Recommendations on great "monologue-y" documentaries?
July 21, 2008 6:01 PM   Subscribe

Recommendations on great "monologue-y" documentaries?

I have a serious soft spot for documentaries (or filmed performances) with a single, wry, interesting narrator. Here are a couple of examples of what I'm talking about:

- The Cruise (tour of NYC with Timothy Speed Levitch)
- Monster In A Box (Spalding Gray's one-man show)
- This Filthy World (John Waters' one-man show)

I hope it's clear that I'm not looking for standup comedy, so much as excellent and humorous storytelling ability. Have any films/videos you'd care to suggest?

Note: I am unable to see any live performances due to the fact I live in the middle of nowhere. And I prefer watching something filmed over reading a book or listening to a recording, so I can watch it with my s.o.
posted by The ____ of Justice to Media & Arts (31 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
I'm not familiar with the examples you cite, so I could be way off - but would any of Ken Burns work be of interest?
posted by blaneyphoto at 6:13 PM on July 21, 2008

Virtually any of the many documentaries hosted by Peter Ustinov should fit your bill nicely.
posted by Class Goat at 6:18 PM on July 21, 2008

Likewise, any of the documentary series hosted by Michael Palin (e.g. "Pole to pole").
posted by Class Goat at 6:20 PM on July 21, 2008

If you liked Monster in a Box, try Swimming to Cambodia.
also The Kid Stays In The Picture is fundamentally a monologue.
posted by arcanecrowbar at 6:22 PM on July 21, 2008 [1 favorite]

Mike Leigh's A Sense of History.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 6:23 PM on July 21, 2008

Oh, man, you want Stephen Tobolowsky's Birthday Party.

Character actor Stephen Tobolowsky (Deadwood, Sneakers, Groundhog Day, tons more) tells stories about his life while preparing for and while hosting his birthday party. Not a lot of "movie" stories; more just slices of his life.

He's such a good storyteller, and so...humane? empathic? Anyway. Really lovely.
posted by Karlos the Jackal at 6:27 PM on July 21, 2008

Thanks, I'll check Burns and Ustinov out. I've never heard of either of them, so I'm pretty excited.

Just to make it more clear, the type of movie I am looking for:

- is non-fiction
- features one person talking about themselves, their life, and their experiences in a funny, moving way

(Apologies in advance--I'm sure there's a term for the type of film I'm looking for....I just have no clue what it is.)
posted by The ____ of Justice at 6:29 PM on July 21, 2008

If it's non-fiction you're after ignore my suggestion, and apologies.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 6:33 PM on July 21, 2008

I wholeheartedly recommend Guy Maddin's My Winnipeg, narrated by the filmmaker. It's ostensibly a documentary of Winnipeg and memoir of Maddin's childhood, but it ends up being... well. You really just need to see it. It's doing a limited run in theaters now.
posted by naju at 6:37 PM on July 21, 2008

I really appreciate your suggestions! Thank you everyone, please keep them coming.

I have been longing to see Swimming to Cambodia, but our video store only has a VHS copy. :-(

Character actor Stephen Tobolowsky (Deadwood, Sneakers, Groundhog Day, tons more) tells stories about his life while preparing for and while hosting his birthday party. Not a lot of "movie" stories; more just slices of his life.

He's such a good storyteller, and so...humane? empathic? Anyway. Really lovely.

Karlos, you seem like you know exactly what I'm talking about...can't wait to check it out.
posted by The ____ of Justice at 6:37 PM on July 21, 2008

Burns doesn't talk about himself, and he doesn't narrate his own documentaries anyway.

You haven't heard of Peter Ustinov? My God, man. He was an utterly fascinating man; it's always a pleasure to spend time with him.
posted by Class Goat at 6:45 PM on July 21, 2008

You've mentioned Spalding Gray's Monster in a Box, so what about his Swimming to Cambodia?
posted by Neiltupper at 6:57 PM on July 21, 2008

If you like Spaulding Gray and you're looking for more solo live performances, you have to see Eric Bogosian's Funhouse. It's very obscure (I don't even know if it's still available), but it's better than his similar, better-known Sex, Drugs, and Rock 'n' Roll. It's just him on a bare stage with almost no props, going from character to character. Very funny and dark.

These are really obvious, but how about Fog of War or Al Gore's movie, An Inconvenient Truth?

This might not be technically what you're asking for, but it's so different from any other movie that I think it's worth pointing out: My Dinner with Andre is mostly just one character monopolizing a dinner conversation. I'd say about 75% of the movie is that character telling story after story.
posted by Jaltcoh at 7:10 PM on July 21, 2008

for "excellent and humorous storytelling ability" it doesn't get much better than "Dave Gorman's Googlewhack Adventure".
posted by xbonesgt at 7:20 PM on July 21, 2008

Any of Werner Herzog's documentaries that I've seen fit the bill for wry, interesting one-narrator documentaries. If you specifically want one focusing on one person's life, Grizzly Man might be the ticket for you. But really, any of his documentaries are pretty much guaranteed to be awesome. When Life at the End of the World gets released, I'd recommend that one too - it's pretty great.

You might look at Steve James' Stevie, too - technically it's a film he's making about someone other than himself, but it's very much a personal story about himself and his relationship to the documentary's subject, as well.
posted by Stacey at 7:32 PM on July 21, 2008 [1 favorite]

John Leguizamo has several films that are right up your alley- Spic-O-Rama, Freak, Sexaholics.

I Like Killing Flies is a great documentary about the owner of a local NYC eatery, who is a character unlike any other. He's technically not the narrator, but he does most of the talking.
posted by mkultra at 7:34 PM on July 21, 2008

I think you'd really like Fog of War.
posted by bprater at 7:35 PM on July 21, 2008 [1 favorite]

I never saw it so can't recommend it (but perhaps others can), but I believe Julia Sweeny's God Said, Ha! is similar to things you like. One-woman monologue/show.
posted by faunafrailty at 7:49 PM on July 21, 2008

Graham Chapman: Looks Like A Brown Trouser Job is a filmed live appearance from a 1988 college tour of Graham telling stories about his life. Terrible production values but a really lovely performance.
posted by doift at 7:51 PM on July 21, 2008

I can't believe I forgot An Evening with Kevin Smith, part 1 and part 2. Regardless if you like his movies, he's such a great storyteller and so funny on the fly (audience members asking him questions).
posted by faunafrailty at 8:03 PM on July 21, 2008

While neither of these are told by a single narrator they both have great stories.

When We Were Kings. The story behind the Rumble In The Jungle between Ali and Foreman. Norman Mailer is especially good.

Also, Hearts of Darkness. About the madness of making Apocalypse Now.
posted by marsha56 at 8:31 PM on July 21, 2008

Burns doesn't fit the bill in my opinion. Also, My Winnipeg is not non-fiction, to my knowledge. Neither is My Dinner With Andre.

I love all the films you listed and will add:

Time Indefinite & Sherman's March by Ross McElwee (actually, anything Ross has done fits the bill but those are his best two; TI is the sequel to SM but in my opinion is the superior film and you don't need to see the first to appreciate the second).

First Person is a series of documentaries by Errol Morris (who made Fog of War and Thin Blue Line, both of which are superb and mostly meet your criteria). Each episode is between 30 and 60 minutes and features one person talking to the camera about themselves or their jobs. All episodes are available in a dvd box set. Morris' Vernon, FL is probably the precursor of the series--it's one film with multiple people's stories told. They all live in the same town.

Crumb is pretty great but doesn't super fit your criteria ... however, the director's previous documentary Louie Blooey is a pretty close match.

Let's Get Lost is a pretty great documentary with Chet Baker talking about his life. It's a bitch to find though. The director's earlier work, Broken Noses, is also a good docu on a boxer. I don't remember its structure, however.

Cinemania is great, but features multiple people, all telling their own stories of obsession with cinema.

One Nation Under God is a docu about two men who were trying to become Ex-Homosexuals. Instead, they fell in love and got married. I haven't seen it in 15 years or so but I think it's mostly told from their pov.

Don't Look Back is a superb documentary on Bob Dylan, which, if I recall correctly, has no voice over--just Bob and some other people talking to the camera.

Dogtown and Z-Boys is a documentary on a particular group of skateboarders in the 70s. The film was made in the 90s by one of the kids (now an adult). It does talk to the other skaters though. And if you dig it, check out his follow up docu: Riding Giants. It's about surfing and doesn't fit most of your criteria, but is extremely well done.

You might also like the work of Nick Broomfield. He makes documentaries about things or people (fetishes, serial killers, etc), but involves himself in the stories and is usually on screen talking to the camera. Aileen Wornous: Selling of a Serial Killer is probably his best.

Also, a little-known feature documentary that I love is Flyerman. Terrific, terrific stuff. The trailer on the site makes it look like it's just a bunch of people talking about the main guy but the bulk of the film is the filmmakers following this guy around (for 5 years!), intercut with others.

Also, it doesn't fit all your criteria, but I'll guarantee that if you can find David Holzman's Diary, one of my all-time favorite movies, you will love it.
posted by dobbs at 8:33 PM on July 21, 2008 [1 favorite]

Oh, and the term you're looking for is first-person non-fiction cinema. Almost everything in this thread does not fit the bill--even the films you mentioned are not first-person as they're each directed by a third person (Bennett Miller (yes, that Bennett Miller), Nick Broomfield (yes, that Nick Broomfield), and Jeff Garlin (and yes, that Jeff Garlin!)).

The McElwee movies I mentioned are narrated, star, and are directed by Ross McElwee. If I remember correctly, Ross also shoots all his own films.

Another filmmaker that works in the genre is Caveh Zahedi. His best known films in the genre are I Don't Hate Las Vegas Anymore and I Am a Sex Addict. His first film, A Little Stiff, was co-directed by him and stars him (playing a character named Caveh), but it's fiction.

Also, I'm gonna recommend Orson Welle's F for Fake. Not sure it can really be called a documentary, but you will most certainly like it, I think. It's not not a documentary either.
posted by dobbs at 8:50 PM on July 21, 2008

I think you should check out Werner Herzog's LITTLE DIETER NEEDS TO FLY - its humorous and harrowing at the same time. I think that it is the best documentary of the past twenty years.

I mostly love Errol Morris but really did not care for FOG OF WAR...
posted by cinemafiend at 8:53 PM on July 21, 2008

Ack! Welles'.

Fuck, I should go to hell for that one. :(
posted by dobbs at 8:53 PM on July 21, 2008

Trumbo. An unusual documentary about Dalton Trumbo, who at one point was the top screenwriter in Hollywood- he wrote Roman Holiday & Spartacus. He was tried as a Communist and blacklisted from 1947 - 1960. The film includes a bit of documentary footage, but the bulk of it is a series of A-list actors reading Trumbo's exquisitely-written letters- Paul Giamatti, Nathan Lane, Michael Douglas, Liam Neeson, more. It ends up being more than one person speaking, but almost entirely in one man's voice. Oh it's so good. It got a resounding standing O at the Toronto Film Festival last year.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 9:19 PM on July 21, 2008

This list is beyond great, people. Thank you. I don't think I could find a resource like this anywhere else.

Dobbs, McElwee's stuff sounds like something I'd enjoy. Your knowledge of film is pretty amazing.

A few suggestions here sound a little too serious for me right now, though I am sure they are great films and others can at least glean knowledge of their existence from this list. It's my own fault though--I should have emphasized the humorous part in my original post. Re-reading it now, perhaps I should have said, "I love master raconteurs with personal, hilarious stories. What films should I watch?"

Note: Whether or not they do fit the bill, I have seen a couple of the films suggested. I do love My Dinner With Andre. And Cinemafiend, Little Dieter is one of my favorite films of all time. Takes my breath away every time I watch it.
posted by The ____ of Justice at 9:58 PM on July 21, 2008

The Devil and Daniel Johnston is an amazing movie - again, not first-person entirely, but Daniel Johnston (a bipolar musical genius with an amazing story -- almost Forrest Gump-like) is often the one speaking, reflecting on his life, etc.

I also second Grizzly Man - it's a unique take on first-person non-fiction narrative, because while Herzog is the narrator, the footage is all largely shot by the subject of the film, Timothy Treadwell.

And "Stevie" is a remarkable movie. The film maker goes back, 10 years later, to visit a man who used to be his 'little brother' in the Big Brothers/Big Sisters sense of the word. So the movie is largely about Stevie, but also focuses on the film maker's experience of getting to know Stevie again.

The Education of Shelby Knox is a wonderful little film about this dynamo of a teenaged girl who is trying to change her school's sex education policies. Again, not proper first-person, but Shelby is in virtually every scene of the movie and is open and reflective on how the experience has changed her life.

Completely different genre, basically, but have you seen Waking Life? It definitely has that sense of the main character's long monologue, as he engages with (and then reflects upon) all these different experts talking about dreams, the nature of reality, the nature of the self, etc. Bonus points for the use of rotoscoping.

Finally, you might check out Henry Rollins' one-man shows.
posted by CitizenD at 10:37 PM on July 21, 2008

Well, Live from Shiva's Dance Floor, which is short... but otherwise I can't think of any other movies like the three you've named. Good taste, though! IMDb's got a One Man Show tag and a Monologue tag, you can check there!
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 11:45 PM on July 21, 2008

Any series by Jonathan Meades. Unashamedly intellectual and possibly too British for some tastes, but a fascinating documentarian nonetheless.
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 2:25 AM on July 22, 2008

Meades is fantastic... he's just done a new series on northern Europe - Magnetic North and his old stuff is all over Youtube too - here's an old blue post on him
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 3:53 AM on July 22, 2008

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