5 Great Documentaries


Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father (2008)

Dear Zachary Movie Poster
Dear Zachary

The tag line in the poster above sums up as much as you should know about this documentary:

On Nov 5 2001, Dr. Andrew Bagby was murdered. To memorialize him, his friend Karl began making a documentary film. Then the killer revealed she was pregnant with Andrew’s son. 

What follows is a heartfelt, emotional, moving, and with a bigger twist than you will see in any Hollywood blockbuster piece of fiction…

There’s another post to be had somewhere entitled ‘great movies you don’t want to watch more than once’…well, I’ve seen Dear Zachary twice and it doesn’t get any easier: on both occasions I have to say I cried like a baby.

There is a theory that for a truly great documentary you need a good subject, good story telling and perspective, but you also need a dose of  ‘luck’ in events unfolding as the documentary is being made…this film certainly has the latter in spades. Unfortunately.


The Queen of Versailles (2012)

Movie poster for The Queen of Versailles
The Queen of Versailles

The idea of a family losing their dream home as they face financial ruin may not seem like light relief, but after Dear Zachary, believe me, it is.

It is also a great example of the aforementioned idea that for a memorable documentary the makers need something unexpected to happen during the project…

The film follows David Siegel, at the time the project started, running the Westage Resorts time-share business (you’re warming to him already, aren’t you?) and his ‘actress/ producer’ (according to IMDB, a former engineer/ beauty queen according to the documentary) wife Jaqueline as they build their dream home: the largest private home in America.

What starts as a ‘lifestyles of the rich and famous’ style money porn’ visit around the on-going construction of their home, veers massively off track as the sub-prime mortgage collapse takes a massive effect on them. As they have to scale down (or don’t in Jaqueline’s case all too often), it’s as though we’re watching a real life version of Schitt’s Creek). At times Schadenfreude personified, we find ourselves bizarrely and unexpectedly caring for these outrageously rich and pampered weirdos.

American: The Bill Hicks Story

Film Poster for American: The Bill Hicks Story
American: The Bill Hicks Story

I wasn’t sure whether I was going to be an easy target for this documentary or a hard sell, given my love of Bill Hicks. (Having read the pretty crappy Cynthia True biography many years ago).

The film is an interesting combination of photo-animation narrated by 10 people who knew Hicks particularly well. As a result it’s an informative and, at the same time, artistically made examination of Bill Hicks’ all-too-short life. Hicks has become an icon since passing away at 32 from pancreatic cancer –  like Kafka, van Gogh or Bach, more famous in death than in life and referenced as the ‘comedian’s comedian’, and poster boy for the student wall.

If you don’t know Hicks, and why he’s held in such high posthumous regard, then American is a good introduction. If you do, it’s a heart felt, well put together and ‘from the mouths of those that were there’ documentary where you’re likely to learn things about the man (and the myth he has become) no matter how much you thought you knew.

Jason Becker- Not Dead Yet (2012)

Movie Poster: Jason Becker: Not Dead Yet
Jason Becker: Not Dead Yet

Jesse Vile’s 2012 documentary about a young emerging rock guitarist just getting his big break as Steve Vai’s replacement in David Lee Roth’s band may start out as a standard biopic with lots of early school and concert footage shot in grainy home video, but it soon morphs into something much more.

Diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s Disease at the age of just 19, Jason Becker was told he would never make music again, and had a life expectancy of single digit years. 22 years later, unable to move or speak Becker is still composing music – via complex and draining technology which leaves you in awe for both his courage and the patience and love of those around him. The documentary does not shy away from the frustrations and resulting artistic flounces from its’ subject as he struggles to create and the effect on those around him – and partly through this, and partly through the indefatigable spirit of its’ subject the film avoids tragedy and any sense of mawkishness, instead finding warmth, and even humour at times.

With 75% of the film’s budget raised through online crowd-funding, the movie was a festival success on its’ release. Whether you know the subject, or like the music, if you can get past the first twenty minutes of music heavy footage, it’s really a film for everyone.

Jiro Dreams Of Sushi (2011)

Jiro Dreams of Sushi film poster
Jiro Dreams of Sushi

Jiro Ono,  is the 85 year old itamae (or inelegantly translated Sushi Master) and owner of Sukiabashi Jiro – a tiny 3 star sushi restaurant in Ginza, Tokyo which sits only 10 patrons, and charges around £250 for the sushi selection.

David Gelb’s 2011 documentary is about all that, and you get what you might expect from a foodie documentary: the precision, the beauty, the lingering shots over food preparation and presentation. But after the initial ‘how much?!?’, ‘how long does that take???’ and ‘is that really all that man does all day (and here, yes, I am thinking about the young apprentice who’s role is to massage the Octopus for 45 minutes…) the document is about a lot more: a man’s dedication and passion: “The difference,” one interviewee says, “between Jiro today and Jiro 40 years ago is only that he stopped smoking. Other than that, nothing has changed.”

It’s about legacy and expectation, as his son considers the future and what mantle he is expected to take on.

It’s about perfection, and whether it can be achieved, and the role of the innovator, the artist and what it means to be a ‘living legend’.


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