The ten best documentaries

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The Independent Culture

1 BURDEN OF DREAMS Les Blank (1982)

Blank's epic journey into the heart of Amazonia, following Werner Herzog's deranged, lethal and hilarious adventure making Fitzcarraldo. A classic portrait of the artist as maniac, only ever rivalled by the recent portrait of Terry Gilliam in Lost in La Mancha, and by Chris Smith's 1999 film American Movie, about a first-time director of a slasher movie. A new genre has been born.

2 CANE TOADS Mark Lewis (1987)

I love documentaries to be funny, and this is perhaps the funniest of them all. It's Lewis's deadpan toad's-eye view of an Australian province overrun with huge, toxic and invulnerable toads, mistakenly brought in by scientists to control a cane weevil epidemic. A brilliantly stylised film, from which I continue to steal shots.

3 CANNIBAL TOURS Dennis O'Rourke (1988)

The Australian film-maker's unflinchingly sardonic trip up the Sepik river in New Guinea with a boatload of fat, insane tourists (mostly from Germany) who try to convince locals to show them the art of cannibal cuisine, for their holiday snaps.

4 THE CONTROL ROOM Jehane Noujaim (2004)

One of the bravest documentaries ever made, filmed in the control room of Al-Jazeera during the first three months of the invasion of Iraq. Every American and many Brits should watch it; a transformative work of political art, like The Battle of Algiers, that changes how you see the world forever.


This Japanese director's outrageous, tragicomic film follows an elderly army veteran as he hunts down the last surviving members of his troop, to get them to confess to cannibalism in the last days of the Second World War. The scene in which he beats a confession out of a polite old officer ("Yes! Yes! I ate your friend! OK?") as his wife performs a tea ceremony is a serious statement about the politics of memory.

6 HOME FROM THE HILL Molly Dineen (1985)

Dineen's documentary, about the last days of empire for a retired British Army officer in Kenya, was an instant classic - hilarious, poignant, quite mad. An inspiration.

7 THE LAST WALTZ Martin Scorsese (1978)

You can't go wrong with a film that has both Bob Dylan and Van Morrison in it, but Scorsese elevates the music documentary/ concert film to a joyous act of cinema.

8 THE BALLAD OF RAMBLIN' JACK Aiyana Elliott (2000)

Elliott's funny yet heartfelt search for the soul of her father Jack, folk music's favourite disappearing act, is a milestone achievement in the personal-narrative genre, and also has great music.

9 THE THIN BLUE LINE Errol Morris (1988)

Morris's investigation of a miscarriage of justice in Texas starts out as a straightforward interview-driven doc, then moves into the realm of noir cinema as he stages eerie recreations of the murder scene. The film got the case reopened, and an innocent man's conviction was overturned. The documentary as thriller.

10 WISCONSIN DEATH TRIP James Marsh (1999)

Marsh's re-imagining of a whole Wisconsin town that went mad - suicides, arson, murder - extends the documentary form using the brilliant Eigil Bryld's tableaux vivants to give us a masterpiece of stylisation that goes beyond freak show to become utterly moving.

Vikram Jayanti's 'Game Over', about the chess match between Kasparov and a computer, is on release