Making a mockumentary is a tricky task â€” make it too silly and it loses all semblance of realism, but make it too lifelike and people don’t get it. Whether comedy or drama, the mockumentary can serve to give us insight into the world around, bring terror to a more personal level, or poke ruthless fun at the foibles of the world in general. These 16 titles are some of the best, funniest, most scary that the technique has to offer.
16. The Blair Witch Project
The Blair Witch Project succeeds at one of the fundamental goals of the mockumentary: people truly believed that it was real. When the film debuted, it was played completely straight, and many coming out of theatres swore that it had to have actually happened. In order to gain such authenticity on a tiny budget, the directors almost never showed themselves to the actors, instead leaving notes for them hidden away, as well as personal tips about how to play the characters. That’s right, it was made up on the fly a lot of the time, and the directors made sure to make the actors travel large distances every day, harassed them at night, and limited their access to food in order to make them as creeped out as possible for the footage.
Zelig is a wonderful and under appreciated mockumentary from Woody Allen which loses verisimilitude points due to it having Woody Allen in it. It’s hard to believe that it’s actually a movie from the 20s when there’s a famous comedian in the lead role. It’s the story of Leonard Zelig, a non-descript man who can blend in with everyone around him like a chameleon. Intercut seamlessly with actual footage from the time period, Allen’s team went so far as to track down actual cameras and lenses from the period so their material would blend in well.
14. C.S.A. – The Confederate States of America
C.S.A. is an extremely interesting mockumentary, but one that too easily falls into clichÃ© and stereotype. It’s an alternate history story about if the South had won the Civil War and America still had slavery. Rather than intelligently discuss what would have happen if the Confederates had seceded, and how long it would have taken slavery to fall by the wayside (it would have eventually), instead it just shows a country run by racist, slave-owning rednecks. Points for concept, but loses on execution. It could have been an insightful look into institutionalized racism and how it would play out with a different paradigm in a federal system. Instead it’s just Southerners are rednecks and sell slaves on the home shopping network.
13. Razzle Dazzle: A Journey Into Dance
One of the more recent entries onto this list, 2007’s Razzle Dazzle takes aim at the bizarre world of children’s dance competitions. It takes all the weirdness and parental projection of Toddlers & Tiaras and ramps it up to 11. There’s something so perfectly ripe for mocking about children’s talent shows â€” whatever field they’re in. There are the kids who really just want to have fun, the adults trying to live through their children, the obsessive coaches and weird judges. This Australian flick plays up all the roles utterly perfectly.
[REC] was a Spanish horror film that was remade shot for shot in the USA in 2008 as Quarantine. It’s almost a meta-mockumentary. The main characters are a documentary crew covering the night shift at a fire station when they get called out to an apartment building, only to be attacked by a little old lady, and the firemen, the crew, and the inhabitants are all sealed in the building by the army. The whole film is just the video tape from the cameraman as the people in the building get infected with a disease that turns them into bloodthirsty savages, attacking in any way possible. It’s 28 Days Later but in a single building, and with an incredibly dark ending.
11. Series 7: The Contenders
Take a reality show, push it up to 11, and throw in bits of Battle Royale, and you get Series 7. Five people picked at random from a national lottery (and the previous season’s winner) are handed weapons, and told to go kill the others for a reality show. They have no choice. The entire film is shown as if this were a show we’d already been watching for seven seasons, leaving out much of the backstory, and instead focusing on who can kill, and who can’t. An incredibly dark story, it’s not often you’ll see a heavily preganant woman, a middle aged woman, a student, and a man dying of cancer attempting to kill each other within the city limits of Newbury, Connecticut.
Less of a mockumentary and more of a straight up comedy, CB4 has Chris Rock leading a small group of rappers that pretend to be hardcore gangsters in order to boost their popularity. Named after the cellblock they claim to have been stuck in (Cell Block 4), they take the hip hop world by storm, and deal with a local politician’s attempts to ban them. Like I said, more direct comedy than mockumentary, there is a strong streak of the latter through the role of Chris Elliot’s fawning documentary maker who follows them around.
9. The Rutles
Long before mockumentaries really took of, the Rutles movie “All You Need Is Cash” was a brilliant satire of the madness around the Beatles, produced by ex-Monty Python Eric Idle. It was filled with Beatles’ pastiches, rewriting their music for different, utterly banal lyrics. One of the funniest chunks pokes fun at the Beatles’ experiments with LSD by having the Rutles being addicted to that deadly eastern substance: TEA. Often times intensely satirical, it was held together by a full, 19-track album that mimicked much of the Beatles changes over the years.
I don’t think too much really needs to be said about Borat or Cohen’s utterly fabulous ability to bring out the worst in every person he meets. His roles, both back in his time on television, and the later large screen adaptations of his characters, have always excelled at being both hilariously offensive and bitingly insightful. Yes, it’s full of over-the-top gross out humor, but using his position to expose the foibles of society is often performed so perfectly that it’s hard not to love what he does.
7. Waiting For Guffman
Waiting For Guffman is probably my least favorite of Christopher Guest’s mockumentaries, which still makes it better than the vast majority out there. Like the rest of his work, it focuses on the individuals in an event so many others would completely overlook. The plot is usually paper thin, and just an excuse for him to play with characterisation of people who are absolutely insane in wonderful ways. This one centers on a community theater performance for a small town’s 150th anniversary, and they’re desperately hoping to impress the titular Guffman, who is a broadway producer coming to critique the show. Unfortunately, absolutely none of them have anything even vaguely resembling talent.
6. Drop Dead Gorgeous
Drop Dead Gorgeous is a criminally underrated comedy, which alternates between light hearted poking fun at Minnesota and pitch black humor. It’s so wonderfully twisted and brilliant that you can even look past that a small Midwestern town would have that many model attractive girls each year performing in a pageant, or the recognizable actors. It’s an incomparably funny look at small town rivalries and pageants, with far and away the best moment being the final talent performance of Rebecca Ann, where she does a number with a crucified Jesus on wheels.
5. Man Bites Dog
Man Bites Dog is a black and white Belgian film in which a documentary crew follows around a serial killer as he opines on life, architecture, art, and everything else as he brutally slaughters the old an infirm. The crew struggle to retain their neutrality, first due to the horror the killer causes them, and then as they become increasingly enamored with his lifestyle, eventually joining in the murderous activities he loves. Particularly brutal, this film was short on a shoestring student budget in the early 90s, and it’s one of the more black comedies you can watch. Even with all the blood, violence and low budget, it’s still well enough regarded to be released on the Criterion Collection.
4. A Mighty Wind
We’re going to get pretty heavy into Christopher Guest at this end of the list, and you know what? I’m okay with that. A Mighty Wind managed to score an Oscar nomination for one of its songs, which makes sense as it’s a film about folk musicians. Three bands representing three generations of popular folk music are called together to perform at a memorial performance for a produced who worked with all of them. As is so often the case with Guest movies, the plot is really a minor part in the story, which is really just there to get his wonderful characters to act in bewilderingly uncomfortable ways.
3. Forgotten Silver
Of all the entries on this list, Forgotten Silver is probably the most authentic. The entire thing is played entirely deadpan, and no recognisable actors pop up â€” except when playing themselves. It was made by Peter Jackson in the mid 90s, and it’s about his discovery of a case of old film in a shed which leads to him unearthing a forgotten New Zealand filmmaker who invented the tracking shot, the closeup, and color and sound in film before anyone else. The famous faces pop up to comment on how groundbreaking the whole thing is, and Peter Jackson plays himself making a documentary about the discovery. Originally marketed as a documentary itself, it fooled a huge number of people thanks to its pitch perfect tone, despite tongue firmly being in cheek for much of the movie.
2. Best in Show
If you know anyone even vaguely involved with the dog showing scene, they’ll happily tell you that Best In Show isn’t an exaggeration. Not in the slightest. Okay, maybe just a tiny bit, but that’s it. All the neuroses â€” both in people and in dogs â€” are just as bad in real life as they are in the film. Sure, the actors seem over the top and crazy, and they are, but dog shows are hives of people who are batshit insane, and all the characters are obvious pastiches of those you’ll actually run into in a dog show â€” except maybe the millionaire trophy wife in a relationship with a butch dog trainer.
1. This Is Spinal Tap
Like you were surprised by this. It’s the gold standard of the mockumentary, astonishingly hilarious and just realistic enough that many people are never quite sure if it’s legit or not (though the illusion is partly ruined by Fran Drescher popping up). It’s a film rarely seen in terms of shear wonderfully quotable comedy, with lines from it becoming cultural milestones. I’m always surprised by how many people missed the fact that it’s fake â€” which I guess speaks volumes for just how ludicrous hair metal really was.