The Ultimate Gift Guide for Documentary Lovers

The Ultimate Gift Guide for Documentary Lovers

Dec 12, 2012

Doc Talk is a biweekly column devoted to documentary cinema, typically featuring an essay concentrated on a currently relevant topic for discussion followed by critic picks for new theatrical and home video releases. This week we look at gift items that are perfect for the documentary fan this holiday season.

You can find gift guides for movie lovers all over the Web, including some great ones here at, but ideas specifically for documentary fans are less common. Leave it to me, your appointed doc guru to come up with a list of films, books and merchandise that every doc enthusiast requires to become a legitimate doc dork. 

See also: The Ultimate Blu-ray Gift Guide for 2012


DVDs, Blu-rays and Box Sets

There are too many new releases to highlight here, and you're likely paying attention to my regular home video recommendations anyway (such as Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, The Queen of Versailles, The Dust BowlFirst Position, Last Call at the Oasis and Kati With an I), but I've picked out some necessary films that are new to DVD or Blu-ray and this year's hottest nonfiction box sets that can't be excluded from any true doc lover's collection:

Dreams of a Life - This would be my home video pick of the week -- okay, it still is, so I'm just including it in with the gift guide. Frankly, it's probably a bit depressing for the holidays given that it's about a woman who mysteriously died in the midst of wrapping Christmas presents and whose body went undiscovered for three years. But it's a stunning film, one of my favorites from SXSW this year, and worth seeing as soon as possible if you enjoy docs like The Imposter and Searching for Sugar Man. Now available from Strand Releasing.

The Qatsi Trilogy from Criterion Collection - Godfrey Reggio's 30-year-old non-verbal, non-narrative masterpiece Koyaanisqatsi is joined by its glorious two sequels in this definitive collection, which features new digital transfers, fascinating test footage and abandoned ideas, new interviews with Reggio and cinematographer Ron Fricke, the semi-related short film Anima Mundi, early trippy PSAs Reggio and Fricke did for the ACLU. I thought I was already an expert on the film, but now I really am thanks to the Criterion treatment.  

Chronos Blu-ray - The spectacular IMAX short that Fricke made in 1985 after parting ways with Reggio is now on Blu-ray, which I haven't yet seen but presume is on par with the exceptional Baraka Blu-ray release. 


The Paradise Lost Trilogy Collector's Edition - Now that the Academy Award-nominated final chapter of Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky's West Memphis Three series is on disc, you can replace your set of just the first and second films with this new box. Docurama's four-disc collector's edition comes with never-before-seen deleted scenes and interviews and photography from the nearly 20 years of the case and the filmmakers' documentation of the incredible story.

Graceland 25th Anniversary Edition CD with Under African Skies DVD - Also from Berlinger is the year's best music doc, Under African Skies, which you can get separately or as part of this awesome combo pack with a new edition of the album it's about, Paul Simon's Graceland

30 for 30: Film Favorites Collection - ESPN's 30 for 30 series is a transdendant program that appeals to us doc dorks and the millions of sports fans who don't normally watch a lot of nonfiction films. This recently released 12-film box includes all the most popular titles, such as The Two Escobars, Catching Hell, The Best That Never Was, Once Brothers and June 17, 1994. Or, for a few dollars more, you can get the six-disc Collector's Edition box, which features the first 30 documentaries from the series, including many of those in the Favorites Collection.

The War Room from Criterion Collection - Earlier this year, the Pennebaker and Hegedus classic Clinton campaign doc was given a great Blu-ray release from Criterion, but you may have put off picking it up because the 2012 election was too much for you. Now that all that noise is over, don't forget about this Oscar nominee that made James Carville a movie star.

The Ross McElwee Collection
- This oldie but goodie is always worth including, but it's especially necessary right now if you need to become more acquainted with McElwee's first-person docs ahead of the upcoming DVD release of Photographic Memory. Six films, including Sherman's March and Bright Leaves are must-haves for your collection.

Culinary Masterpieces - For the loved one who is both a foodie and a documentary junkie, First Run Features has compiled four of its films into this set primarily focused on top restaurants and chefs, all of which are sure to make your mouth water. The special edition box includes D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus's Kings of Pastry, the Paul Lebrandt profile A Matter of Taste, Sirio Maccioni and sons profile Le Cirque: A Table in Heaven and Guy Martin: Portrait of a Grand Chef

Of course, if you're still hungry afterwards, the non-First Run title El Bulli: Cooking in Progress (from Kino Lorber) will make a great accompanying stocking stuffer.

The Art of Filmmaking - I'm sure there are a few of you reading that are broad cinephiles in addition to being documentary aficionados. Or, maybe you know someone who is and would like to get them this five-film collection from First Run Features that caters to all areas of interest. The docs included are the screenwriter doc Tales from the Script, the director doc Directors: Life Behind the Camera, the lesbian director doc Lavendar Limelight, the cinematographer doc Light Keeps Me Company and the documentarian doc Capturing Reality.

Add to collection with non-First Run titles like the art directors doc Something's Gonna Live (from Docurama) and For the Love of Movies: The Story of American Film Criticism (available here), featuring our very own Scott Weinberg.

The Story of Film: An Odyssey - In addition to those previous recommendations, this week saw the release of Mark Cousins's 15-part series documenting the history of cinema around the world (including American film) from the origins of motion pictures to the present and a look at the future. Now available from Music Box Films.

The Documentary Awards Collection - Looking to start your documentary film collection off right? This 10-film set from Docurama features only Oscar-winning or Oscar-nominated works like the very necessary titles Murder on a Sunday Morning, The Weather Underground and Marjoe

King: A Filmed Record... From Montgomery to Memphis Special Commemorative Edition - It won't be available until mid January, but you should go ahead and preorder this Oscar nominee directed by Sidney Lumet (his only doc) and Joseph L. Mankiewicz, which Kino Lorber is now distributing in a two-disc set. It's the same one that was obscurely available before from a non-profit company, which includes a short film titled Legacy of a Dream.

Other recommended documentary classics released to Blu-ray this year: The Hellstrom Chronicle; Sans Soleil; On the Bowery; This Is Cinerama.




DVD and Streaming Film Subscriptions


SundanceNow's Doc Club - Curated by film festival programmer Thom Powers (TIFF; DOC NYC), this service offers monthly crops of documentary features streaming through the SundanceNow VOD site. Each month has a theme. For instance, right now the titles fall under the umbrella of "Movie Love," and include films on Marlene Dietrich (Marlene), Billy WIlder (Billy Wilder Speaks), Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut (Two in the Wave) and the representation of Native Americans in Hollywood (Reel Injun). It's only $20 for the year, and there are six to 10 new docs a month (plus you have access to the previous 12 months' titles at any time), so that's one of the best deals on the Internet. 

Netflix Watch Instantly - Still the best deal on the Internet, especially for documentary fans, is the streaming-only option from Netflix. Noteworthy titles added recently include Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, Something from Nothing: The Art of Rap, China Heavyweight, Head Games, The Invisible War, Her Master's Voice and Becoming Santa. Upcoming additions include Putin's Kiss, Mad Hot Ballroom, An Inconvenient Truth and Neil Young: Heart of Gold.

Oscilloscope Circle of Trust - While not exclusively a distributor of documentary titles, Oscilloscope does put out a lot of nonfiction films, most of them brilliant stuff like the recent theatrical releases Tchoupitoulas, Only the Young and Samsara. For $100 you get the next 10 movies it puts out on DVD or Blu-ray, which should include those three docs mentioned, plus other bonus goodies. 


Magazine Subscription

Documentary Magazine
- You can actually only subscribe to Documentary as an individual (as in non-organization) by becoming a member of the International Documentary Association (IDA). But that includes a lot of other goodies, like the chance to vote for the prestigious IDA Documentary Awards, invitations and discounts to documentary screenings (in L.A. only, I think), online access to videos of Doc U workshops and seminars and some benefits that are more helpful to filmmakers in the doc community rather than mere fans. Still, it's a great organization and a great publication, which you otherwise have to locate in the few Barnes and Noble stores that carry it. 



A New History of Documentary Film by Betsy A. McLane
- Become a documentary expert with this newly updated resource or buy it again if you have the old version. It's a tremendously comprehensive primer, which includes a handy list of necessary films at the end of each chapter (formerly "Films of the Period," now "Chapter Related Films"). There's some great insight from McLane that make this more than merely informative. It provides you with a chronicle of documentary history as well as ways to consider the mode and look at the various kinds of nonfiction films we've seen over the past century.

Documentary: A History of the Non-Fiction Film by Eric Barnouw - Of course, the late Barnouw's increasingly dated tome is a must-have, a sort of Old Testament for doc scholars and fans alike. With its timeline ending in the early '90s, a decade before the modern nonfiction explosion began (the author died in 2001), it's nevertheless a terrific read on the subject and remains the favorite textbook for most teachers of documentary history.

A Wilderness of Error: The Trials of Jeffrey MacDonald by Errol Morris - Famed documentarian Morris has been writing a lot lately, whether essays for the New York Times or books like this new true-crime work, which has been compared to the filmmaker's classic The Thin Blue Line. Twenty years in the making, it's a litererary documentary on the title man's conviction for the murder of his pregnant wife and young daughters and sounds like a mix of that film and the books In Cold Blood and Helter Skelter. This is high on my wish list this season, hint, hint. 

I Was Always Beautiful by Rocky Braat - Get a preview of the upcoming Sundance selection Blood Brother (in the U.S. documentary competition) by picking up a copy of this book by the film's subject. It features beautiful photography and personal journal entries by Braat from his work at an AIDS orphanage in India -- the story of which you'll see in the doc -- and all proceeds go towards those efforts. 

Also, check out the post I wrote recently at the Documentary Channel blog on some of the documentary books I like or find necessary.


Classic Film Posters

There's no better way to reveal yourself as a doc aficionado to houseguests than having film posters hanging on your wall. But while your gut might be to go with a recent favorite, it's always much cooler to have something old and classic, whether legitimately vintage or reproduction. Also, it shows that you're interested in and familiar with more than just the new, popular docs everyone's aware of. One sheets for films like Nanook of the North, Titicut Follies and A Brief History of Time are great conversation starters, and then you can show off the knowledge you get from Barnouw and McLane.
 seems to have decent 27x40 copies of Nanook of the North, Grey Gardens, Paris Is BurningTiticut Follies,  Monterey Pop, Woodstock (multiple designs), WattstaxThe Last WaltzGimme ShelterHoop Dreams, The Times of Harvey Milk, Harlan County U.S.A., A Brief History of Time, 28 Up, 35 Up, For All Mankind and This Is Cinerama. And there are others, mostly for music docs, which makes sense given their dual fandom appeal. 





It's not easy to find a lot of classic documentary apparel, not the way you can find a lot of popular and cult fiction film T-shirts anyway. But I managed to find a good crop of clothing items to help you or someone else dress like a true doc dork. One filmmaker in particular is easier to find shirts of, probably because he doesn't just make documentaries.

Here are three items to show your love of Werner Herzog, even if it's not likely anyone will know you prefer Grizzly Man to Aguirre: The Wrath of God. First of all there's the Cinemetal T-shirt (via IFC Center) with his name fashioned like the logo for Danzig. The other two feature the young, mustachioed Herzog, looking as he does in Les Blank's doc Burden of Dreams. You can find the middle design at Amazon/Cafe Press and the right design from an Etsy store.



Next, here are five shirts I've found from various documentaries, from the very old to the fairly recent. 








The Man with a Movie Camera, from


Haxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages, from



Grey Gardens, via Etsy



Koyaanisqatsi, from RedBubble

 Exit Through the Gift Shop, from Spread Shirt


If you have a baby or one on the way, you'll probably hope the kid grows up to be a doc lover too. Other than sitting him or her in front of the TV and putting on one of the films from the box sets listed above, you'll want to get the child some proper apparel to fit alongside yourself. The best way to do this is get a Kartemquin Films onesie that says "Future Documentary Lover" on the front as well as a KTQ logo bib. You can pick these up at the production company's merch store here. It was genuinely one of the first pieces of clothing my newborn had, and at six months I think he's now a present documentary lover, ready for his own Koyaanisqatsi shirt (he was watching it with me the other day) and eventually any of the adult-size Kartemquin hoodies, hats and tees. 






I'll be back with another Doc Talk column in two weeks -- sharing my picks for the Best of 2012. Until then you can follow me on Twitter @thefilmcynic and at the DOC Channel Blog

Categories: Documentary
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