It’s been a while since I’ve done a list (see my 10 most lugubrious docs and the 10 sexiest) — and as an unabashed advocate of the genre, here’s another. What makes for a great moment in a documentary? That can sometimes be a complicated issue, because some of the “greatest” moments are also the saddest, and it’s pretty callous to glorify other people’s tragedy. My standard for “great” here is pretty much those moments when I, as a viewer, feel that the documentary I am watching is transcending itself, and reaching out to me in a truly transportive, radical way. Sometimes, it’s a moment that demonstrates the medium at its best, and other times, it’s purely something that elicits my emotional reaction (or course, the two are not necessarily exclusive). Check these out and let me know if you have your own.

10: Roger & Me — I can pinpoint the moments when I first fell in love with documentary film. One was watching Koyanasqaatsi accompanied by a live performance from Philip Glass; the other is sitting at the Thalia theater in Providence, Rhode Island, watching Roger & Me. The moment with the woman who skins the rabbits was just so jaw-droppingly funny/real/sad that it had me at the edge of my seat — and opened a window to how powerful docs could be.

9: The Betrayal (Nerakhoon) — Maybe it’s because I saw this recently, but toward the end of this riveting film, there’s a reunion moment that had me in tears. POV will be airing this later in the year (see the trailer here) so I won’t go into detail, but I defy anyone to watch this without getting weepy.

The Betrayal

The Betrayal, by Ellen Kuras and Thavisouk Phrasavath will air on POV in 2009.

8: The Kid Stays in the Picture — The opening sequence of this film — from the raising of the red curtain to the thrilling effects of pictures floating in three-dimensional spaces, accompanied by Robert Evans‘ bizarre narrative voice — was the perfect introduction to a film that bathes in its own Hollywood mythologizing.

7: Grizzly Man — It’s not when Timothy Treadwell gets eaten that gets me; it’s when he says, “I will die for these animals, I will die for these animals, I will die for these animals.” And he did. This makes me realize I’ll have to do another list — the greatest doc characters. Treadwell is definitely in my top five.

Timothy Treadwell in Werner Herzog's Grizzly Man

Timothy Treadwell in Grizzly Man, directed by Werner Herzog

6: Bowling for Columbine — I may be going against the grain here, but when director Michael Moore interviews Charlton Heston, the moment is so wrong, so exploitative, and yet so fascinating to watch that I have to put it on this list. Maybe it shows us that Moore’s brilliiant, or that he’s a bastard — but either way, it’s all about what he does best.

I’m sure you’re dying to know the five doc moments that made it to the top of my list — but you’ll have to check back next Monday! Until then, what are the documentary moments that really stand out for you? Let us know in the comments below.

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Tom Roston
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He is a former Premiere magazine senior editor, who graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom's freelance work has appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, The Hollywood Reporter and other publications. He has written several Kindle Singles, including the bestselling Kindle Singles Interview: Ken Burns. Tom's current list of favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi by Godfrey Reggio; 2. Hoop Dreams by Steve James; 3.Stories We Tell by Sarah Polley; 4.Crumb by Terry Zwigoff; 5. Montage of Heck by Brett Morgen