Life List: Watch 50 Documentaries

(I’m using this page to update my progress on Zan’s Life List goal: “Watch 50 documentaries.”)

Number watched so far: 50

I’m listing the documentaries in the order in which I watch them, and putting them in one of three categories: Very Interesting, Worth Watching, or Not All That Great.

1. Ballerina
Filmmaker Bertrand Normand’s documentary profiles five outstanding Russian ballerinas from the prestigious Mariinsky Theatre, following them from grueling rehearsals to flawless performances around the globe.
Opinion: Very interesting. (Maybe it’s the little girl in me, but I liked watching the extreme dedication and day-to-day lives of these ultra hard-working ballet dancers.)

2. This Emotional Life
Harvard psychologist and best-selling author Dr. Daniel Gilbert hosts this three-part PBS series [note: I watched the third episode, called "Rethinking Happiness"] that explores the range of human emotions and how we can strive to become more positive in our day-to-day lives.
Opinion: Worth watching. (Some of the profiles went on too long, which made it difficult to pay attention, but I like hearing/reading theories about happiness.)

3. The September Issue
A documentary chronicling Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour’s preparations for the 2007 fall-fashion issue.
Opinion: Not all that great. (I thought I’d like this better than I did. I would have found it more interesting if they talked to Vogue staff members who were lower on the totem pole, rather than focusing mainly on Anna Wintour.)

4. A Wink and a Smile: The Art of Burlesque
The camera goes inside Seattle’s Academy of Burlesque to shadow 10 ordinary women — among them, a taxidermist, a housewife and a doctor — who are learning the art of the striptease.
Opinion: Very interesting. (The class looks fun and empowering. I might try it myself if I had the nerve.)

5. A State of Mind
Two young North Korean gymnasts prepare for an unprecedented competition in this documentary that offers a rare look into the communist society and the daily lives of North Korean families. For more than eight months, film crews follow 13-year-old Pak Hyon Sun and 11-year-old Kim Song Yun and their families as the girls train for the Mass Games, a spectacular nationalist celebration involving thousands of performers.
Opinion: Very interesting. (I found the look inside the girls’ day-to-day lives especially interesting. Even though I’ve heard a little bit about life in North Korea, this made me realize how much I didn’t know.)

6. Every Little Step
Go backstage for an up-close look at a Broadway production with this documentary that follows hopeful dancers as they audition for coveted spots in the 2006 revival of “A Chorus Line.” Drawing parallels between the interactions of the aspiring actors and the events of the play, filmmakers Adam Del Deo and James D. Stern also intercut interview footage of composer Marvin Hamlisch and dancers from the original Broadway production.
Opinion: Worth watching. (Some people are so talented, it’s sickening. In a good way, of course.)

7. Spirit of the Marathon
Six runners from vastly different backgrounds train for the 26.2 miles of glory that comprise the famed Chicago Marathon. Along the way, filmmaker John Dunham provides an informative account at the centuries-old race. Vintage film clips and thoughtful interviews fill out this heartfelt portrait, which also includes appearances by legendary runners such as Dick Beardsley, Paula Radcliffe, Bill Rodgers, Toshihiko Seko and Grete Waitz.
Opinion: Very interesting. (I found the most inspiring marathoner to be an old gentleman who ran his first marathon at the age of 65. He runs slow, but he’s now run multiple races and inspires others to do the same.)

8. Young @ Heart
Coldplay, the Clash and Jimi Hendrix will never sound the same once you’ve heard the Young@Heart chorus, a group of Massachusetts senior citizens who thrill audiences worldwide with their unusual — and unusually poignant — covers of rock songs. Stephen Walker’s humane and heartwarming documentary, which premiered at Sundance in 2008, follows the elderly ensemble as they prepare their latest show for public performances.
Opinion: Not All That Great. (I liked the concept, but it was difficult to get into.)

9. Paper Clips
Whitwell Middle School in rural Tennessee is the setting for this documentary about an experiment in Holocaust education. Struggling to grasp the concept of 6 million Holocaust victims, the students decide to collect 6 million paper clips to better understand the enormity of the calamity. The film details how the students met Holocaust survivors from around the world and how the experience transformed them and their community.
Opinion: Worth watching. (I love the idea of one small idea exploding and inspiring like this one did.)

10. Rank
Filmmaker John Hyams trains his lens on the dicey sport of professional bull riding, focusing on a trio of top contenders for the world title. Cameras follow newcomer Justin McBride, 21-year-old Mike Lee and two-time champ Adriano Moraes as they prepare — physically and mentally — for their wild rides, working through injuries for a shot at the crown and $1 million in prize money.
Opinion: Very interesting. (8 seconds! Constant injuries! What a life.)

11. No Impact Man
A Fifth Avenue family goes very green when writer Colin Beavan leads his wife, Michelle Conlin, and their baby daughter on a yearlong crusade to make no net impact on the environment. Among their activities: eating only locally grown organic food, generating no trash except for compost and using no carbon-fueled transportation.
Opinion: Very interesting. (I wouldn’t want to go this extreme, but their experiment is very thought-provoking. I’m sure it had a huge impact on their life.)

12. The Botany of Desire
While visiting places like Peru, Kazakhstan and Amsterdam, learn from author Michael Pollan as he explains the natural history of apples, tulips, marijuana and potatoes and describes how common plants such as these deftly manipulate human desires. Based on Pollan’s best-selling book, this documentary encourages viewers to look at the world from a vastly different perspective and improve their relationships with nature.
Opinion: Worth watching. (There was some interesting information, but I didn’t find it overly-stimulating.)

13. Urban Explorers: Into the Darkness
Discover the secret world of urban explorers, daring modern archaeologists who seek out the hidden nooks and crannies of cities in abandoned subway stations, long-sealed sewers, and condemned buildings. Filmmaker Melody Gilbert joins these thrill seekers as they hunt for the lost trappings of the modern world and, in the process, shines a light on a fascinating subculture that is, quite literally, underground.
Opinion: Not all that great. (It started off okay, but after the first 45 minutes it wasn’t doing a good job of keeping my interest.)

14. The Business of Being Born
Director Abby Epstein’s controversial documentary takes a hard look at America’s maternity care system, juxtaposing hospital deliveries against the growing popularity of at-home, natural childbirths that some expectant parents are opting for. Former talk show host Ricki Lake was inspired to produce this compelling exposé after a dissatisfying birthing experience with her first child left her with many unanswered questions.
Opinion: Worth watching. (There were more shots of babies being born than I wanted to see, so I looked away.)

15. Blood, Sweat & Teeth
The most intimidating, bloodthirsty warriors of cage fighting battle it out in this collection of extreme matches. Front-row fans should be warned: The hard-hitting, take-no-prisoners action doesn’t stop even when teeth go flying. Packed with some of the most intense cage fights ever filmed, this carnival of carnage captures all of the incredible moves, debilitating knockouts and blood-and-sweat drama of the sport.
Opinion: Not all that great.

16. King Corn
Friends Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis move back to America’s Corn Belt to plant an acre of the nation’s most-grown and most-subsidized grain and follow their crop into the U.S. food supply. What they learn about genetically modified seeds, powerful herbicides and the realities of modern farming calls into question government subsidies, the fast-food lifestyle and the quality of what we eat.
Opinion: Worth watching. (Corn is in just about everything…)

17. Bigger, Stronger, Faster
Filmmaker Chris Bell points the camera at his brothers and himself — all of them users of steroids — for this thought-provoking examination of sports, competition and the unyielding pressure to succeed. By exploring the reasons behind steroid use and its effects within his own family, Bell asks whether the winning-is-everything attitude that’s so prevalent in American society has truly built a better athlete.
Opinion: Worth watching.

18. Beer Wars
Anat Baron ushers viewers into the backrooms and breweries of the ultra-competitive beer industry and reveals what it takes for independent brewers to compete with the corporate giants who dominate the business.
Opinion: Worth watching.

19. Encounters at the End of the World
Filmmaker Werner Herzog takes us on a wild and woolly journey to the South Pole — from the National Science Foundation’s headquarters on Ross Island to some of Antarctica’s most remote and dangerous terrain. With a keen eye for the wonders and sometimes hilarious peculiarities of this icy land’s animal and human inhabitants, Herzog offers an astounding look at the world’s most inhospitable landscape.
Opinion: Worth watching.

20. Inside Deep Throat
This documentary examines the goings-on behind the porn film that grew to become an icon, Deep Throat, which made more money than its producers anticipated and ignited a sexual and social revolution.
Opinion: Very interesting. (It’s kind of crazy, in our current times, to think about what people complained about just a few decades ago.)

21. Pressure Cooker
Three Philadelphia high school students negotiate the challenges of the inner city and the demands of their tough-minded culinary arts teacher, Wilma Stephenson, to become contenders in a citywide cooking competition. This documentary showcases the heights that young minds can reach, regardless of their environment, when they’re expected to succeed.
Opinion: Very interesting. (Tough love! Awesome.)

22. Etoiles: Dancers of the Paris Opera Ballet
ETOILES celebrates the legacy one of the best ballet companies in the world by weaving together rehearsals, tour snapshots and performances of classical ballets such as Swan Lake and La Sylphide.
Opinion: Worth watching. (Most of this documentary is in subtitles, if that matters to you.)

23. National Geographic: Camp Leatherneck
In a part of Afghanistan controlled by the Taliban prior to 2009, the U.S. Marines’ Camp Leatherneck now serves as the base of operations for more than 10,000 U.S. soldiers charged with turning the tide of war in a stark and alien landscape.
Opinion: Not all that great.

24. National Geographic: China’s Lost Girls
Accompanied by her team, reporter Lisa Ling flies off to China with American parents set to adopt baby girls, the casualties of the country’s long-standing one-child policy. In hewing to this strict rule, families wind up aborting, abandoning or hiding their daughters, many of whom end up in the United States, brought by couples longing for children.
Opinion: Worth watching.

25. Cocaine Cowboys
Director Billy Corben pulls out all the stops to explore the many dimensions of Miami’s cocaine-trafficking boom of the 1980s, as told by the smugglers, cops and average citizens who were there. The film is an unflinching study of Miami’s most notorious and lethal vice — from how the drug was moved and its financial impact on the city to the havoc and violence that followed in its wake.
Opinion: Very interesting.

26. The King of Kong
When Steve Wiebe got laid off, he turned to the classic arcade game Donkey Kong for solace; soon, he decided to challenge Billy Mitchell’s long-standing record score. Providing a history of competitive video gaming and a look at some of the key players, The King of Kong is at its best when revealing just how far Mitchell will go to retain his crown.
Opinion: Very interesting.

27. The Big Show: A Giant’s World
This pro-wrestling bio offers a bird’s-eye view of what it’s like to be a giant — which, in the case of Paul Wight (better known as the Big Show), makes you one of the most intimidating figures in the WWE. In addition to discussing his battles with wrestling superstars like Steve Austin, Ric Flair and the Undertaker, the Show also talks about his struggles with the genetic condition that caused his extraordinary growth.
Opinion: Very interesting.

28. Good Hair
Actor and stand-up comic Chris Rock hops around the world, going from beauty salons to science labs to comb through the mystery of African American hair. Rock contemplates the purpose and application of a weave as well as women’s self-esteem and their locks. He also gains varying insights from Ice-T, Nia Long, Rev. Al Sharpton, Raven-Symoné, Maya Angelou and other celebrities.
Opinion: Very interesting.

29. Fat, Sick, & Nearly Dead
Focusing on two men whose bodies have been trashed by steroids, obesity and illness, this documentary chronicles the rigorous healing path — including a two-month diet of fruits and vegetables — that both attempt in a bid to rescue their health.
Opinion: Worth watching.

30. Super High Me
Determined to find out the true effects of cannabis on the human body, stand-up comedian and former Stoner of the Year Doug Benson chronicles his experience as he avoids pot for a month and then consumes massive amounts of the drug for 30 days. More than just an amusing story about one man’s quest to get superhigh, this 2007 documentary also examines the hotly contested debate over medical marijuana use.
Opinion: Worth watching.

31. Forks Over Knives
Focusing on the research of two food scientists, this documentary reveals that despite broad advances in medical technology, the popularity of modern processed foods has led to epidemic rates of obesity, diabetes and other diseases.
Opinion: Not All That Great.

32. Waiting For Superman
This documentary weaves together stories about students, families, educators and reformers to shed light on the failing public school system and its consequences for the future of the United States.
Opinion: Very interesting.

33. Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop
Following his unplanned and highly publicized departure from NBC, exiled talk show host Conan O’Brien decides to take his show on the road. This documentary captures that uproarious tour as well as O’Brien’s dramatic break with his ex-employers.
Opinion: Very interesting.

34. The Last Mountain
This gripping documentary follows ordinary citizens in West Virginia’s Coal River Valley as they wage a campaign to prevent the infamous Massey Energy Company from expanding ruinous mountaintop removal mining operations in their community.
Opinion: Very interesting.

35. Freakonomics
Several documentary directors each film a segment representing one chapter of Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner’s best-seller Freakonomics, which explains different elements of popular culture through economic theory and statistics. Issues include everything from cheating sumo wrestlers to whether Roe v. Wade produced a drop in crime.
Opinion: Worth watching.

36. Running the Sahara
America’s Charlie Engle, Canada’s Ray Zahab and Taiwan’s Kevin Lin embark on an unprecedented quest to traverse the entire Sahara desert — on foot. Along the way, the runners encounter the beauties and hardships that accompany modern African life.
Opinion: Very interesting.

37. For the Bible Tells Me So
This documentary examines the ways in which conservative Christian groups have used — and sometimes exploited — scripture to deny human rights.
Opinion: Worth watching.

38. The Pit
Wading directly into the frenzied chaos on the floor of the New York Board of Trade (otherwise known as “the Pit”), this documentary explores the emotionally charged, cutthroat world of commodities trading.
Opinion: Not all that great.

39. Food Matters
With a staggering number of Americans suffering from obesity and other food-related maladies, this film takes a timely and hard-hitting look at how the food we eat is helping or hurting our health, and what we can do to live (and eat) better. Nutritionists, naturopaths, scientists, doctors, medical journalists and more weigh in on everything from using food as medicine to the value of organic food and the safety of the food we consume.
Opinion: Very interesting.

40. Fat Head
While most people saw the documentary Super Size Me as an exposé of the fast food industry, comedian and former health writer Tom Naughton saw it as a dare: He’d show that you could lose weight on a diet of burgers and fries. In addition to chronicling Naughton’s weight drop, the film provides interviews with doctors, nutritionists and others to drive home his thesis that most of what we know about “healthy eating” is wrong.
Opinion: Very interesting.

41. King Corn
Friends Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis move back to America’s Corn Belt to plant an acre of the nation’s most-grown and most-subsidized grain and follow their crop into the U.S. food supply.
Opinion: Worth watching.

42. Nursery University
Follow five families through the harrowing process of applying to nursery school in New York City, where hypercompetitive parents and elite institutions have made pricey consultants and toddler tutors part of the admissions process. This documentary examines the increasingly common belief that securing entrance to the “right” preschool classroom is a critical first step to success.
Opinion: Very interesting. It was very well done; more interesting than I anticipated.

43. Jiro Dreams of Sushi
This documentary profiles sushi chef Jiro Ono, an 85-year-old master whose 10-seat, $300-a-plate restaurant is legendary among Tokyo foodies. Ono is also a father, whose sons struggle to live up to his legacy and make their own marks.
Opinion: Very interesting. The documentary is in Japanese, so there are subtitles, but it’s worth it.

44. Perfect Cappuccino
In this personal essay-style documentary, one woman’s lifelong obsession with finding the perfect cappuccino pushes her to question her community, her country and her entire way of life.
Opinion: Worth watching.

45. Happy
Happy takes viewers on a journey from the swamps of Louisiana to the slums of Kolkata in search of what really makes people happy. Combining real-life stories and scientific interviews, the film explores the secrets behind our most valued emotion.
Opinion: Worth watching.

46. America the Beautiful
This documentary examines America’s fixation with outward appearance and the unrealistic standards of beauty dictated to the public by the media, pop culture and the fashion industry. Featuring interviews with fashion experts, media personalities, and celebrities, the film looks at everything from plastic surgery’s growing popularity to widespread concerns about eating disorders.
Opinion: Worth watching.

47. America the Beautiful 2
Darryl Roberts returns with another look at the American beauty industry, this time examining how the national obsession with weight loss has negatively affected our perception of what really constitutes a healthy weight.
Opinion: Worth watching.

48. Mansome
From director Morgan Spurlock and producers Will Arnett and Jason Bateman comes a raucous but thoughtful documentary examining what defines masculinity in our modern culture of male grooming products, suave celebrities and avant-garde facial hair.
Opinion: Very interesting.

49. Hungry For Change
This documentary exposes secrets the diet, weight loss and food industries don’t want consumers to know about: deceptive strategies designed to keep you coming back for more. Find out what’s keeping people from having the body and health they want.
Opinion: Worth watching.

50. Vegucated
Three meat- and cheese-loving New Yorkers agree to adopt a vegan diet for six weeks. Lured with tales of weight lost and health regained, they begin to uncover the hidden sides of animal agriculture.
Opinion: Worth watching.

(This post was last edited on: Dec 31 2012)

3 Comments



  1. I almost never watch documentaries but saw two quite recently that I’d recommend:

    Paper Clips (about a school in rural Tennessee that studies the holocaust)

    and

    Young@Heart (about a choir or geriatrics that sing Sonic Youth, Talking Heads, Cold Play, etc.)

    Both interesting, touching and inspiring.

    Posted August 23, 2010 at 4:47 pm #
  2. I watch A State of Mind last winter. It was really interesting.

    Posted August 23, 2010 at 5:41 pm #
  3. Check
    1.Man on wire
    2.mt. Everest
    3.Food inc.
    4.Home

    sudan
    Posted April 14, 2011 at 8:51 am #

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