I know a lot of people who either don’t like documentaries or just don’t give them a chance since they think they’re all stodgy, PBS style infomercials on a bland, mundane topic.  That’s really a shame, because there is a plethora of imaginative and unbelievably engaging investigations into everything you could possibly think of.  Pick a topic.  I would be willing to be that there’s a documentary about it.  Maybe even a good one.  You can find compelling films about whatever you want, as long as you’re willing to look for them.

Or in this case, take my word for it.

1.  Exit Through the Gift Shop (2010)
Director:  Banksy

I was pretty annoyed that this didn’t win the Oscar for Best Doc, simply for what Banksy would have done as an acceptance speech.  This film is part character study, part historical document, and part poignant statement on the very nature of art.   I am a sucker for street art, even more so if it has meaning.  And Banksy’s installation on the walls in Gaza was truly amazing.

2.  The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (2007)
Director:  Seth Gordon

Yes, this is a movie about guys playing Donkey Kong and has absolutely no business being one of the most bizarrely engaging and truly compelling documentaries you’ll see.  But it is.  I can guarantee you’ll find yourself rooting for the good guy and against the bad guy.  And just wait until you actually see the bad guy…and his page/cronie.   You can’t make that kind of stuff up.  King of Kong is a truly unique story, told brilliantly.

3.  Man on Wire (2008)
Director:  James Marsh

Absolutely riveting film about a French tightrope walker and his quest to walk between to World Trade Center towers in 1974.   Another documentary that has no reason to be as interesting as it turns out to be.  It’s a credit both to the characters covered and the filmmakers involved.

4.  Bowling for Columbine (2002)
Director:  Michael Moore

I think Michael Moore is a big, fat idiot as much as the next guy.  But that doesn’t mean that the man doesn’t know how to make an excellent documentary, regardless of intent or skewed viewpoint.  I may not agree with him on a lot of things, but the American prediliction towards guns & gun violence is something we agree on.  I understand that I am, in fact, part of the problem since I enjoy a good cinematic gun fight and the feel of cold steel in my hands…but whatever…

This film is worth viewing simply for the Marylin Manson interview.   But since you probably won’t go watch this…um…here’s that interview:

5.  When We Were Kings (1996)
Director:  Leon Gast

I am not old enough to have experienced the legend of Muhammad Ali in real time.  All I know is what I’ve seen through old video clips of either fights or interviews.  All I ever heard was commentators talk about how important he was, about how great he was as a boxer and an icon.  After seeing this film in college, I now knew why.   This documentary follows Ali mainly during the famed Rumble in the Jungle.  And it’s damn hard not to get mesmerized by (and have the greatest respect for) the greatest of all time.

NOTE:  I am in no way, shape, or form telling you that you can probably find the entire version of the films listed above on youtube.  Definitely not 2 and 5.  No no no.  Not me.

Honorable mention:  Hoop Dreams, The Fog of War, Super Size Me, Capturing the Friedmans, Food Inc, Restrepo, F for Fake, Heart of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse, Stop Making Sense, Grizzly Man, The Aristocrats, F–K (A Documentary), This Film is Not Yet Rated