29 June 2020

My Favorite Documentaries

From Hearts and Minds
Regular readers of this blog (the Goldbergs of Montauk, New York) are familiar with the list of my favorite all time films that features on this blog. They may also note that said list does not include a single documentary, just as my annual top ten lists and favorites of a decade etc. do not. This does not reflect any lack of love on my part of documentaries, a genre of cinema that I have long appreciated and drawn inspiration from. I simply categorize documentaries as different than fictional films. In any event it's high time I got around to featuring my all-time favorites in said category.

The list is led by Hearts and Minds a film I've revered for over 40 years and consider the gold standard of documentaries. It is about American involvement in Vietnam, the history, the lies, the costs, the stories, the dissent. It is also about the U.S. in that most volatile of decades, the sixties. People on the right consider it an unbalanced polemic and they are not totally wrong. But I submit that there lies its strengths. One does not try to give a balanced view of the Holocaust, one exposes it for what it was. This H&M does brilliantly. There's no better example than the scene of a reception in the White House for former Vietnam POWS. Nixon speaks to the gathering and applauds his own decision to launch the Christmas bombing of 1972 that dropped 20,000 tons of bombs on the country and killed over 1,000 people, destroying a hospital in the bargain. His self laudatory remarks are met with a standing ovation. Cut to scenes of the devastation in North Vietnam, focusing finally on a man whose two small children have been killed in the bombing raids. He notes that his eight-year-old daughter was feeding their pigs when the bombs arrived. She died, the pigs survived, he points out. The man holds his daughter's shirt saying that she will never wear it again and asks that the American film crew take it back to America and throw it in Nixon's face. Later there is a scene of much weeping and wailing as Vietnamese are being buried. Survivors are grief-stricken. Cut to American General Westmoreland saying that life is cheap in the "Orient" and that "Orientals" don't value life as we do. Hardly subtle, but then why would you want it to be?

So while H&M remains unparalleled for me, there are many great documentaries on this list and needless to say, I recommend them all most heartily.

1. Hearts and Minds (1974) Davis
2. Monterey Pop (1968) Pennebaker
3. The Sorrow and the Pity (1969) Ophuls
From Studio 54
27. Harlan County USA

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