“Capturing the Friedmans” (2003)
In the summer of 1987, parents in a quiet Long Island suburb got a rude awakening: Their kids’ extracurricular computer teacher had been arrested for pedophilia. Immediately, disturbing stories began to emerge of children being forced into bizarre sex games in the basement of Arnold Friedman’s home. But as quickly as the truth came out, the doubts crept in, and what ensued was one of the ugliest legal cases of child pornography the U.S. has ever seen. Andrew Jarecki, who recently directed the HBO hit “The Jinx,” was making a documentary about party clowns when he stumbled across David Friedman, son of Arnold Friedman, who shared his horrific story of family dysfunction, giving Jarecki access to private home videos the family had recorded during the span of the trial. The result is “Capturing the Friedmans,” a harrowing exposé of epistemology that undermines every last confidence in our ability to recognize the difference between truth and lies, particularly in the court of law.
Is Arnold Friedman guilty of forcing his sons to sodomize young boys, or is he being framed? Is this all just a horrible misunderstanding? Every argument is compelling. Apart from being the strangest and most uncomfortably intimate family story ever told, “Capturing the Friedmans” brings to light the ambiguous nature of the human soul.
Capturing the weirder side of film fandom, Angela Christlieb and Stephen Kijak’s “Cinemania” follows the routine of five cinephiles in New York City, all of whom claim to watch at least two films a day. The subjects seem incapable of occupying a job due to their voracious habits, living off of certain circumstances like inheritances or disability benefits. Each come with their own quirks, like Eric Chadbourne who has intense adoration for musicals and romantic-comedies over anything else, or Roberta Hill, a woman known for attacking ushers for tearing too much of her ticket stub. Christlieb and Kijak paint a curious and wildly engrossing picture due to the passion of the subjects. But it’s also melancholic, thanks to their antisocial behavior.
“Crazy Love” (2007)
Love is known for making people commit extreme acts of selflessness. It is also known for driving people over the edge, initiating horrifying and heinous decisions that seem too awful or bizarre to believe. Dan Klores and Fisher Stevens’ documentary “Crazy Love” focuses on the latter love-driven mindset, recounting 32-year-old attorney Bill Pugach’s infatuation with the 21 year-old Linda Riss in 1959. After going on a few dates together, Linda discovered that Bill had a wife and child, prompting her to end the relationship. Furious, Bill threatened Linda, especially after learning she was dating another man, and hired three assailants to throw lye on her face. The assault resulted in permanent scarring and near blindness for Linda and 14 years of jail time for Bill, though the story does not end there. Writing her continuously throughout his sentence, Linda and Bill ended up marrying after his release. Klores and Stevens capture the madness through news clippings, old family photos and current day interviews, unraveling a story fit more for a tabloid than real life.
“Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father” (2008)
Filmmaker Kurt Kuenne’s best friend, Andrew Bagby, was murdered by his ex-girlfriend after Bagby ended their volatile relationship. Shortly after she was arrested, the unstable ex-girlfriend announced she was pregnant with Andrew’s child. In an effort to memorialize Bagby for his unborn son, Kuenne picked up a video camera to interview friends and members of Bagby’s family. At first, “Dear Zachary” plays like the heart-wrenching tribute it was supposed to be. But then things go horribly, horribly wrong. Tragedy unfolds in real-time as we become intimately acquainted with Bagby’s memory and the members of his family. And just when you thought it couldn’t get any worse, it does.
Halfway through the documentary is a dizzying, gut-wrenching event that is rendered so poignantly you feel as if it were your own. Go into this experience knowing as little about the film as possible. And bring tissues.
“Exit Through the Gift Shop” (2010)
If you watch “Exit Through the Gift Shop” hoping to learn more about its director, Banksy, the ever-elusive British street artist who’s built his reputation on stunts and keeping his identity a secret, you’ll no doubt be disappointed. For most of its running time, the documentary actually follows Thierry Guetta, a Frenchman living in Los Angeles who videotapes everything and quickly develops a fascination for the city’s street art scene. When Bansky decides to take control of Guetta’s wealth of material to fashion a documentary, Guetta morphs into a street artist himself (he goes on to name himself Mr. Brainwash). The film poses more questions than it answers. Does Guetta exist at all? Was he in cahoots with Bansky the whole time? Is Guetta really Bansky himself? We’ll probably never know, but at least we have this insanely entertaining documentary to tease us.
“F For Fake” (1973)
The last major film to have been completed by the wunderkind actor-writer-director-producer Orson Welles is, in fact, not a looming fictional narrative in the vein of “Citizen Kane” or “The Magnificent Ambersons,” but rather a work of nonfiction about the notorious art forger Elmyr de Hory. The film serves as a broad canvas through which Welles proceeds to interrogate notions of authenticity and valuation in regards to art. Of course, it wouldn’t be a Welles film if he didn’t find a way to incorporate himself into the narrative and make an appearance onscreen — which he does, as does his longtime companion Oja Kodar, with whom he shares a writing credit on the film.
“Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief” (2015)
Veteran documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney returned to Sundance this January with his latest powder keg of a documentary, “Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief.” Like the book on which it’s based by Lawrence Wright, the feature offers up shocking claims about the Church of Scientology that have been rocking the public ever since it aired on HBO. The extensive and scathing exposé digs into the history of founder L. Ron Hubbard, the real reason behind the breakup of Scientology member Tom Cruise and his now ex-wife Nicole Kidman, what goes on behind the closed doors of its Los Angeles Church and much more over the course of its two-hour running time.
“Grey Gardens” (1975)
Cousins of Jackie Onassis, Big and Little Edie Bouvier Beale are two of the most haunting characters in cinematic history. Beautifully captured in Albert and David Mayseles’ revered “Grey Gardens,” the mother-daughter duo’s ramshackle lifestyle is beyond fascinating. The two occupy a rundown mansion, fanatically living out their days as former socialites and artists. They sing, dance and dress as if preparing for a show, though their only audience is made up of good-natured raccoons and a family of cats. The camera captures their symbiotic (or potentially parasitic) relationship dutifully, from their minor skirmishes to their wonderful embracement of past splendor. Their stirring routine seems taken from a Kubrick horror film, making it all the more engrossing as their existence is very real. The experience is emotive, as it’s difficult to decide whether the pair are delusional to the point of insanity or just fascinating characters who fully embrace their circumstances.
“Grizzly Man” (2005)
Before “The Lion Whisperer” Kevin Richardson uploaded the video of him hugging a lion that went viral, there was Timothy Treadwell, who spent years studying, interacting and living with grizzly bears in Alaska. After recording these interactions and appearing on TV to speak about environmental issues grizzly bears face, Treadwell and his girlfriend were ultimately killed by the animals he fought to protect. Through interviews with Treadwell’s family and bear experts, as well as Treadwell’s own footage, Werner Herzog looks into the life of a distinct individual, who some thought lost touch of reality by becoming infatuated with these dangerous animals. Years of personal footage compiled together seems like the story is coming directly from Treadwell himself, which adds the right amount of sentimental nature to the fascinating documentary.
“Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse” (1991)
During a press conference for “Apocalypse Now” at the 1979 Cannes Film Festival, director Francis Ford Coppola famously recalled of the troubled production: “We had access to too much money, too much equipment, and little by little we went insane…My film is not about Vietnam, it is Vietnam.” At the very least, the acclaimed behind-the-scenes documentary “Heart of Darkness” proves this statement and then some, revealing a production so tumultuous, aggressive and grueling that it’s no wonder it derailed Coppola and nearly forced him out of Hollywood for good. From Marlon Brando’s unexpected weight gain to severe weather ruining sets to Martin Sheen’s near-heart attack during filming, the hellish production is one for the history books. The doc makes the iconic finished product seem like nothing short of a miracle, and for that it earns a rightful spot on this list.
“The Imposter” (2012)
Few documentaries have enraged and confused people as Bart Layton’s mysterious work, “The Imposter.” With clever storytelling and jaw-dropping reenactments, Layton introduces audiences to Frederic Bourdin, a conniving and convincing con artist, and his ability to convince a Texas family that he was their missing child, Nicholas Barclay, who disappeared years earlier. After years of impersonating children, Bourdin was able to trick officials in Mexico and the United States into thinking that he was the kidnapped and sexually abused Barclay. Slowly, he started to raise eyebrows when staying with the Barclay family in Texas because of the suspicions of a private investigator and an FBI agent. Archived news footage gives the film the feeling of actually living through this unique horror, just as the Barclays and those involved did. By taking viewers through each step of his impersonation, Layton paints a perfect picture of a man with a disturbed need to be someone else.
“I Think We’re Alone Now” (2008)
In his documentary feature directorial debut, Sean Donnelly examines the superfan phenomenon through two incredibly personal stories: That of 50 year-old Jeff Turner and 38-year-old Kelly McCormick. Both Turner and McCormick claim to be in love with ’80s pop sensation Tiffany, who is best known for her 1987 chart-topping cover of “I Think We’re Alone Now” (also the title of the film). You can watch the film at Snag Films (for free!) right now.
“Man on Wire” (2008)
On August 7, 1974, Phillip Petit tight roped across the Twin Towers eight times. The feat is enough to make an exhilarating movie, yet James Marsh’s documentary brings it to another level. Presenting the act as a kind of caper story, it chronicles Petit’s ambitions, training, setup and eventual execution of the stunt using remarkable footage and photos from ’74, as well as re-enactments and modern day interviews with those involved. The result is pure elation and emotion. At one point, you view Petit laying down on the wire as he describes that at the time he remembers speaking to a nearby pigeon. The imagery itself is enough to make your palms sweat. While many films have been made about the Towers since the tragedies of 9/11, few have achieved the kind of thought and care of “Man on Wire.”
“Married to the Eiffel Tower” (2008)
From My Little Pony characters to blow up dolls, people have the tendency to gain an intense amount of affection for unconventional entities. In the short TV film “Married to the Eiffel Tower,” Agnieszka Piotrowska looks at women who fall in love with inanimate objects. These women, who dub themselves Object Sexuals, or OS people for short, claim that the interest is mutual, having the ability to communicate telepathically with their supposedly love-smitten objects. One such person is Naisho who, as the title suggests, is married to the Eiffel Tower. Other OS people in the doc include Amy, whose lover is a church organ, and Eija, a woman married to the Berlin Wall. The ladies all discuss what it’s like to be in love with such objects and their ongoing fight to combat the stigma attached to their unique desires.
Jeff Malmberg’s debut feature “Marwencol” recounts the story of Mark Hogancamp and the fantasy world he created. Hogancamp went into a coma after a group of teenagers beat him senseless and severely damaged his brain. When he woke, his memories were wiped clean. In order to catalyze recovery, he focused on his imagination and created a miniature, one-to-six scale World War II-era town in his backyard. Malmberg uses close-up shots of Hogancamp’s reenactments, making the dolls appear life-sized. The director captures how Hogancamp bounces back and forth between the reality of his own life and the narrative plots of the fictitious town. The dolls, a mixture of G.I. Joes and Barbies, represent the alter egos of the characters from his own life. Through attention to detail and mental stimulation, Hogancamp is able to make strides in the restoration of his motor skills and psychological state. Through Malmberg’s point-and-shoot camerawork, the film tracks the life of an interesting individual, while exploring the realms of psychological trauma, the creative spirit and the long road of recovery.
With “Tabloid,” Errol Morris further redefines and pushes the boundaries of documentary film with the tale of Joyce McKinney and the infamous “Case of the Manacled Mormon.” In 1977, Miss Wyoming Joyce McKinney flew to England with a pilot and a bodyguard to abduct the love of her life. Or was it to liberate him from a cult? Joyce, all of the people that cross her path and the British tabloids help construct an epic “Rashomon”-like tale that is as hilarious as it is unbelievable. Part black comedy, part film noir, “Tabloid” is always surprising and features one of the most bizarre characters of Morris’ career (which is saying a lot).