When it comes to documentaries, the Academy has missed the boat on landmark films as often as they have with narrative features — and one need only look at Cinema Eye’s new list of the 25 most influential documentaries of all time to be reminded of that.
As you’d expect from the discerning group behind the Cinema Eye Honors, an annual awards for non-fiction filmmaking voted on by a collective of documentary filmmakers, experts and programmers, the list is an intelligent primer for the art form, highlighting a number of essential names and movements from the silent era to the present. Many of the usual suspects are present — Barbara Kopple, D.A. Pennebaker, Claude Lanzmann, Werner Herzog and so on — as well as a couple of curveballs. Orson Welles, for example, makes the cut for “F for Fake,” a playful 1973 portrait of art forger Elmyr de Hory that is far from a documentary in the classical sense.
However, only five of the 25 selections have won the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature: Peter Davis’ “Hearts and Minds,” Kopple’s “Harlan County, USA,” Leon Gast’s “When We Were Kings,” Michael Moore’s “Bowling for Columbine” and Errol Morris’ “The Fog of War.” Morris (who is also included for his history-changing but Oscar-snubbed 1988 doc “The Thin Blue Line” is listed alongside one of the films he beat in the 2003 race, Andrew Jarecki’s “Capturing the Friedmans.” The seventh Oscar nominee on the list is 1993’s “The War Room” (co-directed by Pennebaker, another director with two mentions here).
I’m slightly surprised to see Moore included only for “Columbine,” rather than his breakout film “Roger & Me,” but such is the nature of list-making. It’s no surprise, of course, to see Steve James’ “Hoop Dreams” on the list: the failure of that 1994 classic to make the Oscar nominee list remains arguably the documentary branch’s most controversial hour. Werner Herzog’s 2005 “Grizzly Man” is the newest title on the list; Dziga Vertov’s 1929 silent “Man With a Movie Camera” (named one of the 10 greatest films of all time in last year’s Sight & Sound critics’ poll) is the oldest.
Speaking to The Wrap, Cinema Eye founder A. J. Schnack explains how the list came about: “For the last few years we”ve been asking eligible directors to tell us what films inspire them, to help guide us to the films we should consider for our Legacy Award. The list is always interesting, and it changes a little bit each year – so as we were thinking about this year, we thought, why don”t we actually release the list to show what films are foremost in filmmakers” minds from one year to the next?”
Check out the results below:
“American Movie,” Chris Smith (1999)
“Bowling for Columbine,” Michael Moore (2002)
“Brother”s Keeper,” Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky (1992)
“Burden of Dreams,” Les Blank (1982)
“Capturing the Friedmans,” Andrew Jarecki (2003)
“Crumb,” Terry Zwigoff (1994)
“Don”t Look Back,” D.A. Pennebaker (1967)
“F for Fake,” Orson Welles (1973)
“The Fog of War,” Errol Morris (2003)
“Gimme Shelter,” Albert Maysles, David Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin (1970)
“Grey Gardens,” Albert Maysles, David Maysles, Ellen Hovde and Muffie Meyer (1975)
“Grizzly Man,” Werner Herzog (2005)
“Harlan County, USA,” Barbara Kopple (1976)
“Hearts and Minds,” Peter Davis (1974)
“Hoop Dreams,” Steve James (1994)
“Man WIth a Movie Camera,” Dziga Vertov (1929)
“Night and Fog,” Alain Resnais (1955)
“Salesman,” Albert Maysles, David Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin (1968)
“Sans Soleil,” Chris Marker (1983)
“Sherman”s March,” Ross McElwee (1985)
“Shoah,” Claude Lanzmann (1985)
“The Thin Blue Line,” Errol Morris (1988)
“Titicut Follies,” Frederick Wiseman (1967)
“The War Room,” Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker (1993)
“When We Were Kings,” Leon Gast (1996)