Life at HOK’s Favorite Documentaries

In December, Life at HOK released its 2009 reading list which turned out not only to give us great gift ideas, but aslo to be an awesome glimpse into the minds of HOK. In the same spirit, we thought it would be great to bring to you a list of HOK’s favorite documentaries. What better way to get to know us then to see what we spend our free time watching? Each title will link you out to either streaming video, a site where you can purchase the video, or some other informative website. So without further ado:


Carl Sagan

Recommended by Blake Gallagher

Comment: “Okay, so this is from the early 80’s, but if you watch the online version on youtube, the end of most episodes is accompanied by an “update” explaining areas where our understaning of the cosmos has developed in the past three decades. Carl Sagan is one of my heroes as an advocate for spreading knowledge of what is beyond our everyday experience and perceptions. As a side note, it is also enjoyable to see how far we’ve come with computer graphics.” 

toadsCane Toads: An Unnatural History

Directed by Tip Byrne

Recommended by Michelle Pinkston

Comment: “Amazing! Basic synopsis? Australia’s sugar cane crops were threatened by the cane beetle. To “Solve” the problem, humans introduced 102 cane toads to Australia. These cane toads (the picture of what these things look like is AMAZING) quickly found they had no predators, and began breeding OUT OF CONTROL and this weird documentary looks at what people will do (careening down a highway at night squishing toads with their car, sleeping with their kids as pets, killing and boiling down the toads to get high – lsd-type – from drinking the water, etc) when faced with such an overwhelming animal populations. The best part? Cane toads don’t even eat cane beetles…  Bwa ha ha ha! ”

enronEnron: The Smartest Guys in the Room

Alex Gibney

Recommended by John Gilmore

Comment: “Whether you do it through yoga or a stiff drink, you may want to put yourself in a relaxed state before you watch this documentary, ’cause you’re gonna get angry in a hurry. Though this was released in 2004, our recent financial crisis makes it seem more relevant than ever.”




Recommended by Blake Gallagher

Comment: “It’s been a while since I’ve watched this one, but I remember it leaving a mark. It is another documentary that using visualization very well to demonstrate time intensive processes outside of our limited frame of reference.”



eyes on the prizeEyes on the Prize

PBS, 1987

Recommended by Kimberly Dowdell

Comment: “I really appreciate the PBS Documentary, “Eyes on the Prize”, a landmark series documenting the history of the civil rights movement – originally broadcast on PBS in 1987.”




food incIIFood Inc.

Robert Kenner

Recommended by Colin Rohlfing






The Future we willThe Future We Will Create: Inside the World of TED (2007)

New Video Group

Recommended by Nico Stearley 

Comment: “It is fascinating we walk the same earth with these brilliant minds. It all begins with an idea and we all hold the power to think, create, and inspire, which is exactly what this film demonstrates.”

Alternate Link:

gardenThe Garden

Scott Hamilton Kennedy

Recommended by Megan Holder

Comment:  “The documentary follows a group of low-income families in South Central Los Angeles and their political fight to keep their urban community garden. It is inspiring and heartbreaking.”

This is available for immediate streaming on Netflix. 


  Grey Gardens
Grey Gardens

Directed by Albert Maysles

Recommended by Michelle Pinkston

Comment: “Relatives of Jackie Kennedy, Big Edie and Little Edie (mother and daughter) are used to a life of luxury – dinner and dancing, a gorgeous home in the Hamptons, socialites, jewels, the whole ordeal.  As they have aged, however, their lives in high society have decayed and they now live in a withering mansion in the Hamptons where they live out their eccentric lives.  Sweaters on the head as a scarf, jewelry the size of a fist, cats eating holes in the walls, no running water – it’s an awesome film.  Don’t waste your time with the remakes, go back to the original!”

HelveticaHelvetica (2007)

Swiss Dots, Veer, by Gary Hustwit

Recommended by Gerald Callo

Comment: “As a graphic designer it was just fun to watch something as simple as a universal regular old typeface, Helvetica, get it’s own “movie” in a sense. You see it everywhere but you don’t even give it a second thought.”





by Yann Arthus-Bertrand

Recommended by Blake Gallagher

Comment: “Released in March, 2009, this is the first ever film to be released simultaneously in 181 countries in blueray, television, and for free on YouTube, without a copyright. This film takes us on a journey of our planet from its beginnings to now with spectacular video footage, mostly aerial, poetic narration, and music that keeps you captivated. Parts of it are dark in tone, but it ends on a high note of optimism. Again, this can be watched on YouTube with the provided link. It is also available on Netflix.”


hotdog_200A Hot Dog Program

WQED Pittsburgh, 1999, Rick Sebak

Recommended by Gerald Callo

Comment: “Anything from Rick Sebak, especially this and “Sandwiches That You Will Like” which are food centric.”




human footprintHuman Footprint

National Geographic, narrated by Elizabeth Vargas

Recommended by Barry Sutherland

Comment: “Great visual representation of what we, as humans, consume throughout our lifetime, from diapers, to eggs, to milk.”




strokeJill Bolte Taylor’s Powerful Stroke of Insight

A TED Talk

Recommended by Megan Holder

Comment: “This lecture alone sold me on the force that is TED. Jill Bolte Taylor talks about experiencing a stroke and coming back as a changed person.”


man on wireMan on Wire

James Marsh

Recommended by Jason Hamlin

Comment: “I think what I like best about “Man on Wire” is the pure insanity of it all – walking a tightrope above New York! Philippe Petit is an artist, for sure, but the risks and sacrifices he made to accomplish this remarkable feat go well beyond what most artists would ever consider. Petit seems simultaneously crazy and brilliant. I also admire the way this movie doesn’t end on the high note of the event itself, but turns to the emotions of the people who weren’t on the wire. The sorrow and loss that come from the accomplishment nearly overcome the event itself. It’s a movie about a tightrope walker, yes, but I couldn’t help but wonder if it wasn’t also a prelude to the story of the WTC.”

ManufacturedLandscapesManufactured Landscapes

NFB, 2007

Recommended by Valerie Greer





miracle planetMiracle Planet

Narrated by Christopher Plummer

Recommended by Blake Gallagher

Comment: “This documentary brilliantly explains the interworkings of our planet beginning with its accretion in the early solar system and ending with a glimpse into the future. I am most drawn to the brilliant use of computer animation used throughout to demonstrate some otherwise difficult to imagine processes. It does a great job at shrinking the scales of both space and time into something you can wrap your head around.” 


new yorkNew York (8 Discs)


Recommended by Han Hsi Ho 

Comment: “I originally watched the whole series for school (studio assignment), but this has turned out to be perhaps the documentary that influenced me the most by deepening my understanding of the city I lived in for seven years. Definitely the best/most comprehensive documentary out there for New York!”



planet earthPlanet Earth

Narrated by David Attenborough

Recommended by Blake Gallagher

Comment: “You may have already seen this one, but did you watch it in HD? If not, the high definition experience is a must. Each episode has a focus on a particular set of our planet’s biological systems. Also be sure to catch the David Attenborough version (the original), as he has a magical way of explaining nature.” 



Bill Maher

Recommended by Blake Gallagher and John Gilmore

John’s comment: “Bill Maher and director Larry Charles (Borat, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Seinfeld) travel the world to explore God and religion. You can imagine the results.”

Blake’s comment: “If you enjoy Bill Maher, this is a must watch.”   


sandwiches_logo_main2Sandwiches That You Will Like

WQED Pittsburgh, 2002, Rick Sebak

Recommended by Gerald Callo

Comment: “Fun yet somewhat old, documentaries which are foodie centric. You catch the commercial once and watch it and from then on whenever they replay the video you can’t not watch it.”

 Alternate Link: 

suicide touristThe Suicide Tourist

Point Grey Pictures, by John Zaritsky

Recommended by Megan Holder

Comment: “Shown on the PBS program Frontline, The Suicide Tourist follows Craig, suffering from ALS, and his journey as he confronts his death. Regardless of your views on the topic, it makes you think.”



Super_Size_Me_PosterSuper Size Me

Morgan Spurlock

Recommended by Barry Sutherland and John Gilmore

Barry’s comment: “A wonderful, yet, disturbing, look into the effects of fast food, namely McDonald’s, on a person’s body and mind.”

John’s comment: “It’s not a shock that someone who ate nothing but fast food for 30 days gained weight and felt dreadful, but I haven’t eaten at a McDonald’s or the like since I watched this in 2004.”


spinal tapThis is Spinal Tap

Karen Murphy

Recommended by Jodi Williams and John Gilmore

Jodi’s comment: “Since I don’t watch a lot of movies, let alone documentaries, I thought maybe a mockumentary might count??  For those of you who haven’t seen this 80s classic, it’s a documentary chronicling the misadventures of a fictional British heavy metal band, Spinal Tap.  The cast is phenomenal: Rob Reiner, Michael McKean, Christopher Guest, Harry Shearer, Fran Dresher, Bruno Kirby, Paul Shaffer, Ed Begley Jr, Anjelica Huston, Dana Carvey, and Billy Crystal to name a few.  It’s VH1’s “Behind the Music” combined with E’s “True Hollywood Story” before either existed. Needless to say, hilarity ensues.”

John’s comment: “Hello Cleveland! This 1984 rockumentary by Martin Di Bergi goes to 11, and is by far the funniest movie I’ve ever seen.”

hell on wheelsTour de France – Hell on Wheels

Pepe Danquart and Werner Schweizer

Recommended by John Gilmore

Comment: “A German filmmaker takes us away from the Lance Armstrong hype and inside the 2003 edition of the Tour de France. Don’t let the breathtaking scenery of the French countryside or the Alps and Pyrenees fool you–this event pushes riders’ physical and psychological limits to 11.  ”

ultramarathonUltraMarathon Man

J. B. Benna

Recommended by John Gilmore

Comment: “Watch ultrarunner Dean Karnazes run 50 marathons in 50 states – in 50 days! It’s amazing what we can train our bodies to do. And I actually make a cameo in the film because I was lucky enough to run with and talk to Dean for about five miles during his first marathon in St. Charles, Missouri. Watch the director’s commentary to learn how Journeyfilm’s JB Benna, himself an accomplished endurance athlete, shot much of the footage while riding alongside Dean on a folding bike. Inspirational accomplishments by both Dean and JB.”

walmartWal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price

Robert Greenwald

Recommended by Megan Holder

This is available for immediate streaming on Netflix.

  1. April 1st, 2010 - 11:34 am
    John C said:

    An interesting list. The first installment of ‘Eyes On The Prize’ (1955-1965) is still my favorite documentary of all time – but I know I couldn’t sit through two hours of Bill Maher’s worldview…

  2. April 1st, 2010 - 7:16 pm
    Michelle said:

    what an awesome compilation! i was really hoping for few spring showers, but now that I have all these other suggestions – BRING ON THE RAINY DAYS!

  3. April 2nd, 2010 - 2:15 pm
    David Ivey said:

    An impressive list no doubt, but no Ken Burns? Sacralige! His latest; The National Parks: America’s Best Idea, may be his best (also check out Baseball and The Civil War, depending on where your interested lie).

  4. April 5th, 2010 - 9:12 am
    Jason said:

    Well done, Blake! This is a great way to learn about some new titles.

  5. April 6th, 2010 - 8:17 am
    Michelle said:

    I’m with you on the Ken Burns – but I’d already mentioned it!

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