Film Focus: Memorable Documentaries

April 6, 2022

With the explosion of streaming services like Netflix and Hulu has also come a deluge of documentaries. They’re easy to make, go viral, and sure to keep people subscribed. Sadly though, most of these documentaries aren’t particularly memorable beyond the first viewing. The following films are quality, evergreen documentaries that are more likely to stay in your head than Tiger King or Fyre.


They Shall Not Grow Old (2018)

While Peter Jackson’s They Shall Not Grow Old is a fairly formulaic documentary in some respects, as it simply consists of British WWI veterans talking about their experiences on the frontlines, the way the film was made truly sets it apart. All the original black and white footage used was digitally remastered, cleaned up, retimed, and colored. They even went one step further than that and got lip readers to determine what people in the footage were saying, got actors to record those lines, added ambiance and sound effects, and added that audio to the footage. The effect is very impressive.

Of course, the content and actual construction of the documentary is excellent as well. It sticks exclusively to the original footage, meaning you never see what the veterans speaking look like – their words speak for themselves. It serves as a great primer on the First World War, the toll it took on Europe and those who fought.


Tower (2016)

Tower uses both archival footage and some striking rotoscopic animation to tell the story of those who witnessed the first mass shooting in America in 1966. It runs the whole gambit from exciting accounts of heroism to the despair and horror of seeing those around you get shot and die. Unlike other documentaries that may choose to focus on the shooter, he is almost completely neglected as if to say it’s not worth giving him the attention he desired. The decision to focus on the victims, rather than sensationalize the story of the killer, is definitely the right one.

Tower’s powerful subject matter and compelling style makes it one of the most memorable documentaries in years. It’s hard not to get at least a bit emotional when hearing how normal people pushed into an extreme situation can act with such bravery.


Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse (1991)

Easily the best movie about movies ever made, Hearts of Darkness chronicles the countless issues experienced by Francis Ford Coppola while shooting the seminal Vietnam War film, Apocalypse Now. Utilizing both interviews with the cast and crew and plenty of archival, behind-the-scenes footage, you get an incredible glimpse of what it actually takes to make a movie on such a scale. From spiraling production costs to serious health concerns to hostile, dangerous weather, it’s a wonder Apocalypse Now got finished at all. When Coppola says “little by little we went insane,” you definitely believe him.

The construction of the documentary isn’t particularly unique, but it doesn’t need to be when the subject matter is so interesting. For anyone with an interesting in filmmaking and even for those who don’t, Hearts of Darkness remains one of the most compelling documentary features ever released.


The Fog of War (2003)

A simple, but very effective documentary on the exploits of Robert McNamara, one of the most influential government figures of the 20th century. Directed by the prolific Errol Morris, it lets McNamara speak for himself with archival footage, archival cabinet conversation recordings, and an interview with the man himself. The film covers his entire career, from WWII to managing Ford Motor Company to his time as defense secretary during the Vietnam War. Whether or not you like or agree with the guy, The Fog of War makes it hard to dispute that he was a very intelligent and accomplished guy.

Of course, the documentary provides McNamara a platform by which he gets to defend his own actions. It’s debatable as to how well he accomplishes this, but it does give insight into the thoughts of those at the highest levels of power and why they do what they do. While the subject matter likely won’t interest everyone, it’s a compelling documentary for anyone interested in the role of the US in the 20th century.

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