Real Life on Film: Meredith’s Top Five Documentaries

Sometimes, there’s nothing better than sitting down and watching a great documentary. There are tons of them out there waiting to be discovered and rediscovered, so I encourage you – whoever you may be – to sit down and do just that. You can learn about various subjects through different perspectives and it’s something that will surely enrich your life.

Here, I’m going to discuss the top five documentaries I have watched recently~

5.   Seven Up! dir. Paul Almond

Director Paul Almond took on a loaded project when he decided to head this documentary. Seven Up! Is a thirty-nine minute study on the lives of a group of seven-year-olds in Britain. All of the children were handpicked for the film and came from distinctly different socioeconomic backgrounds. Its style is set up mostly in interview format, switching from kid to kid and subject to subject – ranging from school to girls.

The remarkable thing about Seven Up! is that Michael Apted has gone on to direct seven follow-ups to it, directing all but the original documentary. The latest installment was 56 Up, which caught up with the same group of kids that were interviewed in the early ’60s. It was released in 2012. The question is…Will there be at least one more to come?

4. Night and Fog (Nuit et Brouillard) dir. Alain Resnais

This is one of the most haunting films I have ever watched. Released in France, it takes a look back at the horrors that took place in Nazi Concentration camps just ten years after they had been liberated. It has a unique style…almost poetic. That feels really weird to say about a Holocaust documentary, but if you watch it you’ll know exactly what I mean. It’s set to orchestral music and the narration is done with a certain poetic cadence. I’ve honestly never seen any documentary that has cut me to the core like this one. There are visuals that are beyond disturbing and it just guts you.

3.  Casting By dir. Tom Donahue

Marion Dougherty became one of the most cutting-edge casting directors in the history of the motion picture industry by the middle of the twentieth century. Defying the Studio System method of casting, she sought out actors and actresses by carefully matching them up to the roles in question, not just by looks or stereotypes. She searched beyond the surface and ignored the principle of typecasting.

Dougherty also dared to cast them against type, which almost always worked to her advantage. Many of them (Dustin Hoffman, Bette Midler, Jon Voight, Al Pacino, and many more) got their big break from her and went on to win big awards, including Oscars. The documentary includes many personal insights from actors and actresses who were cast by Dougherty and younger casting directors who are/were influenced by her. It’s essentially a love letter and the letter is written exceptionally well.

2. Life Itself dir. Steve James

I watched this documentary awhile back and recently checked it out again. This one tells the story of America’s most famous film critic, Roger Ebert. He began his life’s journey as a young man in Chicago in the 1960s, became the daily film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times in ’67 and quickly became a master at his craft. His columns and popularity took off and he soon landed spots on television for his film reviews.

Life Itself covers everything from Ebert’s childhood, his rise as a film critic, his love/hate relationship with longtime partner/fellow film critic Gene Siskel, and his family life. (I will add that I cried a little bit when Siskel’s death was highlighted.) This one gets two thumbs up from me.

1. Bill Cunningham New York dir. Richard Press

This is one of the most inspiring pieces of work I have ever seen. Bill Cunningham, who passed away in June of last year, was a photographer for the New York Times from 1978 until he died at the age of 87. He was no run-of-the-mill employee; he was a true artist. This documentary followed him around throughout his daily life. We, the audience, get to see him energetically ride around on his bike (his twenty-ninth one, to be exact) and run around the streets of New York City, taking photos of interestingly dressed people.

The beauty of Bill Cunningham was that he came off as such a genuine and humble man. He did everything from street fashion photography to covering high society parties. The film focuses on many parts of his daily life and he shares a lot of classy wisdom.


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