A-List: Documentaries and Mocumentaries
By Josh Spiegel
August 13, 2009
This Is Spinal Tap
Here is the movie that made many, many careers. First of all, there is the unflappable trio of Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, and Harry Shearer. These three comic geniuses, who portray the three members of English heavy metal band Spinal Tap (or, at least, the members who don't die mysteriously), are still working today in various TV shows and movies (Shearer is most frequently around, as he voices many characters on The Simpsons). Then, there's Rob Reiner, who not only plays Marty DiBergi, the man making the "movie" on Spinal Tap, but directed This Is Spinal Tap. Reiner went on to direct such films as The Princess Bride, Stand By Me, and Misery. Of course, we can't forget the many actors who show up at least for a cameo, including Billy Crystal, Fran Drescher, Dana Carvey, Ed Begley, Jr. and Fred Willard.
What's more, the movie is damn funny. Chronicling the exploits of the band, always hopeful but always idiotic, This Is Spinal Tap led to the crystallization of the mockumentary, which is far more popular these days than it was before 1984. Shows such as Arrested Development and The Office owe a great debt to this film, as do the aforementioned horror movies, even if they're not interested in making you laugh. For Guest, this movie led him to, in the late 1990s, bringing back the comic crew for such films as Waiting for Guffman and A Mighty Wind. Here, though, is the very best mockumentary. From 1 to 10, this movie...oh, okay, I won't make the requisite "goes to 11" joke, but how could you blame me for trying?
The Fog of War
Errol Morris has been making unnerving documentaries for years, from Gates of Heaven to The Thin Blue Line. I call them unnerving because of a unique filming technique Morris utilizes to great effect, especially in 2004's The Fog of War, which focuses on the checkered life of Robert McNamara, the U.S. Secretary of Defense who helped pushed American forces into the Vietnam War. The technique, a device called the Interrotron, enables Morris to ask his subjects questions and have them respond as if looking directly at the audience. Essentially, The Fog of War is a movie where the main character, McNamara, spends almost the entire movie breaking the fourth wall of filmmaking and staring down every single audience member as he talks of his motives and methods. All of Morris's movies are fascinating and compelling, but The Fog of War, dealing with as dicey a topic now as it was in Vietnam, and an eloquent lead, is must-see.
Best In Show
If This Is Spinal Tap is the best mockumentary, I'd argue that this 2000 comedy is the second best. Sure, Best In Show is lacking in its music, but nothing's as cute as dogs participating in a dog show, right? Well, to be fair, there's a lot less dog action on screen, and far more embarrassing, awkward humor. Christopher Guest takes the helm behind the camera here, and also stars as Harlan Pepper, a man who brings his bloodhound to the top dog show in the country, along with a slew of others. Harlan is one of the more sane characters here; the craziest are easily Meg and Hamilton Swan (Parker Posey and Michael Hitchcock), married yuppies who are so creepy, they've scared away any lovable nature their competing dog may have ever had. To watch Meg's frantic breakdown in a toy store when looking for just the right stuffed animal is epic.
Of course, I can't talk about Best In Show without discussing the scene-stealer, Fred Willard. As Buck Laughlin, the color commentator of the dog show's TV coverage, he is easily the funniest character in the movie, with as many non sequiturs up his sleeve as a magician has cheap tricks. Laughlin is only onscreen for the film's final 30 minutes, but the wait is well worth it. It's just a shame that Willard didn't get a well-deserved Oscar nod for his role. Overall, Best In Show is a little more barbed than This Is Spinal Tap, but with so many strong performances from performers such as Eugene Levy, Michael McKean, and John Michael Higgins, it's funny, memorable, and has just enough cute dogs without being too much.
Okay, I'm breaking the rules just a little bit here, but there's no way I can talk about documentaries, and not discuss Ken Burns' epic, nine-part documentary that aired on PBS in September of 1994. Discussing, up to that point, the entirety of baseball in America, this is must-see viewing if you consider yourself a fan of the real American pastime (I love football, basketball, and hockey, but don't fool yourself: baseball is the be-all and end-all). With fascinating tales about the Black Sox Scandal, Jackie Robinson, Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth, and many more; music that will stay with you for a long time, whether it's a plaintive rendition of the national anthem or an upbeat ode to watching the great game; and insights from fans and historians alike, Baseball is possibly the best documentary ever made, but then again, as a fan, I'm a bit biased.