I'm crazy about documentaries.
For a while, I had such an ENORMOUS list of reviews, that I created a separate website for them. You can still visit it here. I also still blog occasional reviews of documentaries I watch, which you can find by going to the homepage, scrolling down to the text with all the tags on the sidebar, and clicking on "documentaries."
But to simplify things, here's a list of my favorites. These can be found on Netflix, Youtube, Vimeo, and Amazon Instant Video. Happy watching!
Cave of Forgotten Dreams
THIS DOCUMENTARY BLEW MY MIND!!!! There's a cave in France called "Chauvet Cave" and it houses the oldest known cave paintings on the earth--as in 30,000 years old. They can date them by dating the layers of [insert geological material that I can't remember the name of here] that's grown over the initial layers of paint. There was a rock slide that sealed the caves off for thousands and thousands of years, so when the cave was discovered in the 90's, lots of people thought it was a hoax because the paintings looked so fresh. And they are BEAUTIFUL paintings...full of motion and life. I actually cried. (If you are a Latter-day Saint, you may find some powerful symbolism in these paintings...)
Ever heard of the 1990 Boston art heist? Yeah, I hadn't either. But somehow, thieves broke into the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum and made off with 13 MASTERPIECES, including a Rembrandt and Vermeer's famous "The Concert." The Gardner Will stated that nothing could be removed or changed about the gallery, so for years the frames simply remained empty. Were the paintings ever found? You'll have to watch to find out.
Art of the Steal
This documentary INFURIATED me. A man named Dr. Albert Barnes created an impressive collection of post-impressionist paintings (including dozens of Renoirs, Cezannes, Matisses, and Picassos) with the express purpose of making them available to the public and to art students as a free resource. He specified that the collection should always be used this way in his will, but when he died in 1951, all hell broke loose.
Herb and Dorothy
I liked this one so much that I bought it. It tells the story of a couple from New York...he was a postal clerk, she was a librarian. On their middle class income, they slowly built one of the largest and most important collections of modern art in America. They had 2 rules for their purchases: it had to be affordable, and it had to fit in their modest one-bedroom apartment. After decades of collecting, they owned thousands of works by minimalist, modern painters and sculptors, and their collection has since been donated to museums throughout the United States. Herb and Dorothy Vogel redefined what it means to be an art collector.
Another bit of "designers porn," this documentary focuses on typeface design. As I've been learning graphic design, I've fallen more and more in love with typeface design and font websites. This documentary is interesting because it talks about how typeface reflects the aesthetics of a time period.
Betty Page Reveals All
As an anti-pornography feminist, I've always been fascinated by Betty Page. On the one hand, pornography. On the other hand, freedom of sexual expression? And women's liberation? And not listening to someone else telling you what your sexuality should be? I don't know. Either way, I found this documentary fascinating. I'm still kind of on the fence about pin-up modeling, but this documentary helped humanize Betty Page's world for me, and for the most part, I think I dig a lot of the things she did.
WARNING: SEXUALITY AND NUDITY
I loved this! All about New York City women over the age of 55, with fabulous fashion sense. This profiles several different women, and I was completely charmed by all of them. And the message is an inspiring one--that you can choose to feel glamorous and elegant no matter what stage of life you're in, and that fashion is an amazing medium of creativity and self-expression.
American Masters: Johnny Carson: King of Late Night
I've heard the name Johnny Carson bandied about for years and years, but didn't really know much about his legacy until now. And NOW, I feel like a fool for taking so long to learn about him. He created the entire foundation of late-night television. Jay Leno, David Letterman, Jimmy Kimmel, Jimmy Fallon, Craig Ferguson...all of these folks owe their world to Johnny Carson. The most moving bit of the documentary was watching Drew Carey tearfully and emotionally recall the time he performed on Johnny Carson's show.
This is a great and very personal look into the transgender experience. I've been trying to learn more about the transgender community during the last few years, and learning about Chaz Bono's transition from female to male helped me gain a lot of perspective. His transition was so public, and happened at a time when the entire concept of being transgender was still so incredibly understood...I'm really glad he chose to share his story. I think the world has a looooong way to go before gender dysphoria and transgenderism is seen with complete understanding, but stories like this help bring that day a little bit closer.
A totally alarming and completely fascinating true story. In 1994, 13-year-old Nicholas Barclay disappeared from his hometown in San Antonio, Texas. When "he" was found in Spain three years later, he had an accent and looked completely different. Frederic Bourdin, a 23-year-old Frenchman, managed to convince the family that he was their son. When he was finally found out, he added even more mystery to the disappearance of Nicholas all those years before. (WARNING: Language.)
Why Do We Talk?
So so so so so so awesome! Linguistics is so fascinating. Did you know that in experiments with making up languages, people will naturally begin to create linguistic rules? This documentary also talks about "the forbidden experiment"...raising a child from birth with no verbal or written communication, to see what happens. Will they develop language? How much of language is inherent? Of course, the ethical implications of this experiment are what make it "forbidden," so the way around it is studying feral children--children who were raised in the wild by animals. Which really happens. Very very rarely, and most reports are hoaxes, but it does happen, and it scares me so much I start to cry just thinking about it. This documentary contains a few seconds of video footage of a girl named Oxana Malaya, who was raised by dogs in the Ukraine until the age of 8. And it gave me nightmares for about two weeks. But the documentary is fascinating.
Cracking the Color Code
Man, I love the human brain. Know what's freaky? Color, as we normally think of it, doesn't actually really exist. It's just how our brains process light. That red sweater you're wearing? It's not actually "red." It's just that it's absorbing every wavelength of light except the one that you're brain registers as "red." And did you know that dogs aren't actually "color-blind"? They just see in 2 colors instead of 3 like humans.
The Secret Life of the Brain (series)
Man, neuroscience is awesome. I cannot wait for science to figure out more about how this hunk of gray and white matter works. In the meantime, here's almost everything we know about the human brain in layman's terms in four and a half hours. The documentary discusses the human brain through five main stages: babyhood, childhood, teenage years, adult years, and elderly years.
I watched this years and years ago, and I'm so glad I rediscovered it. I love drag. I have such a special place in my heart for drag, which is funny because I have virtually NO experience in or with it, aside from a friend in Seattle who does it (Harlotte O'Scara...is that not the most BRILLIANT drag name you've ever heard?!) and a past co-worker at Broulims who did shows. Anyway, this is an awesome story about working hard and being yourself. And it also re-awoke in me my love for musical theatre. I really really really love musical theatre. I just forget sometimes...I don't do it a whole lot. But man, it's awesome. To close, here are my two favorite quotes from this documentary:
"These eyelashes are giving me the f***ing blues."
"It's the art that's important to me. It's the makeup, the hair, it's everything that gives you va-VOOM. Va-VOOM is painted out of your mind, with your wig jacked to Jesus and loving it."
The Source Family
This was reminiscent of the documentary "Commune," which talked about several groups in the 60s who experimented with communal living. The Source Family was founded by James Edward Baker, or "YaHoWha" in California in the late 60s, and the community of 150 people he built lived off the earnings of the Source Restaurant. My favorite story from this documentary is about a man who had heard of YaHoWha and wanted to meet him. He wasn't sure how one was to act in meeting a mystic, so when he met YaHoWha, he kissed his feet. YaHoWha looked down at him and said, "Far f***king out, man."
WARNING: LANGUAGE, NUDITY
The Loving Story
First of all, the name of this documentary is so perfect. This tells the story of an interracial couple from Virginia in the late 1950s. Interracial marriage was straight up ILLEGAL back then, and this chronicles the Lovings fight to stay together. There is a TON of footage from the couple, so this is a great glimpse into Civil Rights era America. I'm astonished (and a little ashamed) that this was so recent.
Smithsonian's Secrets: Richard III
So remember a few years ago, when British newspapers announced that the remains of Richard III had been found under a parking lot in Leichester. Well, the whole story is SO MUCH MORE EXCITING. Phillipa Langley, of the Looking for Richard Project, compared antique maps with current maps to make an educated guess about where the site of an old church might be, where Richard III might be buried. It was a parking lot, and when she walked onto the site, she said she got an eerie feeling that it was the right place. It took years and a lot of convincing of a lot of different people to even start digging, but they finally did. It was a needle-in-a-haystack, no-one-really-knows-what-we'll-find situation, so on the first day of the dig, they asked Phillipa, "Where should we start?" She looked around, and saw a parking spot marked with a letter "R." She told them to start there. AND THEY FOUND BONES.
When We Left Earth (series)
I LOVED THIS SO MUCH!!! Here's something new I didn't really think about. A lot of those folks who pioneered space exploration--at least the ones who actually went into space--weren't scientists. They were Air Force guys. They were familiar with operating complicated machinery and could stay cool under pressure. Which was a really good thing because there were dozens and dozens of times when things created a lot of pressure. For example, did you know that when the Hubble first started sending pictures back to earth, they were BLURRY? The lens hadn't been sanded quite right. Then, once they fixed that, the solar panel wings on the Hubble didn't work. So the folks out in space had to radio back to earth what was wrong, and what they had with them to fix it. Then mission control had to mess around and engineer some sort of solution and then radio instructions back to space. All without video or email or anything--just radio voice communication. Oh, and it all had to be done right away because there wasn't enough oxygen to prolong the repair mission.
Revelation of the Pyramids
You guys. Aliens totally built the pyramids. This documentary PROVES it.
Okay, so it's a little heavy-handed on the conspiracy angle. Interviews are interspersed with these intense image/music sequences. But the math behind this whole pyramid thing is pretty crazy awesome. And I like the parallels with other cultures that it draws.
The Mystery of the Romanovs
Remember that awesome animated movie of "Anastasia"? It's totally awesome. But this is a case where the truth is even stranger than fiction. The myth of Anastasia didn't arise from a story about a kitchen boy helping her through a hole in the wall. It arose because after she and her sister were shot at point-blank range in the cellar of the building they were being imprisoned in, she and her sister sat up and started screaming. And Rasputin didn't have anything to do with why. But I'm not telling you why. Go watch it.
Stealing Lincoln's Body
Did you know that 11 years after Lincoln's assassination, a band of Chicago counterfeiters hatched a plot to steal the President’s body from its tomb outside Springfield, Illinois, and hold it for a ransom of $200,000? And that they kind of almost succeeded? They should put THIS stuff in the history books, man.
The Wonder of It All
So so so so good. America's moon landing was a huge event in both science and politics, but this is a look at the more human experience of it. Astronauts Buzz Aldrin, Alan Bean, Edgar Mitchell, John Young, Charles Duke, Eugene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt all share their experiences in interviews and archive footage. One of the things they said was that there was SO MUCH research to do that they hardly had time to take in the fact that they were ON THE MOON. Surprisingly moving documentary.
American Experience: Earth Days
Awesome look at the series of events that led to the first National Earth Day celebration, and the people who pioneered the "green movement." From Rachel Carson's book "Silent Spring," to the first oil crises in the 60's and 70's, this is an awesome look at what led to the first Earth Day, and what still needs to be done to make our existence on this planet sustainable.
So awesome. During the sixties, there was a huge movement to get out of the cities and into nature, and communal living was a big part of that. This documentary follows the people of one particular commune (that's still a commune today), the challenges and benefits of communal living, and how things changed over the years. Warning: Lots of nudity. None of it is explicitly sexual, but it's full frontal male and female nudity.
Powerful, terrifying, heart-breaking, and IMPORTANT. This tells the story of Jim Jones and the "People's Temple," the cult that ended with cyanide-laced Kool-Aid in the jungles of Guyana. That horrific event had few survivors, but those that did manage to escape Jones' grasp give detailed interviews and share their experiences. A voice of warning and a tribute to tragedy. (WARNING: Language.)
Small Town Gay Bar
You know, things are getting better for the LGBT community in a lot of ways. But we've still got a long ways to go. This documentary focuses on two or three gay bars located in the Deep South. It's not easy growing up gay in the heart of Bible Belt Mississippi, so gay bars provide a community and a haven for those who are otherwise stuck in the closet. (WARNING: Discussions of sexuality, language, and some nudity.)
The Lost World of Lake Vostok
So AWESOME! There's this lake in Antarctica, that's covered in over 4 km of ice, and it seems that it's been sealed off from the rest of the world for MILLIONS of years. Could life exist there? Even without light? It does in sealed caves in Romania...the life there produces energy through chemothynthesis (chemical reactions), instead of photosynthesis. And if life exists in Lake Vostok, then it could exist elsewhere, LIKE JUPITER'S MOON EUROPA. Because Europa is similarly coated with ice several kilometers thick, and its patterns indicate liquid water beneath the surface. The universe is awesome.
The Great Sperm Race
Okay, I know this sounds either silly or questionable. But it's neither! It's awesome. (Okay, maybe it's a little silly.) But when you actually take a look at what a journey sperm have to make...it's a wonder anyone is conceived at all. And the actual process of fertilization is totally different and way more awesome than I thought. Did you know that fertilization doesn't actually happen until like 14 hours after intercourse? Or that by the time the sperm get to the egg, there's like 5 of them left? Out of like 2 million?
When Patrick Moote's girlfriend rejected his very public proposal, one of the reasons she gave for not wanting to marry him was that his penis was too small. So Patrick sets out on a journey to answer the question "Does size matter?" He travels the world in search of enlightenment and enlargement, and interviews a lot of people along the way. We as a society often point to the pressure that women feel to meet some sort of ideal body standard, but men have similar pressures, and in our oversexualized society, we should talk about how ridiculous those pressures are. (Warning: You probably already guessed this, but there is some nudity and discussion of sexuality. There is also a point when Patrick attends a pornography expo in search of answers.)
My Penis and I
The reality is that women don't have penis envy. Men have penis envy. But why? What's the social focus on penis size? Does it really matter? Does it affect confidence? One "non-well-endowed" British man seeks to find the answers. There's also a second part to this documentary, called "My Penis and Everyone Else's," which I haven't watched yet.
(WARNING: This is probably the most "questionable" of all the documentaries on this list. Not only is there much discussion of sexuality, there is also full male and female nudity. There's also a point at which the narrator visits the set of a pornographic film for his research. It's no more graphic than anything else in the documentary, but be aware of that and feel free to fast forward through it.)
My Penis and Everyone Else's
This is the sequel to a documentary I watched a while ago, called "My Penis and I." A man in England with an unusually small penis tries to get conversations going with others about penis size and what it means. His experiences point out the sex-obsessed aspects of our culture, and how much of that sex obsession is male-centered. Some men even get penis enhancement surgeries in order to prevent their girlfriends from cheating on them, not realizing that sexual fulfillment is about much much much more than the size of your equipment. And infidelity is about much more than sex.
WARNING: NUDITY, LANGUAGE, DISCUSSIONS OF SEXUALITY
Terms and Conditions May Apply
Gaaaaahhhh the government is Big Brother and they watch everything we do and I hate it! I spent a few days being pretty paranoid after watching this. I always shake my fist at the NSA when I drive past it near Thanksgiving Point. (You hear that, NSA?) This documentary covers the fact that all those "Terms and Conditions" we agree to whenever we sign up for something actually just gives governments the right to keep track of everything we do. Which is terrifying. When I bring this up, people have said, "Well, I have nothing to hide, so why should that bother me?" That's not the point. The point is that NO ONE IS WATCHING THE WATCHERS. And that's a problem. This is George Orwell 1984. This is a panopticon. I've also heard "Well, if you don't want to be watched, don't sign up for things." First of all, if I never signed up for anything, I couldn't talk about important ideas on the internet. This very blog wouldn't exist. I couldn't Skype with my family. I couldn't apply for jobs using LinkedIn. I couldn't complete online classes. I couldn't answer work emails. Etc. But even more than that, I shouldn't have to opt out. It's the principle of the thing.
I Know That Voice
I want to do voice over! This was an awesome look at the world of voice acting. Everyone in the industry has their own methods--some people need to see an illustration of the character, and others just experiment. The most valuable thing I learned from this documentary is the power of learning to do impressions. Impressions are just a gimmick, and aren't enough alone to get you into voice acting. BUT learning to do impressions is valuable because it forces you to break down a voice--to understand it's tone and rhythm and cadence and placement and sound. And those are the tools you will use in CREATING a voice.
So beautiful. It actually made me cry. I'm so inspired by people who do what they love...who pursue their passions, no matter what. The video game industry often gets this false reputation--that video games are time-wasting activities played by only young children, or by the psychologically disturbed and violent, or by 35-year-old losers who live in their mom's basements. But it's so false. Video games have grown into a powerful art form that's often LITERARY and symbolic and meaningful. and that's especially true of games that are independently produced. This documentary celebrates that world, and follows the creation of two games: Super Meat Boy and Fez. It's an emotional journey, and whether you care about video games or not, if you're not inspired by this, you're probably a robot.
Oh my gosh. If you only watch one documentary on this list, WATCH THIS ONE. So awesome. I actually cried at the beauty of humanity while watching this. This documentary is about how a TV show for little girls (My Little Pony) transcended its own genre, and created a community of people (many of them men) devoted to messages of friendship and kindness. As Lauren Faust, the creator of the show said, "To people who feel that an adult man watching a show that's meant for little girls, if they think that's wrong or that that's strange, I would say this. I would ask them 'Why do you think that's strange? What about that makes you uncomfortable?' As a society I think our first reaction is to jump to the conclusion that there's something wrong with that. But I think that that's what needs to be changed. We need to allow men to be gentle, and to be sensitive, and to care about one another, and not call them weak for caring."
Series: Prophets of Science Fiction
I'm in the middle of this right now, and I'm enjoying it SO MUCH! This series starts with Mary Shelley as the true founder of science fiction and covers Phillip K. Dick, H.G. Wells, Arthur C. Clark, Isaac Asimov, Jules Verne, Robert Heinlein, and George Lucas. It covers the authors' lives, how they influenced the world of science fiction, and how their predictions have since come true. Any avid reader or film enthusiast or history buff will enjoy this series. (Oh! And it's hosted by Ridley Scott! And Michio Kaku makes appearances in every episode!)
Tales From the Script
A great and inspiring documentary that writers and film enthusiasts will especially enjoy. Screenwriters discuss their experiences in Hollywood...the huge challenges to writing films, and the times when things go amazingly well. It's a nice sort of disillusionment in a way. You watch this documentary and realize that Hollywood can be this soulless pit and that you probably won't ever actually make money writing for the screen. But you also realize that if you've really got talent, and have a strong center, and have important stories to tell and know how to tell them, you can pour some soul back into Hollywood. (WARNING: LANGUAGE.)
A great documentary about the glaring absence of women in leadership positions and the boxes we constantly put women and girls in, whether it be regarding their appearance or their gender role or what it is they're "supposed" to do. Great interviews with everyone from Gloria Steinem to Katie Couric.
The Pyramid Code
I watched this one about a year and a half ago, but I think about it a lot still. It's changed the way that I see history. A lot of this documentary is pretty out there, from conspiracy theories to New Age philosophy, but having my own views challenged has helped me become a better critical thinker when it comes to history. There's something exhilarating about having everything you thought about history turned on its head. And I think there's something to seeing ancient cultures in a different light.