This month the esteemed BFI magazine Sight & Sound published the results of its most recent poll of critics, scholars and filmmakers to determine the greatest films ever made.
The list is interesting and infuriating and fun and trivial in about equal measure, but at least it gives some measure of what film culture values at this moment in time. More than anything, it would seem, the past. No less than four of the top ten are silent films, none of the directors who made them are still living, and the most recent title was made in 1968, a slice of futurism set 11 years ago, in 2001. With all the anxieties attendant on the shift to digital and what that means for film archives this is understandable.
But does the poll reflect the increased prominence of documentary film in independent, commercial cinemas and festivals over the past decade?
Not so much. Perhaps documentaries date more quickly than fiction films, because looking at the S&S Top 50 they are in short supply. In the Top 10, we do find Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera, from 1929, which can be classified as a documentary (it consists of shots of everyday life), though it has at least as much in common with avant-garde, experimental film – it looks more like something you would see on MTV than the History Channel.
From there it’s a long way down to number 29 to find Claude Lanzmann’s 1985 film Shoah, a nine-hour testament to implementation of the Nazi death camps.
Abbas Kiarostami’s Close Up (no. 42) is the Iranian art film version of Judge Judy, but more importantly it’s a movie about a man so obsessed with movies that he impersonates a famous filmmaker (one of Kiarostami’s colleagues, Mohsen Makhmalbaf).
Cinema is also the subject of the only other documentary in the top 50, Godard’s Histoire(s) du cinema, another monumental (266-minute) opus, and maybe more appropriately described as an “essay film”.
In other words, Shoah is the only pure documentary on the list, the only non-fiction film that isn’t also a self-reflexive treatise on moviemaking. (Not that I have anything against that – in fact Man with a Movie Camera was top on my own list.)
So what’s missing? What are the top documentaries ever made, the non-fiction films that demand consideration with the very greatest achievements in cinema?
Here are ten candidates for Sight & Sound pollsters in 2022
1. Hoop Dreams (1994)
Not just a great documentary but one of the greatest sports movies you will ever see, this started out a 30 minute short, but the filmmakers just couldn’t drop it. Five years later, they gave us a three hour chronicle of the make or break span in the lives of two African American teenagers, basketball hopefuls struggling against the odds to make it out of poverty.
2. Roger and Me (1989)
Is Michael Moore’s first also his best film? Not sure, but it’s probably his funniest and certainly a landmark in the history of documentary, proving that entertainment value could be combined with a staunch political point of view. It’s also prescient for its take on the de-industrialisation of the USA and the widening gap between the haves and have nots.
3. The Thin Blue Line (1988)
Not many movies can have claimed to make a direct life and death impact, but Errol Morris’s investigation of a dodgy prosecution in Texas freed an innocent man from Death Row. Not incidentally, it’s a brilliant, stylish movie about the subjective nature of truth, a kind of non-fiction counterpart to Rashomon.
4. Darwin’s Nightmare (2004)
One of the most depressing films I’ve ever seen – this starts with the introduction of the Nile Perch into Lake Victoria in the 1960s, but turns this spectacularly successful fish into a metaphor for the catastrophe of colonialism and globalization in Africa.
5. Gleaners and I (2000)
Agnes Varda was the godmother of the French new wave. But she’s still making lovely movies half a century later, and this simple but resonant film about, well, scavenging, speaks to the spirit of the times.
6. The Up series (1965-2012)
Michael Apted’s long-running life history of 14 Britons (in seven year increments) is an extraordinary accomplishment on many levels: philosophical, social, political, you name it.
7. Little Dieter Needs To Fly (1997)
Werner Herzog’s documentaries are strange beasts, creative, poetic, funny, scary… He returned to this story about a German-American who was shot down in Laos during the Vietnam war in the dramatic feature film Rescue Dawn, but the doc seems to get closer to the bone somehow, it feels like one of his most personal films.
8. The War Game (1965)
Banned by the BBC, Peter Watkins’ horrific film about the real implications of a nuclear attack on the British Isles is a brilliant piece of reverse propaganda, exposing the lies and blandishments of the Establishment. Even today it’s a chilling experience.
9. Nanook of the North (1922)
Robert Flaherty’s early ethnographic film about life in the Arctic was a cornerstone in the development of documentary film and a crucial step towards a new understanding of aboriginal peoples around the world.
10. Nostalgia for the Light (2011)
Made last year and released just last month, this Chilean masterpiece draws parallels between astronomy, archaeology and the victims of the CIA-backed Pinochet coup. It’s a beautiful, haunting, intimate film across an epic canvas.