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Capturing the Decade: Documentaries

by Collin Souter

The '00s have unquestionably given rise to many genres and movements that have been somewhat dormant or not fully realized until now, none more so than the documentary. Thanks to the advent and accessibility of digital video, it is now easier than ever for someone to pick up a camera and film life as it happens. People from all walks of life--out-of-work actors, journalists, teachers and the odd, obscure film critic--have dabbled in the medium and have thereby flooded the marketplace and the film festivals with so many mirrors to our world that it becomes hard to know where to look first. Making a Top 10 list of the best is futile, especially when there are still plenty to be discovered that have yet to break free of "distribution limbo." But I'm giving it a go anyway, giving the most attention to the films that made my Top 10 lists over the years. These 10 may not seem like the most "important" or "defining of our times," but they have endured and I believe will continue to do so over the next 10 years:

1. Stevie
Directed by Steve James; Edited by William Haugse and Steve James

Even at the end of the decade, Steve James' personal odyssey through his past, his present and the ethical and moral questions that confront him as a filmmaker and friend seemed to be the most important and most challenging of all documentary films. It poses many questions about the boundaries between the filmmaker and its subject, while providing few answers, rightfully so. It also makes for a perfect start-off point for discussion about the ethics of documentary filmmaking, thus adding a whole new dimension to participatory documentaries that should be studied in film schools everywhere. Should James have just turned around and walked away once he realized his "little brother" had been arrested for child molestation? Perhaps we all like to think that we would have done just that, but James puts himself in the hot seat for the debate, making for one of the bravest and most uncompromising documentaries ever made.
(Also starring the filmmaker: All Michael Moore films, of course, BIGGER, STRONGER, FASTER, Super Size Me)

2. Jesus Camp
Directed by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady; Edited by Enat Sidi

Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady's compulsively watchable examination of Evangelical Summer Camps for kids seemed to have been embraced by both devout Christians who saw it as a respectable depiction of their values and methods as well as the non-converted, who deemed it a startling wake-up call to the culture war around us. It's quite an achievement. What could have been an easy target for ridicule is, instead, a perfectly even-handed and neutral study in the indoctrinating of America's youth. Many films released this decade will have dated themselves with the appearance of President Bush as the filmmakers' nemesis, but Jesus Camp will still resonate years from now, while engraving in your mind some of the most haunting images and most memorable characters to be seen in any decade.
(More Culture Wars: Shut Up and Sing, Bowling For Columbine, Fahrenheit 9/11, This Film is Not Yet Rated, F*ck)

3. 49 Up
Directed by Michael Apted; Edited by Kim Horton

In 2004, I finally saw the first six films in Michael Apted's Up series and found them to be some of the most enriching viewing experiences I've ever had in watching a documentary. For reasons I cannot fully explain, seeing the most current installment in the actual time of its release may have had a more lasting impact. Apted follows up with most of the participants, many of whom have reached a period of calm and acceptance in their lives, yet one woman stands out from the rest. At one point, she confronts Apted by simply stating (in so many words) "I donít like the way you've edited my life...but I guess thereís nothing I can do about that." It's an uncomfortable moment to watch, but it sums up perfectly what this essential series of films reiterates time and time again: Life is not a movie.
(Other life stories: This Old Cub, Crazy Love, Surfwise, Bukowski: Born Into This, How We Get By)

4. Anvil! The Story of Anvil
Directed by Sacha Gervasi; Edited by Andrew Dickler and Jeff Renfroe

There was no shortage of rock documentaries this decade, thanks in large part to the popularity of VH-1's Behind the Music, but also because the drama surrounding the record industry's woes and inability to keep up with consumer trends lent itself to high drama in and around recording studios. But until recently, the '80s metal band Anvil has existed outside the mainstream and in obscurity, which makes them a better bet for a compelling documentary than, say, The Jonas Brothers. The first seven minutes paints a somewhat bleak picture: Anvil influenced an impressive handful of metal rockers (Metallica and Megadeth alone), but now work menial jobs in Toronto just to make ends meet while recording albums few people buy while playing to audiences rarely breaking double digit numbers. Yet, it is Steve "Lips" Kudlow and longtime bandmate and friend Robb Reiner's willingness to keep going with their passion and dreams that propels this documentary. You might not enjoy their music, but they remain two of the least pretentious people in their industry today and two people worth rooting for. Lips' boyish enthusiasm and gratefulness for everything around him is one of the great joys to watch in a film that is already high on life. More than a real-life Spinal Tap, it's this decade's American Movie.
(More rock-docs: DiG!, I Am Trying To Break Your Heart, Metallica: Some Kind of Monster, Leonard Cohen: I'm Your Man, The Devil and Daniel Johnston)

5. To Be and To Have
Directed and Edited by Nicholas Philibert

Nicholas Philibert's profound, yet simple slice-of-life documentary about a year in the life of a single room French elementary school run by a gentle and caring teacher, Georges Lopez. Most of the days are about making sure the children (of multiple age groups) learn the basics, but every so often, little dramas come into play that Lopez must deal with on his own. His calm demeanor, warmth and seemingly unlimited patience help make clear that while we adult viewers might not view the children's problems as the stuff of high drama, the kids do, and we end up being right there with them. With no narration, minimal interview segments (only one, if I remember correctly) and a steady camera, this might be the smoothest, most unobtrusive documentary I've ever seen.
(The kids are, hopefully, alright: American Teen, Born Into Brothels, Spellbound)

6. Murderball
Directed by Henry Alex Rubin and Dana Adam Shapiro; Edited by Conor OíNeill and Geoffrey Richman

2005's best documentary was unfortunately over-shadowed by a bunch of lovable penguins, but eventually found new life on DVD and was lovingly referenced in Judd Apatow's Knocked Up. A documentary about a quadriplegic rugby team may sound like a bit of an uncomfortable downer, but it's amazing how much action, suspense and comedy there is in this film. Unlike the cluttered and overblown Mad Hot Ballroom of the same year, Murderball focuses on only a few central characters and tells its story economically. Yes, their story is inspiring, but that's almost beside the point. At the end, it's about finding your own potential no matter what the circumstances.
(Sports, Movement and Adversity: Indestructible, War/Dance, Up for Grabs, The Heart of the Game, Rize)

7. The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters
Directed and Edited by Seth Gordon

Here's one that rewards more and more with repeat viewings. Although the movie depicts an arrested state of adolescence among male video game enthusiasts, King of Kong is most certainly about being a mature adult. It's about doing the right thing, behaving gracefully and the desire to achieve. In a brisk 80 minutes, director Seth Gordon conveys all of this, but never making the point to underscore just how odd and dedicated this subculture of gamers has become. In the age of multi-user games with complex storylines, it's refreshing to find that there remains a devout group of people--young and elderly alike--devoted to kill screens and gorillas with boulders. At once a comforting nostalgia piece, a thrilling story of competitiveness and a personal reflection on important life values, The King of Kong resonates on so many levels. Hard to believe it's still about Donkey Kong.
(Interesting People and their interesting hobbies: Touching the Void, Man On Wire, Twisted: A Balloonamentary, The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill, Grizzly Man)

8. The Cove
Directed by Louie Psihoyos; Edited by Geoffrey Richman

Yes, there are a lot of loopy environmentalists and Greenpeace Warriors out there, but The Cove spends its time with a man whose passion for saving dolphins runs deeper than an average streak of liberal guilt. This man helped cause the problem he is trying to fix. Even better, The Cove makes for a great thriller, as a group of individuals, each with a particular necessary talent, conspire (Oceans-11-syle) to expose the dolphin slayings that have remained carefully hidden from the public eye. The result is a thrilling piece of journalism and effective activism that achieves the goal of instigating change.
(More about the environment...good, bad or otherwise: Winged Migration, Who Killed the Electric Car?, Up The Yangtze, Encounters at the End of the World, Flow, An Inconvenient Truth, Food, Inc., March of the Penguins)

9. Dear Zachary: A Letter To A Son About His Father
Directed and Edited by Kurt Kuenne

A truly heartbreaking documentary that gets deep under the skin and stays there for quite some time. Although, at times the music can be a bit overbearing, the storytelling is impeccable. Dear Zachary moves like a courtroom thriller where the twists and turns come from every which angle. Just when the viewer believes that justice is about to be served, the rug gets pulled out from under them and the result is truly devastating. The less one knows about the storyline going in, the better. Rent it, keep the Kleenex nearby and keep your anger in check.
(The Continued Pursuit for Truth and Justice: Capturing the Friedmans, Twist of Faith, Deliver Us From Evil)

10. Neil Young: Heart of Gold
Directed by Jonathan Demme; Edited by Andy Keir

In a decade uncommonly rich with great concert films, few matched Jonathan Demme's treatment of Neil Young's soulful, moving trip through time as he examines a life fully lived, but nowhere near finished. Ellen Kuras' gorgeous cinematography combined with Andy Keir's minimal editing help make this more emotional and involving document, which--along with Demme's Stop Making Sense--could serve as a template for how to perfectly construct a concert film. Demme knows that a concert can tell a story. Young performed this concert in the wake of a heart attack and his choice of songs and the grace with which he and his fellow musicians perform them conveys so much depth and heart that the back-story and the conclusion become as clearly thought-out as any straightforward narrative.
(More Docs that Rock: Festival Express, Shine A Light, Dave Chappelle's Block Party, U23D, Passing Strange)

Why no Iraq docs? Shouldn't a Top 10 list of documentaries from this decade feature at least one film about the most divisive and controversial global event of our time? Isn't one of the purposes of documentaries to hold up a mirror to our world, our culture and our values? Maybe and yes. However, with the onslaught of anti-war docs and narrative features that appeared in the wake of Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11, I quickly became fatigued by the whole thing and still find it hard to work up enthusiasm for anything having to do with Iraq, no matter how well made it is (and there are plenty of beautifully made documentaries on the subject to choose from, I know). I'm more moved by films about people than films about a message I already agree with. That's just me.

But since I brought it up, I may as well list No End In Sight as the decade's most thoughtful, even-handed and urgent film on the subject. The Academy Award-winning Taxi To the Dark Side explored the chilling reality behind America's vague policies on torture and how it looks when we stoop to the level of the enemies we fight against. Another Academy Award winner, Erol Morris's The Fog of War, let former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara tell his side of the story with regards to his role in the Vietnam conflict, which drew interesting parallels to America's new conflict. The Venezuela-based The Revolution Will Not Be Televised and the documentary about Al-Jazeera, Control Room, both examined how the media fails to tell the entire story of protesters, politicians and how citizens receive their news. Finally, 2009's Burma VJ used footage smuggled out of Burma to tell the story of Monks protesting the wrongful arrests of those who spoke out against the current regime.

The subject of financial collapse, Wall Street scandals, national and personal debts were also well documented throughout the decade, starting with Chris Hegedus and Jehane Naoujaim's fly-on-the-wall doc, which followed two budding dot.commers as they try to get a web-based business up and running whereby people could pay off their parking tickets over the internet. Little did they know the boom's days were numbered. But most importantly, would their friendship sustain the downfall?

Alex Gibney's Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room perfectly spelled out the most complex, front-and-center financial scandal of the decade in layman's terms for those of us who still cannot define dividend. I.O.U.S.A. and Maxed Out both put a human face on debt accumulating and collecting, as they both investigate how credit card companies and banks across the country conspire to keep us owing for the rest of our lives. Michael Moore's Capitalism: A Love Story might have been little/too late, but should be mentioned as a film that rounds out the story of the financial markets at the end of the 00's, even if he doesn't tell the whole story. But The Yes Men and The Yes Men Save The World, which followed two ingenious pranksters and their pursuit to take down those who practice globalization, pre-dated Borat and made for two of the funniest films of the decade.

Documentaries about movies, filmmaking and the artistic process also enjoyed a healthy popularity: My personal favorite, Best Worst Movie, followed one of the stars of "the worst movie ever made," Troll 2, and how he embraced the cult phenomenon that ensued years after its release. The Kid Stays In the Picture painted a both endearing and condemning portrait of producer Robert Evans while Lost In La Mancha shadowed director Terry Gilliam as he watched his production of Don Quixote crumble before his very eyes. Not Quite Hollywood and Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession opened our eyes to an obscure sub-genre (Australian grindhouse cinema) and a little known cable TV entity, respectively. Finally, A Decade Under the Influence reflected on '70s cinema, a long-overdue essay that still only seemed to scratch the surface, but still remained irresistible and essential viewing. Finally, Steve James' hugely entertaining Reel Paradise followed independent film promoter John Pierson and his family and their move to a remote village in Fiji, where Pierson opened a movie theater and brought Hollywood entertainment to the grateful townfolk. Hearing Pierson argue the merits of jackass: the movie (arguably the funniest documentary of the decade) to his wife is one of film's many highlights.

Made for TV/Cable Masterpieces:

When the Levees Broke
Spike Lee's epic and startling 4-part documentary on Hurricane Katrina tells you everything you need to know and in great detail. It would be easy for screenwriters to come up with a 4-part fictional narrative miniseries on the subject, but Lee has all but spoken the last word on the subject (the 2008 doc Trouble the Water is more of a personal document, and is also worth watching).

Planet Earth The groundbreaking Winged Migration may have only set the bar for how to film nature documentaries, but the hugely popular BBC Blue-ray classic Planet Earth raised the bar to a staggering height, higher than the cameras had to go to obtain such dizzying, breathtaking footage.

9/11 The defining moment of our times, of course, became the subject of many documentaries, none more harrowing or front-and-center than this somewhat accidental account by two French documentary filmmakers as they captured the falling of the Twin Towers as well as a personal reflection from the firefighters--their initial subject--who risked life and limb to rescue the innocent.

Finally, an Honorable Mention:
In the Shadow of the Moon
I didn't quite know where to put this one, but it seemed to bear mentioning. As our world grows more and more cynical and less willfully challenged, this film reminds us that there are possibilities within our universe that are bigger than us and should not be taken for granted. I can only hope the following decade will explore our humanity, our joys, our sorrows, our activism and our greatest achievements as richly and as fully as this decade did, while venturing out into uncharted territories. It's still possible.

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originally posted: 01/01/10 02:58:21
last updated: 01/10/15 10:24:15
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