Tom RostonIndependent journalist Tom Roston checks in and writes about the world of documentaries in his column, Doc Soup.

You can follow Tom on Twitter @DocSoupMan.

Doc Soup: What Not to Watch?

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As promised last week, I bring you the worst documentaries of all time! It’s really hard to imagine such a list could be cobbled together, but after I perused the top-rated documentaries based on the movie review website Rotten Tomatoes, I was curious to see what would show up at the bottom. So, here’s the list of the most poorly-reviewed films on the site (the highest rating is a 10):


Faces of Death
Rating: 2
Carlos Castaneda:
Rating: 2
Enigma of A Sorcerer
Rating 3.3
The War on the War on Drugs
Rating: 3.3
In the Face of Evil: Reagan’s War
Rating: 3.3
Phish – Bittersweet Motel
Rating: 3.6
This is Not an Exit: The Fictional World of Bret Easton Ellis
Rating: 3.7
September Tapes
Rating: 3.8
What the Bleep!? Down the Rabbit Hole
Rating: 3.9
NSync: Bigger Than Live
Rating: 3.9
Celsius 41.11
Rating: 4
The Gospel According to Philip K. Dick
Rating: 4

Justice prevails! I’m referring to the worst rated doc of all time: Faces of Death. I’ve always despised that ultimate act of sadistic exploitation — images of awful accidents and crimes — and it appears I am not alone.

The one film here that I had any interest in seeing here was This is Not an Exit, but after reading the Village Voice‘s Dennis Lim eviscerate that film’s recreation scenes as having “an airless, tone-deaf, brain-dead quality that may or may not be intentional,” I’ll make sure to skip it.

As it happens, the only film on the list I’ve actually seen is September Tapes, a faux-documentary about an American who video-tapes his supposed trip to Afghanistan to hunt down Osama Bin Laden. I saw it at Sundance and recall how annoyed I was by the film, but the majority opinion there at the time was that it was pretty cool. Goes to show how badly the high altitudes and inflated sense of importance skews reactions there. Really, September Tapes is as much a documentary as Blair Witch is, so it doesn’t even really belong on the list.

Right now, I can’t even think of the last truly terrible documentary I saw. Some dull ones, but nothing worth dissing here in public. But what about you — have you seen any truly bad docs, and care to toss stones?

Tom Roston
Tom Roston
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He comes to us as a ten-year veteran of Premiere magazine, where he was a Senior Editor, and where he wrote the column, Notes from the Dream Factory. Tom was born and raised in New York City. He graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom has also written for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, GQ, New York, Elle and other publications. Tom's favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi - Godfrey Reggio 2. Hoop Dreams - Steve James 3. The Up series - Michael Apted 4. Crumb - Terry Zwigoff 5. Capturing the Friedmans - Andrew Jarecki
  • robin

    FOREIGNID: 15427
    FOREIGNPARENTID:
    I know i’ve turned off many a documentary mid-view b/c of horrible production qualities, dumb storytelling, etc, but then I usually forget what they were, b/c why remember something bad (or more accurately, mediocre?)
    i remember walking out of a documentary (near the end, unf) on a topic that i was really interested in b/c it was produced so awfully, it was on the disco movement of the 70s in ny and the rise of the Loft and the Paradise Garage, but i can’t remember the title.
    i’m sorry to say that one of the ones i turned off on tv recently was one of yours–the Libby montana doc. I just didn’t think the producers got to the point quickly enough–the setups were painfully long–and at the same time you could see it all coming a mile away.

  • tom

    FOREIGNID: 15428
    FOREIGNPARENTID:
    Indeed, but disappointment loves company so be heartened by the fact that that disco doc you walked out on, which I believe was 2005′s Maestro, receives a lame-o 4.2 rating at rottentomatoes. The New York Times’ Stephen Holden called it a “passionate but messy home movie.” I am impressed that you actually walked out of the theater. I’ve never done that on a doc–the only two movies I’ve paid for and walked out on are John Travolta’s Battlefield Earth and last summer’s Transformers.