Wednesday, April 17, 2024
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From Laughs to Tears: Must-See Documentaries of All Time

The below 10 documentaries have shaped my thinking and changed my behavior over the last several years. I revisit them often

The River Runner (Netflix, Amazon, more options). This jumped to the top of my to-watch list, thanks to Brad Ludden of First Descents, a world-class waterman in his own right and associate producer on this film. Here’s the trailer. Kudos to director Rush Sturges (@rushsturges), writers Thayer Walker (@inkdwell), Corinna Halloran (@corinnahalloran), and the whole team. This Outside feature by Thayer and Scott Lindgren, the documentary’s protagonist, became a model for the film: “After a Hard Diagnosis, One Athlete Learns to Soften Up.”

Cave of Forgotten Dreams (Amazon, Apple TV). Description: “Werner Herzog’s award-winning 2011 doc is a thrilling study of 32,000-year-old cave paintings recently discovered in Southern France.” It has 96% on Rotten Tomatoes, and you can watch the trailer here. The Alpinist (Amazon, Netflix, Apple TV, YouTube, Google Play). If you want an incredible infusion of wonder and adrenaline, this doc delivers. It’s stunning. Description: “Marc-André Leclerc climbs alone, far from the limelight. On remote alpine faces, the free-spirited 23-year-old Canadian makes some of the boldest solo ascents in history. Yet, he draws scant attention. With no cameras, no rope, and no margin for error, Leclerc’s approach is the essence of solo adventure. Nomadic and publicity shy, he doesn’t own a phone or car and is reluctant to let a film crew in on his pure vision of climbing…” Even if you don’t watch the full doc, be sure to watch the short trailer here. Special thanks to Peter Mortimer (@SenderFilms) and Nick Rosen (@finsterbone) for including audio from The Tim Ferriss Show in this beautiful film.

Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain (Amazon, YouTube, Apple TV) from Academy Award-winning filmmaker Morgan Neville. I watched this on a flight and deeply appreciated the nuanced portrayal. The archival and outtake footage alone make it well worth watching. The official description: “Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain is an intimate, behind-the-scenes look at how an anonymous chef who lived his life unabashedly became a world-renowned cultural icon.” Find the trailer here. There are certainly lessons to be learned from the light and the dark, and this film raises important questions for me. For example: How can you safely learn from—or emulate—certain characteristics of tortured outliers without also inadvertently absorbing beliefs and behaviors that contributed to their deep inner pain? Tony’s story is inspiring, incredible, and tragic, and this film does an admirable job of capturing all three.Struggle:

The Life and Lost Art of Szukalski. This doc is amazing and bizarre on multiple levels. Here’s the description: “Artists in LA discover the work of forgotten Polish sculptor Stanisław Szukalski, a mad genius whose true story unfolds chapter by astounding chapter.” The documentary was produced by Leonardo DiCaprio (@LeoDiCaprio) and his father George DiCaprio. You can find the trailer here. Thanks to Snapping Turtle for the recommendation.Let Things Rot from the Fungi Foundation. This is gorgeously shot, and it’s worth a five-minute break for the visuals alone. From the description:

“The Fungi Foundation is proud to present ‘Let Things Rot,’ a new documentary short directed by Mateo Barrenengoa in collaboration with mycologist and foundation founder Giuliana Furci (@giulifungi). Filmed in Chile’s Araucanía Region, the short delves into fungi’s crucial role as a decomposer, inviting the viewer to reconsider rotting through a new, poetic perspective.”Searching for Sugar Man (Amazon, iTunes/Apple TV, Google Play, YouTube). I’ve had dozens of friends recommend this over the years, and I finally watched it last night. It’s SPECTACULAR. It was exactly the feel-good pick-me-up that I needed. The film’s accolades include 95% on Rotten Tomatoes, a BAFTA Award for Best Documentary, and an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, just to mention a few. Here’s the official description:

“Searching for Sugar Man tells the incredible true story of Rodriguez, the greatest ’70s rock icon who never was. After being discovered in a Detroit bar, Rodriguez’s sound struck two renowned producers, and they signed a recording deal. But when the album bombed, the singer disappeared into obscurity. A bootleg recording found its way into apartheid South Africa, and over the next two decades, he became a phenomenon. The film follows the story of two South African fans who set out to find out what really happened to their hero.” Watch the trailer here.Bird by Bird with Annie. I’ve loved Anne Lamott (@AnneLamott) and her work for more than a decade, and ever since I had her on the podcast, I’ve gone even deeper into the Annieverse. This documentary had just the right blend of humor, humanity, and insight to help me with some difficult emotions this week. Description:

“Perhaps best known for her widely celebrated book on writing, Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott is one of the rare artists who can teach us not only how to write, but how to live. From Academy Award-winning filmmaker Freida Lee Mock (Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision), BIRD BY BIRD WITH ANNIE offers an intimate portrait of the writer and her craft, interweaving the story of Lamott’s life—in itself a deeply moving tale of addiction and redemption, grief and joy, intellect and faith—with a year’s worth of interviews, public lectures, and readings, and footage of the writer at work, focusing particularly on Lamott’s candid, humorous, and disarmingly straightforward advice on the struggles and joys of writing. In the end, the author’s genuine reassurance and guidance concerning the actual process of writing—which has little resemblance to its glorified image—becomes a stirring call to action that celebrates the potential of each individual, the silencing of our inner critics, and the courage to create something honest, meaningful, and real. Poignant and inspirational, BIRD BY BIRD WITH ANNIE takes us deep into Anne Lamott’s intoxicatingly brave world, one in which writing is a means of finding out who we are, how we live, and why we’re here.” You can find the trailer here.Kokoyakyu:

High School Baseball. [Update: currently unavailable for viewing.] This documentary really brings back the memories. It tracks high school competitors and coaches in one of Japan’s deepest passions: baseball. The school uniforms, practices, buildings, customs, etc. are all nearly exactly what I experienced as a 15-year-old exchange student in Tokyo. Natsukashii naaaa! Deep bow to reader Ethan Jacobs (@ethanajacobs) for the suggestion.Magical Death. [Update: currently unavailable for viewing.] It’s a common fiction that indigenous use of psychedelics is entirely focused on healing. In reality, while healing is one common and legitimate use, psychedelic plants have also been weaponized for warfare for centuries, if not millenia. Stated uses include night-vision enhancement, attempts at divination of enemy locations, and “remote attacks.” This video shows an example of the last. Whether or not you believe such things are possible, it demonstrates that human nature—warts and all—is cross-cultural. Description:

“A documentary film by anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon that explores the role of the shaman within the Yanomamo culture, as well as the close relationship shamanism shares with politics within their society.” Plant medicine does not automagically mean peaceful or harmonious ever after. Humans love power.RBG. Description: “At the age of 85, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has developed a lengthy legal legacy while becoming an unexpected pop culture icon. Explore her unique and unknown personal journey of her rise to the nation’s highest court.” May she rest in peace.“Philip Roth: Unmasked” (Amazon, iTunes, PBS). I greatly enjoyed this deep dive into the life, craft, and humor of Philip Roth. My quest to learn more about Philip was sparked by Joyce Carol Oates, one of the most decorated and prodigious American writers of the last century, who spoke about him during our podcast together. Here’s the official description of this interview-rich documentary:

“American Masters explores the life and career of Pulitzer Prize- and National Book Award-winning novelist Philip Roth, often referred to as the greatest living American writer. Reclusive and diffident, Roth grants very few interviews, but for the first time, allowed a journalist to spend 10 days interviewing him on camera.”Guardians of the Amazon. “As the Amazon rainforest faces a crucial tipping point amidst the increase of illegal logging activities,

Dan Harris (@danbharris) and his team embed with the Guardians, a small indigenous group taking up arms to hunt down illegal loggers and fight for their land.” For a taste of the action, see the trailer here. This is a topic I care a lot about. For another way to help preserve the ecosystems of the Amazon, which includes both the lungs of the planet and indigenous communities, take a look at the Amazon Conservation Team. For my interview with the co-founder, Mark Plotkin, ethnobotanist and protégé of the legendary Richard Schultes, please click here.



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