January 31, 2009

Best of 2008: Part 4

Read The Best of 2008: Part 2
Read The Best of 2008: Part 3


The Best Documentaries of 2008:
...like 2007 for feature films, 2008 was a year to remember for documentaries...

1. Up the Yangtze
  • "Yung Chang masterfully weaves power, wealth, culture, humility, sacrifice, tradition, national pride, poverty, and environmental concerns into a rich tapestry worthy of the world's attention. The production of the film is unpolished, but the raw footage is extremely potent, and the gray, smoggy feel to it brings an added sense of realism... The unique aspects of Chinese culture are on such brilliant display in Up the Yangtze that we Westerners will have difficulty understanding them with one viewing. What kind of society would allow this to happen? "Sacrifice the little family for the big family," laments one peasant. Chairman Mao would be proud."

2. Surfwise

  • "Surfwise offers a fascinating case study of a typical American family that took the road never traveled. Dorian Paskowicz was the man driving the camper on that road, and he can be equally thought of as a free-spirited and family-focused father of nine, or a paranoid king lording over his subjects and deliberately insulating them from the rest of society, with no plan for helping them assimilate to the outside world. He's both and neither; some of the Paskowicz children resent their father, while at least one of them has set out with his family and a camper of their own."

3. Trouble the Water
  • "...a searing indictment of not only the Bush Administration's mishandling (see: comprehensive negligence) of the Hurricane Katrina victims, but of the United States' long-standing indifference to the suffering of its most downtrodden citizens, a group comprised of but not limited to African-Americans in the Deep South. This weighty charge was made obvious by both the surreal footage of New Orleanians wallowing in the aftermath of Katrina, and also the matter-of-fact conversations had by the victims in Trouble the Water as they eventually accepted their tragic fate: “It's proven to me that, hey, if you don't have money, and you don't have status – you don't have a government.”"

4. Man on Wire

  • "It's a film that captures the best of human ambition and the worst of human selfishness. It's a study of man who needs to walk a tightrope like a fish needs to swim. It's a stylish mash-up of interviews, Errol Morris-like reenactments, and grainy Super-8 footage, all brilliantly synthesized by Marsh to make a film that's as heart-pounding as the latest Bourne installment and as emotionally moving as this year's Young @ Heart. Already the Sundance winner for Best Documentary Feature, watch for Man on Wire to easily receive an Oscar nomination in January.[If I may add to this now, look for it to run away with the win on February 22nd.]...we can look back and laugh with the crew as they recall the impossibly dramatic moments leading up to the morning of August 7, 1974, but I doubt you'll have the mental wherewithal to laugh when Petit takes his first step. Because of the human element and the accompanying music (possibly the most beautiful rendition of Erik Satie's Gymnop├ędie that you'll ever hear), Petit's performance - and it was a performance, not a stunt - narrowly edges the underwater tracking shot in Encounters at the End of the World as the most visually arresting scene of the year. It's a moment that doesn't just stun you into silence, but one that truly demonstrates what it means to be alive. The most primal elements of the human experience come together in one scene."

Young @ Heart

  • "What makes it a great film - arguably a perfect documentary - is that it's as honest as its own material. Stephen Walker doesn't manipulate us, and, more importantly, he doesn't manipulate his subjects. They don't shy away from exposing their broken bodies, and Walker doesn't shy away from showing us the difficulties of life in its ninth decade. But the film's subjects are beyond all of this, hence the name of the group... The members of Young @ Heart live to sing, but perhaps more literally, they sing to live...That all of this is captured on film so well is an incredible achievement on the part of director Stephen Walker. I didn't grow up with grandparents, so my exposure to this world is somewhat limited, but I don't know that I've ever seen life at 80-something portrayed with such humor, grace, respect, and insight. By the final performance, I felt like I was cheering on my close friends. Maybe it was because it was an empty theater on a late weeknight, but I was plugged in - completely in - like I haven't been in a long time. I wanted to cry, clap, sing, stomp my feet, and, after it was all over, splash my face with cold water.Young @ Heart isn't going to change your life, but it should at least make you appreciate it. No wonder the group members are wearing sunglasses in the poster - they've made the future look a lot brighter for all of us."

Nerakhoon (The Betrayal)

  • "Nerakhoon (The Betrayal), is Thavi's story, and it's unlike almost any documentary you've seen before - not because of what you see, but because of how you see it. Thavi's life, while undoubtedly remarkable, is still just one of countless similar stories from immigrants and refugees from around the world. But how often do you see a refugee's life over the course of 23 years?... a stunning directorial debut and an unflinching look at not just immigrant life in America, but the incredible character of one young man whose life is marked by betrayal at every turn: two countries turned their back on him and his father abandoned the family. Nobody can give Thavi Phrasavath any years of his life back, but, at the very least, he's deserving of an audience for his story."

Bigger, Stronger, Faster*
  • "See Bigger, Stronger, Faster* and marvel at two things: 1.) The honesty with which Chris Bell has made this documentary, and 2.) the true complexity surrounding the implications of, and the reasons for, the use of steroids and performance enhancers in so many corners of American culture...Now, I'm forced to consider - What is "cheating"? And if everyone is using them, where does the advantage begin and end? What about non-sporting uses? How are we as a society enabling and encouraging body manipulation? To explore these questions with an open mind and a lot of humor is an impressive achievement for Chris Bell's first feature-length documentary, and the incredibly positive reviews of Bigger, Stronger, Faster* are well deserved in my opinion. It's honest filmmaking - on steroids."

American Teen

  • "I enjoy documentaries like American Teen because they have the potential to unite people. In the case of this film, we come together to look back and collectively laugh at the trivial nature of high school, at the naive sense of urgency that made us think those four years were so important, and at the countless ways in which we tried to make ourselves "different" while somehow still fitting in to the right social groups....It turns out that, as American Teen amusingly demonstrates, we have a lot more in common with each other - both now and then - than we would like to admit. The American public high school experience is one of the great equalizers in life. Most of us went through the wringer and made it out alive on the other side, and whatever we ended up doing in the years since then, that little bubble of time remains a shared pot from which we can still draw some common insights and perspectives."

Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father
  • "You have a lot of surreal, "what if?" moments like that during Kuenne's Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father. It's one of the most acclaimed documentaries of the year - but it's hardly a documentary at all. It's a tribute, a love letter, a thank-you and an indictment, among other things. Does it document a story? Yes, but unintentionally...I can't say more, but what follows is very likely the most emotional personal tribute you've ever seen on film. Beyond creating a sense of riveting suspense as the story unfolds, Kuenne is stunningly successful at somehow bringing us, the viewers, literally into the story. Andrew becomes our murdered friend, and his parents our grieving parents...has the potential to not only change the world by initiating legal reform, but change our own lives by causing us to take a moment and consider our existence in this world, and what we hope to do with the time we have left."


  • "If there's nothing else you can take from what I've written, know this: Blindsight is not actually about blind kids attempting to climb a mountain. Rather, it's a thought-provoking study of what happens when Western culture, and specifically American ambition, runs headlong into Eastern traditions and a "group before self" mindset. If that was Lucy Walker's goal, and I think it was, then she's succeeded in grand fashion. The structure is a little shifty, but it's an overall beautifully shot film and the drama in the last half hour makes up for any earlier flaws. Although I was at different times frustrated, embarrassed, proud, devastated, thrilled, and shocked, Blindsight never seems emotionally manipulative. It just happens to be both an incredible story of six incredible students, and an important film from which to gather cultural insights."

...to be continued...


  1. While "Up the Yangtze" didn't end up as one of my top 5 documentaries of the year, I'm always glad to see it get some love, as it often gets unfairly over looked.

    I'm quite enjoying your 2008 retrospective. Looking forward to the top ten!

  2. No Encounters or Waltz? You are gutsy.

    Or perhaps a descriptor less flattering. ;)

  3. Yeah, I only saw a handful of docs this year, but (of the ones I can comment on) American Teen over Waltz?


    Just how many parts is this Best of? I'm starting to worry about you - you likely have 10 reviews backed up...

  4. Ahh...I knew I would catch some heat for Waltz. I actually considered putting a disclaimer at the top of the post. Truth is, it came out just yesterday here and I haven't seen it. So if it IS as good as everyone has claimed for the last 6 months, I guess I'll have no choice but to add it to the list (good thing I never said "10 Best"!). Fact is, Matt, the omission of Encounters was a complete oversight, so I might have to add that as well (and there ARE documentaries I've left off, in case it doesn't seem like it - Gonzo, At the Death House Door, Standard Operating Procedure).

    I've had so little time to devote to blogging as of late that this entire year-end retrospective has been a lot less assured than I had hoped. One more installment, Fletch (Matt guessed it)! Yeah, I really should review The Wrestler, Che, and Notorious, but like I said, writing time is all but nonexistent during these few weeks.

  5. Well, that's certainly a fair omission, Daniel. I guess I (and others, likely) were just under the assumption that you'd seen it. You see everything (and before us) typically. ;)

  6. It's all relative, Friendo. I fell like I'm weeks behind others half of the time!

    Well I'll be able to see one movie this week only, and I'm going to squeeze in Bashir tomorrow night I think, so maybe it will pop up here retroactively.

  7. The choice of UP THE YANGTZE at Top doc is simply fantastic, as I myself value it supremely, and few critics and bloggers have failed to fully embrace it.

    I admit I haven't SURFWISE nor BLINDSIGHT, but all the others are excellent inclusions. Of course, from what I've read about those two, one can't fail to be impressed with their prospects.

    I know you had minor issues with MOW, but certainly not enough to keep it from a #5 placement.

    As you probably may remember, I had DEAR ZACHARY as my top doc, and glad you found it worthy of this exclusive group.

    Lovely capsule reviews.

  8. I also noticed no ENCOUNTERS, but figured the competition in this extraordinary year for docs would explain it.

    I am not the fan of WALTZ that everyone else is, but that's another story.

    Maybe two other docs could have made your list...THE UNFORESEEN and ANITA O'DAY, but hey, 10 is 10.

  9. And I know Matthew and Nick would argue for PATTI SMITH, as many others would, but I didn't connect with that one, as much as I admit I should see it again.

  10. Thanks much, Sam. I know you saw a number of these, so I'm glad you agree with the selections. And as a minor point of clarification, I never did specify that these were the 10 best, so if I have time I actually may be adding Waltz and Encounters back into the mix here. Or maybe I won't, who knows.

    The Unforeseen was one that I really wanted to see but never proactively sought out, I missed Patti Smith at our festival here last year, and Anita O'Day just came and went too quickly. All three were highly regarded, but The Unforeseen is the one that I'm still most interested in seeing some day.


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