Most people reading this already know that the term mockumentary describes a fictional film shot in the style of a documentary. These often-comedic movies have fun with the most recognizable aspects of nonfiction filmmaking, which include people speaking to an unseen interviewer, fly-on-the wall camerawork, and background information typically told via old photographs, archival footage, or some kind of graphics. Whereas most documentaries focus on exceptional people, the subjects of mockumentaries are usually the type of people who normally wouldn't have cameras following them around.
While we normally only recommend movies in this column, we're making an exception this week for American Vandal, the engrossing, in-depth and highly funny investigation of a fictional high school campus crime involving $100,000 worth of property damage and badly drawn — and very lewd — graffiti. The new Netflix series goes to great lengths to mimic and spoof recent popular docudramas, and, for the most part, is spot on. Four hours in length and broken up into 8 episodes, it's a good option for weekend binge-watching.
After you're done with American Vandal, you could try (or revisit) Best in Show next. The ludicrous look at pet owners who obsess over a dog competition is just one in a series of faux documentaries made by Christopher Guest (Waiting for Guffman; A Mighty Wind), who was one of the stars of This is Spinal Tap (1984), the influential film that might not have invented the mockumentary, but is hugely responsible for opening the floodgates.
Many of the same actors from Best in Show appear in Guest's Mascots, which he made for Netflix but was quickly dismissed by pro and non-pro critics upon its release last year. As you can guess by the title, this one is about those costumed performers who entertain crowds at sporting events. Mascots may not be groundbreaking, but it didn't deserve the harsh reaction it got either; most of it is quite funny.
And, finally, history buffs will have a ball with Houston, We Have a Problem! and No Men Beyond This Point, mockumentaries which claim to tell the secret past of the Balkans as well as an alternate future in which Mother Nature puts women in charge of the universe.
Warning: May Contain Spoilers
American Vandal (2017)
Starring: Jimmy Tatro, Tyler Alvarez, Griffin Gluck, Camille Hyde
Creators: Dan Perrault, Tony Yacenda
Genre: Crime, Comedy
You get the feeling right from the get-go that American Vandal has a deep appreciation for acclaimed true crime docudramas like Making a Murderer, The Jinx, and the Serial podcast. This brand new series knows the genre inside and out and does an excellent job of recreating and satirizing all the vital elements, from the unexpected, last-minute discovery of crucial evidence to all the other constant twists and turns that keep viewers guessing as to who the real culprit is.
Admittedly, much of the humor of American Vandal is juvenile to the core. But what do you expect from a premise that has ambitious high school students attempting to exonerate a student accused of spray painting cartoon dicks on 27 teachers' cars? So, yeah, there's a ridiculous amount of dick jokes — and a few standard fart jokes — coming at you, but the show is actually smarter than you'd think. Jimmy Tatro is perfectly cast as the class clown everyone thinks is guilty. Dude just looks the part.
It must be said, though, that the series' last few minutes could've been wrapped up better, but overall, this is high-quality entertainment.
Best in Show (2000)
Starring: Eugene Levy, Catherine O'Hara, Michael McKean, Fred Willard
Director: Christopher Guest
Best in Show is considered by many to be among the top fake documentaries out there — just don't call it a mockumentary around the film's director Christopher Guest; he reportedly hates the m-word. For those who appreciate silly characters and improvisational humor, the film certainly has an understandable appeal. It also helps that the subject matter is something that you can naturally poke fun at. One suspects that had this been a straight documentary, it would've still garnered a few laughs just based on the fact that actual dog show competitions can be unintentionally hilarious (extreme canine grooming comes to mind, for example).
The real humor, though, comes from the fussy dog owners who are just as weird as, say, pageant moms. Many of them clearly crave the attention bestowed on the pets for themselves. Best in Show is even more enjoyable if you're familiar with the early works of distinguished documentarian Errol Morris, which Guest's film seems patterned after. The strong ensemble cast is impressive, but Fred Willard practically steals the show as a commentator who says the most inappropriate things.
Starring: Zach Woods, Parker Posey, Susan Yeagley, Tom Bennett, Chris O'Dowd
Director: Christopher Guest
Genre: Comedy, Sports
Mascots was seen by some as a half-hearted retread of Christopher Guest's far more successful Best in Show. The stories seem similar, only this time around instead of dogs competing for a ribbon we get humans in goofy costumes. And, certainly, Mascots is not without its flaws, starting with its structure, as the film seemingly forgets on more than one occasion that it's supposed to be a pseudo-documentary and proceeds like a regular movie for much of its duration.
Yet when it comes down to it, not only are there enough funny moments to make Mascots worth seeing, but in some ways, it might be more accessible than Best in Show, especially since the humor is a little edgier. Not only that but the movie's sports theme — no matter how vague — is likely to interest more viewers. And once the competition begins there are a few out-of-left-field mascot routines that are so thoroughly entertaining they'll make even the most cynical people in the audience crack a smile.
Houston, We Have a Problem! (2016)
Starring: Slavoj Zizek, Josip Broz Tito
Director: Žiga Virc
You'll be hard pressed to find a better historical fabrication on film than Žiga Virc's Houston, We Have a Problem!, which purports to tell the clandestine story of the ill fated Yugoslav space program during the Cold War. In what has to be one of the finest examples of repurposing existing archival footage to fit a new narrative, we are told of the supposed essential role played by the former federated country while the US and USSR were in the midst of the space race. This clever docu-fiction builds up a believable conspiracy theory utilizing real footage of President Josip Broz Tito, an imposing political figure if there ever was one, as well as convincing recollections from supposed surviving major players.
By film's end, we've been made privy to the secret developments that set off an irreversible domino effect that led to the JFK assassination, the Yugo car fiasco, and the eventual toppling of Yugoslavia. As outrageous as it all sounds, the film is held together by a calm and reasonable approach. The acting — played perfectly straight with no discernible winks at the camera — plays a big part in maintaining the illusion that what you are seeing is fact and not fiction.
No Men Beyond This Point (2015)
Starring: Kristine Cofsky, Tara Pratt, Patrick Gilmore
Director: Mark Sawers
Genre: Science Fiction, History, Comedy
No Men Beyond This Point imagines a world where the XY chromosome becomes obsolete, due to inexplicable circumstances. As a result, the female population takes over as males are slowly phased out of existence. While the film is nowhere as mean-spirited as it sounds, it does take healthy swipes at long-standing patriarchal attitudes and paints a society where men are totally subservient to women. If that makes some male viewers uncomfortable, it's meant to.
The film, which goes beyond its low-budget limitations, gives us a well-made "historical" overview of a suddenly feminine universe, complete with "expert" talking heads who walk us through major developments, including the numerous cases of "fatherless impregnation" that began in the late 1950s and a few other re-enactments that are the movie's funniest bits. We also spend time with a large family who has employed the world's youngest man (age 37) to work as a nanny/caretaker.
While the film predictably claims there would be no more war if women were in charge, there are a couple of twists, especially the female-led government's new laws as they pertain to sexual relations. All said, this is a stimulating film for those with an open mind.
Still looking for more? Joaquin Phoenix and Casey Affleck's I'm Still Here (2010) is either a brilliant mockery of celebrity excess or a horrendous, flaming piece of hot trash. You decide. There's also David Brent: Life on the Road (2016), which finds Ricky Gervais bringing back his socially awkward character from The Office (UK) 15 years later to pursue his lifelong dream of being a rock star. It's a bit of a mixed bag that's sometimes repetitive and offensive, yet contains some hilarious musical numbers.