As documentary filmmaking has seen its profile rise in recent years, it’s hardly surprising that exposure for its sarcastic, gum-chewing younger brother, the mockumentary, has also been on the increase. This week’s “Mascots,” from career mockumentarian Christopher Guest (our review from TIFF is here), represents only the tip of an iceberg that has also seen two similarly themed space-exploration faux docs “Operation Avalanche” and “Houston, We Have A Problem!” plus the enjoyable if slight “Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping” (a candidate for 2016’s best title) and Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi‘s “What We Do In The Shadows” all bow in the last couple of years. And that’s just on the big screen: On TV, we’ve had HBO‘s “7 Days In Hell” as a one-off but a whole host of episodic comedies: Both versions of “The Office,” “Parks And Recreation,” “The Comeback,” “Reno 911!,” “Modern Family” and “Arrested Development” all experiment with the meta, fourth-wall-breaking format too. And of course, there’s Bill Hader and Fred Armisen‘s documentary-skewering IFC series, “Documentary Now!”
So we’re taking this chance to run down our 12 favorite feature films in this increasingly populous subgenre, and as ever, we’ve allowed ourselves some leeway in the interpretation of the term “mockumentary” to include a couple of titles that might not immediately spring to mind as such. Conversely, since we did recently run a feature on the closely related genre of Found Footage films, we decided to exclude titles we’d featured there (“Man Bites Dog” and the aforementioned ‘Shadows,’ among them), but you can check out that feature here as a companion piece if you wish. Finally, we again instigated our one-film-per director rule just to keep things interesting, and to keep this from simply turning into the Christopher Guest and Woody Allen show. Enjoy.
12. “Incident At Loch Ness” (2004)
The friendship between Werner Herzog, one of the most acclaimed filmmakers in the world today, and Zak Penn, the screenwriter of “Last Action Hero,” “Inspector Gadget” and “X-Men: The Last Stand,” is an unlikely one, but a very real thing, and the entertaining “Incident At Loch Ness” was the principal fruit of that. The film purports to be the remains of a documentary called “Herzog In Wonderland,” about Herzog researching a documentary called “Enigma Of Loch Ness,” only to be waylaid by the Hollywood producer (played by Penn) who wants to turn the film into a blockbuster. Made on a shoestring, it’s a bit self-indulgent in places (particularly in its what-is-reality ending), and certainly isn’t a major movie. But it’s often funny, and serves as something of a tribute to Herzog’s work, while also letting the filmmaker poke fun at himself a little bit (though Penn smartly puts the film’s spikier satire on himself). It’s a bit of a doodle, a sketch rather than a full-throated piece of work, but it’s smart and enjoyable for all that, and in some ways anticipates Herzog’s best film of recent years, ‘Grizzly Man,” which came the following year.
11. “Drop Dead Gorgeous” (1999)
Now mostly a TV comedy director, Michael Patrick Jann‘s only feature film to date has, like many of the films on this list, gained appreciably in reputation since its muted initial release. And indeed, the inherently ridiculous world of beauty pageantry provides hugely fertile territory for send-up and satire, and the film, particularly in its more convincing first half, is remarkably on-the-money. Not only does it skewer the awfulness of the practice in general, but it also uses it as a social microcosm in which the rich and powerful get to manipulate the poor and marginalized with impunity, while also cleverly deconstructing the formula to which real documentaries often adhere: the plucky poor girl vs. the bitchy rich girl vs. The System. And among the supporting cast are some cherishable performances, from Allison Janney and Amy Adams especially, while leads Kirsten Dunst, Denise Richards, Ellen Barkin and Kirstie Alley doing convincing work as yins to each others’ yangs. Before the wheels come off later as the (actually kind of unnecessary) murder subplot takes over, it’s also, simply, very funny even while, as with the character of the reigning champion being a wheelchair-bound anorexic, many of its more daring punches land with wincing, discomfiting accuracy.
10. “I’m Still Here” (2010)
You need real commitment to the bit if you’re really going to pull off a mockumentary, and commitment to the bit is certainly something that Casey Affleck and Joaquin Phoenix had with “I’m Still Here.” At the end of 2008, Phoenix, one of the most acclaimed actors of his generation, announced that he was retiring to focus on a new career as a rapper, and for the best part of two years, kept up the facade. His brother-in-law Affleck was documenting the whole affair, and it was only after the resulting film premiered at Venice in September 2010 that the pair revealed that the whole thing had been fake, and had been a film exploring the nature of celebrity and the media (though plenty had guessed that it wasn’t legit beforehand). The film has real problems: It’s indulgent, navel-gazing and crude, and you sort of come away feeling that you’d rather that Phoenix had spent the time acting in three great movies. But for all its LaBeouf-iness, it’s more self-aware than it appears at first, showing the on-screen Phoenix to be a vain, empty-headed wreck and the Hollywood around him doubly so. The showbiz satire is usually a minefield, but Affleck and his subject find a way to walk through and find some fascinating new territory.
9. “The Rutles: All You Need Is Cash” (1978)
We ummed and ahhed about putting Richard Lester’s “A Hard Day’s Night” on the list — it’s a film that has certain mock-doc credentials, but doesn’t quite get all the way to being a wholehearted example of the genre. But we had no such compunction about “The Rutles: All You Need Is Cash,” Eric Idle’s parody of the career of The Beatles, and a film that inspired the mock-rockumentary from “This Is Spinal Tap” to “Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping.” Originally spawned from Idle’s post-Monty Python series “Rutland Weekend Television” but getting a full-length showcase in this made-for-TV movie (produced by Lorne Michaels, hence the cameo presences of Bill Murray, John Belushi, Gilda Radner and Dan Aykroyd), it tells the story of Dirk, Barry, Stig and Ron, whose rise as The Rutles closely mirrors that of the Fab Four. It’s affectionate rather than biting, up to the point that George Harrison pops up, but the songs by Idle and Neil Innes are pretty great in their aping of The Beatles, and more importantly, it’s legitimately funny, the almost-sketch-movie format providing more hits than misses. Later films would perfect this formula, but Idle’s finest solo project deserves to be better remembered than it is.
8. “Zelig” (1983)
It’s almost hard to think of it now, when his prolific nature has sanded down his work into a kind of interchangeable sameness, but Woody Allen was once as playful with form as he can be with language, perhaps best exemplified in “Annie Hall.” He’s experimented with the mock-doc form fairly often, from “Take The Money And Run” to “Sweet & Lowdown,” but “Zelig” is the purest example of it. Shot in black and white, the film purports to be about Leonard Zelig (played by Allen himself), a human chameleon who can turn into people around him, and follows his passage through history as he interacts (using innovative special effects that inspired “Forrest Gump,” among others) with famous figures. It’s an odd film, something of an outlier in Allen’s work on a number of levels, and the romantic plot with Zelig falling for psychiatrist Mia Farrow feels like it pushes the film into more conventional territory than you might want. But it’s nevertheless charming, and sweetly captures a very melancholic, lonely vibe through its magic-realism conceit. Few films combined Allen the comic and Allen the philosopher better, and its commitment to verisimilitude makes it one of his more impressive filmmaking feats as well.
7. “CB4” (1993)/“Fear Of A Black Hat” (1993)
With “This Is Spinal Tap” being such a comedy classic, it’s hardly surprising that someone would get around to making a hip-hop version, though it’s a little surprising that two would land at virtually the same time. The first (to premiere, though it ended up being released after its rival) was “Fear Of A Black Hat,” from director Rusty Cundieff, about a filmmaker (Kasi Lemmons) tracking gangsta rap group N.W.H. (the endearingly named N*ggaz With Hats), while Tamra Davis’ “CB4,” co-written by and starring Chris Rock, is a slightly plottier version about a younger, less famous crew, who steal the identity of a criminal (Charlie Murphy) to boost their street cred. It feels properly immersed in hip-hop culture, with cameos from Ice Cube and Flavor Flav among others, but while it’s often funny, it feels like it pulls its punches a bit. “Fear Of A Black Hat” is sharper and spikier (going so far as to make fun of Spike Lee and John Singleton), and though it has some truly terrible jokes (it’s over-reliant on puns), ultimately ends up the better movie, though it’s not so definitive that there isn’t room for a fresher take. Maybe in the age of Kanye West and Tyler The Creator, it’s time for someone else to take a shot?