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The 90s proved a renaissance period for documentary films. Exploring issues as disparate as cutthroat corporate culture, bizarre pop-culture footnotes or the holes in the American criminal justice system, they helped illuminate stories that wouldn’t have deeply resonated in the public consciousness otherwise.
The best documentaries have the ability to make real-life tales deeply compelling, moving, and unforgettable. With those factors in mind, let’s look at some of the most notable and compelling documentaries from 1995-2000.
One of the most significant documentaries of its kind, ‘Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills’, is an unnerving examination of the ‘West Memphis Three’ – a group of teenagers (Jessie Misskelley, Damien Echols and Jason Baldwin) who were tried and convicted for the murders of three young boys in rural Arkansas.
But what at first appears like a cut and dried case of violent disaffected youth under the influence of the occult becomes far more complicated. Soon, the filmmakers suspect that the trio was falsely accused, making for easy scapegoats in a deeply conservative religious community.
‘Paradise Lost’ gained mainstream notoriety, with Berlinger and Sinfosky becoming public advocates for the release of Misskelley, Echols and Baldwin. They continued their crusade with two sequels: ‘Paradise Lost 2: Revelations’ in 2000 and ‘Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory’ in 2011.
Their perseverance eventually paid off. Thanks to the media attention from ‘Paradise Lost’ and a breakthrough in forensic evidence, they were eventually freed after serving eighteen years in prison.
Thanks to films like ‘Roger and Me, ‘Bowling For Columbine’ and ‘Fahrenheit 9/11’, Michael Moore is one of the most influential documentary filmmakers in the history of the genre. But despite his acclaim, ‘The Big One’ flew under the radar upon its release.
This underrated gem follows Moore on his book tour for ‘Downsize This’, which tackled the ramifications of outsourcing on American workers. It also shined a light into the dubious business practices of Nike shoes – in particular CEO Phil Knight. Moore’s exposure of Knight’s sociopathic lack of concern over cutting American jobs as well as his inhumane use of Indonesian sweatshops was shocking and unsettling.
Both tribute and clarion call for underrepresented working class Americans, ‘The Big One’ sounded an early alarm for their economic plight, which has only deepened and worsened with time.
‘Star Trek’ fans are of the most passionate fanbases on the planet. And ‘Trekkies’ is the ultimate tribute to the sub-culture inspired by Gene Roddenberry’s iconic science fiction television show.
The film (narrated by ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation’ star Denise Crosby) focuses on every striation of fan, from those who use the show’s mission statement of exploring and celebrating all cultures for both charitable effect, to those whose obsessions with all things Trek goes a bit too far.
‘Trekkies’ also reveals how Star Trek helped influence the cosplay and convention craze, the distinctions between ‘Trekkies’ or ‘Trekkers’ while also poking gentle fun at everything from a college offering a Klingon language course to a fan who wore their costume to jury duty!
Hilarious, poignant and sometimes creepy, ‘Trekkies’ is completely captivating.
A gripping doc that plays out like a suspense thriller, ‘One Day’ (narrated by Michael Douglas) is a frank and chilling account of the Israeli hostage crisis at the 1972 Olympic games in Munich, Germany.
Palestinian terrorist group Black September’s ruthless capture of 11 athletes created dread across the planet, exacerbated by the seeming unconcern from other Olympic participants and the total incompetence of German authorities in stopping the threat.
‘One Day in September’ is both a detailed study on the sociopolitical ramifications of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and a deeply moving tribute to promising young Olympiads caught in a horrific situation.
One of the best movies about making (really bad) movies, ‘American Movie’ chronicles the trials and tribulations of director Mark Borchard, an aspiring filmmaker trying to finish his horror project, ‘Coven’ (which he constantly mispronounces).
If only it were that easy. Plagued with budget problems, the inherent problems of hiring friends and family for his cast and crew (most notably his awkward friend Mike), and a drinking problem, Borchard’s painful production proves more fascinating than the end product.
A seemingly endless comedy of errors, ‘American Movie’ plays more like a mockumentary than a documentary, while also showing how tragedy and comedy are often deeply intertwined.
As the 90s came to a close, the documentary format showed no signs of fatigue. The seeds had been planted for future filmmakers to go even further in the crusade to expose and enlighten stories both massive and small.
This set in momentum a watershed of compelling 21st century documentary films that would influence modern politics, expose corporate corruption and ruminate on our obsession and revulsion with celebrity culture.
So be sure and stay tuned when I delve into even more documentaries, starting off with films from 2000-2005.
So that wraps up my list of best documentaries from the mid-late 90’s. Now I turn it over to you: What other films would you add to the list? Be sure and let me know in the comments.
And If you haven’t already, be sure to check out my list of good docs from 1990-1995, along with the honorable mentions below.
Honorable Mentions: ‘Kurt and Courtney,’ ‘When We Were Kings,’ ‘Hype,’ ‘Frat House,’ ‘A Perfect Candidate’, ‘Party Monster: The Shockumentary,’ ‘The Brandon Teena Story,’ ‘Beyond The Mat,’ ‘Small Wonders,’ ‘Fast, Cheap and Out of Control,’ ‘Hands On A Hard Body.’
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