That is to say that the post itself doesn’t have an obscure title, not that the documentaries don’t have obscure titles.
I recently posted a request for documentary-viewing suggestions, and the following list emerged in the comments. I haven’t vetted all of these personally, but I feel like I can vouch for the intelligence and integrity of all who responded, so I’m kind of psyched about making this my official “Must-see Documentary” list. I’ve added a couple of my own for good measure. These aren’t in any particular order…
The Woman Who Wasn’t There: The Woman Who Wasn’t There is a psychological thriller that goes inside the mind of history’s most infamous 9/11 survivor.
Cropsey: Realizing the urban legend of their youth has actually come true; two filmmakers delve into the mystery surrounding five missing children and the real-life boogeyman linked to their disappearances.
From the Back of the Room: A documentary chronicling the past 30 years of female involvement in DIY punk/hardcore.
Bastards of the Party: Surrounded by death and the brutal lifestyle that feeds it, a Los Angeles gangbanger explores the history of Southern California street gangs from the 1950s through the 1990s in an attempt to fully understand his existence.
Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father: A filmmaker decides to memorialize a murdered friend when his friend’s ex-girlfriend announces she is expecting his son.
The Wobblies: THE WOBBLIES boldly investigates a nation torn by naked corporate greed and the red-hot rift between the industrial masters and the rabble-rousing workers in the field and factory.
My Friend Mott-ly: Born in the face of obstacles that would bring a normal person to the point of giving up, Lee Tisdale, known affectionately as Mott-ly to friends, was not one to go peacefully to his grave without a fight. As an artist and activist afflicted by hemophilia, HIV and also living as an amputee, Mott-ly was somehow able to survive with a vigor that would put the most people to shame.
Afro-Punk: Afro-Punk explores race identity within the punk scene. More than your everyday “Behind the Music” or typical “black history month” documentary, this film tackles hard questions, covering issues such as exile, loneliness, inter-racial dating and black power. We follow the lives of four people who have dedicated themselves to the punk rock lifestyle. They find themselves in conflicting situations, living the dual life of a person of color in a mostly white community.
Beautiful Losers: This documentary follows the lives and careers of a collective group of Do-it-yourself artists and designers who inadvertently affected the art world.
American Masters – Alexander Calder: Alexander Calder’s prolific and passionate output brought with it a humor and sense of play unlike any before, redefining what art could be.
We the Tiny House People: TV producer and Internet-video personality Kirsten Dirksen invites us on her journey into the tiny homes of people searching for simplicity, self-sufficiency, minimalism and happiness by creating shelter in caves, converted garages, trailers, tool sheds, river boats and former pigeon coops.
Helvetica: A documentary about typography, graphic design, and global visual culture.
Marwencol: After a vicious attacks leaves him brain-damaged and broke, Mark Hogancamp seeks recovery in “Marwencol”, a 1/6th scale World War II-era town he creates in his backyard.
A Man Named Pearl: A Man Named Pearl tells the inspiring story of self-taught topiary artist Pearl Fryar. It offers a message that speaks to respect for both self and others, and shows what one person can achieve when he allows himself to share the full expression of his humanity.
Bill Moyers and Wendell Berry: In a rare television interview, environmental legend and writer Wendell Berry leaves his Kentucky farm for an inspiring conversation.
The House I Live In: From the dealer to the narcotics officer, the inmate to the federal judge, a penetrating look inside America’s criminal justice system, revealing the profound human rights implications of U.S. drug policy.
The Act of Killing: A documentary which challenges former Indonesian death-squad leaders to reenact their mass-killings in whichever cinematic genres they wish, including classic Hollywood crime scenarios and lavish musical numbers.
Dirty Wars: Investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill is pulled into an unexpected journey as he chases down the hidden truth behind America’s expanding covert wars.
Harlan County, U.S.A: A filmed account of a bitterly violent miner strike.
The Square: A group of Egyptian revolutionaries battle leaders and regimes, risking their lives to build a new society of conscience.
All Power To The People: All Power to the People! examines problems of race, poverty, dissent, and the universal conflict of the haves versus the have nots. U.S. government documents, rare news clips, and interviews with both ex-activists and former FBI/CIA officers, provide deep insight into the bloody conflict between political dissent and governmental authority in the U.S. of the 60s and 70s.
Let the Fire Burn: On May 13, 1985, Philadelphia police dropped two pounds of military explosives onto a city row house occupied by the radical group MOVE. The resulting fire was not fought for over an hour although firefighters were on the scene with water cannons in place. Five children and six adults were killed and sixty-one homes were destroyed by the six-alarm blaze, one of the largest in the city’s history. This dramatic tragedy unfolds through an extraordinary visual record previously withheld from the public. It is a graphic illustration of how prejudice, intolerance and fear can lead to unthinkable acts of violence.
Pickaxe: This excellent documentary takes us into another world; the world of rogue loggers and firefighters turned eco-warriors. The story begins as an arsonist burns 9000 acres of protected old-growth public forest in Oregon that can not be logged unless it burns. To stop the proposed “salvage” logging of this incredible ancient forest, citizens are moved to blockade a road and keep the government out. After facing down a bulldozer and the State Police, the fort now known as the gateway to the Cascadia Free State becomes the focus for a developing community dedicated to protecting ancient forests throughout the mountains of Oregon.
Buck: An examination of the life of acclaimed ‘horse whisperer’Buck Brannaman, who recovered from years of child abuse to become a well-known expert in the interactions between horses and people.
The People Vs. George Lucas: The passion the original Star Wars trilogy inspires in its fans is unparalleled; but when it comes to George Lucas himself, many have found their ardor has cooled into a complicated love-hate relationship. This hilarious, heartfelt documentary delves deep into Lucas’s cultural legacy, asking all the tough questions. Has Lucas betrayed his masterwork? Should he just have left the original trilogy alone? Is The Phantom Menace so bad it should carry a health warning? Utilizing interviews taken from over 600 hours of footage, and peppered with extraordinary Star Warsand Indiana Jones recreations lovingly immortalized in song, needlepoint, Lego, claymation, puppets and paper-mâché, above all this film asks the question: who truly owns that galaxy far, far away—the man who created it, or the fans who worship it?
Man On Wire: A look at tightrope walker Philippe Petit’s daring, but illegal, high-wire routine performed between New York City’s World Trade Center’s twin towers in 1974, what some consider, “the artistic crime of the century.”
In the spring of 2005, Jim Miller, a Native spiritual leader and Vietnam veteran, found himself in a dream riding on horseback across the great plains of South Dakota. Just before he awoke, he arrived at a riverbank in Minnesota and saw 38 of his Dakota ancestors hanged. At the time, Jim knew nothing of the largest mass execution in United States history, ordered by Abraham Lincoln on December 26, 1862. “When you have dreams, you know when they come from the creator… As any recovered alcoholic, I made believe that I didn’t get it. I tried to put it out of my mind, yet it’s one of those dreams that bothers you night and day.”
Now, four years later, embracing the message of the dream, Jim and a group of riders retrace the 330-mile route of his dream on horseback from Lower Brule, South Dakota to Mankato, Minnesota to arrive at the hanging site on the anniversary of the execution. “We can’t blame the wasichus anymore. We’re doing it to ourselves. We’re selling drugs. We’re killing our own people. That’s what this ride is about, is healing.” This is the story of their journey- the blizzards they endure, the Native and Non-Native communities that house and feed them along the way, and the dark history they are beginning to wipe away.
The Corporation: Documentary that looks at the concept of the corporation throughout recent history up to its present-day dominance.
If a Tree Falls: The Story of the Earth Liberation Front: A rare behind-the-curtain look at the Earth Liberation Front, the radical environmental group that the FBI calls America’s ‘number one domestic terrorist threat.’
From Chechnya to Chernobyl: The tiny, little-known country of Belarus suffered more than any other in the aftermath of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster. Winds scattered the heaviest radioactive deposits across the country, where even after a decade, 25% of the land is judged uninhabitable. Thousands of villages and towns were abandoned or evacuated, and their populations resettled to safer areas. The government of Belarus, meanwhile, wants people back in its irradiated areas, to till the rich farmland that has lain fallow for a decade. The ads inviting people, however, don’t mention that this quilt of pastures, grain and vegetable fields is laden with plutonium isotopes and strontium 90. The memory of war is still vivid for many, and living amid the radiation and poverty of Chernobyl’s contaminated zones seems the least of many evils. In an attempt to lure new workers to the area, the state farm offered free housing and work for anyone willing to resettle. It is here in Raduga that I meet the Tsiplaevs, a family of ethnic Russians who had been living in Chechnya.
Wiebo’s War: Tells the story of a Christian community, at war with the oil and gas industry. Wiebo Ludwig is a suspect in a series of pipeline bombings near his farm. The bombings echo a campaign of sabotage he waged 10 years ago: barricading roads, blowing up wells, culminating in the unsolved death of a teen aged girl. The Ludwigs live according to their religious values. They are self-sufficient in food and energy, but isolated, with seven unmarried adult children, and 38 grandchildren. They believe that those who don’t share their beliefs, like filmmaker David York, are living in terrible darkness.
We Are Legion: A documentary on the workings and beliefs of the self-described “hacktivist” collective, Anonymous.
Paper Clips: As a part of their study of the Holocaust, the children of the Whitwell, TN Middle School try to collect 6 million paper clips representing the 6 million Jews killed by the Nazis.
Between the Folds: Depicts a cast of fine artists and eccentric scientists (from MIT and NASA) who have devoted their lives to the unlikely medium of modern origami. Through their determination to reinterpret the world in paper, they arouse a fascinating mix of sensibilities towards art, form, expressiveness, creativity and meaning.
Inequality For All: A documentary that follows former U.S. Labor Secretary Robert Reich as he looks to raise awareness of the country’s widening economic gap.
Flow: For Love Of Water: Water is the very essence of life, sustaining every being on the planet. ‘Flow’ confronts the disturbing reality that our crucial resource is dwindling and greed just may be the cause.
A Band Called Death: A documentary on the 1970s punk trio Death, and their new-found popularity decades after they disbanded.
After Tiller: fter the assassination of Dr. George Tiller in Kansas in 2009, there are a limited number of doctors left in the country who provide third-trimester abortions for women. AFTER TILLER moves between the rapidly unfolding stories of these doctors, all of whom were close colleagues of Dr. Tiller, and are fighting to keep this service available in the wake of his death. These four people have become the new number-one targets of the pro-life movement, yet continue to risk their lives every day to do work that many believe is murder, but which they believe is profoundly important for their patients’ lives. AFTER TILLER shows them confronting harassment from protesters, challenges in their personal lives, and a series of tough ethical decisions.
The Devil and Daniel Johnston: Daniel Johnston, manic-depressive genius singer/songwriter/artist is revealed in this portrait of madness, creativity and love.
American: The Bill Hicks Story: Photo-animated feature documentary, uniquely narrated by the 10 people who knew Bill best.
12 O’Clock Boys: Pug, a young boy growing up on a combative West Baltimore block, finds solace in a group of illegal dirt bike riders known as The 12 O’Clock Boys.
The Garden: From the ashes of the L.A. riots arose a lush, 14-acre community garden, the largest of its kind in the United States. Now bulldozers threaten its future.
The Cruise: Affectionate portrait of Tim “Speed” Levitch, a tour guide for Manhattan’s Gray Line double-decker buses. He talks fast, is in love with the city, and dispenses historical facts, architectural analysis, and philosophical musings in equal measures. He’s reflective and funny about cruising: he loves it, got in it to meet women, and he’d quit work if he could. His personal life is disclosed in small doses: he takes home $200 a week for 20 hours work, home is his suitcase and wherever he can flop, he’s been arrested for going out on the roof tops of skyscrapers to see his city; he stands between the towers of the World Trade Center, spins until he’s dizzy, then looks up.
The Kids are Alright: From the early black and white days to their colourful hedonistic era, you will Rock! See them at their most creative, and destructive, and experience The Who: Here!
Don’t Need You: “don’t need you” is a documentary film that tells the story of the origins of Riot Grrrl in the American independent music scene of the 1990s, and how this feminist movement evolved into a revolutionary underground network of education and self-awareness through music, writing, activism, and women-friendly community. The film gives audiences a chance to meet key figures in the development of Riot Grrrl and see for themselves how these women have changed the history of music and feminism forever. The film features one-on-one interviews interspersed with rare, archival materials, including original Riot Grrrl fanzines, flyers, and photographs, as well as seldom seen footage from pioneering Riot Grrrl bands like Bikini Kill, Heavens to Betsy, and Bratmobile.
Queen of the Sun: UEEN OF THE SUN: What Are the Bees Telling Us? is a profound, alternative look at the global bee crisis from Taggart Siegel, director of THE REAL DIRT ON FARMER JOHN. Taking us on a journey through the catastrophic disappearance of bees and the mysterious world of the beehive, this engaging and ultimately uplifting film weaves an unusual and dramatic story of the heartfelt struggles of beekeepers, scientists and philosophers from around the world including Michael Pollan, Gunther Hauk and Vandana Shiva. Together they reveal both the problems and the solutions in renewing a culture in balance with nature.
Blackfish: A documentary following the controversial captivity of killer whales, and its dangers for both humans and whales.
Hot Coffee: How the infamous McDonald’s hot coffee lawsuit and similar cases were exploited as part of a right wing crusade to weaken civil justice.
Terms and Conditions May Apply: A documentary that exposes what corporations and governments learn about people through Internet and cell phone usage, and what can be done about it … if anything.
The Act of Killing: A documentary which challenges former Indonesian death-squad leaders to reenact their mass-killings in whichever cinematic genres they wish, including classic Hollywood crime scenarios and lavish musical numbers.
Exit Through The Gift Shop: The story of how an eccentric French shop keeper and amateur film maker attempted to locate and befriend Banksy, only to have the artist turn the camera back on its owner. The film contains footage of Banksy, Shephard Fairey, Invader and many of the world’s most infamous graffiti artists at work.
Jesus Camp: A documentary on kids who attend a summer camp hoping to become the next Billy Graham.
Restrepo: A year with one platoon in the deadliest valley in Afghanistan.
Park Avenue: Money, Power & the American Dream: In America, the rich are getting richer. Isn’t that great? Doesn’t that mean there’s lots more wealth to go round? Or is it good news for the rich but very bad news for the poor?
740 Park Avenue, Manhattan, is one of the most exclusive addresses in the world, home to some of the richest Americans, the 1% of the 1%. Ten minutes to the north, across the Harlem River, is the other Park Avenue, in the South Bronx. Here, unemployment runs at 19% and half the population need food stamps.
The American Dream of equal opportunities and hard work says you can be born in the Bronx and end up at 740. But is that dream still true? The film argues the super-rich haven’t just bought the exclusive addresses – they’ve bought the whole system and the’’re running it for themselves.
You’re Gonna Miss me: ocumentary about rock pioneer Roky Erickson, detailing his rise as a psychedelic hero, his lengthy institutionalization, his descent into poverty and filth, and his brother’s struggle with their religious mother to improve Roky’s care.
The Clash: Westway to the World: A career retrospective of British punk band The Clash, featuring exclusive interviews with the entire band.
Ghengis Blues: San Francisco bluesman and composer, Paul Peña makes a musical pilgrimage to the land of Tuva.
End of the Century: The Story of the punk rock band The Ramones
Joe Strummer: The Future is Unwritten: As the front man of the Clash from 1977 onwards, Joe Strummer changed people’s lives forever. Four years after his death, his influence reaches out around the world, more strongly now than ever before. In “The Future Is Unwritten”, from British film director Julien Temple, Joe Strummer is revealed not just as a legend or musician, but as a true communicator of our times. Drawing on both a shared punk history and the close personal friendship which developed over the last years of Joe’s life, Julien Temple’s film is a celebration of Joe Strummer – before, during and after the Clash.
An Idiot Abroad: Brit Karl Pilkington has led a sheltered life. Not having done any traveling, he enjoys living within the comforts of what he knows, basically that being what is purely British. As such, his friends, Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, decide to send Karl to various parts of the world to experience unfamiliar cultures. Stephen believes that travel is a life broadening venture, and hopes that Karl will indeed feel like his life is enriched by these travels. Ricky, however, hopes that Karl will hate every minute of his travels. For Ricky, this experiment is the most expensive gag for his own pleasure that he could have conceived.
Joy Division: A chronological account of the influential late 1970s English rock band.
Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay: Ricky Jay is a world-renowned magician, author, historian and actor (often a mischievous presence in the films of David Mamet and Paul Thomas Anderson) — and a performer who regularly provokes astonishment from even the most jaded audiences. Deceptive Practice traces Jay’s achievements and influences, from his apprenticeship at age 4 with his grandfather, to such now-forgotten legends as Al Flosso, Slydini, Cardini and his primary mentors, Dai Vernon and Charlie Miller. Featuring rare footage from his 1970s TV appearances (doing 3-card Monte with Steve Martin on The Dinah Shore Show) and told in Jay’s inimitable voice, this is a remarkable journey inside the secretive world of magic and the small circle of eccentrics who are its perpetual devotees.
Born Into Brothels: Two documentary filmmakers chronicle their time in Sonagchi, Calcutta and the relationships they developed with children of prostitutes who work the city’s notorious red light district.
George Harrison: Living in the Material World: Inter-cut with archive material, friends, family and associates of the musician tell the story of his life and how spirituality became such a major part of it.
Paradise Found: A brilliant NASA scientist visits his dying father in a hospice. The old man is filled with hatred, a veteran of World War II and the CIA, representing the old world of, ‘take no prisoners and give no mercy.’ He has destroyed himself and his family, and now his only joy is in tormenting a beautiful young nurse. His estranged son visits him one last time, and they recount their last visit, when his son told the father of a new theory of mind, combining quantum physics with all modern psychologies, and Eastern and Western concepts. Comic relief is given by the satiric barbs that fly between the old man and his nurse, and a young resident. The film introduces Quantum Field Psychology.
Who is Harry Nilsson (and Why is Everybody Talkin’ about Him?):The documentary explores the enigmatic life and music of Harry Nilsson in an attempt to answer the question, “Who is Harry Nilsson?” The film includes new and archive audio and film including interviews with Robin Williams, Yoko Ono, Van Dyke Parks, Randy Newman, Ray Cooper, the Smothers Brothers, and Micky Dolenz. “Who is Harry Nilsson?” uses promotional films, music videos, and home movies; segments from the unreleased documentary made during the recording of Son of Schmilsson (Did Somebody Drop His Mouse?); and excerpts from Nilsson’s rare TV appearances in his BBC specials, the “Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour”, “Playboy After Dark”, and in an episode of “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir”.
Stripped: The Comics Documentary: STRIPPED is the ultimate love-letter to comic strips. It brings together the world’s best cartoonists to talk about the art form they love, and what happens to it as newspapers die.
Dear Mr. Watterson: A documentary film about the impact of the newspaper comic strip Calvin & Hobbes, created by Bill Watterson.
The Fog of War: 11 Lessons From the Life of Robert S. Macnamara: A film about the former US Secretary of Defense and the various difficult lessons he learned about the nature and conduct of modern war.
The Thin Blue Line: A film that successfully argued that a man was wrongly convicted for murder by a corrupt justice system in Dallas County, Texas.
The Unknown Known: Former United States Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, discusses his career in Washington D.C. from his days as a congressman in the early 1960s to planning the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Tabloid: A documentary on a former Miss Wyoming who is charged with abducting and imprisoning a young Mormon Missionary.
Standard Operating Procedure: Errol Morris examines the incidents of abuse and torture of suspected terrorists at the hands of U.S. forces at the Abu Ghraib prison.
Spent: Looking for Change: Spent: Looking for Change is a film about everyday Americans without the financial options most of us take for granted and the movement giving them renewed hope.
Menstrual Man: Only 1 in 10 menstruating women in India use sanitary pads. The rest use rags, husk, sand, and even ash. One man is out to change that.
And that’s it! If you have any documentaries you recommend, feel free to post them in the comments! I will likely add to this list over time, and republish.
(Thanks to all of the people who contributed their documentary selections to this list!)