Doc Deep Cuts: 10 Great Documentaries You’ve Probably Never Seen
Nelson Sullivan’s World of Wonder (1994)
Nelson Sullivan was the unofficial videographer of 1980s downtown New York nightlife. This compilation of the countless hours of footage he shot contains debaucherous party scenes (featuring, among others, the notorious Club Kid murderer Michael Alig) and genuinely heartbreaking scenes of drug addiction and death. Sullivan manages to be intimately involved with his subjects yet also somehow distant, as if he’s simultaneously a participant and an observer. Sadly, Sullivan died in 1989, just three days after quitting his day job so that he could produce his own television series. But his spirit lives on in the production company World of Wonder, which is responsible for RuPaul’s Drag Race and Party Monster, among many other projects. You can buy the film on iTunes and see excerpts of Sullivan’s raw footage here.
American Boy: A Profile of Steven Prince (1978)
Remember that scene in Pulp Fiction where John Travolta revives an overdosed Uma Thurman by plunging a needle into her chest? It was inspired by a story from American Boy, a sort-of forgotten nonfiction classic directed by Martin Scorsese. Prince is an incredible raconteur who seems to have lived the life of ten wild men put together. He makes a memorable cameo in Taxi Driver, playing (appropriately) the gun salesman who provides Travis Bickle with his deadly arsenal. You can watch American Boy here.
Dirty Girls (1996)
Ah, the 90s… when people were really into Kurt Cobain and Winona Ryder and thought the truth was out there. Being an outspoken feminist back then was a tough gig, especially in high school (which all reasonable people can agree is the worst thing ever). This film is about whether or not its subjects take showers, women’s rights zines, and terrible teens. Fire up the Batmobile, ‘cuz I gotta get out of here. (You’ll understand that reference when you watch this film here.)
Tie-Died: Rock ‘n Roll’s Most Dedicated Fans (1995)
Tie-Died is Woodstock without any of the music or performances. It focuses on diehard fans of the Grateful Dead, who run the gamut from cynical merchandise peddlers to young women who have profound psychedelic experiences in the back of a van. (To each his own.) Like many other great documentaries, Tie-Died seeks to understand a misunderstood subculture that seems awesome to some and incomprehensible to others. You can watch it on YouTube.
Heavy Metal Parking Lot (1986)
This film opens with a 20-year-old man kissing a 13-year-old girl and then a guy on acid says “they should make a joint so big it fits across America and everybody’s smoking”. This is cinema, people. Heavy Metal Parking Lot portrays Judas Priest fans pre-gaming in a parking lot before a concert. Drunk, excited people make for wonderful documentary subjects. This film was a cult favorite for years, passed around on VHS copies until it wound up on the internet. Watch it here.
The Children Were Watching (1961)
We don’t necessarily need historical documents to remind us how racist and vicious many Americans can be, but this extraordinary short film by the legendary production company Drew Associates provides a glimpse of what life was like for black Americans in early 1960s New Orleans. The film is shocking and haunting. Its title suggests that racism will live on for many generations to come. You can stream the film on Sundance Now.
American Dreamer (1971)
Film nerds tend to think of the “New Hollywood” era of the 60s and 70s as a golden age for American filmmaking — and it was. But it was also a time when an obnoxious narcissist like Dennis Hopper was treated like a god just because he’d made one successful movie. American Dreamer exposes Hopper (in more ways than one) as he directs his second film, The Last Movie, which would fail at the box office and largely fade into obscurity. American Dreamer, which was just officially released last year, is a portrait of the artist as a hedonist. Hopper says gross things, thinks too highly of himself, and participates in an on-screen threesome. This is a weird film that is both repulsive and unforgettable.
Shot entirely with a MacBook, this film chronicles the adventures of authors Tao Lin and Megan Boyle as they take MDMA and then wander around New York City, at one point going for a spin on the Toys R Us Ferris wheel (which sadly no longer exists). It’s sort of a companion piece to their film Mumblecore (available online here) which depicts them getting married in Las Vegas. MDMA’s total lack of production values is part of its appeal. Much like Tao Lin’s Microsoft Paint artwork, its simplicity is its charm.
Being Mr. Met (2015)
Errol Morris’s short film for ESPN might be the best existentialist work since Dostoyevsky. I’m only sort of joking. We meet the man behind the Mr. Met mascot costume, a jovial yet somewhat tortured soul who feels both beloved and despised when donning his mask. The film’s enduring image of Mr. Met alone in a street crowd is one of the most strangely compelling things I’ve ever seen in a documentary.
New York Graffiti Experience (1976)
This short but sweet snapshot of 70s New York and its thriving graffiti scene serves one of documentary’s most basic functions: to preserve a unique spectacle for future generations. New York’s subway cars today are a shiny, if dull, platinum and its neighborhoods have largely transformed from crumbling ruins to Duane Reades. But thanks to a few intrepid filmmakers, we have this film to take us back to an almost mythical period in American culture. You can watch the film here.