THE 10 MOST INTENSE DOCUMENTARIES EVER MADE
(this turned out to be a lot more disturbing than i had planned)
Immersion is one of the virtues of documentary filmmaking that narrative features aren’t easily able to match. For all of Hollywood’s emphasis on spectacle and additional dimensions, not even a $300 million 3D blockbuster can offer the kind of transportive, “you are there” experience that a good documentary filmmaker can muster with the right circumstances and a decent digital camera. Cinematic verisimilitude is a historically problematic idea, but the best documentaries have a way of seducing you into their world while maintaining the mutual agreement that some version of what you’re watching actually happened, a gambit that underscores the immediacy of a scene in a way unique to the form, upping the the stakes with the kind of suspense that only exists in real life. It’s not that fiction films can’t seduce you into a breathless state of anxiety and anticipation (exhibit A: the Alamo Drafthouse armrest that I squeezed to death during the SXSW premiere of “Kill List”), but that some documentaries have the power to rattle you by simply by turning up the dial on the world you think you know.
Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel’s “Leviathan,” which opened in limited release last Friday, is one such documentary. A bracingly visceral and wordless portrait look at (in, and beneath) a commercial fishing vessel off the New Bedford coast, “Leviathan” is kind of like watching “The Deadliest Catch” in a D-Box theater where the seats have been designed to kill you. Or, since reductive analogies are so much fun, perhaps it’s better to frame it as “Finding Nemo” meets “Crank 2.” The filmmakers attached a mess of tiny GoPro cameras along ship’s hull in order to fully capture the chaos required for the daily catch, and the approach — while seemingly abstract — ultimately allows for a purity of expression that traditional film language doesn’t seem to believe itself capable of achieving. You’re not just there, you’re EVERYWHERE. And it. Is. Intense.
And so, in honor of “Leviathan,” we give you our list of the 10 most intense documentaries ever made. CLICK WITH CAUTION.