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The ten best cult documentaries

· 948 words · about 5 minutes


"Keep a good head and always carry a light bulb."

For this music doc cult classic, legendary director D.A. Pennebaker finds folk hero Bob Dylan in London during his 1965 tour, which would be his last as an acoustic artist - before he went electric - and marked a turning point in his career. Featuring fellow musicians Joan Baez, Donovan and Alan Price, this is a must-see for fans of Dylan and Pennebaker alike.


"It's nice to be individualistic, but there are certain places to be individualistic."

Still going strong to this day, in his 1968 film High School Frederick Wiseman roamed freely through Philadelphia's Northeast High School to document a continual clash of teens with administrators who confused learning with discipline. At a spritely 75 minutes, this is one of Wiseman's shortest documentaries, yet the impact is just as memorable as in his three-hour films - the last of which, Ex Libris, was shortlisted for the 2018 Best Documentary Academy Award.


"If a man's not a success, he's got no one to blame but himself."

The first of two classic docs on this list from the Brothers Maysles, 1969's Salesman exposes the juxtaposition between religion and commerce against the backdrop of a country where church and state are practically one and the same. As the four subjects go door-to-door visiting the working families, immigrants and bored housewives of Boston, the Maysles offer up a definitive snapshot of postwar, pre-seventies working-class America.


"It's my mother's house and she owns it. She wanted the people she wanted in it, and she didn't want the people that I wanted in it."

Also starring in the newly released That Summer, Edith Bouvier Beale and her daughter Edith 'Little Edie' Bouvier Beale Jr., cousins of former First Lady Jackie Onassis, first entered the public consciousness in this cult Maysles doc. Big Edie and Little Edie lived at Grey Gardens, a decrepit mansion in upstate New York, in utter squalor and self-imposed isolation. After their living conditions were exposed in the gutter press, Jackie O. convinced then-husband Aristotle Onassis to pay for a clean-up at the mansion and this film was being made.


"Which side are you on?"

From filmmaker Barbara Kopple and winner of the Academy Award for Best Documentary in 1976, Harlan County, USA follows a coal miner strike against the Eastover Mining Company in Harlan County, Kentucky in June 1973, capturing on film the miners' violent struggles with strikebreakers, local police and company thugs. Featuring a haunting soundtrack by country and bluegrass artists including Hazel Dickens and Merle Travis, the film chronicles the 13-month struggle between a community fighting to survive and a corporation dedicated to the bottom line. Rebel!


"Who said that time heals all wounds? It would be better to say that time heals everything - except wounds."

Chris Marker, filmmaker, poet, novelist, photographer, editor, videographer and digital multimedia artist, has been challenging moviegoers, philosophers, and himself for years with his complex queries about time, memory, and the rapid advancement of life on this planet. Sans Soleil is his mind-bending free-form travelogue that journeys from Africa to Japan, challenging the very concept of the documentary form.


"Any prosecutor can convict a guilty man. It takes a great prosecutor to convict an innocent man."

From Errol Morris, The Thin Blue Line follows the fascinating, controversial true story of the arrest and conviction of Randall Adams for the murder of a Dallas policeman in 1976. Billed as "the first movie mystery to actually solve a murder," the film is credited with overturning the conviction of Adams for the murder of Dallas police officer Robert Wood, a crime for which he was sentenced to death. Its reconstruction style has been copied in countless reality-based television programs and feature films, including HBO's The Jinx.


"It's the economy, stupid!"

The 1992 presidential election was a triumph not only for Democrat candidate Bill Clinton but also for the new breed of strategists who guided him to the White House - and changed the face of politics in the process. For this thrilling, behind-closed-doors account of that campaign, renowned cinema verité filmmakers Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker captured the brainstorming sessions of Clinton’s crack team of consultants - especially James Carville and George Stephanopoulos, who became media stars in their own right as they injected a savvy, youthful spirit and spontaneity into politics.


"I asked people to reveal themselves, to give a lot of themselves; so I thought that the film should also reveal a little about the filmmakers."

In 2000, Agnès Varda - who turned 90 just this week - travelled the French countryside to study the world of foragers and scavengers called The Gleaners. Describing herself as a gleaner of ideas and images from interior as well as exterior journeys gives the director a special connection with her subjects in this honest and intriguing documentary. Varda was Oscar-nominated this year for her latest film, Faces Places.


I believe the common denominator of the universe is not harmony, but chaos, hostility, and murder."

Werner Herzog's remarkable documentary examines the calling that drove bear-lover Timothy Treadwell to live among a tribe of wild grizzlies on an Alaskan reserve. A devoted conservationist with a passion for adventure, Timothy believed he had bridged the gap between human and beast. When one of the bears he loved and protected tragically turns on him, the footage he shot serves as a window into our understanding of nature and its grim realities.