We're living in the golden age of documentary films. Thanks to the advent of inexpensive cameras and facile editing software, the number of skilled filmmakers who are reporting from the front lines of the essential stories of our time is truly remarkable. Which is why we've chosen to focus on the new: We've picked the 15 greatest adventure, investigative, and nature documentaries of the 21st century, while also giving nods to ten 20th-century classics that paved the way.
Guest editor David Holbrooke is the festival director of Mountainfilm in Telluride.
Stranger than fiction.
There's a peculiar challenge to making a surf film: The action footage is so good, it's easy to get lazy with everything else. But director Stacy Peralta wasn't just trying to chronicle a surf quest. He wanted to explain the evolution of a sport. Peralta is the Ken Burns of boardsports (he directed 2002's skating history Dogtown and Z-Boys), and Giants, made in 2004, was his Baseball, with the brash pioneer Greg Noll and the modern master Laird Hamilton sparring for the role of Babe Ruth. Indeed, it's the surfers, not the surf, who make Riding Giants so much fun. Even as they describe the terror of wiping out at Maverick's, you can sense their smirks. They are crazy, clearly. But, by God, are they stoked!
Touching the Void
Joe Simpson and Simon Yates's 1985 escape from their first ascent of the west face of Peru's 20,853-foot Siula Grande became one of mountaineering's greatest epics with the publication of Simpson's 1988 memoir, Touching the Void. The 2003 documentary of the same name, by director Kevin Macdonald, masterfully re-creates both the feat and the disaster, which started when Simpson fell and smashed his tibia through his kneecap. Yates lowered his partner through a blizzard, then, when Simpson's weight began to drag both men off the mountain, cut the rope, sending a nearly unconscious Simpson on a free fall into a crevasse. Simpson's four-day crawl back to base camp redefined the limits of human endurance. "I just cried and cried," Simpson recalls in the film. "I thought I'd be tougher than that." Turns out he was.
Man on Wire
In 1974, French performance artist Philippe Petit and a team of riggers infiltrated the Twin Towers and strung a high wire between them, enabling Petit to spend 45 minutes performing 1,300 feet above Manhattan. History forgot about the Frenchman until 2008, when director James Marsh resurrected Petit's story in the Oscar-winning documentary Man on Wire. Combining actors' reenactments and interviews with all of the original players, the film explains just how the bohemians fooled the guards, strung the cable, and pulled off an amazingly illicit stunt in what's become haunted airspace.
Encounters at the End of the World
Only an obsessive like Werner Herzog could put reality on film, zoom in on the mystery, and create something that's more far out than any sci-fi. One of the most overlooked movies of the decade, 2008's Encounters was filmed at McMurdo, the U.S. research station on Antarctica peopled by "philosopher/forklift drivers" and other "linguists on a continent without languages." There are singing seals under the ice, microorganisms that haunt the daydreams of biologists, and, yes, penguins—but Herzog is only interested in the rogue members of that society that venture off in the wrong direction, for reasons nobody understands. It's a fitting metaphor for the humans who converge at the bottom of the planet, looking for new truths that may hold the keys to our survival.
Alive, the 1993 Hollywood film starring Ethan Hawke, amped up the story of the 1972 plane crash that stranded an Uruguayan rugby team in the Andes. ("Hey, I'll pay you for the pizza if you go and get it!" jokes one survivor, before they decide to eat the flesh of the dead.) Stranded: I've Come from a Plane that Crashed on the Mountains, Gonzalo Arijon's 2007 documentary, tells this story the proper way: with reverence. Arijon re-creates the plane crash, then gathers the 16 survivors and simply allows them to recount their ordeal. The result is haunting. Here's hero Nando Parrado, who eventually hiked out to find help: "Others saw it as a holy communion. That's fine. I wanted to see my father. To live."
The muckraking documentaries that uncovered the havoc humans wreak.
An Inconvenient Truth
Did Al Gore—with those cartoons of Mr. Sunbeam and greenhouse-gas goblins—oversimplify the facts? Were the projections showing Manhattan underwater too dire? Did he turn himself into a lightning rod for skeptics? Perhaps. But Davis Guggenheim's 2006 film on Gore's nationwide campaign to sound the climate-change alarm works because of Gore's lecturing style: patient, accessible, and scarily informed. The film permanently elevated the national discourse on the most crucial issue of our time.
Night-vision goggles, bad guys wielding harpoons, corrupt cops, hidden cameras—never has environmentalism seemed this exciting. This exposé of the now infamous dolphin slaughter in Taiji, Japan, plays like a thriller, right up to the denouement—activist Ric O'Barry walking into an International Whaling Commission meeting with footage of the hunt playing on a video monitor strapped to his chest. The Cove won the 2010 Oscar for Best Documentary, and established director Louie Psihoyos as the anti–Paul Watson, a guy who spurs change with his camera, not his antics.
Who Killed the Electric Car?
While Martin Sheen's narration is occasionally wooden, this 2006 murder mystery is otherwise pitch perfect. The victim here is the General Motors EV-1, a concept car that was released to California drivers in 1996 in response to the state's 1990 Zero Emissions Vehicle Mandate, only to be literally thrown on a scrap heap in 2003. Director Chris Paine finds plenty of Big Oil and Big Auto villains, but he lays equal blame on us consumers, and avoids turning his film into an anticapitalist screed. Who Killed demonstrates that we had the technology to usher in the era of the smart car long before Toyota did, and long before Detroit had to beg for a bailout.
Super Size Me, Morgan Spurlock's 2004 McDonald's binge, was more popular, but Food, Inc. stands as the signal culinary documentary of our time. With images like headless chickens shuttling down factory lines, the Robert Kenner–directed film offers a quick and very dirty crash course in subjects we knew we were wary of—Uncle Sam's subsidization of the corn industry; feedlots; E. coli; genetically modified crops—but until now had never seen in such graphic terms.
An exposé on clean natural gas's dirty secrets? We don't hear you stampeding to theaters. But Josh Fox's new film is a fresh successor to investigative docs like Food, Inc. Fox is Michael Moore without the ranting: Approached by energy companies hoping to drill on his Pennsylvania land, he sets out on a cross-country road trip to explore the side effects of drilling. Everywhere he goes, he finds Americans reporting illnesses and some of the mankiest-looking water this side of Bangalore. With natural gas touted as the savior to our energy woes, this film is one you won't want to miss. And wait'll you see the pyrotechnics. Many characters in this movie can—and will!—set their water on fire.
The nature films that redefined the way we view our planet.
Made in 2007 by young filmmakers Ben Knight and Travis Rummel, Red Gold is an ode to Bristol Bay, Alaska, site of both the world's largest sockeye run and a proposed open-pit mine that could obliterate the fish. The DIY film is less refined than the others on this list, but that's the appeal: The upstarts broke this story long before most major media outlets, and scored enough ominous quotes from tin-eared mining exec Bruce Jenkins to help spur an ongoing protest movement. "Just because you don't think this is a good idea," scolds Jenkins, "doesn't mean you're right." Unless, of course, you are.
No documentary has produced such beautiful images as this Jacques Perrin–directed meditation on the journeys of migratory birds. Shot on every continent, with the collaborative efforts of 450 people, including teams of bird handlers who lived 24/7 with goslings, the 2001 movie literally takes flight, filming the creatures at close range and offering us, for the first time, a real bird's-eye view.
On the surface, Timothy Treadwell's story is unsurprising: A self-appointed bear researcher is killed, along with his girlfriend, Amie Huguenard, by his subjects in Alaska. But Werner Herzog uncovered in Treadwell's handycam footage a fragile but ultimately agreeable character. The resulting film, 2005's Grizzly Man, culminates with Herzog listening to the recording of Treadwell and Huguenard's demise (the camera was rolling with the lens cap on). The look on Herzog's face is graphic enough. "You must never listen to this," he tells Treadwell's ex, Jewel Palovak. While Treadwell mostly projected human emotions onto wild animals, he tapped into something universal, too: the desire to find oneself in the wilderness after being rejected by the world.
The best wildlife and natural-history footage ever to come to the big screen. This is ultimately why you don't care that some 60 percent of it was poached from Planet Earth, the holy-s**t made-for-TV series that aired on the Discovery Channel in 2007: It's just as good the second time. Earth marked the launch of Disneynature, a label intended to help the entertainment behemoth reclaim its nature-doc glory days of the 1950s. The film focuses on three animal families—polar bears, elephants, and humpback whales—and certainly feels Disney. At its weakest moments, it's cute. But the James Earl Jones narration helps, the score soars, and—most important—it's just stunning to watch.
March of the Penguins
It's anthropomorphic, but don't call it a kids' film. March, which grossed some $77 million and won the 2006 Oscar for Best Documentary, is about survival. Over the course of a year, filmmakers Luc Jacquet, Laurent Chalet, and Jérôme Maison suffered through frostbite, an Antarctic blizzard, and reeking valleys of guano to capture the story of the emperor penguins. The birds endure far worse: 80-below temperatures, months without food, predatory leopard seals. It's a film packed with graphic moments of death and new life, lacking only the smell.
Ten documentaries from the 20th century that changed outdoor filmmaking.
South: Ernest Shackleton and the Endurance Expedition
The original footage of Shackleton's 1914–16 Endurance voyage is a document for the ages. The 1919 film, directed by expedition member Frank Hurley, is silent, and the ship itself is the most compelling character—charging 800 miles through the floes toward its unlucky fate, before being surrounded by the ice on all sides like a cornered animal.
The 1938 movie is 3.5 hours long, is devoid of a storyline, and was funded by the Nazi party. But Leni Riefenstahl captured the drama of the 1936 "Hitler Olympics"—Jesse Owens showing up Das Führer—and pioneered now-ubiquitous filming techniques, such as slow-motion panning and cameras planted on athletic equipment.
Fitz Roy: Mountain of Storms
In 1968, Yvon Chouinard and Doug Tompkins, along with skier Dick Dorworth and climber Lito Tejada-Flores, drove a van from California to the bottom of Argentina and summited 11,073-foot Fitz Roy. (They picked up another climber, Chris Jones, on the way.) Tejada-Flores's gift to us was the camera he brought to film the journey. Sadly, the original Fitz Roy: First Ascent of the Southwest Buttress is tough to find, so go with this version. It contains cheesy voice-overs and funk music, but it still features Chouinard and Tompkins aid-climbing Fitz Roy in wool hats and incredibly cool shades.
Thor Heyerdahl & Co.'s 1947 float from Peru to Polynesia calls two words to mind: balsa and balls. After the Norwegian ethnographer's theory—positing that pre-Columbian South Americans used "primitive" craft to settle Polynesia—is laughed off by his fellows, Heyerdahl recruits five guys with names like Bengt and Torstein, then builds and rides a big raft some 4,300 nautical miles into the Pacific, battling sharks and cruising with the trade winds the whole way.
The Conquest of Everest
The big peak has inspired many documentaries, but the 1953 original still stands above the rest. George Lowe's Conquest follows Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay's team from the planning stages to Camp IV, where the cameramen fall back. No matter: The climax—when expedition leader Colonel John Hunt breaks military decorum to hug Hillary and Norgay upon their descent—is plenty dramatic.
The Silent World
It's extremely hard to find, stars skinny French divers in yellow bun huggers, and features numerous acts of animal cruelty: a whale harpooned and sharks clubbed to death onboard Jacques Cousteau's Calypso. It also won a 1957 Oscar and created the phenomenon we now know as the underwater film.
Cornball ("He could have a ham sandwich" on the nose of his board). Insensitive (try counting the use of "natives"). And yet, you can't help but love this 1966 film. Mostly because the plot is so pure: Two guys travel the world in search of the perfect wave, ultimately finding it off South Africa. Still, there's something bittersweet in watching the quest: You just don't find empty breaks like this anymore.
There is not one word uttered for 86 minutes, just a collection of gorgeous and disturbing images—Canyonlands National Park; freeways; an atomic bomb test—backed by Philip Glass's haunting soundtrack. The magic of this 1982 cult classic lies in director Godfrey Reggio's willingness to leave the entire experience up to interpretation.
Blizzard of Aahhh's
The early years of extreme skiing, in the late eighties, were not pretty. There was too much neon, too many hop turns. There was a new sport—snowboarding—to ridicule and a myopic ski industry to rant against: Most American resorts wouldn't allow you to ski their gnarliest terrain. But, as the rebellious spirit and ripping action of 1988's Blizzard remind you, the birth of big-mountain skiing is still fun to watch.
For All Mankind
As this Oscar-nominated 1989 film demonstrates, the 12 men who walked on the moon's surface during the six Apollo landings between 1969 and 1972 were some of the most intrepid explorers in our history. Director Al Reinert and editor Susan Korda culled through 6,000 hours of NASA footage—and set it to a quietly rapturous Brian Eno score—to create this composite view of a complete moon mission from liftoff to splashdown.
It’s Like Porn
The best of a new generation of action films.
Mountain Bike: Roam (2006)
This film, by Vancouverbased The Collective, used color-saturating 16mm cameras set on zip lines to capture panning images of mountain bikers doing backflips from Whistler to Morocco. Filmmakers have tried to replicate Roam’s inthe-moment feel. None have succeeded.
Snowboard: That’s It, That’s All (2008)
The fluid, hi-def shots of big-mountain riders like Jeremy Jones flossing down alpenglow-bathed slopes in New Zealand and Tokyo stand up to anything ever shot on snow.
Kayak: Dashboard Burrito (1998)
Paddler and videographer Chris Emerick’s 28-minute film, shot across the West, captured modern kayaking at its point of inflection, when boats were suddenly small and agile, freestyle moves were being invented, and sponsors were flush with cash. Ah, 1998.
Surf: Step into Liquid (2003)
Maverick’s; Cortes Bank; Laird flying on a hydrofoil board; bikini-clad pros ripping glassy barrels—this is the only contemporary surf documentary that holds a candle to Riding Giants.
Ski: High Life (2003)
Because the music is better than most, the cinematography is top-notch, and the bros do little talking, choosing instead to stick to what they know best: skiing some of the most impressive bigmountain lines ever filmed.
Climb: Alone on the Wall (2009)
This short movie by Sender Films (see “Step into Celluloid,” page 60) is not so much action epic as it is a thoughtful profile of free soloist Alex Honnold. But the footage of Honnold scaling Yosemite’s 4,800foot Half Dome is more terrifying than any climbing act we’ve seen on film.
The People’s Choice
We asked for readers’ favorite adventure documentaries on Facebook and Twitter. The runaway winner? Alone in the Wilderness, a mail-orderonly 2003 cult classic about Richard Proenneke, an Iowa mechanic who retires and moves to Twin Lakes, Alaska, to live an examined life in the outdoors. Consisting mostly of woodworking shots and amateur wildlife footage, the film taps into the daydreams of cubicle workers worldwide.