I've been searching an exhaustive list of great documentaries, to no avail, so I decided to make one.
The next few posts I make will be documentaries that won at arguably the three most prestigious film festivals: Sundance, Cannes, and the Oscars.
Most of the films I've never heard of, and many of them sound incredible! So let me know if you've seen any of them, or if you watch any based on this recommendation.
"Seventeen" (Grand Jury Prize)
Intimate documentary about lower-middle-class teens in Muncie, Indiana.
"America and Lewis Hine" (Special Jury Prize)
Documentary about early 20th-century photographer Lewis Hine, who helped to expose grim working conditions in American factories and mines, especially the abuse and exploitation of children by their employers. Later, he became the official photographer for the construction of the Empire State Building.
"In Heaven There Is No Beer?" (Special Jury Prize)
A portrait of the life, culture and food surrounding the lovers of Polka music. The title is taken from an old Polka standard. Stars of the Polka world are highlighted.
"Kaddish" (Special Jury Prize)
Yossi Klein Halevi is an author, journalist and researcher of Israeli culture and society. "Kaddish" focuses on his relationship with his father, a Holocaust survivor.
"Streetwise" (Special Jury Prize)
Gritty documentary looking at the life and lives of teenagers living on the streets of Seattle.
"The Times of Harvey Milk" (Special Jury Prize)
Oscar-winning documentary of that year.
Documentary about the political career of Harvey Milk, who was San Francisco's first openly gay supervisor. The film documents Milk's rise from a neighborhood activist to a symbol of gay political achievement, through to his assassination in November 1978 at San Francisco's city hall, and the Dan White trial and aftermath.
"Private Conversations"(Grand Jury Prize)
'Making-of' documentary, focusing on the set of Volker Schlondorff's TVM adaptation of the Broadway stage version of Arthur Miller's 'Death of a Salesman'.
"Las Madres de la Plaza de Mayo" ("The Mothers Clamour for Justice")(Honorable Mention)
Nominated for an Oscar.
Between 1976 and 1983 repressive military governments took over power in Argentina as all-powerful and oppressive dictatorships. The principal subjects of this documentary are the mothers of the hundreds of young men and women who were taken prisoners by the military and never seen again.
"Sherman's March: A Meditation on the Possibility of Romantic Love In the South During an Era of Nuclear Weapons Proliferation" (Grand Jury Prize)
McElwee initially planned to make a film about the effects of General William Tecumseh Sherman's march through Georgia and the Carolinas during the American Civil War. McElwee's traumatic breakup prior to filming made it difficult for him to separate personal from professional concerns, and the focus of the film shifted to a more personal story about the women in his life, love, romance, and religion.
"Chile: Hasta Cuando?" ("Chile: When Will It End?") (Special Jury Prize and Excellence in Cinematography Award)
Nominated for an Oscar.
A portrait of a brutal Pinochet military dictatorship made during a three month visit to Chile in 1985 by David Bradbury.
"Beirut: The Last Home Movie" (Grand Jury Prize and Excellence in Cinematography Award)
Follows the life of Gaby Bustros and her family, who live in in a 200-year old mansion in Beirut during the Lebanese Civil War. The Bustros family, one of the noble families of Beirut, remain in their ancestral home despite the endless war that surrounds them.
"Thy Kingdom Come, Thy Will Be Done" (Special Jury Prize)
Documentary about born-again Christians and the political right.
"Dear America: Letters Home from Vietnam" (Special Jury Prize)
Using real letters written by US soldiers and archive footage, the film creates a highly personal experience of the Vietnam War.
"For All Mankind" (Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award)
Documents the Apollo missions of NASA. Music by Brian Eno.
"John Huston" (Filmmakers Trophy)
Tribute and Overview of Huston's Career.
"H-2 Worker" (Grand Jury Prize and Excellence in Cinematography Award)
About the exploitation of workers in Florida's sugar cane industry.
"Water and Power" (Grand Jury Prize)
Abstract reflection on the conflict between nature and man in Los Angeles, or the desertification of the city's surroundings due to its enormous water consumption.
"Metamorphosis: Man Into Woman" (Filmmakers Trophy)
Gary has been convinced since childhood that he is a woman trapped in a male body. At age 36 he decided to begin the extraordinary process of changing his sex. Shot over three years, this film follows Gary's transformation into Gabi.
"Berkeley in the Sixties" (Audience Award)
This documentary highlights the origins of the Free Speech Movement and the development of the counterculture of the 1960s in Berkeley, California. Features Mario Savio, Todd Gitlin, Joan Baez, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Huey Newton, Allen Ginsberg, Gov. Ronald Reagan and the Grateful Dead.
"Samsara: Death And Rebirth In Cambodia" (Special Jury Recognition)
Documents the struggle of the Cambodian people to rebuild a shattered society in a climate of war and with limited resources.
"American Dream" (Grand Jury Prize, Filmmakers Trophy and Audience Award)
The recount of an unsuccessful strike in the heartland of America against the Hormel Foods corporation.
"Paris Is Burning" (Grand Jury Prize)
Filmed in the mid-to-late 1980s, this chronicles the New York City drag ball culture, and the African American, Latino gay and transgender community involved in it.
"Christo in Paris" (Excellence in Cinematography Award)
This is the story of the quest of the artist Christo to wrap the famous Pont Neuf in France in fabric. It took Christo and his wife ten years to get permission from the Parisian government, and the project created a storm of dialogue throughout Paris.
"A Brief History of Time" (Grand Jury Prize and Filmmakers Trophy)
Film about the physicist Stephen Hawking, directed by Errol Morris. A biography of his life, featuring interviews with family members, colleagues, and his childhood nanny. The music is by Morris's long-time collaborator Philip Glass.
"Finding Christa" (Grand Jury Prize)
A filmmaker reunites with the daughter she gave up for adoption twenty years later.
"Brother's Keeper" (Audience Award)
In a rural farming community near Syracuse, New York, four brothers lived in a dilapidated house. They were barely literate, and had no formal education. William Ward, who had been ill for years, was found dead one morning. Delbert was accused of killing him, perhaps by smothering. Later, accusations surfaced that there might have been incestuous homosexual undertones to the alleged murder.
"Shoot for the Contents" (Excellence in Cinematography Award)
This meditative documentary examines the shifts of interpretation in contemporary Chinese culture and politics.
"Children of Fate" (Grand Jury Prize and Excellence in Cinematography Award)
Film about life in the slums of Palermo, Sicily, directed by Andrew Young and Susan Todd. The film is a sequel to "Cortile Cascino", a 1961 documentary shot by Andrew Young's father, which depicted the eponymous Palermo slum and told the story of Angela Capra and her family. "Children of Fate" picks up the story 30 years on, showing Capra now separated from her husband, and the fates of her children.
"Silverlake Life: The View From Here"(Grand Jury Prize)
Documents the final months of a relationship between two gay men as one of them is dying with AIDS.
"Something Within Me" (Filmmakers Trophy, Audience Award)
This film takes us into St. Augustine where music transforms the school despite being in one of the poorest sections of the South Bronx.
"Freedom on My Mind" (Grand Jury Prize)
Film about the formation of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, and the efforts to register African-American voters in 1960s Mississippi.
"Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey" (Filmmakers Trophy)
Film about the life of Leon Theremin and his invention, the theremin, a pioneering electronic musical instrument.
"Hoop Dreams" (Audience Award)
Shot over five years, this critically acclaimed documentary follows the story of two African-American high school students in Chicago and their dream of becoming professional basketball players. Despite its length (171 minutes) and unlikely commercial genre, it received high critical and popular acclaim. It was on more critics' top ten lists than any other film that year, including Pulp Fiction, Forrest Gump, The Shawshank Redemption, and Quiz Show.
"Colorado Cowboy: The Bruce Ford Story" (Excellence in Cinematography Award)
The story of legendary bareback rider Bruce Ford, the first cowboy to win 1 million dollars. A look at the reality of a rodeo cowboys life.
"Crumb" (Grand Jury Prize, Excellence in Cinematography Award)
A moving film about the noted underground comic artist Robert Crumb his family.
"Black Is...Black Ain't" (Filmmakers Trophy)
The film tells the story that the African experience comes in as many varieties and voices as the imagination allows, and that African Americans, instead of reaching for the narrowness of a single identity, should celebrate their diversity. It intermixes poetry and dance with analysis by leading voices in culture, race, education and media.
"Ballot Measure 9" (Audience Award)
A powerful and frightening documentary that explores issues surrounding Ballot Measure 9 -- a 1992 Oregon initiative designed to deny gays their civil.
"Unzipped" (Audience Award)
Film directed by Douglas Keeve following fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi (Keeve's then-boyfriend), as he plans and ultimately shows his fall 1994 collection. Featuring supermodels Cindy Crawford, Naomi Campbell, Padma Lakshmi, Linda Evangelista and Kate Moss, as well as many other celebrities from the fashion world and beyond.
"When Billy Broke His Head...and Other Tales of Wonder" (Freedom of Expression Award)
A video first-person road movie about disability, civil rights, and the search for intelligent life after brain damage.
"Jupiter's Wife" (Special Jury Recognition)
Michel Negroponte, a documentary filmmaker, meets Maggie one day in Central Park. Maggie claims to be married to the god Jupiter and the daughter of actor Robert Ryan. Michel gets to know Maggie over the next couple of years, and attempts to use her often outlandish stories as clues to reconstruct her past.
"Troublesome Creek: A Midwestern" (Grand Jury Prize, Audience Award)
Documentary by filmmakers Jeanne Jordan and Steven Ascher. Jordan's own family take extraordinary measures to save their Iowa farm.
"Cutting Loose" (Filmmakers Trophy, Excellence in Cinematography Award)
A diverse handful of New Orleanians -rich, poor, black, white, gay, straight, sheltered and streetwise- go through passionate ordeals to cut loose during Mardi Gras. A journey of transformation ensues.
"The Celluloid Closet" (Freedom of Expression Award)
The history of how motion pictures, especially Hollywood films, had portrayed gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender characters
"When We Were Kings" (Special Jury Recognition)
Film about the famous 'Rumble in the Jungle' heavyweight championship match between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman held in Zaire.
"Girls Like Us" (Grand Jury Prize)
Follows the lives of four teenage girls of Philadelphia for four years.
"Paul Monette: The Brink of Summer's End" (Audience Award)
Biography of the writer Paul Monette, who died of AIDs.
"Licensed to Kill" (Filmmakers Trophy, Directing Award)
Documentary written, directed, and produced by Arthur Dong, in which Dong, (a gay man himself) interviews various murderers known for their homophobic murders.
"Family Name" (Freedom of Expression Award)
Macky Alston shared his last name with many black kids when his father, a fighter for civic rights and Reverend like Run, sent him to a black school. Now, as a grown up (gay) man, he goes on to discover the roots of his family and why lots of black people have the same last name that he has.
"Fear and Learning at Hoover Elementary" (Freedom of Expression Award)
A film about education, equity, and social justice in the United States.
"My America ...or Honk if You Love Buddha" (Excellence in Cinematography Award)
Documentary about the Asian American experience.
"Sick: The Life and Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist" (Special Jury)
Film about Bob Flanagan, a Los Angeles writer, poet, performance artist, comic, and BDSM celebrity, who suffered from and later died of cystic fibrosis. The film chronicles Flanagan for several years leading up to his death in 1996.
"Frat House" (Grand Jury Prize)
An exploration of the darker side of fraternity life.
"Miss Monday" (Special Jury Prize)
Nominated for an Academy Award.
Set in America's infamous maximum security prison in Angola, Louisiana, the film follows the lives of six prison inmates who convey their own personal stories of life, death, and survival in a world that few manage to ever leave.
"Divine Trash" (Filmmakers Trophy)
About the life and work of John Waters: an American filmmaker, actor, writer, journalist, visual artist and art collector, who rose to fame in the early 1970s for his transgressive cult films.
"Moment of Impact" (Directing Award)
Chronicles the film maker and her family's attempt to cope with their father's irreparable brain damage.
"Wild Man Blues" (Cinematography Award)
About the musical avocation of actor/director/comic Woody Allen.
"The Decline of Western Civilization Part III" (Freedom of Expression Award)
Chronicles the gutter punk lifestyle of homeless teenagers.
"¿Quién diablos es Juliette?" ("Who the Hell is Juliette?") (Latin America Cinema Award)
The film is about Yuliet Ortega, a teen prostitute, and Fabiola Quiroz, a Mexican model. Marcovich was shooting a music video in which Yuliet Ortega played the younger sister of Fabiola Quiroz. When it was finished, he filmed the two women over a period of three years. It features the similarities of the two women: green eyes and persistent thoughts about their missing fathers.
"Out of the Past" (Audience Award)
In 1995, Kelli Peterson started a gay and straight club at her Salt Lake City high school. The story of her ensuing battle with school authorities in interspersed with looks back at the diary of Michael Wigglesworth, a 17th-century Puritan cleric, at the 30-year love affair of Sarah Orne Jewett and Annie Adams Fields, at Henry Gerber's attempt after World War I to establish a gay-rights organization, at Bayard Rustin's role in the civil rights movement, and at Barbara Gittings' taking on of the American Psychiatric Association's position that homosexuality is illness.