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

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5 Things to Consider Before You See ’50 Documentaries To See Before You Die’

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Morgan Spurlock (Super Size Me) hosts Current TV's 50 Documentaries To See Before You Die

Morgan Spurlock (Super Size Me) hosts
Current TV’s “50 Documentaries To See
Before You Die”

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.

Thumbs up!

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
  • Catfish
  • Crumb
  • 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
  • Gasland
  • Grizzly Man
  • Hoop Dreams
  • Inside Job
  • Jesus Camp
  • Madonna: Truth or Dare
  • Man on Wire
  • March of the Penguins
  • Murderball
  • One Day in September
  • Paris is Burning
  • Roger & Me
  • Spellbound
  • 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.

Thumbs up!

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.

Thumbs up!

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.

Thumbs up!

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.

Thumbs undecided.


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.

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
  • LynnM

    Food, Inc. and  The Future of Food

  • Rose

    Sacco and Vanzetti

  • Guest

    Grass (1925) by Merian C. Cooper, father of King Kong.

    • Guest

      OK that’s not in the last 25 years, but it’s one of my very favorites!

  • fabianeuresti

    Thom Andersen’s LOS ANGELES PLAYS ITSELF and Lee Anne Schmitt’s CALIFORNIA COMPANY TOWN!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • Ptatleriv


    • Kayspinner

      I saw that one, pretty good.

  • Kayspinner

    Two films by one of my favorite doc filmmakers: Harlan County, USA (I know, before 1986) and Shut Up And Sing. I don’t like country music, but I have to give props to the Dixie Chicks for sticking to their guns.

    • Kayspinner

      They’re by Barbara Kopple by the way, (posted before adding her name, sorry)

  • Phat Lemur

    Burma VJ
    The Horse Boy
    The Bully Project

  • Shannonsnider

    The War Room

  • Guest

    The devil and daniel johnston

  • doobie100

    Herzog’s “Little Dieter Needs to Fly”. Love this doc. Should be on the list.

    • Tom Roston

      I love herzog and i didn’t even know this title. i’ll have to check it out!

    • Karen Mills

      It IS on the list!!! I never heard of it until I watched the other night.  

  • Zev Robinson

    Lists may be frivolous but fun, as you say, but this one has been disturbing me. First, outside of a couple of exceptions, they are all American films. Outside of one Brazilian, no Latin American docs ???, nothing from Asia, Africa or even Europe. Although there are excellent films on the list, there are also some far more serious and interesting than many included, and I wonder what that says about how documentaries are considered today.

    • Tom Roston

      You’re right-they are frivolous and fun, but they also can make us think, as you are suggested we do here. I’ll ask you for a favor: can you come up with a solid list of ten or so GREAT foreign documentaries? I”ll do the same, and I will endeavor to watch as many of your suggestions as I can, and I will then put together a list of potential TOP TEN FOREIGN-BORN DOCUMENTARIES from the past 25 years. I would love to do this. And then we can send it to Spurlock and see if he has anything to say about it. What do you say?

      • Zev Robinson

        Sounds good, I’ll get you a list in a day or two. Herzog is on the list, but about a North American character, and in English, of course. Besides being a certain prejudice, my real concern is a lack of alternative viewpoints and ways of doing things. Morris, who admire greatly, is on the list, too, and I think that both of he and Herzog are interesting as film makers, not something I would say for all of the above.

      • Zev Robinson

        They can – and should – make us think, Tom, and open up debate, but usually people just add a film, as happened with the top 50 docs about women. And often with docs its because of a political stance rather than the quality of the film. So here’s a list – in no particular order -  of some alternative and thought provoking films of the highest quality films:

        Swiss doc filmmaker Christian Frei – War Photographer , about (American) documentary photographer James Nachtwey as he goes to the worst places in the world, in a film that contemplates conflict, dedication, art, inspiration and who we are as humans, but without a hint of sensationalism which is a flaw in some of the above films. Incredible film.

        Chinese director Zhang Ke Jia’s I Wish I Knew about the history of Shanghai. Fantastic stories and outstanding cinematography told in a quiet but mesmerizing tone.

        Chinese director Weijun Chen’s Please Vote for Me – about an experiment in classroom democracy in China. Fun to watch the kids, but beneath that is a study in who we are and how we’re formed, with universal implications. It seems to have been shown on Independent lens.

        Also about children is the French film Etre et Avoir (To Be and to Have) I haven’t seen it but it’s received rave reviews, and it’s on my to-see list.

        The only film I’ve seen my Israeli director Avi Mograbi is “August” a critical and provocative look at the anger and destructiveness of Israeli society. Other films by him have received higher ratings, but certainly he’s a director that should be on the top 50 list.

        Although I enjoyed Super-size me and made sure my kids saw it, if only to answer why I won’t take them to eat in fast food burger chains, and to put them off it, a far more interesting film is the UK doc McLibel, directed Franny Armstrong and Ken Loach (with all due respect to Morgan Spurlock) It’s about how two activists refused to be intimidated by McDonald’s and their lawyers who stand up for their beliefs and rights.

        Another UK film is Michael Apted’s 49 Up (part of the Up series that interviewed the same people every 7 years. You could argue that it started in the early 60′s, but that would be a poor excuse not to show what is an incredible project on human nature, development and life.

        Perhaps not for everyone is Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait, directed by Brit Douglas Gordon and Frenchman Philippe Parreno which focuses exclusively on the French soccer player Zinadine Zidane through a match when he played with Real Madrid. Again, many won’t like it, but it’s an interesting and alternate view of the game and the player.

        Great French Magnum photographer and filmmaker Raymond Depardon’s Profils paysans: le quotidien or the other two of the Profils paysans trilogy. A quiet, beautifully filmed portrait of French rural life.

        Russian director Alexandr Sokurov’s Spiritual Voices It comes in several segments totaling 328 minutes. I walked in to an installation of it in a Barcelona museum, and stayed transfixed for close to an hour, as he portrays the utter banality of life for soldiers on the Tajikastan/Afganastan border. (Btw, Sokurov’s one-take The Russian Ark has to rank as one of the most outstanding cinematic accomplishments).

        Anyway, that’s ten films, ones that have received high critical praise although may not be as “entertaining” as some on the list, and are more challenging to watch, for those who like their documentaries to be challenging and to look at the world in a different way. (You might want to make a list of what films are regarded as the top 50 docs of the previous 25 years, and see what that tells us as well.)

  • Annony

    Bad Blood

  • DocMonster

    ‘The Great Great Happiness Space” :tale of an osaka love thief


  • Holly Crisson

    Born Into Brothels

    • Karen Mills

      Totally agree.  That movie will melt your heart.

  • Seven4Supper

    We Shall Remain (all six parts) and Food Inc.

  • Jeannette

    The Beautiful Truth and The Business of Being Born

    • Karen Mills

      I never saw The Beautiful Truth – but The Business of Being Born is a must-see for any woman of child-bearing age. =)

  • Camille Whitworth
  • rbsteury

    Fahrenheit 9/11. It revolutionized the documentary business. Before that, very few people really cared.

    • Stelzer07

       but the film was rubbish

      • rbsteury

        Some things in the film turned out to not be true. But much of it was. You may not like the political slant of the film, but as a documentary it was hardly “rubbish”.

  • Mpeters70

    Thumbs up?  Nope, boo!  I’m not a filmmaker but rather just a researcher and docu junkie.  If suggesting that these docs are the ones to see, how could titles such as Marjoe, Point of Order, The War Room, Tokyo Olympiad, Visions of Eight, Olympia, Woodstock, The Last Waltz, and my God, The Titicut Follies not be named.  Oh, of course, because they are more than 45 minutes old and everything in American popular culture has to be dumbed-down for young people who don’t know anything that took place before they born.  My rants about lists like these being history illiterate have mostly been pointed towards sports and feature films.  I truly never thought that a documentary film list would fall into that group as well. 

    I enjoyed the epidodes all the same, but still dumbfounded that nothing pre-90s was included.  Would it have been that hard to call the series something like “50 Great Documentaries from the last 20 Years?”

    • Zev Robinson

      It is a list from the last 25 years, as stated in the first paragraph above. But the gist of your argument is valid, and although many of the documentaries are worth while seeing, far fewer I would qualify as must-sees. It is a very skewed point of view, too, mostly American and many with a thrill/entertainment premium. I named 10 foreign films below, all of them as worthy, I would argue, as any on the list, but more importantly, that they represent another way of seeing, an alternative point of view, that would be a characteristic of the top docs of 1960-85.

  • I love documentaries

    I did just hear Mr. Spurlock say that they were showing “some” of the best documentaries of the last 25 years, if that could be considered encouraging at all. I agree with the discontent of content, but it leaves us room for more lists, doesn’t it? “50 Documentaries to see from the 1950s,” etc., including those not made in the US or even about the US. It could sort of be like VH1′s “I love the ’80s” shows. Might be fun, too.

  • Mtchao

    Lion in the House, Enemies of the People and The Betrayal…

  • craignm23

    What about the Zeitgeist movies, pretty groundbreaking, and indie as h***!  Oh wait, not picked up by a major studio, so no recognition.

  • maureen

    What about the up series 7 +, 14+, 21 up.   Hannah Hauxwell, Too long a winter was riveting.  Wish I could remember the name of the documentary about the dairy farmer and family – also great.  Young@Heart also outstanding.

  • 1965 Era

    Forks over Knives

  • HaroldHaze

    Why wasn’t ANY film by Frederick Wiseman, probably one of the best living documentary filmmakers, included? He certainly has worthwhile films that were made since 1985.

    • Zev Robinson

      Why indeed? Many others that are more interesting as documentaries. There are some good films on the list, but there’s an obvious slant too.

  • Kweaver222

    Bush’s Brain, Blue Vinyl