Best of the best documentary Oscar winners

The Criterion Collection

“Harlan County USA” documents a coal miners’ strike in a small Kentucky town.

By Peter Keough  Globe Correspondent 

Last Sunday, Bryan Fogel’s “Icarus” won the Oscar for best documentary feature (I would have preferred Agnès Varda’s “Faces Places,” but here’s hoping the renowned auteur might celebrate her 90th birthday with a win next year). “Icarus” joins an elite group that includes these outstanding winners, all worth revisiting.

“Desert Victory” (1943)

British documentarian Roy Boulting expertly edits together chaotic and spectacular combat footage (it is noted at the film’s beginning that four Army camera operators died shooting it), some of it captured from the Germans, with a detached and discerning voice-over narration that analyzes the Allied victory in the Battle of El Alamein during the North African campaign in World War II. There is little flag-waving and no demonizing of the Axis enemy, but rather a pragmatism that regards the defeat of fascism as a job that requires determination and a plan. Many shots of the desert, “a place fit only for war,” are otherworldly. In his review for the Nation James Agee declared it “a stunning textbook on how to make a non-fiction war film.”

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“The War Game” (1965)


Peter Watkins applied his fictionalized documentary style to this harrowing look at the impact a nuclear exchange with the Soviet Union would have on the residents of Kent in Southeastern London. Combining low-key but devastating reenactments, the detached observations of a voice-over narrator (“In this car a family is burning alive”), sometimes absurd commentary from authorities ranging from clergymen to civil defense officials, and chilling title-card texts relating the facts on which he bases his speculation, he created a vision of annihilation so horrific that the BBC, which produced the film, refused to broadcast it. Fortunately, it received a theatrical release, qualifying it for an Oscar. More than 50 years later, its lessons have yet to be heeded. 

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“Woodstock” (1970)

Most documentaries tend to be about war, disaster, tragedy, and injustice, so it’s a pleasant change when the subject is, in the words of Max Yasgur, “three days of fun and music and . . . nothing but fun and music.” Yasgur, of course, was the owner of the farm in the Catskills where half a million strong gathered in the summer of 1969 to hear a pantheon of rock musicians provide the soundtrack for a revel of drugs, dancing, mud, and transcendence. Directed by Michael Wadleigh with the assistance of Martin Scorsese, Thelma Schoonmaker, and others. You can get in argument with music buffs over who put in the best performance — Jimi Hendrix? Janis Joplin? Santana? The Who? — but I won’t start one.

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“Harlan County, USA” (1976) 

Coal was still king in West Virginia when Barbara Kopple made the first of her two Oscar-winning documentaries (the other was “American Dream” in 1990). The miners however, were mere serfs, and this in-depth, intimate account of their struggle to get a union contract from the corporate owners of a mine in the title county makes clear the conflict between the rich and those they exploit for profit. Immersing and electrifying, especially towards the end when Kopple demonstrates her courage and skill when confronting a pistol-packing company enforcer. With a rich soundtrack of regional music, including a performance of “Which Side Are You On?” by the composer and union stalwart, Florence Reece.

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“The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara” (2003)

Good luck to anyone scrutinized by Cambridge documentarian Errol Morris. The most powerful people — in this case the former US secretary of defense who shaped the campaign to burn down Japanese cities in WWII before becoming an architect of the disastrous Vietnam War — end up spilling their secrets. Using his formidable “Interretron,” a device by which he can engage his subject face-to-face during interviews, Morris gets McNamara to explain the lessons he learned during his long and influential career and ultimately to confess his miscalculations and culpability when it came to the US Southeast Asia policy. These lessons are even more urgent now, but will the right people ever learn them?

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Peter Keough can be reached at