Turn off the Lights

The Best Summer Documentaries

Documentaries aren't exactly the most popular film genre, nor do they make that much of a mark at the box office, but there's no denying that year in and year out, some of the best films are non-fiction. Last year especially was chock-full of fantastic docs, from the serious and hard-hitting (Restrepo, Waiting for "Superman", the Oscar-winning Inside Job) to the clever and playful (Exit through the Gift Shop, Catfish). And though this summer's group of documentaries has had a lower profile than last year's, they're still among the best films out there. Here are some of the most talked-about and the ones with the best chance of representing the genre on Oscar night:

Project Nim

One film that must be considered an Oscar frontrunner is Sundance sensation Project Nim. In 2008, director James Marsh took the documentary world by storm with Man on Wire, a thrilling film about one daredevil's attempt to cross the World Trade Center towers on a tightrope. "Nim" is his follow-up and it tracks the life of a chimp who was taken from his mother at birth and raised as a human child in 1970s Manhattan. Though it's perhaps not as cleverly constructed as Man on Wire, critics are hailing the film's emotionality and insight.


Another film being tossed around as a potential Oscar contender is Senna, which follows the life and career of famous Formula 1 driver Ayrton Senna. As odd as it sounds, some are labeling their reviews with spoiler alerts, though the story is somewhat widely known. But what's unique about this film is just how authentic it is as a documentary. No talking heads, no sly editing, no manufactured storylines. It's very unusual in that respect and should be considered a must-see for racing fans and non-racing fans alike.


Errol Morris is like the Martin Scorsese of documentaries. Every fan of the genre knows him, and new films of his are considered big events. His latest, Tabloid, premiered during last fall's Telluride Film Festival, and it tells the story of a former beauty queen who kidnapped a young Mormon missionary. It's supposedly very addictive, not only for its juicy storyline but for the complicated way it presents its characters. 

Page One: Inside the New York Times

This New York Times documentary is the only one on this list that really tackles a major contemporary issue—in this case, the potential demise of the newspaper industry. The film is like crack for any journalism or current events junkie; others might find it a little cold and exclusive. Either way, it's pretty cool to see the industry's most prestigious entity so up-close.

Conan O'Brien Can't Stop

Last year, a tremendous doc was released called Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work. It followed the octogenarian comedienne as she started on Celebrity Apprentice and toured the country doing stand-up. It was a shockingly raw look at an entertainment icon, and it wasn't afraid to show her at her highest highs and lowest lows. This year's Conan O'Brien Can't Stop is similar. It's a bit tamer than the Joan Rivers film, but it certainly doesn't paint O'Brien as just a victim. He's vulnerable after just being let go from NBC (the film follows him on his comedy tour that shortly followed), and he's also a little difficult as far as dealing with his fans is concerned. It's not the most insightful film of the summer, but it's definitely an interesting look at the price of fame. 


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