Reality is a collective agreement based on shared perceptions. The world of documentaries hopes to examine and showcase those perceptions for our education. Mockumentaries, however, seek to skewer the truth of those perceptions for our entertainment. Whether it’s a laugh-out-loud comedy parodying a subject matter, or a horrific dramatization where reality truly is stranger than fiction. Some of the most beloved (and well-executed) films of all time are fake, and inspired by HBO’s tennis mockumentary, 7 Days in Hell, we’ve rounded up the Top 20 Mockumentaries of All Time.
20. A MIGHTY WIND (2003)
Christopher Guest films will show up more than once on this list, but his parody of the American Folk music resurgence in the 1960s is perhaps his most misunderstood. Centered around a memorial concert for the fictional folk music producer Irving Steinbloom, his three most famous acts reunite to pay tribute. The film shows the return of many of Guest’s key players, and has a pretty rockin’ soundtrack.
19. PUNISHMENT PARK (1971)
When the U.S. prison system finds itself at maximum capacity, President Nixon declares a state of emergency. All new incoming prisoners (many of whom are “hippies,” “feminists,” and “draft-dodgers”) are given the option to exchange jail time for three days in Punishment Park, in which they will be hunted for sport by federal authorities. This mockumentary was a dark look at an alternate reality that was more Hostel than Orange Is The New Black. A British made film during a time of U.S. crisis put a target on the back of this film, and at the time, Hollywood studios refused to release the film.
18. DIGGING UP THE MARROW (2015)
Horror filmmaker Adam Green made a name for himself with his Hatchet franchise and the sky-lift horror flick Frozen, but his experiment in documentary style filmmaking in collaboration with artist Alex Pardee was a risky venture that more than paid off. Green plays himself (as well as the rest of the players in the film) while genre favorite Ray Wise plays the fictional William Dekker. The film is an exploration in the mythos of monsters Dekker claims to see, and Green often shot the footage without telling anyone close to him exactly what he was shooting. The reactions from celebrity friends are sincere, as Green presented the footage as authentic to those responding.
17. FORGOTTEN SILVER (1995)
Before Peter Jackson became the man behind The Lord of the Rings films, he was just a guy in New Zealand making gross-out horror films and playing with puppets. Forgotten Silver tells the fictional story of a “forgotten” New Zealand filmmaker named Colin McKenzie and the rediscovery of his lost films. McKenzie is presented as the man that truly shaped cinema as we know it by accidentally inventing the tracking shot, unintentionally discovering close-up shots, and making the first films with sound and color.
16. 2GE+HER (2001)
The greatest boy band that never was, MTV’s 2GE+HER followed the creation and rise to fame of the hottest act of the new millennium. The first full-length film made for MTV, the flick was armed with original music, the success of the “fake” band lead to them nabbing a television series following the band, as well as a short run as the opening act for much of Britney Spears’ 2000 tour. The band created two albums and the single “The Hardest Park of Breaking Up (Is Getting Back Your Stuff)” charted at 87 on The Billboard Top 100.
15. ZELIG (1983)
Woody Allen plays the titular Leonard Zelig, a nondescript enigma who takes on the characteristics of those around him in an attempt to fit in, frequently referred to as “The Human Chameleon.” The film recounts Zelig’s period of celebrity in the 1920s and includes analyses from present day intellectuals. With the use of early blue-screen technology, Allen inserted himself and other actors into existing newsreel clips. This blending of old and new footage was done nearly a decade before digital filmmaking, creating an impressive film that truly stands the test of time.
14. BEHIND THE MASK: THE RISE OF LESLIE VERNON (2006)
Set in a world where slasher icons like Michael Myers, Freddy Krueger, and Jason Voorhees really existed, this mockumentary follows the titular Leslie Vernon, an aspiring serial killer modeling himself after his horror idols. The documentary follows Leslie’s transition from ordinary man into nightmare fuel, his research and preparation for his killing spree, and the inevitable demise of those that are documenting him.
13. FEAR OF A BLACK HAT (1993)
Chronicling the evolution and current state of American hip-hop, a documentarian trails a hardcore gangsta rap group called N.W.H. (“Niggaz With Hats), a clear play on the real-life group, N.W.A. Fear of a Black Hat is a remarkably smart look at the cultural significance of rap music in American pop culture. The humor is largely sourced from N.W.H.’s over-the-top graphic language in their songs, that they justify as a necessity in order to convey a “socially relevant message,” defending songs like “Booty Juice” and “Come and Pet the P.U.S.S.Y.” The film is largely and lovingly inspired by This Is Spinal Tap, but given a hip-hop facelift.
12. I’M STILL HERE (2010)
Joaquin Phoenix completely pulled one over on all of us in pursuit of Casey Affleck’s mockumentary I’m Still Here. For months, Phoenix disappeared from the public conscience only to re-emerge with a grizzly beard and an entirely new “persona.” The mockumentary covered Phoenix’s “retirement” from acting and his pursuit of a new career as a hip-hop artist. The Los Angeles Times reported that after the film’s premiere, buyers were unsure if the film was a staged mockumentary, or if Phoenix had truly lost his damn mind.
11. WAITING FOR GUFFMAN (1996)
Christopher Guest’s deadpan look at a small-town community theater’s preparation to put on a musical titled Red, White, and Blaine. Predominately improvised, the film is filled with quick wit and raucous gags. The film parodies everything from small towns, musical theater, alien abductions, and celebrity culture, all while reminding us that the folks in Blaine, Missouri aren’t all that off from the people we grew up with in our own hometowns.
10. INCIDENT AT LOCH NESS (2004)
Werner Herzog is one of the most prolific documentarians working today, and the mockumentary focused on Herzog, Incident at Loch Ness is like a giant inside joke for fans of his work. Believing that the Loch Ness Monster is just a figment of some serious Scottish group-think, Herzog leads a crew to Scotland to investigate the phenomena, all the while, his producer Zak Penn (and the real film’s director) has arranged for a secondary production team to make a documentary about Herzog himself. It’s a mockumentary within a mockumentary, but the events that occur while on the boat in Scotland help blur the lines of what is real, and what is fiction.
9. CSA: THE CONFEDERATE STATES OF AMERICA (2004)
Given the current social climate of America, this is a film that is definitely worth a re-visit. Set in an alternate reality in which the South won The Civil War, Kevin Willmott’s tongue-in-cheek mockumentary showcases the historical timeline of The Confederate States of America post-civil war until 2004. We join an alliance with Hitler, start the Cold War with Canada, and have our own slave-shopping network. While it is clearly meant to be funny, the hypothetical accuracies of the subject matter can be downright disturbing to imagine.
8. CB4 (1993)
Released the same year as Fear of the Black Hat, CB4 looks at a group of posers who achieve success as a hardcore rap act through pretending to be street thugs. Their reputations get the better of them once they’re faced with real gangsta violence, threatening to expose them as frauds, and put their lives in danger. A star-studded cast pushed this film in the forefront over Fear of the Black Hat, but this hilarious mockumentary is a biting commentary on hip-hop culture in the 1990s.
7. MAN BITES DOG (1992)
One of the most iconic and influential mockumentaries ever made, Remy Belvaux, Andre Bonzel, and Benoit Poelvoorde’s black comedy/drama Man Bites Dog was a horrifying insight into the mind of a serial killer. The film is presented in “fly-on-the wall” documentary style, with the documentarians never interfering with the events that unfold, including murder. The film boasts an NC-17 rating due to the graphic violence and implied murder of a baby.
6. LAKE MUNGO (2008)
This Australian horror documentary follows the strange events surrounding a family after their daughter drowns in a lake. Comprised of home video footage, photographs, talking-head interviews, and breathtaking B-roll, Lake Mungo is arguably one of the most horrifying ghost films of recent memory. The false-sense of authenticity of the film allows it to creep under your skin…and stay there.
5. BORAT: CULTURAL LEARNINGS OF AMERICA FOR MAKE BENEFIT GLORIOUS NATION OF KAZAKHSTAN (2006)
Sacha Baron Cohen’s portrayal of Borat Sagdiyev was intended to be a satirical look at American culture, but instead revealed some horrific truths about our society. Borat is an openly sexist, homophobic, and anti-Semitic character on a cross-country tour of America. Considering a majority of the people featured in the film believed Borat to truly be just a “funny foreigner,” Cohen exposes the ignorant underbelly of American culture from its citizens and celebrities.
4. WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS (2014)
The New Zealand duo known better as Flight of the Conchords created this faux-documentary surrounding a family of vampires going through their day-to-day lives. The film is sharp, refreshing, and finally delivers a modern vampire movie that doesn’t make you want to gouge your own eyes out. The humor is downright brilliant, and it’s chock full of plenty of kills to appease the inner gorehound in all of us.
3. DROP DEAD GORGEOUS (1992)
The world of small-town pageantry is a strange and peculiar one, but Drop Dead Gorgeous absolutely nails the subject matter in the best way possible. A documentary team follows contestants competing in the “Sarah Rose Cosmetics Mount Rose American Teen Princess Pageant” held in the fictional small town of Mount Rose, Minnesota. An annual small-town event quickly turns grim as contestants begin dying off in mysterious ways. Drop Dead Gorgeous slaps on a Minnesotan dialect that would make Fargo blush and has a rabid cult fan base that keeps this film thriving years later.
2. BEST IN SHOW (2000)
Arguably Christopher Guest’s magnum opus, Best In Show takes a behind the scenes look inside the cutthroat world of competitive dog showing. The film is filled with Guest cast regulars like Catherine O’Hara, Parker Posey, Eugene Levy, Bob Balaban, Michael McKean, Jane Lynch, Ed Begley Jr., Michael Hitchcock, Jennifer Coolidge, and a stand-out performance from Fred Willard. Best In Show makes it impossible to take dog shows seriously ever again. If you did in the first place.
1. THIS IS SPINAL TAP (1984)
“Shark Sandwich,” “Smell The Glove,” a slew of dead drummers, an ill-fated recreation of Stonehenge, and an amplifier that “goes to eleven” — all reasons why This is Spinal Tap has been cemented as the greatest mockumentary ever made. Directed by Rob Reiner in a writing collaborative effort with Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, and Harry Shearer, Spinal Tap is one of the most quoted and memorable comedies of all time. Hailed for it’s accurate portrayals of life on the road for hair metal bands — Ozzy Osbourne once admitted he thought the band was real because the happenings in the film have actually occurred on actual tours — This is Spinal Tap successfully captured the hair-metal craze with such accuracy, the film has become a beloved treasure to generations.
(HONORABLE MENTIONS: All You Need is Cash, A Day Without a Mexican, Boys & Girls Guide To Getting Down, Confessions of a Porn Addict, LolliLove, Tanner ’88, Series 7.)
B.J. Colangelo is a filmmaker, performer and contributor to Icons Of Fright, Bitch Flicks, Day of the Woman and others. She tweets at @bjcolangelo.