Documentaries ... my favorites, part 2

my favorite movies

my favorite minor movies

my favorite foreign films


major movies to avoid


Deserted Island Movies home page


Kohn's Corner


my Amazon reviews, mostly about books, movies and music 

(Latest update:  17 March 2022)

As I said earlier, I love documentaries. In roughly alphabetical order, here are the rest of my current favorites: (The first part is here.)


IF A TREE FALLS: A STORY OF THE EARTH LIBERATION FRONT (2011). What do committed environmentalists do when they feel government and industry are, and always will, ignoring them?

A small few took radical action, using arson as their weapon and to spread their message.

The film spends too much time, I thought, on one of them, but still serves us well and is, I thought, balanced to both sides. Almost no one -- certainly not the Seattle police -- come off well. Especially not the "terrorists," especially not the one who turned the rest in.

A good vehicle to discuss with your children: "Can something be both wrong and right?" "Who decides, and how?" "When does civil disobedience turn into anarchy?" "Was the Boston Tea Party terrorism?" And so on.



INSIDE JOB (2010).  This is the most understandable, even enjoyable (?), explanation I think we'll get for the Great Recession. And that's even if it never mentions the government's pressure on banks to relax mortgage lending standards.

Our government is the only agency big enough to take on the financial sector, but as the film shows, the financial sector owns the government.

Let's dust off the tumbrels.





IN THE SHADOW OF THE STARS (1991). Unless you have a visceral animosity to opera, give this film a try. I think you'll be captured by the humanity (and humor) in this little gem.

If only the movie had been filmed in a year when the SF Opera was doing more Puccini, Rossini, Mozart, Bizet or Verdi. Then, like the arias, it would have been magical.





IT'S HARD BEING LOVED BY JERKS (2008). The French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo is sued by French Islamic organizations for printing some of the Danish newspaper cartoons deemed to be insulting to Islam and Mohammed.

Freedom of speech is a noble principle but trickier than it appears. Can we shout "Fire!" in a crowded theater? Can the press print anything? What if it's false? Where does your opinion to speak your mind end, and my feelings toward what you say begin? Are hurt feelings enough to deny your freedom to speak your mind?

And, not incidentally, what about Islam and its countless acts of terrorism in the past few decades?

What about religion altogether? Does it get a free pass from satire? Even from vitriol?

This is a film for those of us who treasure the liberty of a free press and the ability to speak our minds without fear.

If you're reading this in America, do you remember seeing the 12 cartoons in a local newspaper or the evening news? Not me. It's hard not to think we were cowed into submission by the fear of being called Islamaphobes or the fear of bombs.

As that's what happened to Charlie Hebdo. This film covers the trial held in 2008, and it was in 2015 that the magazine's office was bombed, killing twelve.





JEWS AND BASEBALL: AN AMERICAN LOVE STORY (2010). Baseball has always been my favorite sport, and now I better understand why.

Not to mention, it was great learning more about Hank Greenberg, Sandy Koufax, and other Jewish ball players.

For fans of both baseball and history.





JODOROWSKY'S DUNE (2013). In the 1970s, an avant-garde film director decides to make his version of "Dune," a famous science fiction book he's never read. Some hugely talented visual artists sign on. Salvador Dali, Orson Welles and Mick Jagger will act. Pink Floyd will write the music.

We haven't seen this film, have we.

The reason to watch this documentary is not to learn about "the greatest film that never got made." It's to enjoy meeting an uncompromising artist, one whose intensity and passion are invigorating, even if he is a little "full" of himself.




JONESTOWN: THE LIFE AND DEATH OF PEOPLES TEMPLE (2006). Those of us in the late 1970s, will never forget the almost one thousand souls perishing in the jungle, having drunk poisoned "kool-aid," some willingly, most not, following the lead of their crazed leader, Jim Jones.

This film tells the story well, and should be viewed by all teens before leaving the nest. So many lessons here.

(But this single film can't possibly convey all, or even the most important, lessons of Jonestown. Two books to recommend: "The Road to Jonestown," by Jeff Guinn, and 2) "Seductive Poison," by Deborah Layton.)




KLITSCHKO (2011). We probably know they're brothers from Ukraine, and both were heavyweight boxing champions at one time. What I didn't know was that both have PhDs and speak four languages.

Like all great sports films, more than just about sports.

Worth the price of the film, I thought, were the closing credits with Vitali cutting his son's hair in the house. The boy is silent if not sullen. When the haircut is over and he walks away, Vitali says with a proud laugh, just as we would, "That's 10 or 15 euros we just saved!"




KUMARE (2011). Vikram, from New Jersey, decides to become a yoga, from India.

It's interesting that this film follows right after Jonestown. Fortunately, Vikram is not Jones, and the results are far more enlightened.

At times hilarious, at times touching, Kumare is especially for those into spirtuality or psychology.





LAST TRAIN HOME (2009). It's China's coastal cities that make all the stuff we buy. Their factories are a home (little more than a bed) and a salary for their employees, most who came from the inner country to support children and parents left behind.

The train in the title is about these 120 million workers trying to return to their families every New Year's Day. This alone makes the film worth watching, a needed reminder to us in the West how fortunate we are.

But the film becomes poignant beyond words as it follows a husband and wife who left the village years ago, leaving their children to be raised by the grandparents. This part of the film is for all of us who were ever teenagers, or the parents of one.




LUCKY (2011). About lottery winners and how they handled their good fortune.

Fascinating film. It's not really about the money, it's about what we do with it. And what it does to us.

Great "cast," wonderful editing, no moralizing.





MAGNUS (2016). Two years ago, at age 70 and no longer in the work force, I chose improving my chess game (from abysmal all the way up to mediocre) as one of my personal goals.

I've now studied a half dozen books and try to play a daily game on

So I can appreciate how hard it is to play the game well, and that this is a fine documentary.

We see film of Magnus as a child and a teen, at home and at school as well as at a chessboard.

You might also enjoy a 60 Minutes segment on Magnus:




MANUFACTURED LANDSCAPES (2006). This documentary will sear indelible images on our mind.

Filmed mostly in China (also in Bangladesh), we see factories of unimaginable size, assembly line workers doing detailed and repetitive tasks, women and children picking through debris for the few scraps it may yield.

There's more, but you have to see it for yourself.

I don't remember any voice over. All I remember are astonishing images, one after the other.




MR WARMTH: DON RICKLES (2007). Funny, sure, but also touching, and left me with a lot of admiration for the old man.

Plenty of film clips to bring back memories.

April 6, 2017: Rest in Peace, Mr Rickles.





MEDIEVAL LIVES (2004). Terry Jones, of Monty Python fame, seems to enjoy history. He certainly helps us enjoy it, especially this little known part.

The 2-disc set also includes a long segment on an entirely different subject, the gladiators of ancient Rome, and it's similarly fascinating.






MY ARCHITECT: A SON'S JOURNEY (2003). I signed this film out of the library simply because I love and admire great architecture.

Little did I expect that Louis Kahn, the 20th century titan, had a personal life as fascinating as his magnificent concrete and steel creations. 

A film for all of us, especially those of us who are sons, fathers or husbands.





MY KID COULD PAINT THAT (2007). On the surface, a simple story of a 4-year-old child who produces quite interesting paintings that sell for thousands of dollars.

Was she really the artist or did she get help from her father?

While that may be interesting, what makes the film important, what gives it it's raison d'Ítre is in helping us consider "what is art" and "why does a can of soup signed by Andy Warhol sell for millions?"

Unfortunate the great song "In the Gallery," by Mark Knopfler, wasn't in the sound track.

(The DVD's extra features are not to be missed.)





Nature documentaries.

BBC productions. Typically having the best photography, my favorites (in chronological order) are:

bulletMICROCOSMOS (1996). The insect world is more beautiful than we ever imagined.
bulletLIFE OF BIRDS (1998). Am not a bird watcher, but this David Attenborough romp through the bird kingdom is delightful.
bulletBLUE PLANET (2001). The BBC production I like best.
bulletPLANET EARTH (2006). No, this one.
bulletWILD CHINA (2008). Gorgeous, and surprising to see how much "wild" nature exists in a country of over a billion people.
bulletAFRICA (2013). Wonderful, even if not giving us enough about Africa's really interesting animals like crocs, Cape buffalo, hyenas. Rescued by the profound last/6th episode on humans and animals coexisting in Africa.

BBC's HUMAN PLANET should have been wonderful but was a disappointment (for me if not most others; see my 2-star review at

HOME (2009). Great photography, and could be a springboard for important discussions with your children.

NATURE OF SEX (1993). From the wonderful series, NATURE, on PBS, "...spans the globe to illustrate how an astonishing diversity of life forms find their mates and conceive, raise, and protect their offspring." To include human life forms, of course. The older I get, the more I see how much of our behavior is innate, shared with other primates, indeed with other animals.



NOTE BY NOTE: The Making of Steinway L1037 (2007). A unique film, letting me wallow in my loves of both music and working with wood. We follow the building of a Steinway grand piano, serial number L1037, in its New York City factory over the course of almost a full year.

The factory is a throwback to work places before robotics and automation. Its workers may never have sat in Carnegie Hall, but it's obvious they're craftsmen in their own part of the building process.

Also fascinating are the many and lengthy Extras: profiles of some of the guest musicians, and performances by them on Steinway pianos.




THE QUEEN OF VERSAILLES (2012). As an American, I cringe for what this film tells the rest of the world about us. We seem to have become a little crazy.

This film is a microcosm of the Great Recession as seen from one family. One most unusual family.

Guaranteed to spark many good discussions with your own family over the dinner table.




THE RESTLESS CONSCIENCE: RESISTANCE TO HITLER WITHIN GERMANY 1933-1945 (1992). Gives us some hope for humanity as we learn of moral, ethical Germans deeply opposed to Hitler. Attempts to assassinate him were futile (and, if it may be said without dishonoring the plotters, amateurish). A film to be watched whenever feeling mankind is utterly despicable.





THE ROLLING STONES: CROSSFIRE HURRICANE (2013). If given only two hours to describe the world's greatest rock and roll band -- obviously not possible -- no one could do it better than this.

"Live," the memoir by Keith Richards, prompted me to look for the Rolling Stones on video. Of the five films I watched this weekend, Crossfire was by bar the best.

How did it happen that a "lout" (Richards) and a "fop" (Jagger) would write so many great songs? Not that they had a need to express themselves. No, their manager told them the band couldn't succeed if they kept singing songs written by others.

And what songs they wrote. "Satisfaction." "Paint It Black." "Sympathy for the Devil." "Gimme Shelter." "Street Fighting Man." "Under Cover of the Night." "Start Me Up." "Brown Sugar." "Tumbling Dice." And, of course, "It's Only Rock 'n Roll (But I like It)." These are just my favorites that come to mind; so many more.




SIDE BY SIDE (2012). Through interviews with great directors and cinematographers, we learn about the ongoing transformation from film (analog) to digital in movies. It mostly discusses the cameras, but also the editing, projecting and special effects of film.

It may be of interest only to those of us who are both technical geeks and movie lovers, but that describes me perfectly.

On the other hand, a film critic said of it, "An absolute must-see for anyone who loves movies."

I found it fascinating.




SIX DAYS IN JUNE (2007). About Israel's rout of the Arab armies in 1967. As balanced as reasonably possible, though definitely not from an Arab perspective. (Then again, the Arab perspective is that Israel be obliterated.)

(Though I did not fight in this war, I tried to, changing my life. My college grades were awful, but back then there were no computer systems providing grades to draft boards. To leave the country with a student deferment, one had to first report to the local draft board. A little old lady went to a filing cabinet, pulled out my file, looked at it and said, "My, my. You haven't been doing too well in class, young man. I'm afraid you can't leave the country. In fact, you can expect to be drafted very soon." I entered the US Army in September 1967, four months later. It ended up being the best thing that could have happened to me, I know now, but if I were the reflective type, I would wonder how my life would have turned out if I had gone to Israel after all. Certainly my wife and children and career would not be the same.)

The documentary has many brief interviews with participants of the war, in both the Arab and Israeli military. There are clips of the Arab and Israeli leaders, military and civilian. (I was astonished to learn that Yitzchak Rabin, the Israeli Chief of Staff, had a nervous breakdown days before the start of the war. The annihilation of your country can do that.) We see Arab and Jewish citizens dancing in the streets, the former at the imminent obliteration of Israel, the latter at their having been saved from it.

Especially for those who have ever served in the military, this documentary is for anyone wanting to better understand the Middle East today. Because this war still impacts us decades later.




A SMALL ACT (2010). Filmed mostly in Kenya, this film uses superb editing to support its message: small acts of kindness can ripple far beyond where they landed.

I can't think of a better film to watch with young American teens. It has so many teaching points. Some photos are grisly; your younger children might better wait a few years. I could be over-protective, your call.






SURFWISE (2007). This isn't a movie about surfing. Surfing is just the curtain at the back of the stage. This is a movie about a family, parents Dorian and Juliette Paskowitz and their nine children, living over the years in three different used 24-ft RVs. Note: not camping. Living. Surfwise: The Amazing True Odyssey of the Paskowitz Family

It's easy to admit Dorian is a far better man than me - mentally, physically, morally, sexually. He followed his passions in ways I can't begin to match.

But I'm not sure even he would say he was a good father.

The film caught Dorian, in the twilight of his life, when his mental stability seemed off balance. He says and does things without regard for others.

The film doesn't devote nearly enough time on Dorian's wife, the mother of all those children, whose role in the family had to have been as important as her husband's.

I wish the film's editing had been better, sons shouting into microphones taking up far too much time, but it's still worth watching, and for parents, young and old, sure to spark contemplation.





THEY CAME TO PLAY (2008).  Some of the 2007 Van Cliburn Competition pianists were filmed and interviewed. The right ones.

It doesn't matter if you don't much care for the piano or for classical music. This movie is really about people. And about our dreams.





TIM'S VERMEER (2013). A marvelous mashup of art, science and technology by a multi-talented genius living in, of all places, San Antonio, my home town.

Some art lovers will doubtless feel disconsolate finding their own genius, Vermeer, reduced to a "mere" technician. Of course he was much more than that, and the film never tries to minimize his achievements.

F*ck is uttered twice in the film, unfortunately. One would say "so what." I say "Why wasn't it edited out? Why can't we share this movie with our children as examples of art, heart, hard work and science being able to accomplish?"

Otherwise, a masterpiece. Like Tim's Vermeer.




UP SERIES (Seven Up / 7 Plus Seven / 21 Up / 28 Up / 35 Up / 42 Up) (1986). It started as a one-program show, to take a cross-section of twenty 7-year-old children in 1963 Great Britain, show them at school and home, and ask them mostly the same questions.

The children came from varied social classes, and their personalities often reflected their roots.

What makes this series a classic -- in my opinion, the greatest documentary ever made, even with its flaws -- is that Michael Apted returned to fourteen of the children every seven years thereafter, showing us how they changed, or didn't, as they became adults.

I watched all the programs during one weekend in 2014. I'm sure I'll do the same seven years from now, should I still be alive, and every seven years thereafter.





WORD WARS - TILES AND TRIBULATIONS ON THE SCRABBLE GAME CIRCUIT (2005). For Scrabble lovers everywhere, we're brought a level of play we (me, anyway) never knew existed. Caution, some rough language before you let your small children watch.





YERT: Your Environmental Road Trip (2011). Three friends take one year to visit 50 states, seeking environmental issues to explore.

Yes, sometimes silly or superficial, but in the end a great introduction for young people to environmentalism. Some might wish more time had been given to the many issues, but that would require hours and hours in a multi-disc set.





Finally, to wrap it all up, is CAPTURING REALITY: The Art of Documentary (2008), which features fascinating moments from interviews with some of the creators in this genre.






No, this is "finally," a brilliant series of spoofs and parodies of documentaries or TV programs called DOCUMENTARY NOW (2015). Fred Armison and Bill Hader, of Saturday Night Live fame, write and act in almost every episode. Seth Meyers, also from SNL, contributes much excellent writing.

We wouldn't expect the audience for 1) parodies of 2) documentaries to be that big, but we'd never know that watching these. The production values, the attention to detail, everything about this series is first rate.

Those of us who love documentaries -- and if you've read this far, that probably includes you, too -- will enjoy Documentary Now all the more.



Please scroll up and to the left for more choices in Deserted Island Movies.