LOS ANGELES — With "The Imposter," director Bart Layton takes a non-fiction subject — the disappearance of a 13-year-old boy and the emergence of a man who claims to be him years later — and depicts it with all the tension, twists and turns of a gripping mystery. He accomplishes much of this feat through clever use of reenactments — a tactic the great Errol Morris used to revolutionize documentaries decades ago.
It got me thinking about other stylish documentaries I've loved over the years, ones that infused fascinating, real-life tales with the beauty and artistry of feature films. There are so many to choose from, I realize I'm scratching the surface here. But I only get to choose five each week. That's why the game is fun:
— "Man on Wire" (2008): James Marsh's Oscar-winning documentary about Philippe Petit, the diminutive French daredevil who walked a tightrope between the World Trade Center towers in 1974, plays more like an intricately timed, high-stakes heist flick. You know from the start that Petit makes it — he's alive and all too happy to talk about himself — but you'll still hold your breath as he and his partners in crime relive the feat. One of the neatest tricks Marsh pulls off here is creating the sensation that we're actually watching Petit make the walk. But we're not. No footage is available. Marsh seamlessly pieces together the event through photographs and recreations. Sitting in the audience, feeling as if we're in on the scheme with Petit and his motley crew of co-conspirators is just one of the film's many joys.
— "Waltz With Bashir" (2008): Unlike anything I'd ever seen before, this changed my ideas about the possibility of film. It's a breathtakingly gorgeous animated documentary, which may sound like a contradiction in terms, but Israeli writer-director Ari Folman breaks all the rules with exhilarating creativity. Folman reconstructs the hazy memories of his time as a young soldier at war in 1980s Lebanon by visiting friends and then animating their talks. The result looks like a graphic novel brought brilliantly to life. Dark shadows suggest impending danger, and bright splashes of color provide unexpected jolts of energy. That the figures on screen resemble real people, without appearing entirely realistic, adds to the fascination.
— "Hell and Back Again" (2011): Director and photographer Danfung Dennis crafted this Oscar-nominated documentary about the war in Afghanistan with the engrossing, dreamlike artistry of a feature film. And yet he maintains the bracing, intimate realism needed to authentically tell a story about battle, survival and redemption. He jumps back and forth between a 25-year-old Marine sergeant's return to his North Carolina hometown and the mission that left him seriously wounded. Dennis is so in the thick of things, he'll repeatedly make you wonder how he got that amazing shot. Match cuts and clever sound editing provide a seamless flow between past and present.
— "Bob Dylan: Don't Look Back" (1967): Pioneering filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker set the standard for the rock documentary with this classic, behind-the-scenes look at Bob Dylan's 1965 concert tour of England. This was impish 23-year-old Dylan before he famously went electric, and Pennebaker depicts this fortuitous moment of flux with grainy, intimate, black-and-white camerawork. The images he captured here became endlessly copied and parodied, from the 1987 INXS video for "Mediate," in which the band members toss away cue cards the way Dylan does with "Subterranean Homesick Blues," to "Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story," which parodies this time in Dylan's life with dead-on hilarity. The rough-hewn aesthetic is a thing of restless beauty.
— "Stop Making Sense" (1984): One of the coolest concert films ever, it's probably also my favorite Jonathan Demme film; the way he structures it is just mesmerizing. "Stop Making Sense" begins on a stage with only lead singer David Byrne singing "Psycho Killer" and playing a guitar with a boom box on the floor behind him. And then song by song, piece by piece, the place builds and fills up until the whole stage is full with the complete band, other musicians and an array of instruments. The process happened right before your eyes but it was so subtle and deliberate, you may not even have noticed it. It's a great example of a band being playful and inventive rather than self-serious. And of course, the music is great.