Finally — the post that you’ve all been waiting for: my top 5 greatest doc moments. You’ll note that POV’s Ruiyan wins an honorable mention for beating me to the punch in the comments section from last week, with her admiration for Harlan County, USA. What a moment, eh? I agree, and had ranked it number one on my own list. And thinking about the Cinema Eye awards last weekend also reminded me of the inaugural awards ceremony last year, when we in the audience were treated to the intro to Style Wars, a 1980s doc about graffiti that I have yet to see. That brief intro is a moment worth mentioning in itself, with exquisite shots of graffiti art in the street accompanied by the squeaking and rumbling of a New York City subway train layered with classical music that jumps to rap. It was breathtaking. (In fact, I just put the film on my Netflix queue.) But I digress: enjoy the following moments that have moved me.

5: Born into Brothels — About 30 minutes in, the impoverished children of prostitutes go for a trip to see the Indian Ocean for the first time. With soaring, Indian chant music chiming rhythmically on the soundtrack, and the children’s anxious faces brimming with excitement, the moment is filled with hope and joy. As the bus driver blares his horn, the setup is at once familiar for anyone who has gone on a road trip as a child, but at the same time markedly foreign. And then, as the children return to the red light district, we in the audience hear a singer’s tragic wail, and we witness the children’s faces growing stoic. It’s as convincing a depiction of the depths of hell on earth as any caught on film.

God Grew Tired of Us4: God Grew Tired of Us — In this film about the lost boys of Sudan (who walked a thousand miles to escape war in their homeland), there’s a scene that breaks my heart. Toward the end of the film, after the boys are relocated to America, one of them is reunited with his mother. When she arrives at the Syracuse airport and sees her son for the first time in 20 years, she lets out a heart-piercing wail and collapses to the floor. The intensity, the clashing of cultures and the pure dramatic high of the moment, is at once baffling and cathartic.

3: Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills — The loss of innocence and the destruction of justice takes on a surreal level of clarity when the stepfather of one of the murdered boys, who shows himself to be totally unhinged and is subtly presented as a suspect in the eyes of the filmmakers, if not the police, visits the site of the crime.

2: Salesman —Paul, one of the salesmen featured in the Maysles’ brothers’ groundbreaking doc, sits in a coffee shop and looks out the window. It’s as simple and quiet a moment as could be, but it is so filled with longing and lost dreams that it equals or even beats the best you could find in a Cheever or Updike story.

1: Harlan County, USA — Remember when the scabs and gun-toting thugs attack the strikers? What makes this unforgettable to me is when the sheriff waves his gun in the most laconic, insidious way at director Barbara Kopple. You can hear Kopple yelp in fear; I was shaken to the core.

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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