Truth be told, the last 10 months of my life have been pretty difficult. I’m talking sucky… Real craptastic…. A fucking turd parade. In nearly every area of my life—personal or professional—nothing’s been going my way. Sure, I have my health and all my basic needs are accommodated blah blah blah, but I’m not ashamed to say I’ve been the hostess of many-a pity party thrown in my honor.
So when I curl up on the couch, sporting the pajamas I’ve been wearing non-stop for the past three days and momentarily pausing to think how long it’s been since I’ve taken a shower or talk to a real human being, I like to put something on the television that’s going to be comforting. Soothing, even. Something that’ll make me feel just a centimeter better about my stupid, no-good, very bad life—and that, my friends, is usually a documentary about unsolved murders, substance abuse, undiscovered pedophilia and/or other light-hearted areas of interest.
I can’t explain why I watch these things. They’re sad and upsetting and I usually end up hating humanity more than I did when I first pressed play. But every time a black cloud descends upon my head, I immediately turn to my arsenal of distressing docs. What can I say? When I’m feeling blue, I’ll take “Capturing The Friedmans” over “We Are The Millers” any day of the dumb week.
And so, I proudly present* this Top 10 list of depressing documentaries that’ll hopefully put things into perspective—or at least make you worry about someone other than yourself for 90 minutes.
*Terms & Conditions: This writer does not assume responsibility for emotional injury, damage, loss, delay, cost, expense or inconvenience arising from viewing any of the below films. However, this writer does advise you to stop watching and call your therapist right away if you have any of these symptoms: new or worse depression, panic attacks, trouble sleeping, new or worse irritability, migraines, leg tremors, uncontrollable diarrhea or any other unusual changes in behavior or mood.
“There’s Something Wrong With Aunt Diane” (HBO Films, 2011)
Lives were destroyed after Diane Schuler, a 36-year-old mother of two, drove her mini-van the wrong way on Jersey’s Taconic State Parkway, killing eight people—including her own two children, three of her nieces, and three passengers in an oncoming SUV. Toxicology reports came back saying Diane tested positive for alcohol and marijuana, but her husband refuses to believe it and insists his loving wife must’ve suffered from a sudden stroke. Before the crash, one of her nieces made a final call, saying, “There’s something wrong with Aunt Diane.” Haunting. While this story is hugely tragic, it also seems like untapped inspiration for an episode of “Law And Order.” Oh, wait. I spoke too soon. Watch the 2009 episode called “Doped” and see if you can spot the similarities.
“The Cheshire Murders” (HBO Documentary Films, 2013)
A sleepy town in Connecticut is shattered after a mother and her two daughters are killed in what appears to be a botched home invasion. If that wasn’t horrific enough, the dad—who was tied up and left for dead—managed to escape from the burning house, making him the lone survivor. However, as we’ve learned to expect from watching numerous Lifetime movies and episodes of “The First 48,” nothing is as it appears. I’ll give you one hint: The dad didn’t do it. You’ll have to watch the movie to see why the crime is considered “possibly the most widely publicized crime in the state’s history,” at least according to Wikipedia.
“West Of Memphis” (Sony Pictures Classics, 2012)
This documentary is one of many following the 1993 child murders at Robin Hood Hills in West Memphis, Arkansas, but this one is definitely my favorite. (If a person can actually have a favorite doc about finding the sicko(s) who raped and murdered three young boys in the woods.) Here’s the broad-stroke breakdown: Three alt-looking teens, nicknamed the “West Memphis Three,” are wrongly accused of the heinous crime, soon incarcerated, and end up fighting nearly 20 years to prove their innocence. If real-life images of naked and hogtied children is too much for you, I’d wait until the release of “Devil’s Knot,” Hollywood’s fictionalized version of the events starring Reese Witherspoon and Colin Firth. I doubt they’d be able to show everything and still maintain an R rating.
“The Central Park Five” (Sundance Selects, 2012)
In 1989, an innocent jogger is raped and brutally beaten in NYC’s Central Park. After an initial investigation, authorities arrest five underage suspects—each is either African American or Latino—who’re forced and intimidated into giving false confessions and received maximum sentences. Depending on the defendant, what unfolds is a 6- to 13-year battle to exonerate the teens and find the real rapist/murderer. At the end of the day, justice is served. Sorta.
“Food Inc.” (Magnolia Pictures, 2008)
Basically, our entire system of industrial food production is fucked and the fast-food industry is primarily responsible for putting local farmers out of business and super-sizing the country’s waistline. I don’t know about you, but there’s really nothing better to watch when you’re feeling fat and bloated than a documentary about why you’re fat and bloated. The pounds just melt away. Sike!
“One Last Hug: Three Days At Grief Camp” (HBO Documentary Films, 2014)
Even I have to admit that watching this movie late at night wasn’t the best idea I’ve ever had. Sure, it’s sweet and touching to watch kids go to camp, play games and make crafts; but when all of said activities revolve around the campers coming to terms with recently losing a loved one, consider your mellow successfully harshed. Spoiler alert: For those of you who are especially fragile, fast-forward through the twilight “final ceremony.” It’ll be days before you’ll be able to see through the tears.
“The Crash Reel” (HBO Documentary Films, 2013)
At one time, Kevin Pearce was the biggest snowboarding rival to “The Flying Tomato” (aka extreme-sports prodigy Shaun White). Then Kevin crashed on a Park City, Utah, half-pipe—which is captured on-film and shown repeatedly through the doc—and experienced a traumatic brain injury that left him in a near vegetative state. After a shit-ton of hard work, determination and willpower, Kevin regained the majority of his faculties, but not without side effects (i.e. memory loss, partial blindness, etc.) Overall, his story is super inspiring, but watching Kevin’s family collectively deflate after the former Olympic hopeful says he wants to compete again is pure torture.
“Mondays At Racine” (ShortsHD, 2012)
Every third Monday of the month, a sister-owned salon in Long Island opens its doors to female cancer patients so they can discover their “unexpected beauty.” Need I say more?
“Born Schizophrenic: January’s Story” (Discovery Health, 2010)
I’m especially fascinated by documentaries about mental illnesses and this one is a doozy. It’s the tale of Jani, a young girl struggling with schizophrenia, which she was diagnosed with when she was six years old. Though now on a variety of psychotropic drugs and therapy regimes to curb her visions, at one point, Jani was interacting with more than 100 imaginary people and animals. Oh, and some of these imaginary “friends” would tell her to do violent things like jump off a building or shove a pencil in her ear. Note: If you can’t get enough of Jani’s story, there’s also a “sequel” of sorts called “Born Schizophrenic: Jani’s Next Chapter,” where we get to know younger brother Bodhi, who’s autistic, and how the family is coping with two mentally impaired children.
“12th & Delaware” (HBO Films, 2010)
In Fort Pierce, Florida, there’s a certain intersection of cross streets—12th and Delaware, for those playing along at home—where a crisis pregnancy center is directly across from an abortion clinic. For 80 minutes, we follow the staff at both institutions and how they deal with the pregnant women who come through their doors. If you can’t already guess that sometimes the moms-to-be accidentally go into the pro-life center when they intend to go to the abortion clinic, then you’re in for a real treat—and by “real treat,” I mean, “a lot of awkward interactions between fundamentalists who want to save a life and expectant mothers who intend to abort.” Fun times are truly had by all. NOT.