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Top 10 Documentaries About Unusual Subjects
In the past few years, true crime documentaries have skyrocketed in popularity, and it feels like once a week, a new docuseries about a serial killer or family-man-turned-murderer drops on a streaming service. As macabre and interesting as these documentaries are, sometimes the material they cover can start to feel a bit repetitive. If you’ve already attempted to remedy this by burning through Louis Theroux’s back catalog, and you’re now looking to expand your search, then this is the list for you.
Below you’ll find an eclectic mixture of documentaries about unusual subjects. There are a couple that count as true crime, but they aren’t about serial killers, and the other items on the list cover a variety of subjects, from interesting hobbies to strange subcultures.
10 Bathtubs Over Broadway (2018)
Dava Whisenant’s indie documentary Bathtubs Over Broadway provides a window into the lost world of industrial musicals. Most popular during the ’60s and ’70s, these Broadway-level productions were created for corporations to boost company morale and sales. They staged elaborate but absurd musical numbers about products such as dog food and bathroom utilities. The Bathrooms Are Coming! (1969) is a particular delight, featuring a song with the line “my bathroom is much more than it may seem, where I wash and where I cream.”
The documentary follows Steve Young, a comedy writer for David Letterman, who stumbled upon these musicals when searching for comical LPs for the Dave’s Record Collection segment. Bathtubs Over Broadway is more than just a look into an odd world of unintentionally funny songs, though. While still retaining a feeling of weirdness, it quickly brings the viewer round to understanding the artistry of this subgenre. Surprisingly heartfelt, it was a critical hit, scoring 100% on Rotten Tomatoes.
9 The Speed Cubers (2020)
Clocking in at just 40 minutes, The Speed Cubers is about Max Park and Feliks Zemdegs, who are Rubik’s Cube-solving champions in the world of competitive speedcubing. From that premise, you might think you wouldn’t care about a niche story that centers on a puzzle cube that most people give up on within 5 minutes, but trust me, watch it, and you will.
Speedcubing is impressive to watch, with competitors usually solving the cubes in less than 10 seconds, their fingers moving so fast that they become a blur. Feliks is introduced as the king of the cubers, once holding the record for solving a classic 3x3x3 cube in the fastest time. It took him just 4.22 seconds, although that has now been beaten by Yusheng Du’s 3.47 seconds. The other speedcuber in the documentary is Max, who has autism and is quickly climbing the ranks. That sounds like the setup for a competitive and bitter rivalry, but instead, the two develop a supportive and sincere friendship. This incredibly wholesome documentary deserves to be feature-length, though, as it feels like it only skims the surface of the speedcubing world.
8 Class Action Park (2020)
Action Park, located in New Jersey and created by Gene Mulvihill, was largely operative during the ’80s and ’90s. The park became known for being dangerous, stemming from a wealth of accidents, hence the name “Class Action Park.” The documentary tells stories about the various rides and waterslides, which were built without proper attention to safety, as well as the lack of supervision due to the majority of staff being high school students who didn’t care. Burns, cuts, and broken bones were common, and after multiple people died in the Wave Pool, it was nicknamed the Grave Pool.
Although many of the anecdotes about recklessness in the park are told with nostalgic relish, the final section of the documentary takes a much darker tone as it focuses on the story of George Larsson Jr. The teenager died from a head injury after coming off of the Alpine Slide. Mulvihill covered up the death, and interviews with the bereaved family underscore how cruel, greedy, and irresponsible he truly was. Despite the injuries and deaths, improving safety standards was not a priority. Action Park was like a dark true crime version of Disneyland.
7 Three Identical Strangers (2018)
If you know nothing about Three Identical Strangers, then try to keep it that way because the less you know before watching it, the better. Directed by Tim Wardle, the documentary premiered at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival and is comprised of interviews, archive footage, and dramatic reconstructions. As the title makes clear, it is about the lives of three visually identical strangers, named Edward Galland, David Kellman, and Robert Shafran. They met by chance when they were 19, and from there, a surprising and surreal story unfolds.
Three Identical Strangers was a hit at Sundance and won the U.S. Documentary Special Jury Award for Storytelling. It is now being adapted into an as-of-yet-unnamed dramatic feature-length film which may push the documentary into spoiler-filled headlines in the near future. This intriguing tale is best experienced completely blind, so watch it before the movie buzz reveals the twists.
6 You Cannot Kill David Arquette (2020)
You Cannot Kill David Arquette follows the actor, best known for portraying sheriff Dewey in the Scream franchise, for two years as he attempts to return to professional wrestling. In 2000, Arquette co-starred in the wrestling comedy Ready to Rumble. To promote the movie, he featured in a World Championship Wrestling storyline, eventually winning the WCW Heavyweight title (though only for 12 days). Arquette was a fan of wrestling himself, so the cross-promo seemed fitting. But it was universally hated, and he believes it damaged his acting career.
The documentary charts his attempt to do wrestling properly, from training in Mexico to backyard fights to more serious matches. Although he has been steadily acting for years, though often not in A-list movies, his reputation in the world of wrestling never recovered, as he became the poster boy for what was wrong with the sport. Match by match, he attempts to regain the credibility he lost in 2000. Throughout the documentary, his family is often confused about why he cares and is rightfully concerned about his health, but his dedication is endearing.
5 Marwencol (2010)
Jeff Malmberg’s Marwencol is about the life of Mark Hogancamp, who developed an unusual art project to deal with trauma. Hogancamp was brutally attacked outside a bar, spent nine days in a coma, and was left with brain damage and amnesia. He could not afford therapy, so to attempt to deal with the trauma, he created a miniature World War II-era Belgian town in his backyard. He named the town Marwencol and filled it with action figures which represent people from his real life.
Malmberg sensitively enables Hogancamp to unravel his own story and also captures the beginning of Hogancamp’s journey into the art world. His photographs of Marwencol and its inhabitants have now been exhibited at a number of galleries in New York. The documentary has won numerous awards and also served as the inspiration for the film Welcome to Marwen (2018), directed by Robert Zemeckis and starring Steve Carell in the lead role. However, the film largely failed to capture the spirit of the documentary.
4 Grizzly Man (2005)
Grizzly Man chronicles the life and death of Timothy Treadwell, a bear enthusiast who, along with his girlfriend, Amie Huguenard, was eventually killed by a bear in Alaska. Werner Herzog’s documentary is made up of Treadwell’s own footage of his interactions with brown bears, along with interviews with people who knew him and bear experts. Although Herzog puts too much of himself into the documentary, the raw story about the eccentric bear-lover is captivating.
Treadwell believed wholeheartedly in humankind’s ability to coexist with nature. He spent thirteen summers in Alaska, living alongside wild grizzly bears (which he had given names like Mr. Chocolate) and treating them like large pets. On the one hand, it was inevitable that such casual interactions with dangerous animals would lead to his death, but on the other, it is astounding that he managed to spend so long living among them. Treadwell is a polarizing figure, being seen as delusional by some and as an idol by others.
3 Behind the Curve (2018)
Despite over two millennia of scientific research that agrees that the Earth is a sphere, there exists a group of people who believe the Earth is flat. Daniel J. Clark’s Behind the Curve takes these flat-Earthers as its subject, focusing mainly on two prominent members within the community, Mark Sargent and Patricia Steere. The documentary includes interviews with scientists, who easily disprove the flat Earth theory (obviously), but it is the flat-Earthers themselves who are the driving force of the narrative.
Clark approaches Sargent and Steere with empathy rather than condescension, attempting to understand them on their own terms. He explains that “shaming someone doesn’t change the way they feel about something.” The result is a documentary that feels kind rather than exploitative or cruel. Fear not, though, in giving the flat-Earthers space to explain their theory and filming their attempts to prove it through various experiments (which of course fail), there are moments of humorous absurdity.
2 The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (2007)
Seth Gordon’s documentary chronicles the fierce rivalry between Steve Wiebe, an out-of-work engineer, and Billy Mitchell, a restaurateur, to take the high-score record for the arcade game Donkey Kong. Mitchell is the reigning champ and styles himself as a villain from an action movie, while newcomer Wiebe is a genial family man. It feels silly, nostalgic, and exhilarating all at once. Regardless of whether or not you have fond memories of spending afternoons plugging quarters into arcade machines, The King of Kong will pull you in.
Mitchell’s scores have since come under suspicion because of his use of a Multiple Arcade Machine Emulator (MAME) rather than an actual arcade machine. Emulation software can easily be used to cheat, hence why scores are supposed to be logged on arcade hardware. Both Twin Galaxies, the organization dedicated to tracking high scores in arcade games, and Guinness stripped Mitchell of his records, though the latter has now reinstated them.
1 Best Worst Movie (2009)
Before seeing Best Worst Movie, it is essential to have seen the movie it is about, the so-bad-it’s-good horror-comedy Troll 2 (1990). Troll 2 was originally called Goblins and has no connection to Troll (1986). The plot follows a family who goes on a holiday to a town called Nilbog (goblin spelled backward), where vegetarian goblins turn people into plants in order to eat them. There is also a very weird sex scene involving popcorn. Best Worst Movie is directed by the movie’s child star, Michael Stephenson, and is about the making of the infamous film and its resurgence in later years.
Stephenson, who was only ten when he starred in Troll 2, spent years feeling “very embarrassed by it.” But as an adult, he realized that people had started “kind of championing” the film, sparking the idea for the documentary. Stephenson interviews many of the cast and crew about their experience of making the unintentionally hilarious movie and also charts its unexpected popularity. Best Worst Movie is a good-natured look at how a cinematic failure became a beloved cult classic.