Jun 2, 2016

My Top 10 Favorite Mockumentaries

Scene from Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping
This Friday marks the release of the latest mockumentary Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, which is the latest from The Lonely Island team that spoofs modern culture's fascination with pop stars. However, the mockumentary genre has been around for decades now and has managed to blur reality with fiction so flawlessly that it's become its own art form. For those interested in seeing more films that take the joke way too seriously, here's 10 of the films that aren't only titles that defined a genre, but also are hilarious stone cold classics that continue to show the potential of what cinema can really do when it makes fun of itself.

1. This is Spinal Tap

No mockumentary list would be complete, or accurate, without paying tribute to This is Spinal Tap. You don't have to love metal to enjoy director Rob Reiner's ode to one of the most unfortunate bands in history. Doing the Christopher Guest shtick (with him co-starring no less) before Guest made a career out of it, the film chronicles the journey of a band with an insurmountable amount of drummers as well as a relevance that can best be summarized by them being an opening act to a puppet show. You don't have to be in a band to appreciate its thoughtful and almost too true humor, but it wouldn't hurt. Still, with countless memorable lines and catchy songs, it is the triumphant achievement of the mockumentary world, and it's even more a testament to their craft that this band still gets together and plays from time to time.

2. I'm Still Here

To date, this is likely the only mockumentary to have entire chunks go viral online months and even a year before its release. The story of Joaquin Phoenix's journey from rapper into actor is one that was so brilliantly slight that it wasn't until AFTER the film's release that it was revealed to be fake. Even then, it's a brilliant story in which Phoenix's "mental breakdown" manages to help convey the strange world of celebrity, including how the press handles the situations. There are fake fights as well as a notorious The Late Show with David Letterman segment that paved the way for the film's eventual release. Was it real? Who cares. It's far more interesting to view director Casey Affleck's debut and see the antagonistic deconstruction of pretension done so well that the idea of a mental breakdown being faked (I'm looking at you, Randy Quaid) has become synonymous with this film.

3. Waiting for Guffman

Director Christopher Guest is the master of the mockumentary, and this is his masterpiece. The story of a small town theater group putting on a show embodies everything that is great about dry comedy in this format. With his familiar troupe of actors improvising and telling a story that is more about eccentricities than plot twists, it's hard to find much fault with this film by which all modern mockumentary directors should compare themselves to. Even Guest gets in on the fun by inventing Corky St. Claire, who is his second-most iconic character thanks to his ability to play a gay man that freaks out his co-stars, even if it's never directly addressed. You'll be seeing Guest's name on here a few more times, so don't worry about me understating his genius.

4. Hard Core Logo

While it's not quite as good as This is Spinal Tap, Canada's response is nevertheless a fascinating and entertaining look at a punk band in its dying days. Depending on how much you believe that it's real (or don't know about the sequel), the finale will be very shocking. However, everything else is just a brilliant array of live performances, interviews, and all of the tropes that make films like this click. It's a far more cynical and hostile film, but it's also a very compelling look into a culture that thrives in the underground. Thankfully, it's evidence that more than Americans can play this game well, and at times they even do it far more convincingly.

5. Borat

It may be difficult to separate Borat from the obnoxious fandom that shortly followed the film's unprecedented success. Sacha Baron Cohen's guerrilla style comedy worked so well due to his lack of recognition and commitment to some asinine ideas. His foreign correspondent persona also helped to make his broken English into immediate catchphrases. The one thing that is forgotten about the film beyond its ribald humor is the political analysis and genius satire that came from how unassuming Cohen's performance was. It managed to convey many of America's various prejudices by simply tricking people into revealing their deeper selves. If nothing else, Borat holds the honor for most lawsuits lobbied at a mockumentary to date. Even its spiritual sequel Bruno was somewhat less law-inducing.

6. Best in Show

Where Waiting for Guffman saw director Christopher Guest explore small town ideals and ambition, Best in Show manages to show the nasty side of competitiveness. If nothing else, this ranks as the quintessential movie about dog competitions where every character is matched with an animal whose appearance matches the characters' internal drives. It's a great film that manages to reflect how ridiculous these type of dog shows are while giving his band of actors the familiar free range that allows for some hilarious moments. 

7. Real Life

Director Albert Brooks may as well be considered ahead of his time. The very concept of the film is that a family will be filmed doing everyday things. The only catch is that they have to work with obnoxious looking cameras. It's a film that is meant to satirize the futility of filming real life, but may as well service as a warning to the reality TV age. It explores how adding a camera to "real life" as it were ends up causing more problems and destroying the real life that it's trying to capture. This is also Brooks' directorial debut, and while his later work may be more revered (Defending Your Life specifically), this film manages to show just how much more smart and cutting edge his comedy actually could be.

8. Zelig

Director Woody Allen's debut film Take the Money and Run may be one of the earliest examples of a mockumentary. However, it's this later film in which he perfects the style that is so dry and niche that it's no wonder that few have chosen to imitate it. Playing a man who morphs to match his surroundings, it's a comedy for those who enjoy the old school type of documentaries that are as dull as nails. It's so committed to the style that even if it's not your style, it definitely deserves some points for getting the satire right. Thankfully, the film was released during Allen's most creative period, and thus succeeds at making one of his most absurd and niche films of his entire career.

9. A Mighty Wind

Director Christopher Guest's most recent entry is in the realm of folk music. Earning Michael McKean an Oscar nomination for Best Original Song, it's a loving tribute that captures the idiosyncrasies of the genre as well as its relevance to the modern age. It's full of rich music and, much like This is Spinal Tap, even lead to occasional live concerts. It may also be Guest's most emotionally rich, as many of the characters - while comical - suffer from personal struggles having lost relevance in the music scene. Even then, this put Guest at three for three and solidified him as the mockumentary king. While his most recent film For Your Consideration isn't a mockumentary, his HBO series Family Tree shows that all these years later, he still has the knack. Here's hoping that Netflix movie rekindles his love for the style.

10. Bruno

Admittedly, this is a film that may have suffered from the Borat backlash. While the former film focused on the more accessible panic of foreigners, the panic against gays seems to be more aggressive and obvious this time around (yes, there's a lot of gay sex humor). However, it's ribald energy and Sacha Baron Cohen's obliviousness as Bruno helps to make one of the more enjoyable and comedic films on this list. It may in some ways seem dated only a few years later, but its study of how America responds to gay culture only six years ago is nonetheless fascinating enough to withstand its own movie and serve as a nice swan song for Cohen from the mockumentary medium that he helped to revive in 2006. 

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