surprised I had never heard of this flick, very entertaining. This is produced by the daughter of Alan Abel, a veteran hoax specialist. It charts his lives and times… yada yada yada. If you’re into elaborate pranks and a real dead pan style of comedy you’ll get a serious kick out of this guy.

Rockumentaries:

Metallica: Some Kind Of Monster { N, O, A, T }

If you are a bunch of aging rock stars, and you wake up one day and find that you are lame… the coolest thing you could do is film a documentary about your lameness. I don’t think you need to be versed or a fan of Metallica to get a kick out of this feature.

Heavy Metal Parking Lot (1986) { H, A, T }

This is very funny. It’s not feature length, you’re only looking at 15 minutes or so, but do check it out. It’s just a mid 1980’s Judas Priest show parking lot, with exactly the kind of amusing characters you think would be there.

Anvil: The Story Of Anvil { NS, O, A, T }

This got allot of attention for good reason. This is what happens to middle aged metal musicians who were renowned in their youth… but didn’t end up becoming one of the big names you might recognize today. It’s really a story about not giving up, and basically being chewed up and spit out by the music scene. It’s awesome.

Various Books and Non-Documentary Movies About Death and Mayhem That I Particularly Enjoyed

Generation Kill (The Series)

Great HBO series about the Second Iraq War. Follows a Marine battalion as it marches across Iraq during the rush to Baghdad. Positively kick ass effects… when an air strike takes out a 10 story building, it sure as heck looks like they just blew up a gall darn building. This is the classic “intimate” look at the relationships of a tight knit group of soldiers, ala Band Of Brothers. Very dark in tone, in so far as brutally honest retelling of civilian deaths and the like. Based on the embedded reporting of a journalist from Rolling Stone, there’s no reason to doubt any of this recounting of the war. Sometimes the Marine banter gets to be a bit much if you’re watching 2 or 3 episodes back to back, but what do you expect? They’re friggin’ Marines.

Mammoth Book Of Illustrated Crime

A surprisingly fun read, seeing as though it seems like it would be mostly rehashed turf for people who read allot of true crime. There are tons of lesser crimes and criminals documented here… and yes, every tidbit has at least one high quality picture to go with it. Setup in chronological order too, which I found rather neat because you get to see the evolution of various crimes.

Inside Hitler’s High Command (Modern War Studies)

Extremely interesting book outlining the German Wehrmacht’s command structure, and the power plays behind getting certain battle plans ok’ed over others. Sheds some light on the misconception that Germany went to war with the Soviet Union without understanding the true nature of the risks involved. It surprised me too that Germany at that time didn’t put much emphasis on military intelligence… at least not in the aggressive way that the Anglo-Allied powers did.

Storming Las Vegas

The “Forest Gumpian” story of a Cuban named Jose Vigoa, and his life transitioning from Soviet Commando to one-man American crime wave. An interesting look at a guy who was in the front lines of Angola, Afghanistan, the Muriel Boat Lift, cocaine trafficking explosion of the 1980’s, and the booming Las Vegas of the 1990’s. Quite a differently styled exploration into the mind of a career criminal who applied strict military planning to traditional American street crime.This true story reads like an action movie.

The Silence of the Lambs [Blu-ray]

As many serial killer movies as there are, there’s only a hand full of great ones. This is one of those… With an HD release to boot now.

The Day After

Holy shit! I just watched this, and man is it awesome. A human, but very detail laden look at the fallout of a nuclear holocaust from the point of view of residents near Kansas City. Emotional movie, but not so much so that it loses track of the reality of any such intellectual exercise… that the survivors of any nuclear attack will be concerned with one thing, continuing to survive. Even though it is from 1983, the special effects do not look cheap, something that can often be a major draw back to watching an older war film. This is not only my favorite WW3 scenario flick (admittedly there aren’t many of those), but is probably my favorite “disaster movie” as well.

The Wire: The Complete Series

Allot of folks refer to this as the best show in tv history… I don’t know if I agree with that, but I certainly wouldn’t argue. Great look at all aspects of drug dealing in America. No matter what your opinions about the drug war happen to be, there’s much to like about the detailed and human aspect of the institutionalized black market system the war on drugs has created.

Blind Eye

The story of serial killer “doctor” Michael Swango. All serial killers are bizarre on some level, but this guy has some quirks about him that make this a great read. My favorite part is when his landlord in some African town discovers that Swango had been collecting bacon sandwiches and keeping them in his closet for months… ohhhh kaaaaaay. His specialty was poisoning, and allot of the book details how numerous institutional fuck ups and cover ups prevented this guy from getting caught sooner.

The Next 100 Years: A Forecast for the 21st Century

By George Friedman; this book has gotten allot attention, and rightfully so. It predicts the geopolitical atmosphere going into the next century, and there’s some pretty thought provoking stuff. He’s a little heavy on the “rah rah America” angle, and his predictions involving likely conflicts between Japan and other countries seemed a bit far fetched to me, but all in all a great read. He thinks that the rise in worldwide population is actually going to halt in this century, and even decline. If that ends up being true, it would represent pretty much the biggest social story since the second world war. The implications on crime and military conflict if a population decline actually does occur would be tremendous (I think for the better). Obviously, the point of a book like this isn’t to make accurate predictions (no one in history has managed to do that), but to make you think about the broader issues.

Saving Private Ryan

Obvious choice of course. This is the closest I’ll ever come to the sensation of having a tank rolling over the top of me… which is awesome. I have no clue why it’s not available on BluRay yet, but hopefully they’ll get their act together and release an HD version soon.

The Civil War – A Film by Ken Burns

Definitive doc about The American Civil War. If you haven’t seen it… you should.

Crusade in Europe

Eisenhower’s recollections of the Allied campaign during the war. He’s a very good writer, with a straight forward style that isn’t nearly as pandering as I thought it would be.

Man Bites Dog

An outrageous mock-umentary following around a Belgian serial killer. This is about as dark as dark comedy gets. Hilarious! Extreme. Don’t say I didn’t warn ya. This is worth a poll…

Schindler’s List

You’ve almost certainly already seen this one. Classic, and entirely original movie. It’s not easy making a subject as dour as genocide into a watchable movie, but this and Hotel Rwanda pull it off.

Julius Caesar: War Commentaries

Great insight into the mind of one of histories most deservedly famous Generals. Caesar recounts with shockingly methodical detail and logic every aspect of his wars in Gaul (modern France) and against his enemies in the famed Roman Civil War. It’s a surprisingly easy read if you get the most recent English version. Some of the previous translations have his constant references to himself in the third person, and is a more challenging read. From a pure applied reasoning point of view, Caesar shows himself to have been a man without equal. I hope every serious military strategist worth his salt has read this book.

A Bridge Too Far [Blu-ray]

The acting is pretty cheesy, but this is still a very good movie, and seldom cited in great war movies lists to my surprise. The reason to check this one out is that it was made at just the right time and place to include vast amounts of old WW2 hardware. Any WW2 movie made today, or in the future, is going to have to rely almost entirely on CGI for all the battle sequences, because the simple fact is that there won’t be huge bone yards full of decommissioned German tanks anymore.

Statistical Abstract of the United States 2010

I keep a copy of this around. Don’t know if there’s an online version yet. Great for getting down into the nitty-gritty stats wise. The timeline doesn’t go back very far fyi, it’s clearly not meant to be a book on long term comparisons. The crime stats are nothing to rave about, but there are all kinds of interesting data patterns to look up if you are researching causal theories on crime or any other social dilemma.

Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer

Also a great serial killer flick, much more disturbing in tone, so not for everybody. Even if allot of Henry Lee Lukas’ confessions to murder weren’t true, he is still one of the most prolific serial killers in US history. A nice gritty view of marginalized life in Chicago and other towns in the 70’sand 80’s too.