What are the most “powerful, memorable and moving” documentaries you’ve seen from the past 25 years? That’s the question Current TV asks us and itself in a new five-part series, “50 Documentaries To See Before You Die,” which begins on Tuesday night (August 2, 2011). It’s the kind of project I wish I had worked on, but since I haven’t, I’ll take this opportunity to deconstruct it a bit. (Ah, it’s so much easier to break things down than it is to build something!) I want to look at five aspects of the show, and rate it accordingly.
Current TV hasn’t shared the list or provided advance copies of the program, so I’m going by the extended trailer they were able to provide. Warning: There are potential series spoilers ahead…
1. Morgan Spurlock
The show is hosted by documentary director Morgan Spurlock (Super Size Me) , who travels across America, meeting up with doc subjects and his fellow directors.
Spurlock has managed to become the point man for all things documentary for the younger generation despite having made only one documentary that has penetrated the public consciousness. He hosts award shows, he produces other people’s docs, and he generally appears wherever there’s a doc happening (with The Simpsons 20th anniversary, at TED, at festivals…). This is not a bad thing. And Spurlock is not a bad guy. Heck, someone’s got to do it! I hope he has some more (better) films in him, but for what it’s worth, he’s our Billy Crystal (and Angelina Jolie and Mark Cuban and James Schamus…), and he’s doing a good enough job.
2. The 50 Docs — Spoiler Alert!
What’s on the list? Although Current TV is not releasing it, here are more than 30 films that I believe will be on it based on the trailer, press releases and my highly tuned deductive powers. (OK, I may be wrong on a couple of these.) There are going to be a slew of worthy films not included here — ones that are far more worthy than The King of Kong…
- An Inconvenient Truth
- Biggie and Tupac
- Brother’s Keeper
- Bus 174
- Capturing the Friedmans
- The Decline of Western Civilization
- Dogtown and Z-Boys
- Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room
- Exit Through the Gift Shop
- The Eyes of Tammy Faye
- Fahrenheit 9/11
- Grizzly Man
- Hoop Dreams
- Inside Job
- Jesus Camp
- Madonna: Truth or Dare
- Man on Wire
- March of the Penguins
- One Day in September
- Paris is Burning
- Roger & Me
- Super Size Me
- Taxi to the Dark Side
- The Kid Stays in the Picture
- The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters
- The Thin Blue Line
- Touching the Void
- Waltz with Bashir
- When We Were Kings
I’m liking what I see so far.
3. Only 50?
What’s the big idea putting 50 films on a pedestal, anyway? That’s reductive! Simplistic! Stupid!
No, no, no. It’s not. It’s fun! And, if they do it right, it could be a very engaging way to make documentaries appealing to a mass audience. (People love lists!) They say that the show is going to survey “the expansive and myriad landscape of an art form that entertains and educates, informs and agitates.” Go for it! Nobody else is doing that on TV.
4. Born After 1986
The series limits its selections to the past 25 years. Why only praise the more recent films? What about Salesman? Or Nanook of the North? Not for this list! Current TV is being concise, clear and commercial, as they should be, again, to appeal to a broad audience.
5. An Inconvenient Conflict of Interest
Considering Current TV is Al Gore’s baby, and that Al Gore happens to be the subject of An Inconvenient Truth, one of the most timely documentaries of the past 25 years, the project is in danger of negating itself. This is like 20th Century Fox putting together a list of the top 50 movies of the past 25 years and anointing Titanic! (Which, yes, it produced.) Current TV had better have one damn good disclaimer when Truth comes up, that’s all I can say.
A good argument could be made for the film being No. 1, so they’re compromised if they do or they don’t. A Current TV flak told me, “We aren’t revealing the top documentaries until the final episode, so be sure to tune in!” She’s turning their potential conflict of interest into a marketing plug. Well played! We’ll have to see how they present this.
Overall, I give the series multiple big thumbs up. I’m eager to see it.
I’ll leave you with one question: What would be the one film, above all others, that you’d insist must be on this list? Let me know in the comments.