Dying at Grace (2003) by Dusty Somers
My favorite documentary is also probably the most difficult film I've ever watched. Allan King's Dying at Grace features him taking a small crew into the palliative care ward of Toronto's Grace Health Centre and documenting the final days of five terminally ill patients, with their permission.
Like most of King's documentaries, this one doesn't feature narration or interviews; it's an unblinking form of direct cinema that places the viewer squarely in the center of the action. We watch as three elderly women and an elderly man struggle with cancer and as a man only in his 40s is rendered helpless by an inoperable brain tumor. Each one dies by the end of the film.
By its description alone, Dying at Grace sounds either horribly exploitative or irredeemably depressing. While the film is undeniably difficult to watch, King approaches his subjects with preternatural sensitivity and grace. No one likes to think about death, but King looks at it square in the eye, giving us an extraordinarily moving picture of both the indignity and, in a way, the beauty of death.
It seems like a misnomer to call this a "favorite" -- after all, it's not something I'm popping in on a regular basis -- but I know I will watch it again, and it's a film I'll always treasure.
Winged Migration (2001) by El Bicho
Winged Migration is a study of what takes place over the course of a year for different migratory birds from all the continents. How they live and what struggles they face to survive, which are no different from human struggles. Both deal with life and death, with searching for food and shelter, with having and raising children. Maybe the timeframes are different, but the events are not. The seasons and locations dictate our actions in much the same way they affect the birds' choices. Whether the traditions are religious or secular, there is a cycle of events that we follow, year after year, month after month, day after day. We even have our own large migrations, whether it's returning home for the holidays or leaving our nest to and from work.
Unlike most documentary nature films that cast the viewer as an observer, Winged Migration creates participants through both its story as well as its amazing visuals. I was simply in awe of the camera placement both in the air and on the ground. In flight, the camera pans around and seamlessly becomes a part of the formations, providing a literal bird's-eye view. Their muscles can be seen working as they fly and soar across the sky, making it look so effortless that even we land-based creatures should be able to pull it off if we put our minds and bodies to it.
Winged Migration is humbling as it unintentionally provides perspective that makes the case humans are no more special than any other life form.
Project Nim (2011) by Amanda Salazar
I am going to cheat a little bit a choose a film that hasn't yet been released in theaters, Project Nim. Directed by James Marsh, who also made Man on Wire, this film premiered at Sundance Film Festival and has been making its rounds at festivals since.
The film follows the story of a chimp, Nim, as he is used as a scientific experiment. In the 1970s a linguistics professor from Columbia University decided to experiment on a chimp to see if raised by human beings that he would be able to communicate with humans through sign language. Nim was taken from his mother almost immediately after birth and then raised in different environments, from a home with other children to different facilities until ultimately he ended up in a home specific for chimps. The story is sad and often times horrific in how Nim is treated but March weaves this story together bit by bit so that all of the elements of Nim's story impact you gradually, heavily.
There is no way that you can end this movie without being affected and yet it is hard to put a finger on exactly what each individual will take away from this. Are humans simply cruel to animals or are we so much like the animals that we experiment on? This film will have you looking inward on the animal in yourself with a harsher microscope than you might have expected.
The Thin Blue Line (1988) by Shawn Bourdo
Ask me this question 15 years ago and I wouldn't probably have had nearly the trouble I did today. I think part of it is my age - I'm really into the "learning" part of documentaries - seeing real stories. But we're also in a Golden Age of documentaries. They are really everywhere. In the '80s - they mainly existed on PBS and the rare ones made the theaters. The huge expansion of cable TV and home video gave forums to many of the best documentary makers. HBO does a phenomenal job as does Discovery and Nat Geo with presenting quality documentaries on a regular basis. I could have picked some TV-based docs or ones that I know from TV but I left them out on purpose. That leaves out some wonderful fare such as Paradise Lost, 7 Up (and all the entries of that series would probably be #1), and even Grizzly Man that I know more from its extended airing on cable.
Theatrically it's hard to ignore what Michael Moore has done for the genre. But his manipulative voice is not my favorite. It's rare that I agree with someone's point and yet don't like their film because of the way the argument is presented (case in point Fahrenheit 9/11). So I"m going with a brilliant piece that sums up what I want out of my documentary experience - The Thin Blue Line. The 1988 Errol Morris film tells a story of a crime that if it was a piece of fiction - I would have turned it off 30 minutes in as unbelievable. The story of the trial of a drifter, Randall Dale Adams, accused of a murder of a police officer is fascinating. We follow Morris deeper and deeper into the evidence - getting closer to the edge of your seat along the way. The man Adams has been convicted and is on Death Row as the movie starts. That adds to the chills as we start to piece together the evidence and the shoddy work by police. And there's the feeling throughout that one man is not going to be able to overturn this verdict despite the preponderance of evidence.
There are other docs that portray interesting people and towns. In fact, Morris does one of the best in Gates Of Heaven about pet cemeteries. There are ones like American Movie that show us the great stories of every day folk. And there's the portraits of interesting famous people like Crumb that capture a spirit that you can't turn away from. But this film gives us something and someone to root for. And the fact that it's a true story pushes it to the front of the crowded list of favorite documentaries.