things that make you go huh?
March 18, 2021 3:26 PM   Subscribe

Looking for recommendations for documentaries that leave you feeling that old "truth is stranger than fiction" vibe. This is subjective, so below are some examples of docs I've seen that gave me that feeling..
posted by RobinofFrocksley to Media & Arts (46 answers total) 113 users marked this as a favorite
It's been a few years since I've seen it, but Finders Keepers definitely has a lot of twists and turns but it never feels mean from what I remember.

Marwencol too (I haven't seen the fictionalized version but I still would say this is worth watching even if you have.)

Not as a singularly focused, but The Rock-afire Explosion is about a bunch of superfans of the animatronic Showbiz Pizza band (also a doc that's never mocking these people). That may be harder to find, though.

Slightly different, but I also feel like The Overnighters fits into this category.

Three Identical Strangers also has a lot of this.

I felt conflicted about Dina -- not because of the way she was treated by the movie, but by some of the framing and music cues. Still good and still worth a look.
posted by edencosmic at 3:43 PM on March 18, 2021 [7 favorites]

Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus is one of my favourites, and would fit in perfectly with your selection.
posted by pipeski at 3:44 PM on March 18, 2021 [2 favorites]

Let the Fire Burn about the MOVE bombing. Pretty much no matter what you think you know about this event, you will learn something here.

Basically any of the early Herzog shorts, many of which can be found on YouTube. i recently watched Herdsmen of the Sun (has some white people doing ethnography issues but it interesting as a product of its time) and How Much Wood Would a Woodchuck Chuck (about livestock auctions)

The Creeping Garden or any of the slime mold documentaries that NOVA has produced.

Crip Camp if you don't know about the history of the disability rights movement in the US or the fact that many of the initial advocates all went to summer camp together.

Circus of Books
about the lifespan of a porn shop and the family who ran it.

Darwin, about a small town in Death Valley with a teeny population. Movie doesn't go where you think it will.
posted by jessamyn at 3:47 PM on March 18, 2021 [7 favorites]

Oh, I forgot about Tread. It's slightly heavy on actor re-enactments, which I didn't love, but it's a ride. You may think it's boring at first but stick with it.
posted by edencosmic at 3:52 PM on March 18, 2021

edenscosmic beat me to it—came to recommend Three Identical Strangers.
posted by bookmammal at 3:54 PM on March 18, 2021

Grizzly Man by Werner Herzog
Stories We Tell by Sarah Polley
51 Birch Street by Doug Block

I saw all three of these without knowing much about the subject matter ahead of time, and I think they're best that way. I can't think of a ton of content warnings, but for Grizzly Man there are graphic after-the-fact verbal descriptions of human death by bear, and there is one scene of a dead fox killed by a predator animal.

Just a heads-up: Stories We Tell features (very well-done, IMO) re-creations of childhood footage with actors. I didn't catch on until partway through the movie, but it didn't bother me when I realized it. However, I know some people were annoyed that wasn't made more clear.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 3:59 PM on March 18, 2021 [2 favorites]

Apollo 13.
posted by Melismata at 4:13 PM on March 18, 2021

The King of Kong.
posted by praemunire at 4:22 PM on March 18, 2021 [2 favorites]

'Apollo 13' wasn't a documentary (although Houston, We've Got A Problem is).

Mondo Cane.

Both links into the Internet Archive. Wikipedia on 'Mondo Cane'.
posted by Rash at 4:23 PM on March 18, 2021 [1 favorite]

I came to recommend Three Identical Strangers as well
posted by sillysally at 4:24 PM on March 18, 2021

This might be borderline, but the first time I saw this Youtube video on premises security and the many ways it is designed poorly or is easy to circumvent I thought to myself, "wow!" (which is similar to "huh?"). The title is, logically enough, "I'll Let Myself In".
posted by forthright at 4:35 PM on March 18, 2021 [1 favorite]

Rat Film
posted by clockwork at 4:51 PM on March 18, 2021 [1 favorite]

Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles gave me this feeling. If you haven’t seen or heard of Toynbee tiles, the Wikipedia entry gives a sense of how weird the whole thing is (both of these links have spoilers for the documentary).
posted by somedaycatlady at 5:00 PM on March 18, 2021 [4 favorites]

Mondo Elvis
An Honest Liar (goes way off the rails)
Twinsters (in the vein of three identical strangers)
Light from the East
posted by adamrice at 5:20 PM on March 18, 2021 [1 favorite]

The famous Rock doc Some Kind of Monster starts off like a rock doc and turns into an interesting psychology story.

Werner Herzog is the eccentric German dude who starts looking at a subject and often veers off to pay more attention to a quirky digression. Applies to many of his projects. One of the famous docs about him, Burden of Dreams, is interesting.
posted by ovvl at 5:36 PM on March 18, 2021 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Hi, just popping in to say that you all are so good at this, I am loving so many of these and can't wait to watch them. Please never stop.
posted by RobinofFrocksley at 5:51 PM on March 18, 2021

Re: the ponies one, you should watch Jenny Nicholson's response/reaction:
posted by evilmonk at 6:09 PM on March 18, 2021 [1 favorite]

Oh yeah, Twinsters! That definitely has a "stranger than fiction" vibe but in a more "magical realism" way. That doc is just so strangely life-affirming and beautiful.

I just remembered about Seeking Asian Female, which started out as filmmaker Debbie Lum making a doc about men seeking brides from Asia and then turns into Lum playing go-between for a man and his Chinese to-be bride.

(I ... may watch a lot of these sorts of documentaries. I watch a lot of documentaries anyway, but after fashion docs, rock docs, this is probably my 3rd favorite category.)
posted by edencosmic at 6:11 PM on March 18, 2021

My Brother's Keeper is a great documentary about a man who was accused of killing his brother. The documentary focused on the criminal trial that followed the death.

*** Some vague spoilers are listed below. ***

The unexpected twist occurred when I watched the DVD with the commentary track from the directors. The first time I watched the movie (without the commentary), I thought the man was innocent, and I came away with the impression that the filmmakers also believed him to be innocent. However, in the commentary, the filmmakers admitted that they thought he was guilty. That revelation came as quite a shock to me.
posted by alex1965 at 6:16 PM on March 18, 2021 [2 favorites]

Rivers and Tides, a documentary about artist Andy Goldsworthy.
posted by Sublimity at 6:25 PM on March 18, 2021 [5 favorites]

The Act of Killing from 2012, concerning the Indonesian political massacres of the mid-1960s. As horrible and depressing as 'Rivers and Tides' is beautiful and uplifting.
posted by Rash at 6:43 PM on March 18, 2021 [4 favorites]

Two excellent music documentaries:

Searching for Sugar Man (2012). Sixto Rodriguez, an obscure musician from Detroit, recorded two albums in the early 1970s. Sales were almost non-existent, and he didn't pursue a career in music. Unbeknownst to him (at least, until much later), his music became wildly popular in South Africa, of all places. His fans there didn't know anything about him, and many people assumed that he had died. Then in 1997, when the Internet was still relatively young, his daughter discovered a website dedicated to him, and Rodriguez learned of his superstar status in South Africa. (Most of this information is revealed fairly early in the movie, so I don't think I'm spoiling anything.)

Satan and Adam (2018). This documentary is about an unlikely pair of musicians who team up to play the blues. One of them is an older, mentally ill street musician who plays on the sidewalks of Harlem, and the other one is a younger graduate student from Columbia University. There's an unexpected development toward the end of the film.
posted by alex1965 at 6:45 PM on March 18, 2021 [5 favorites]

Dear Zachary.

One of the best in the genre you are describing. Try not to read anything about it before watching.
posted by nanook at 6:53 PM on March 18, 2021 [3 favorites]

Hot Coffee. What you think you know about the infamous McDonalds hot coffee lawsuit is probably wrong.
posted by FencingGal at 7:12 PM on March 18, 2021 [1 favorite]

The Rock-afire Explosion
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 7:13 PM on March 18, 2021

The World of Tomorrow is a 1984 documentary film about the New York World's Fair, narrated by Jason Robards. Can't find any links to it, unfortunately.
posted by Rash at 7:53 PM on March 18, 2021 [1 favorite]

The Imposter - A blue-eyed Texan boy disappears. A few years later, a brown-eyed French man impersonates him from overseas - and the boy's family takes him in - for months. It's riveting.
posted by nouvelle-personne at 8:35 PM on March 18, 2021 [6 favorites]

Exit Through the Gift Shop did that for me. I have a vague since that it's been debunked in some way, but it hadn't been when I saw it.
posted by The corpse in the library at 8:48 PM on March 18, 2021 [1 favorite]

Almost a year ago on the blue, The documentaries of Werner Herzog ranked, including a comment that lists the easily streamable ones.
posted by ShooBoo at 9:35 PM on March 18, 2021

Hands on a Hardbody.
The Beaver Trilogy. (Not exactly a documentary, and hard to find legally last time I looked, but worth seeking out.)
Wisconsin Death Trip. (If you can deal with some cringeworthy reenactments)

(And seconding Rock-a-Fire Explosion, Searching for Sugar Man, and the Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill. Looking forward to seeing some of the others above.)
posted by eotvos at 10:30 PM on March 18, 2021

Also, Bums' Paradise. (Imperfect, but interesting. Bits of it feel a bit exploitative, but, for what it's worth, I've talked with a couple of the people who featured prominently in it and they were very enthusiastic about the project.)
posted by eotvos at 10:36 PM on March 18, 2021

Also, also, Atari: Game Over.
posted by eotvos at 10:40 PM on March 18, 2021

“Lost Souls: the doomed journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr Moreau” is a fantastic documentary about the making of the 1996 movie with Val Kilmer and Marlon Brando. Stanley had made a couple of well regarded small movies but his dream was to bring The Island of Dr Moreau to the screen. The story of how the project spiralled out of control is bonkers and fascinating. (The debacle destroyed Stanley’s directing career for twenty years, and he only recently returned to films with last year’s quite well received Color Out of Space).
posted by damsel with a dulcimer at 12:53 AM on March 19, 2021

Oh yeah. Exit Through the Gift Shop. How did I forget that?
And on the "movies about making movies" tip, Hearts of Darkness, which documents the making of Apocalypse Now, and is perhaps even more of a descent into madness.

And I have to mention here…when I first saw Spinal Tap (which does not purport to be a real documentary), in a theater, a guy leaned over to his date and whispered "this isn't real, is it?"
posted by adamrice at 8:27 AM on March 19, 2021 [1 favorite]

Good Hair is super racist, please don’t watch it, ugh
posted by nouvelle-personne at 8:58 AM on March 19, 2021

Duh, how could we forget "Grey Gardens." Watch the HBO version with Drew Barrymore afterwards to get a better idea of the story.
posted by Melismata at 2:32 PM on March 19, 2021

The two Fyre Festival documentaries (on Hulu and on Netflix) made me cringe and grimace with shock at how....horribly wrong that event went. Fun entertainment!
posted by watrlily at 7:45 PM on March 19, 2021 [1 favorite]

This is my favorite genre! In with a few more that haven't yet been mentioned:
The Painter and the Thief
Feels Good Man
John Was Trying to Contact Aliens
posted by carrienation at 1:36 PM on March 20, 2021

Following this one for suggestions, and also nthing Paris Is Burning and Stories We Tell, though I’d frame hurdy gurdy girl’s disclaimer for the latter as more of a spoiler alert than anything! That twist reveal was, for me, a huge part of what made that film so great. (Thanks for the reminder, hgg - need to rewatch this one soon!)
posted by moonbeam at 1:57 PM on March 20, 2021

Strongly seconding @carrienation's recommendation of The Painter and the Thief. That one was excellent and totally fits into the OP's request for movies that illustrate why "truth is stranger than fiction". For those who don't know, the documentary focuses on an artist who befriends the man who was arrested for stealing one of the artist's paintings. It's a really unusual story.

Another good movie is Stevie. A documentary filmmaker goes back to his college town to re-connect with his former "little brother" whom he had once mentored.
posted by alex1965 at 8:09 PM on March 20, 2021

I keep thinking of new documentaries to recommend. Dark Days is a documentary about homeless people who live in abandoned subway tunnels underneath New York City.
posted by alex1965 at 9:00 AM on March 21, 2021 [1 favorite]

Lifelike. I saw this at HotDocs in 2005. I thought that the documentary screened with it about sex dolls was going to be the weird one, but... nope. Taxidermy was where the true weirdness was at.
posted by clawsoon at 5:32 PM on March 22, 2021

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