It's a fact, the month of January is Hollywood's official dumping ground for bad movies. Which makes it a perfect time to stay indoors, watch some great documentaries, and avoid the typically cold winter weather. Unless, of course, you're just dying to see A Haunted House, Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters, and Movie 43. But we're guessing that's probably not the case for most people. Go ahead and take a look at the documentaries below, and if any of them do catch your interest, be sure to check them out. We've even gone ahead and made it easy for you by listing a number of ways each film can be currently seen. Even though there might not be much to see in theaters, you'll now have plenty to watch at home.
No matter what your opinion of Michael Moore is at this point in history, his first feature, Roger and Me, is a great cornerstone with which to whet one's interest in documentaries on. Taking on The Man for personal reasons very much tied to Moore's sense of familial origins as well as the source of his personal work ethic, Roger and Me is a textbook example of how emotions can sway an argument. The snapshots of poverty-ridden Flint, Michigan residents eating pet rabbits in what looks to be a community two steps away from transforming into a complete ghost town will stay in your memory. This story of a mid-western town's struggle to remain an asset to the automobile industry is still relevant today considering President Obama's current stance on automobile manufacturing political platforms.
Master of the interview and director Errol Morris makes his first appearance on this list for Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr. Morris creates in contrast to Michael Moore in terms of using emotion in his documentaries. Somehow able to find the most fantastic subjects, Morris has the magic to capture these startling personalities in a way which allows the viewer to form their own opinion, despite his control of the camera and onslaught of questions. Never shying away from difficult subject matter which suggests an impossibility of any sort of objectivity, Morris portrays Fred Leuchter's decision to investigate the Jewish holocaust of World War 2 with a challenging innocence. The moments showcasing Leuchter's investigation of Aushwitz are bound to spark great conversation amongst even the most passive of viewers.
Available on: DVD, YouTube
Every Chinese New Year, over 130 million migrant factory workers attempt to return home to visit faraway family members. In the case of the Zhang family, the parents have left their children behind in order to provide for them through working in the big city. Their hope is that through their hard work and daily sacrifice, their children may be able to have better lives. Although when the parents finally arrive home after a taxing journey, they discover that all of their hard work might have been for not. Their children, a teenage girl named Qin and a young boy named Yang have felt abandoned by their parents over the years, and have grown to resent them. Despite careful planning and hard work, everything the parents have been working so hard for may have been for nothing if their children end up rebelling against them. Last Train Home offers a fascinating look inside some of the struggles modern Chinese families face, and highlights some of the deep-rooted problems of China's economic system.
Patton Oswalt's look into life on the road for a group of comedians is fascinating. It shows concisely why someone would feel strongly enough about making others laugh that they would spend most of their time travelling, playing to crowds that sometimes seem unappreciative if not hostile, and getting paid less than they deserve. This film also shows the stunning revelation that Zach Galifinakis isn't actually acting in any of those films he's in, and may in fact just be a crazy person. If you're interested in any of the comedians profiled (Oswalt himself, Galifinakis, Brian Posehn, and Maria Bamford) or are interested in the art of stand up comedy in general, it's definitely worth a watch.
Available on: Netflix, iTunes, DVD, Amazon Instant Video
Indie Game: The Movie is a 2012 documentary chronicling for the majority of the film the development of the indie games FEZ and Super Meat Boy. More broadly the film is about the state of indie games in general and the challenges and successes of creating them. It's an incredibly honest and surprisingly raw film at times that shows the bitter anger that comes from the unfair treatment that indie games nearly universally receive from distributors. Indie Game: The Movie really draws you into these developers' lives and by the end you rode the same emotional roller-coaster that they were on. It's a fantastic watch all-around that will more than likely make you want to play some of these games when you are done watching. If you are someone who plays video games you have no excuse not to watch this right now.
World Championship Wrestling should not have crashed and burned as hard as it did. It had talent, history, and the full force of the Turner TV network behind it. Yet it did fail, like some kind of horrific slow-motion train wreck. The Rise and Fall of WCW attempts to show, in great detail, not only how it became the highest rated wrestling program on the air for several years, but how it squandered all of the good will it gained as it's fans left for the WWE in droves towards the end, culminating in Vince McMahon buying and dismantling the entire company. Even if you aren't interested in the actual wrestling, it's still a fantastic look at how a company can be mismanaged, and the insane levels of incompetence required to completely destroy something that was so incredibly popular.
Available on: Netflix, iTunes, DVD, Amazon Instant Video
Pictured above is Joyce McKinney, who is the subject of the documentary Tabloid. As former Miss Wyoming in the 1970s, it didn't take long for McKinney to find what she believed to be the love or her life, who was a man named Kirk Anderson. But after he mysteriously disappears without a trace, it causes her to do everything in her power to track him down. It turns out that Anderson was overseas, and had been "taken in" by his fellow Mormons. Desperate to get him back, McKinney tracks him down and ends up finding him and taking him to a cottage. It sounds like a happy ending but it wasn't long before that she found herself as the subject of a huge developing news story. McKinney had been accused of kidnapping Anderson and raping him in the cottage where she had taken him. Tabloid is a bizarre tale that's always intriguing and it offers a fascinating look at the woman in the center of it all.
GasLand is the 2010 documentary by Josh Fox dealing with natural gas drilling in the USA known as "fracking." As the image above shows, he goes to places where fracking has taken place and shortly after, the water coming out of nearby faucets is flammable and loaded with poisonous chemicals. The film gets into how these companies are exempt from the Clean Water Act and able to do things they otherwise could not in the pursuit of fracking. Some of the stories from the individuals affected are absolutely soul-crushing. This is a personal story for Fox and I imagine that is why he is able to get such candid interviews. There is hope at the end of the film but it does end on an uncertain note. Fortunately, there is a second part to this story coming soon from Josh Fox.
Available on: Netflix, iTunes, DVD, Amazon Instant Video
Not that anyone questioned it, but Exit Through the Gift Shop (just as the title suggests) is a burning critique of the materialism and superficial core of the art world. Overflowing with a snide ironic shrug of the shoulders, a supposed Banksy and Shepard Fairey showcase several works which alone make the documentary worth watching. Shots of singer Beck buying hip tee-shirts at an inflated price also garner a chuckle. Suffer through the attempt of the filmmaker's to mislead the audience and just enjoy the spectacular showcase of Banksy's work.
Making a documentary about a series of films as long lasting and popular as A Nightmare on Elm Street so long after they were actually produced is no small feat, but Never Sleep Again was able to do it. Via interviews with actors, producers, directors, effects artists, and studio heads, they meticulously chronicle every film in the franchise up until the last of the original series, Freddy vs Jason. Clocking in at four hours, you need to be pretty heavily invested and interested in the films to get through the whole thing, but it's worth it. Going into not only the films themselves but the media frenzy and pop culture impact that they had, it's a great look into one of the great American horror phenomenons of the 80's.
Available on: DVD
Interviewees in this 1975 Oscar-winning documentary include J. Edgar Hoover, Joseph R. McCarthy, General William Westmoreland, and Robert Kennedy making this not only a timeless piece of film, but a true historical document. Any film-buff or person interested in the Vietnam War will tell you the influence this piece had on future documentarians including Errol Morris and Michael Moore, both of whom are already included on this list. The comments made in reference to our then-enemies paired with rare images will shock and serve as an important reminder of military sentiments during this particular conflict.
This Film Is Not Yet Rated is Kirby Dick's examination of the MPAA ratings board. There are two stories at work here: First, you have the examination of the MPAA through its history and speaking to filmmakers and critics about it. They speak to several directors that were forced to cut or accept an NC-17 rating, and discuss the hypocrisy of how sexuality is far more likely to get a stricter rating than violent content. The second story in the film, is Kirby Dick enlisting the help of a private investigator to uncover the names of all the members on the MPAA ratings board. Both are well done and both are an incredibly interesting and very funny look at the whole mess that is the MPAA.
Available on: Netflix, DVD
If you haven't seen Catfish, don't watch a trailer and try not to read anything about it. It's the kind of documentary where the film's success hinges on a fresh, spoiler-free experience. Without revealing anything substantial, Catfish is about Nev (pictured above) and Megan's long-distance relationship that was born on the internet. The film examines how much you're able to really get to know about someone without physically coming into contact with them. Since it's release in 2010, the authenticity of the film has been called into question, but whether the story has been falsified or not, it offers a relevant commentary on modern day relationships and online privacy. It's a thought-provoking film that will likely have you talking about it with others for weeks after you've seen it.
Deep Throat was the first pornographic film to ever have an actual cultural impact, of which is still being felt to this day. It was the first time that it was ever even slightly socially acceptable to talk about porn in any context that wasn't condemnatory, and is still one of the highest grossing films of it's kind to ever be released theatrically. Inside Deep Throat takes a look into the controversy and impact of the film, from launching the porno chic trend to obscenity trials, to star Linda Lovelace's conflicting accounts of the film either being a great experience or tantamount to rape. Also, it's narrated by Dennis Hopper, so that's a big plus as well.
What kind of sacrifices would you have to make in order to be known as being the best at something in the whole world? That's what Jiro Dreams of Sushi explores as it peers into the life of Jiro Ono, who is an 85-year-old sushi chef that's devoted all of his time here on Earth perfecting the art of making delicious sushi. Although Jiro's eldest son, Yoshikazu is set to succeed his father, Jiro continues to work, believing that he can still be better at what he does at his quaint three-star Michelin restaurant located in Tokyo, Japan. This film shows what a life that's been dedicated to doing just one thing looks like in action, and how Jiro's endless zeal has affected those around him, whether it be fellow chefs of family members.
Magic and Bird is a 2010 HBO sports documentary about the lives, on/off court competition, and friendship of Larry Bird and Magic Johnson. The level of work getting candid interviews here is what makes it shine. Even those who have no interest in basketball or sports in general will find themselves enthralled with this very slickly produced film. It really does make the case that the NBA survived through the 1980s due to the ongoing rivalry between the two.
Even the most staunch opponent of labor unions could hardly look upon Barbara Kopple's Harlan County, U.S.A. with an air of negativity. The story of Kentucky coal-miners in the mid-1970's inspires all viewers to take action in their daily lives and to support a community of workers. This documentary succeeds on every level: the soundtrack is a series of anthems, the interviewees are opinionated and action-oriented, and the tale is one of a true underdog. Celebrate a lost tradition of labor support in the United States with this, another historical document akin to Hearts and Minds.
Available on: DVD
Religulous is Bill Maher's documentary on religion. If you know anything about Maher you have already probably guessed he is highly critical of the topic. I think it's to the films credit that he focuses more on going after the institutions of religion that have perverted it rather than attack what people want to believe. The director Larry Charles who also directed Borat produces a very tightly paced and funny film. There are a couple segments where church leaders clearly scamming the congregation are allowed to hang themselves on their own words and it is fantastic. If you don't have a problem with a highly critical look at religion I highly recommend checking this out.
Available on: Netflix, iTunes, Blu-ray, DVD, Amazon Instant Video
Looking at the long, hellish production cycle of Apocalypse Now, Hearts Of Darkness is required viewing for anyone interested in how a film gets made, and how a film can almost not get made. From the near bankrupting of director Francis Ford Coppola, to struggles with Marlon Brando, to the near mental breakdown of star Martin Sheen, it's a no holds barred look at the work that went into making one of the most seminal war films ever made. In fact, it's almost more interesting than the film it's looking at the production of, and in many ways even more reflective of the themes that Apocalypse Now itself explored as well.
Available on: DVD
One of the most truly bizarre films ever made, Grey Gardens takes a sad look at mental illness and co-dependence with the eccentric Kennedy family-connected mother and daughter duo both named Edith Beale. The formerly wealthy women descend further into obscurity as the house they inhabit crumbles around them, but their delusions remain intact. While the film is about more than just two crazy cat ladies living outside of society, it's hard not to be horrified by the conditions in which they exist. This title has become a cult classic for reasons that escape description. We highly recommend you check this out for yourself.
Between This Film is Not Yet Rated and The Invisible War, there are two documentaries from Kirby Dick on this list. However, this one focuses on a much more serious matter: sexual assault and rape in the military. This documentary is loaded with shocking facts that will make you realize that there's a war right here within our borders that you may not have known about until now. Not only does are sexual assault cases more frequent in the military versus the civilian sector, but in many cases when it does happen, the victim of the crime is subject to harsh disciplinary action for "rocking the boat," while the offender is hardly reprimanded. These victims are people who were eager to serve their country with honor and pride, only to have been totally betrayed by it in the worst way imaginable. The Invisible War is an incredibly important film that sheds some light on a major issue that desperately require intervention from both the military brass that's in charge to civilian lawmakers.
Reporter takes us on a soul crushing but eye opening journey into the Congo. New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof along with a small team of students and a photographer show us why we should care. Taking us all over the congo region and speaking to the people there he puts a human face that is hard to dismiss on the atrocities occuring daily. This builds and builds to a final day where Nick interviews the warlord General Nkunda. The film also gets into the studies out there dealing with measuring the capacity of human compassion. It's incredibly interesting and very well shot. If you have a chance to see this take it.
Available on: DVD
Searching For Sugar Man presents the story of Rodriguez Sixto, who's an American folk musician that's somewhat similar in style to Bob Dylan. Although Rodriguez managed to put out two full-length albums and was incredibly talented, he never gained any traction in the United States. Unbeknownst to him during the 1970s, he was incredibly popular and influential in South Africa while the citizens were resisting governmental apartheid. Unfortunately, it wasn't before long before rumors of Rodriguez's suicide began to swirl. That's when some motivated people living in South Africa began to investigate this musician who had seemingly died without ever knowing how much he meant to so many people. The trailer for this documentary essentially summarizes the entire film, so try to avoid it. Instead, see Searching For Sugar Man in it's entirety and let this mysterious story unravel itself.
Donkey Kong masters Steve Wiebe and Billy Mitchell are the perfect subject matter for a documentary, and The King of Kong: Fistful of Quarters fulfills all the requirements of an entertaining story of rivalry and gamer honor. Arcade games embody nostalgia and innocent time-wasting; and this movie will meet those needs as well. I'm hard-pressed to write we've ever seen a better villain than the "sauce king" with a unique array of ties who is Billy Mitchell, and the affable loser Steve Wiebe is the perfect personality to knock Mitchell off his gaming stool. Even if viewers could care less about the personalities, one surely can't hold back a smile when they see all the classic arcade games and the people who still love them.
Dear Zachary is one of the most soul crushing films ever made, and also one of the best cinema vérité documentaries to ever be produced. Wearing its biases on it's sleeve, it makes no attempt at pretending to be in the middle of the road when it comes to it's subject matter, but also presents nothing but facts when it comes to how things happened. I really don't want to say anything about what those events are as I feel that if you go into this film knowing the twists that this real life tragedy takes, it removes from the overall experience. All that I'll say is it starts with the murder of a young man by his girlfriend, and it gets much, much worse from there. A condemnation of the failures of the US and Canadian judicial systems has never been more poignant than it is here, and it's a must watch for both it's political and personal aspects.
Available on: Netflix, YouTube, DVD, Amazon Instant Video