Sight & Sound released a poll of the all-time best documentaries this summer so I decide to fill in some of the gaps. (The poll is here but a warning that the website for this is poorly designed.)
Sans Soleil (Chris Marker 1982) - I first saw this about 20-25 years ago and didn't think much of it so I watched the Criterion DVD earlier this year. If anything it's less impressive. The biggest surprise over time is that I now see that this is mondo film - I don't mean similar to one I mean it's exactly a mondo film. There's the same disconnected flow of scenes, the focus on oddities and strange behavior from outside the filmmaker's culture, the faux philosophical narration to tie that together. The only difference is that Sans Soleil is lower on the sex and violence than most mondo films. But even if that's mistaken Sans Soleil remains a tedious film and the annoying thing is that it's the type of film that I should love. There is sometimes an interesting play between narration and image but for the most part it's far too slight and generally almost laughable.
D'est (Chantal Akerman 1993) - This film is a series of extended takes by roadways or public spaces alternated with occasional portraiture shots mostly of women inside apartments, all done in what appears to be Russia. (There is no identifying text or voiceover and I deliberately didn't research the film.) In other words basically a structuralist film and if it's labelled as documentary that's probably more for marketing reasons. Maybe it's an attempt to document daily life but apart from a few shots of field work and cooking there's almost nothing of that. If anything the film documents the connections between daily life - driving, waiting for a bus, walking, sitting. I don't know how much this could be considered a comment on the state of Russia (didn't research but I did see the Netflix comments) because basically the same film could have been made in Detroit. Though this sounds a bit negative I do think this is a strong film despite being wayward and somewhat unfocused. Overall it reminds me of James Benning's 1982 Him and Me complete with an unedited musical performance towards the end (though I consider the Benning film a much stronger one).
Primary (Robert Drew 1960) - A landmark in the development of verite this still frequently maintains interest as a kind of road movie long after the politics have gone. (Though perhaps not too much - the farmer's issues briefly mentioned are still far from settled.) The two surprises are that it's not what I would consider pure verite since there's some narration and a few instances of blatant use of non-diegetic music as commentary. The other is that Humphrey comes off more personable than Kennedy which I'm not sure was the intention. That the film often has dull spots is more that we're half a century down the line but nevertheless dull spots they remain.
Man on Wire (James Marsh 2008) - This is also only partly a documentary and not in a productive sense (as say with Close-Up). Much of the film is recreations of a wirewalker's successful attempt to cross between the WTC towers but unlike with a TV doc about, say, Bunker Hill where the recreations are obvious the attempt here was to duplicate that era. So even where there are some genuine photos from the actual event they're merged with the fiction. And this story is clearly fictionalized since the filmmakers rely far too much on the wirewalker's animated and polished account. For instance he claims when he was 17 he visited the dentist and saw plans for the yet-to-be-constructed WTC in a magazine which he then ripped out and left the office. We're treated to scenes of that event both in the office and riding his bike afterwards. Did this happen? Seems quite unlikely since the wirewalker is clearly not a reliable source and here he's telling a well-worn story that's a bit too dubious. Even apart from that fiction-issue the bigger problem is that the bulk of the film concerns the mechanics of the stunt presented in much incredibly boring detail. It's also odd to me when some of the talking heads refer to wirewalking as beautiful. I'm willing to grant that there are plenty of things I don't quite get but probably do have value (baseball let's say) and maybe this is just another. But really it seems like a category error of some kind, like saying pouring water into a glass is beautiful. It's not whether that action is or is not beautiful, it's that the concept of beauty simply can not apply to it.