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Sight & Sound Lists the Top 50 Documentaries of All Time: 'The Man with a Movie Camera,' 'Sans Soleil' and More

Criticwire By Max O'Connell | Criticwire August 1, 2014 at 12:26PM

The films that demonstrate the formal possibilities of documentaries.
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Vertov

It'll be another eight years before Sight & Sound polls filmmakers and critics around the world as to what the greatest movies of all time are, but perhaps this will tide cinephiles over. The British Film Institute magazine realized that it had never done a list for nonfiction films before, so they polled 200 critics and curators and 100 filmmakers (including Michael Apted, James Marsh and Clio Barnard) to come up with a list of the 50 greatest documentaries of all time. Here are the top ten:

1. "The Man with a Movie Camera" (1929), Dziga Vertov
2. "Shoah" (1985), Claude Lanzmann
3. "Sans soleil" (1983), Chris Marker
4. "Night and Fog" (1955), Alain Resnais
5. "The Thin Blue Line" (1988), Errol Morris
6. "Chronicle of a Summer" (1961), Edgar Morin/Jean Rouch
7. "Nanook of the North" (1922), Robert J. Flaherty
8. "The Gleaners and I" (2000), Agnes Varda
9= "Dont Look Back" (1967), D.A. Pennebaker
9= "Grey Gardens" (1975), Ellen Hovde/Albert Maysles/David Maysles/Muffie Meyer


Other films on the list include Marcel Ophuls's "The Sorrow and the Pity," Werner Herzog's "Grizzly Man," Steve James's "Hoop Dreams," Orson Welles's great magic trick of a movie "F for Fake," and Michael Apted's "Up" series. The oldest film on the list is the Lumiere Brothers' "Workers Leaving the Lumiere Factory" from 1895, while the two newest films, "The Act of Killing" and "Leviathan," made their festival debuts in 2012. It's a bit surprising to see "The Act of Killing" so high so soon (it's tied at #19), but it's also heartening to see that the list includes films from every decade since the 1920s.

Commentaries for the full list will be published online August 14, but the top ten films already have detailed notes from the participants. Here's Brian Winston on "The Man with a Movie Camera":

"Man with a Movie Camera" is a ‘city symphony’ film of a kind not uncommon in the 1920s. These films celebrated the vibrancy of the modern cityscape with pastiches of urban images, for the most part neither set up nor reconstructed. Vertov, though, plays fast and loose with the conventions of such films, to profound effect. He superimposes, splits the screen, deploys fast- and slow-motion and extreme close-ups, and animates using stop-motion. Most surprisingly, he shows us the processes whereby a documentary is made. The eponymous man with the movie camera is his brother Mikhail, and his wife, Yelizaveta Svilova, is his editor. Both appear at work on screen.

It's thrilling to see "Man with a Movie Camera" at the top of the list precisely because the film is so opposed to the idea that documentaries are there to simply record the facts. Vertov's formal experimentation is as remarkable today as it was in 1929, and if it's no surprise to see a film that's now in the Sight & Sound all-time top ten here, it's no less welcome. Here's the great Jonathan Rosenbaum on "Shoah":

Of course cinema already had to exist in order to allow Lanzmann to make Shoah – the title is the Hebrew word for catastrophe – but he also had to rethink what cinema could be. His 550-minute examination of the Jewish Holocaust falls within the documentary tradition of investigative journalism, but what he does with that form is so confrontational and relentless that it demands to be described in philosophical/spiritual terms rather than simply cinematically. Determined to make us imagine the unimaginable, Lanzmann literalises a quote from the philosopher Emil Fackenheim: “The European Jews massacred are not just of the past, they are the presence of an absence.”

"Shoah" is one of several documentaries about the Holocaust on the list, including Alain Resnais's poetic, revolutionary "Night and Fog" and Marcel Ophuls's "The Sorrow and the Pity." But "Shoah's" length (10 hours) and its use of the testimonials of the survivors make it the closest thing to a definitive statement about the Holocaust on film. Here's Adam Nayman on "Sans soleil":

It’s a cliché to say that about a movie – that its true shape or texture is in the eye of the beholder – but it’s true of "Sans Soleil," which not only withstands multiple viewings, but never seems to be the same film twice. It addresses memory even as its different threads seem to forget themselves; it parses geopolitics without betraying any affiliation; it might be Marker’s most elaborately self-effacing film, or his most plangently personal. It’s quite telling that the emu that shows up seemingly apropos of nothing near the start returns at the end, and that even though he’s barely recognizable through the video-artifacted veil of Japanese artist Hayao Yamaneko’s electronic imagery – a visual space that the narration refers to as “the zone” – he feels like some long-lost old friend. An emu in the Ile de France is a rare bird, and so is "Sans Soleil."

Marker's film is one of the most radical on the list, and one of the most inspired choices. The "eye of the beholder" comment is true, given that any of the film's threads might seem the most crucial depending on the viewer. The film's discursive nature makes it at once challenging and inviting. The film's formal rigorousness, as well as the formal strengths of all of the films on the lists, points the way to what makes nonfiction filmmaking truly great. It may be a time where not enough critics talk about form in documentary reviews, but that's not because the films are failing them. If anything, it's the other way around.

This article is related to: Documentary, Sight & Sound Film Poll


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