Unfiltered: Organic Lists vs. Filtered Lists of Documentaries
Okay, I’m aware that anyone can use Flickchart to filter their favorite documentaries. That’s Flickchart 101, Derek.
But I decided to focus on documentaries this week because I made an organic list of my ten favorite documentaries for a post I wrote last year on my own blog. This was at a time when I wasn’t aware of Flickchart’s potential to do the same thing, or at least, didn’t yet use the site that way, if I did know.
What truer measure of the effectiveness of Flickchart at distilling my true feelings, than to compare a list I produced from my brain with one produced from Flickchart’s algorithms? As an added bonus, Flickchart might also help me identify a movie I didn’t realize I loved as much as I do. Here is the list I came up with organically, to prepare you for what we’ll be discussing:
10. Madonna: Truth or Dare
8. Super Size Me
7. Man on Wire
6. American Movie
3. Anvil! The Story of Anvil
2. The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters
1. Looking for Richard
I’m also interested to see how far down in my rankings I’ll have to go to get 20 films (since I talk briefly about the first ten, then just list 11-20). Last week, when I wrote about foreign films, film #20 was ranked just over 200th overall. However, I generally believe there is a “documentary ceiling” — in other words, for me, a documentary can be only so good, and can never quite approach the impact of a fiction film. Will the following bear that out?
As a side note, the comparison can’t be truly accurate because I’ve seen possibly as many as 20 more documentaries in the year since I made my organic list. But I’m not sure if I’ve seen anything that was so great that it would jump into my top ten.
But we’re about to find out, aren’t we? That’s one of the rules of this series — I start writing before I know what results I’ll get. So let’s see where the day takes us…
1. Looking for Richard (1996, Al Pacino)
And #1 is the same, as I knew it would be. I counted this as my favorite film of 1996. A potentially great Shakespeare teaching tool, Pacino’s movie interweaves interviews with average people about Shakespeare and an informal staging of Richard III using fellow film actors (Alec Baldwin, Kevin Spacey, Winona Ryder). It’s totally captivating. Flickchart: #127
And here comes the first movie I’ve seen since last year’s list. How could I forget about Exit Through the Gift Shop? Wherever the film falls on the spectrum of truth, there’s no other way to categorize it than as a documentary. Not only is it an amazing and unprecedented insider’s look into the community of street artists, but it also plays with the traditional documentary structure in ways it’s almost impossible to describe, as each of the two main characters end up making a film about the other one. Flickchart: #164
The second-ranked documentary on my original list ends up third here, but it’s still second among movies I’d seen at that time. Gordon uses the world of competitive video gaming to give us a classic story about a hero you can cheer and a villain you can hiss, and it’s also just a wonderful tale about human aspiration. No wonder they’re supposedly making a fiction film version of the story. Flickchart: #177
4. American Movie (1999, Chris Smith)
And now we start to see some variation in the rankings. What was sixth on my original list is fourth here — or third, if you take out Exit From the Gift Shop. However, the ranking is appropriate — this story of two deluded dreamers trying to make a low-budget horror movie in the dead of a Minnesota winter is both funny and heartbreaking. Flickchart: #322
5. Man on Wire (2008, James Marsh)
And Man on Wire came in just behind American Movie on my original list as well, meaning that both were displaced a couple spots by movies I don’t actually think of as highly. The most amazing thing about this entertaining movie about a French tightrope walker trying to illegally cross between the two towers of the World Trade Center is that it does not evoke 9/11 — not once. Marsh knows he has a great real-world spy thriller on his hands, which would only get bogged down by discussions of the terrorist attacks. Flickchart: #345
6. Microcosmos (1996, Claude Nuridsany)
A middle-lister on both lists. Nuridsany’s look into the microscopic world of insects is fascinating and alive, making the tiny titanic, and the insignificant significant. Possibly the best nature film of all time? Anyone who watched the Earth series might beg to differ. Flickchart: #362
I saw this movie at the height of my interest in Madonna as an artist and a public figure, and I loved the way Keshishian captured her and showed us the “real” Madonna — even if she was carefully controlling exactly what she wanted us to see. Which I assume she was. Apparently, I liked it a lot better than my tenth favorite documentary, as it was listed previously. Flickchart: #438
My third-ranked film on last year’s documentary list has fallen since then because I’ve heard some people make convincing arguments that this wonderful rock documentary had to have been at least partially staged. But this real life Spinal Tap is such a goofy delight, and also so touching, that I don’t know if I care that the narrative might have benefited from some manufactured conflict. The movie left me feeling great, and that’s what I still take away from it. Flickchart: #443
I guess I chose to honor the wrong Michael Moore film in my original top ten. I had Sicko, but Flickchart informs me that I like Bowling for Columbine better. Which is probably true. I remember getting emotional at the end of Sicko, but the gun rights debate in Bowling is funnier and probably more consistently astute. However, I still don’t love him brow-beating a sickly old Charlton Heston at the end. Flickchart: #456
10. Sicko (2006, Michael Moore)
Okay, now Sicko gets its turn after all. Flickchart: #543
I expect Religulous and Super Size Me, the two documentaries that showed up on last year’s list but not this year’s, as well as most if not all of my honorable mentions, to show up in 11-20:
11. Dogtown and Z-Boys (2001, Stacy Peralta). Flickchart: #544
12. Bigger, Stronger, Faster* (2008, Chris Bell). Flickchart: #567
13. The Cruise (1998, Bennett Miller). Flickchart: Flickchart: #592
14. DiG! (2004, Ondi Timoner). Flickchart: #617
15. After Innocence (2005, Jessica Sanders). Flickchart: #630
16. When We Were Kings (1996, Leon Gast). Flickchart: #673
17. 51 Birch Street (2006, Doug Block). Flickchart: #688
18. Super Size Me (2004, Morgan Spurlock). Flickchart: #704
19. Jesus Camp (2006, Heidi Ewing & Rachel Grady). Flickchart: #722
20. Eddie Murphy: Delirious (1983, Bruce Gowers). Flickchart: #738
I was hoping to avoid the appearance of any standup comedy movies to avoid the debate on that particular topic — is it a documentary or is it “something else”? — but Eddie Murphy’s first concert film snuck in there at #20.
So Religulous, which I ranked #9 on last year’s list, does not even make it onto my Flickchart rankings until #1184 overall. I’ve definitely revised my stance toward it a little bit — in the same way I don’t think it was all that nice for Michael Moore to bully Charlton Heston, I also don’t think it was all that nice for Bill Maher to bully the people he bullies in Religulous, both of which occur in the name of a liberal agenda with which I agree. But it’s definitely lower in my rankings than I would have thought. I’m sure the dueling process will take care of that over time.
So the lists compared pretty well to each other, with all the honorable mentions and all but one of the top ten accounted for in my first 20 on Flickchart. It is interesting to note how long it takes to get to my 20th documentary, all the way down at #738 overall. Which is consistent with what I’ve said about fiction films having an advantage over non-fiction.
Back next week with more scintillating investigations of my personal Flickchart.