The best Documentaries available on DVD:
1: ONE DAY IN SEPTEMBER (1999)
The Film: Spielberg’s Munich takes on the aftermath, but Kevin MacDonald’s Oscar-winning documentary focuses purely on the events of September 5th 1972 themselves. The story of how a group of Palestinian terrorists took nine Israeli athletes hostage at the Olympic Games in Germany, the film builds up a thriller-like atmosphere of escalating dread as it follows the crisis that unfolded on live global television, and the botched rescue attempt where five terrorists and all nine hostages died. A combination of razor-sharp editing, superb music and a fearless outlook, documentary filmmaking doesn’t get more important or necessary than this.
The Disc: Currently only available on R1, where all you get is talent files and a DVD Rom link for additional information on the Israel/Palestine conflict.
Classic Moment: As the hostage crisis enters its final, fatal minutes, MacDonald uses CG images and colour-coded figures to show exactly how the reaction of the German authorities was so spectacularly mishandled.
2: CAPTURING THE FRIEDMANS (2003)
The Film: A close-up examination of a family buckling under pressure, this captivating film looks at the Friedmans, an ordinary Jewish family who suddenly find themselves at the centre of a horrific child abuse case. The question of who to believe gets more complex as the film progresses, while the extensive home movie footage shot by the family pitches you into the heart of the harrowing drama.
The Disc: The expansive Tartan DVD delves deeper into the unanswered questions, and includes a commentary, more home movie footage, and featurettes on the case.
Classic Moment: Goofing around outside the courtroom, the accused Friedmans are violently confronted by the parents of the children they allegedly abused, in a sequence all the more powerful for only being heard rather than seen.
3: SUPER-SIZE ME (2004)
The Film: A man with a mission, Morgan Spurlock sets out to test the true nature of fast food by eating nothing but McDonalds for thirty days. He’s soon experiencing waistline expansion and earning anxious looks from his doctors, but this gleefully insane experiment is just the hook for an energetic and wickedly funny expose of junk food culture and what it’s doing to the people who eat it.
The Disc: Not quite super-sized in the extras department, but there’s an enjoyable commentary from Spurlock and his girlfriend, Q+A sessions, interviews and a handful of interesting deleted scenes.
Classic Moment: If the statistics don’t put you off junk food, seeing Spurlock spew up a whole McDonalds meal on only the second day of his ‘quest’ should do the trick…
4: WHEN WE WERE KINGS (1996)
The Film: No sports personality has ever equalled the nuclear charisma of Muhammad Ali, and this gripping documentary captures him in full force during the run up to the ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ fight against George Foreman in Zaire. A powerhouse of editing, it’s a fiercely gripping story of politics, culture and sport- but in the end, the film belongs to Ali, and he steals it time and again with jaw-dropping style.
The Disc: Aside from the trailer, we do get footage of two Ali fights- the ‘Rumble’ and the ‘Thrilla in Manilla’- uninterrupted and complete.
Classic Moment: “I murdered a rock, injured a stone, hospitalised a brick! I’m so mean I make medicine sick!” Ali shows his poetic side at a pre-fight press conference.
5: PARADISE LOST 1 + 2 (1996, 2000)
The Film: A real-life horror story, these two films from Some Kind of Monster directors Joel Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky take an unblinking look at the ritual murder of three children in bible-belt Arkensas, and how three teenage heavy metal fans found themselves targeted as scapegoats. Following the story from initial investigations to the conviction and beyond, it’s a compelling tale of media panic that asks frightening questions about America’s judicial system.
The Disc: Two excellent documentaries for the price of one is all the extra value you’ll find here…
Classic Moment: Stepfather of one of the murdered children, and a likelier candidate for a culprit than any of the jailed teens, John Mark Byers performs a bizarre and creepy ceremony at the site of the killings.
6: BOWLING FOR COLUMBINE (2002)
The Film: Farenheit 9-11 made him more notorious, but this amazing look at America’s love affair with gun culture is the finest moment yet in the career of professional establishment-annoyer Michael Moore. From banks distributing rifles as free gifts, to the showdown between Moore and NRA president Charlton Heston, this is powerful filmmaking unafraid to make us laugh while explaining some horrifying truths.
The Disc: A fair (if unspectacular) special edition, with featurettes, a weird commentary from production interns, and a Marilyn Manson music video.
Classic Moment: In Moore’s best example of video activism, he accompanies two of the school kids wounded in the Columbine massacre to Kmart (where the teens responsible bought their ammo) and asks for a refund on the bullets still lodged in their bodies.
7: DIG! (2005)
The Film: Ego battles don’t come much bigger than the clash between rock band front-men Courtney Taylor-Taylor and Anton Newcombe in this hilarious, compulsive portrait of the Dandy Warhols, the Brian Jonestown Massacre, and their bizarre rivalry. There’s a delirious fascination in Newcombe’s quest to seemingly sabotage his own success, but it’s also an intelligent look at the modern music industry, and the difficult question of Art vs Commerce
The Disc: It’s your choice- the current R2 release with just film notes and a directors interview, or the upcoming 2-disc edition that promises commentaries, deleted footage, extra music and much more?
Classic Moment: Newcombe decides a showcase gig for the record industry would be a great time to start an on-stage punch-up with his band…
8: LOST IN LA MANCHA (2002)
The Film: Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe’s fly-on-the-wall look at Terry Gilliam’s latest movie was supposed to be a traditional ‘making of’- but unfortunately, the movie in question was the infamous The Man Who Killed Don Quixote. Capturing every aspect of how the production fell apart, this brutally honest ‘unmaking of’ is both tragic and fascinating, while using fragments of completed Quixote footage to give us glimpses of what might have been.
The Disc: Along with in-depth additional interviews with Gilliam and Depp, there’s deleted footage and more looks at Quixote via selected costume designs and storyboards.
Classic Moment: “Which is it, King Lear, or the Wizard of Oz?” As the storm destined to wash away most of his film equipment descends, Gilliam rails against the elements.
9: THE FOG OF WAR (2003)
The Film: The man at the heart of America’s participation in the Vietnam War, Robert MacNamara presents eleven vital lessons from his life as US Defence Secretary in Errol Morris’s brilliantly candid documentary. Mixing archive footage, graphics and lengthy interviews, it’s a measured and unbiased film that allows MacNamara to account for himself, and gives a sobering look into the world where bean-counters and bureaucrats decide how many people live or die.
The Disc: Twenty five additional scenes bolster up this slim disc, along with a breakdown of the eleven lessons.
Classic Moment: Step by step, MacNamara takes us through a meeting during the Cuban Missile Crisis where JFK’s interpretation of two different communications from the Russian government was the only thing that stopped full-scale war breaking out.
10: ETRE ET AVOIR (2002)
The Film: Over the course of a year, teacher George Lopez patiently runs a single-classroom school in the French countryside, teaching kids from 4 to 10, and carefully helping them through the trials of growing up. Steering clear of any patronising “Aren’t kids just great?” moments, this gentle documentary instead turns out as a quietly absorbing and poetic study of learning as the hugely important experience it should always be.
The Disc: Aside from the excellent transfer, all you’ll find here are film notes and a short but interesting interview with director Nicolas Philibert.
Classic Moment: At the end of the film, Lopez says goodbye to his class for the last time before he retires, and only the stone-hearted won’t be wiping away a tear.