Must See Documentary Films:
From the O'Neill Media Collection

By Wes Hazard

Man on Wire (Dir. James Marsh, 2008, 94 Minutes)
GV550.2 .P47 M36 2008
There are death defying acts and then there are death insulting acts. Philippe Petit insulted death. In August of 1974, he strung a tightrope between the twin towers of the World Trade Center and walked, danced, and sat on it for 45 minutes. The feat was absolutely astounding and in no way has it diminished over time. This doc traces Petit's efforts from his initial inspiration for the stunt all the way to its execution. Building inevitably toward what we know will be a successful outcome, it manages to grab us not only with the amazing (and still apparent) physical abilities of its narrator/protagonist, but also with the heist-film suspense techniques it employs to tell the story of how Petit managed to pull off "the artistic crime of the century". It involved recruiting international help, scouting the then-under-construction WTC for years, and ingeniously managing to hang a 450lb cable across a 140ft gap that was a quarter mile off the ground. An amazing act and an amazing film.

Tyson (Dir. James Toback, 2008, 90 Minutes)
GV1132 .T97 T96 2009
Decades before mixed martial arts blew up, Mike Tyson was arguably the most dangerous man on the planet. The youngest heavyweight-boxing champion ever, he was able to win his matches before the bell was rung, by pure intimidation. You could see it in his opponents' eyes: not the fear but the knowledge that they were going to lose. Then it all fell apart. He married disastrously, got careless, lost his titles in one of sport's biggest upsets, was sent to prison, and generally did everything possible to cultivate the public persona of a raging lunatic. (He also got a pretty funny recent cameo in The Hangover). This documentary is more than all of that though. It gets underneath whatever perceptions you had about the man and fighter simply by allowing him to talk. Listening to Tyson get raw about his youth, his mentor, his enemies, and his fears is unusual enough. Then he genuinely gushes with pride about the school achievements of his young children and you're kind of shocked at what you're witnessing. Whether you like boxing or Tyson, or not, this will own your attention.

Word Wars (Dir. Eric Chaikin / Julian Petrillo, 2004, 80 Minutes)
GV1507 .S3 W67 2005
For must of us, it's something we use to kill time when the power goes out or when we're hanging at grandma's house. For the men in Word Wars however, Scrabble is an obsession, a compulsion, and (in many cases) a livelihood. The film follows a group of tile junkies in the months leading up to the National Scrabble Association championships in San Diego (Grand Prize: $25,000...and yes...we have a National Scrabble Association). We see three-time champ Joe Edley, a "rock star" on the competitive circuit, who uses a serene calm and conspicuous Zen meditation to psych out his opponents. There's Joel Sherman, an affable and pasty uber-geek whose volcanic gastric juices earn him the nickname "G.I. Joel". And we meet the brash but reflective Marlon Hill, a militant Black Scrabble expert who bristles at the fact that he's a master of the very words he feels are used to oppress him. Definitely watch this. If you love Scrabble you'll love this film, if you're indifferent to the game you'll still be amazed by how many interesting (crazy?) people devote their lives to it.

The Mormons (Dir. Helen Whitney, 2007, 240 Minutes)
BX8611 .M67 2007
PBS is the Rolls Royce of documentary labels. Their productions are always expansive, fascinating, well researched and slickly produced. All of these qualities are evident in this Frontline examination of Mormonism. Beginning at the beginning, this four-hour program looks at the religious movement's founding, its turbulent struggle to survive in the face of universal opposition, its major scandals and controversies, and its transformation into a modern-day faith with global reach and extensive political clout. If you're at all interested in the origins, practices, ideology or impact of Mormonism, this is a fantastic resource.

Crazy Love (Dir. Dan Klores / Fisher Stevens, 2007, 92 Minutes)
HQ801.83 .C73 2007
We all know a couple that just has no business being together. They don't share interests, they fight all the time, and you can't think of a single thing either of them could possibly see in the other. Burt and Linda Pugach make the couple you might know look like Claire and Heathcliff Huxtable. This is a movie about maybe the most obsessive, unhealthy, outrageous and weirdly enduring relationship you'll ever see. There's an initial meet-cute, elaborate wooing, violence, prison time, reconciliation, scandalous adultery and then more reconciliation. Not the most well-made documentary ever, but the insane story and unbelievable characters make it more than worth it. When it's over you might be confused, uplifted, amused or just enraged, but you will definitely think better of that couple that you know.

Helvetica (Dir. Gary Hustwit, 2007, 80 Minutes)
Z246 .H454 2007
You're more familiar with the subject of this documentary than you can possibly imagine...scarily so. You've encountered it every day, countless times per day, for years and yet you've probably never even thought about it. This is understandable. After all, how often do you seriously think about fonts? That just might change after you watch Helvetica, a film about the most ubiquitous and influential typeface of the last sixty years. Used for street signs, tax forms, operating systems, and (most pervasively) advertising, Helvetica has a truly global reach and resonance. Using the font as a point of departure this doc launches into an appealing examination of culture, marketing, and human expression. Watching it, you'll gain a better appreciation of how the smallest of stylistic choices can affect how people perceive their data. With an eclectic soundtrack and great interviews this is the best movie you'll ever see about a font. (Note: Be sure to check out the extended interview with typographer Erik Spiekermann on the DVD extras. The wild conversation of this Microsoft bashing motor-mouthed German is something you don't want to miss.)

Freestyle: The Art of Rhyme (Dir. Kevin Fitzgerald, 2000, 60 Minutes)
M1630.18 .F74 2005
If this movie wasn't half as good as it is, it would still be worth a watch for the pure weirdness of seeing ?uestlove before he had an afro. But seriously, whether you're a hip-hop fan or not you'll find Freestyle to be totally honest, cool and compelling. It interviews a broad range of spoken word artists, modern rappers, and past legends as they talk about (and practice) the thing they love most. While briefly looking at the history of the art, Freestyle focuses mainly on recent practitioners and the politics of improvisational rhyming. Of definite interest is the story arc about the legendary series of battles between underground stars Supernatural and Juice. (Note: The DVD comes with a sweet feature that allows you to watch the film "freestyle" with the different chapters appearing in random order.)

Riding Giants (Dir. Stacy Peralta, 2005, 102 Minutes)
GV839.5 .R53 2005
I walked into this movie not knowing a damn thing about surfing aside from what the Keanu Reeves/Patrick Swayze film Point Break had taught me (not much). I walked out with an absolute reverence for the sport and its many innovators. Riding Giants is directed by Stacy Peralta, the former pro skater who also made Dogtown and Z-Boys. He brings his trademark visual flair, copious archival footage, and knack for sound tracking to his look at the development and popularization of big wave surfing over the last six decades. If you've never touched a surfboard it won't matter. It's impossible not to be amazed when sixties icon Greg Knoll talks about taking a 50/50 chance for survival to surf a monster wave during a Hawaii storm, or when you hear that for over a decade Jeff Clark paddled for hours out to some of the most dangerous water in the world just to surf alone. The best look at the sport and art of surfing that someone with no knowledge of it could hope for.

Wes Hazard, Media Services Assistant, O'Neill Library