The mockumentary is a genre that’s still gaining steam.
With the Casey Affleck-directed “I’m Still Here” coming out next week—a movie that purports to chronicle Joaquin Phoenix’s downward spiral after announcing his retirement from acting but is probably just a big put-on—the genre of mockumentary continues to thrive. Hell, just last year, “District 9”—a film that is at least partially a mockumentary with fictional interviews and “news footage,” was nominated for Best Picture. So let’s look back at the best of the genre with the Top 10 Mockumentaries of All Time. If you have a Top 10 list you’d like to submit, email it to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Finished in 2004 for the festival circuit but not receiving a theatrical run until 2006, Kevin Willmott’s scathing mockumentary “C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America” is part sci-fi and all social commentary. It doesn’t just show what life might be like now had the South won the Civil War, it goes so far as to suggest that maybe things aren’t all that different either way. The brilliant move Wilmott makes in this film—which is low on budget and huge in concept—is that he makes us laugh at all the overtly racist and ridiculous commercials and products that exist in this alternate universe. Then, at the end, he pulls the rug out from under us: A lot of them were real. If you haven’t seen this one yet, it is worth a rent to see an idea carried out to its fullest potential for societal criticism.
Way back in 1973 there was a highly-rated reality show/documentary called “An American Family” that chronicled a real California family going through a divorce. It was popular enough that comedian Albert Brooks decided to poke some serious fun at it with his mockumentary spoof “Real Life,” which shows not only the family being spotlighted on camera, but also the filmmaker (Brooks) and his crew. Even as Brooks espouses his hands-off philosophy, he gets in the way of the family and eventually singlehandedly causes them to fracture. It’s a funny comment on the “real” part of documentaries and a reminder that nearly everything you see presented as reality is actually tainted in some way by the presence of a camera. It was also co-written by Harry Shearer, one of the four men responsible for the best mockumentary ever made (see #1).
Ten years ago, Christopher Guest co-wrote and directed his second (and most commercially successful) mockumentary featuring another stable of excellent supporting improvisers who would all go on to become comic mainstays in movies and on TV for another decade (John Michael Higgins, Michael Hitchcock, Jennifer Coolidge, Jane Lynch). He and co-writer Eugene Levy devised a simple set-up: Follow five groups of eccentric dog owners through the season leading up to the prestigious Mayflower Kennel Club Dog Show. It’s sweet and funny in equal measure and makes the most out of the old joke that owners always resemble their dogs. It also really turned the tide for the mockumentary style and brought it to a higher level of awareness, signaling the death of the TV sitcom laugh track and heralding in a new era of TV comedy with shows like “The Office.”
Why does this film still fly under the radar of most movie fans? Listen, I like Woody Allen’s first mockumentary “Zelig” (1983) as much as the next guy—it’s a narratively challenging Ken Burns-like faux doc featuring Allen’s chameleon Zelig in various important historical newsreel moments—but let’s face it: it’s not nearly as funny or heartbreaking as “Sweet and Lowdown.” Sean Penn is a fictional jazz guitarist who is haunted by being second best to the great Django Reinhardt in this underrated mockumentary, which may be the last great comedy Allen has produced. Penn plays a miserable drunk who dates a mute girl because he likes to hear his own voice and whose idea of a fun date is shooting at rats down by the train tracks. His performance is equal parts sad and flat-out hilarious, and it earned him an unexpected Best Actor nomination. “Sweet and Lowdown” may not have the style and artificial panache of “Zelig,” but thanks to Penn and co-star Samantha Morton, it’s a lot more moving.
Director Daniel Minahan was way ahead of the curve in this warped mockumentary (shot on digtal video) about a popular TV reality show where randomly-picked contestants must kill or be killed. Needless to say, this one wasn’t going strictly for laughs, even it is sometimes very, very funny. Apparently America wasn’t ready for a movie with a ruthless gun-toting heroine in a late-term pregnancy (the mesmerizing Brooke Smith), because it had a theatrical release of only 10 theaters. Thanks to DVD, you can experience all of Minahan’s dark black humor and spot-on satire of our culture’s obsession with sensational “reality” programming now. This is the rare timely satire that only gets more prescient with age, especially after a cast member of two VH1 reality shows murdered and mutilated his ex-model girlfriend and stuffed her body into a suitcase.
Am I breaking the rules and including a movie that had no theatrical release on this list? You bet your ass I am. “The Rutles: All You Need is Cash” is a feature-length Beatles parody written and co-directed by Eric Idle (of Monty Python) that appeared on NBC and British TV in 1978. Filmed in the mockumentary style that so many Python sketches already were, the film profiled The Rutles—a fictional band whose career just happened to mirror every single highlight of The Beatles. The band’s songs are brilliantly familiar parodies even if you aren’t that familiar with The Beatles, but if you are a huge fan like I am, you may believe they border on genius. The recreations of famous Beatle moments are careful and detailed, which makes it all the more funny when they alter one huge key thing per scene, such as the Yoko character dressed in Hitler garb, complete with swastika.
The first mockumentary directed by Christopher Guest (see #8 and #1) has one thing in common with The Rutles (and #1): hilarious original songs. “Guffman” parodies the insular, petty world of theater types and could only be told by a veteran who knows those types very well. Guest (and co-writer Eugene Levy) plant “off-off-off-off” Broadway theater director Corky St. Clair right in the idle of the heartland as he produces a community theater play about the origins of Blaine, Missouri and gets his entire delusional cast (the town dentist, a Dairy Queen employee, etc.) thinking that they may be “discovered.” Guest approaches his characters with an equal amount of derision and tenderness, so that by the time the big night finally comes, you are right there along with them waiting for the producer from New York to give them the good news. This microcosm of ignorant hope is impossible not to identify with, even as Corky sashays his way through the film, a virtual card catalog of stereotypical gay mannerisms. It wouldn’t be so funny if it weren’t also so true.
Obviously, of the two brilliant and subversive Sacha Baron Cohen feature-length mockumentaries (“Ali G Indahouse” doesn’t fit the bill), “Borat” was the more commercially successful, and thus had a huge effect on the comedy world. But last year’s “Bruno” is a riskier and more patently offensive piece of work—which is one of the reasons I love it almost as much. I’m using this slot to talk about both films, but the Borat character—that sweetly enthusiastic and extremely prejudiced Kazakh journalist—is just so lovable, even when he’s spouting the most sexist dialogue ever. You see, I think Borat knows he is supposed to hate gays, but (as evidenced by his own behavior in the movie) he’s not entirely sure what a homosexual actually is. Both films are insane cultural satires that put a talented comedic actor in dangerous reality situations in order to push as many buttons as possible, but “Borat” had a bigger effect—a true ripple—just because it was the first one. We were already familiar with Cohen’s tactics and structure by the time “Bruno” came out, so it suffered from that a little. What’s amazing is that with the huge public awareness of “Borat,” he was able to make “Bruno” at all. It was a revolutionary idea to combine the “real” and fictional in this way (and “Borat” earned a richly deserved Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay), and I mourn the fact that we’ll never see another movie like these two from Cohen and his team again.
Richard Lester pioneered the mockumentary form way back in 1964 when he was charged to direct a hyper-reality version of The Beatles in a film that really didn’t have to be anything more than a showcase for the Fab Four and their newest tunes. What “A Hard Day’s Night” became instead was an instant classic: a movie that combined the natural charisma of John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr with a narrative style that threw out the rulebook completely. Roger Ebert says its influence was massive, that Lester created “a new grammar… Today when we watch TV and see quick cutting, hand-held cameras, interviews conducted on the run with moving targets, quickly intercut snatches of dialogue, music under documentary action and all the other trademarks of the modern style, we are looking at the children of ‘A Hard Day’s Night.’” Very little happens in the movie, but even as it embraces non-sequitur sight gags and invents the music video right before our eyes, the movie still feels real in some tangible way. Credit should also be given to The Beatles for being so used to cameras that nothing felt intrusive anymore, and screenwriter Alun Owen, who conceived the script and its dialogue to capture the band’s natural camaraderie and Liverpudlian essence. This feels more like a real documentary than any film on the list.
Sure, it’s number one on this list, but “This is Spinal Tap” also tops my list as the greatest movie of all time. How many reasons do you need for me to justify this position? Here’s a lucky seven:
1. The mockumentary style it perfected is still being used today and has produced tons of other classic films and TV shows.
2. Director Rob Reiner and stars Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, and Harry Shearer aren’t just poking fun at heavy metal excess, they actually created characters to care about, combining the insane otherworldliness of “A Hard Day’s Night” (with “realities” like spontaneously combusting drummers) with a sad, affecting story about middle-aged men coming to terms with their own limitations and mediocrities.
3. The comedy came from a real place, and they embodied so much truth. Spinal Tap was so true-to-life that many people thought (and some still do) that the band actually existed.
4. Details, details, details. Endlessly watchable after repeated viewings, “This is Spinal Tap” features a hundred throwaway lines and situations that are funnier than the best line most comedies can conjure up in an entire 90 minutes.
5. It comes from a real place. As anyone who has ever been in a touring band will tell you, there is more real and scary stuff in this film than there should be in a parody.
6. There is nearly a classic quote every minute. Whether its “This one goes to 11” or “It’s such a fine line between stupid and clever,” these sayings have entered the popular vernacular the way something from say, “Casablanca” has.
7. I mentioned the songs in “Waiting for Guffman,” but Spinal Tap’s songs are such a potent mix of over-the-top bad and catchy rock goodness that people have paid to see the band on several worldwide tours. They’ve even recorded multiple records and don’t seem to be stopping.
“OK,” as famed documentarian Marty DiBergi would say, “enough of my yapping … let’s boogie!”