December 21, 2009

Considering the Best Documentaries of the Decade (2000-2009): Part 1

 Among the best: Spellbound, Born into Brothels, Jonestown, Trouble the Water 

A few weeks ago, before the current deluge of Best of Decade lists hit the internet, I came across a couple of lists ranking the best documentaries of the last 10 years (not surprisingly, I found them via The Documentary Blog). I enjoyed scanning through these to see what I agreed with, what I'd never heard of, and what I noticed was missing. The first list was Paste Magazine's 25 Best Documentaries of the Decade, and the second was an excellent independent list by a London-based blogger, 50 Documentaries of the Decade, which was actually written as a kind of response to Paste's list.

I'm not going to make a third list here, but I am going to offer some thoughts on these two, and in the process I'll probably end up with my own top ten or so. As a general disclaimer, I should say that a.) I generally don't like ranking films numerically (really, what's the difference between the 4th best and the 6th best?), and b.) I only began watching documentaries in earnest around 2002, so I am biased toward the second half of this decade simply because I've seen many more from that period.

So, on with the show:

Paste Magazine's 25 Best Documentaries of the Decade:

What I agree with: Spellbound, The King of Kong, Grizzly Man and The Fog of War all deserve their high place in the list. I'm glad to see Anvil! The Story of Anvil (probably because I'm sad it won't get Oscar consideration this year), and No End in Sight deserves a spot as one of the best Iraq war documentaries to date. In terms of Alex Gibney films, I'm glad Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room gets in over Taxi to the Dark Side and Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson. 

What I haven't seen: I've missed six of these 25: When the Levees Broke, The White Diamond, Dig!, Gleaners and I, The Devil and Daniel Johnston, and No Direction Home. I've been meaning to see Levees and I wanted to see Devil especially after reading this article almost four years ago.

What's missing: Even with only 25 spots available, there are some major oversights on this list (in my opinion, of course). In terms of Iraq war documentaries, no list is complete without The War Tapes. I also can't forgive the omission of Jonestown: The Life and Death of People's Temple or last year's Up the Yangtze, Surfwise, and Young @ Heart in a top 25 list. Considering what else is here I'm surprised the Oscar-winning March of the Penguins didn't get a nod. Personally I wasn't that taken by it, but I was under the impression at the time (2005) that everyone else was, particularly because it earned more than $100 million at the box office. Speaking of which, the highest-grossing documentary of all time, Fahrenheit 9/11, is conspicuously absent, though deservedly so in my opinion.

Other thoughts: I was automatically suspicious of this list when I saw Man on Wire in the #1 spot. Sure, I enjoyed it, but it wasn't my favorite of last year, let alone the last ten years. But it was the people's choice, and fits along with the rest of this list as a household name/easily digestible film for the documentary-phobic. Aside from the artsy Iraq in Fragments at #2, Paste really didn't take many risks with this list. Not that it should be about taking risks anyway, but by choosing mostly popular films (Fahrenheit and Penguins excluded) they've omitted many of the best ones.

Charlotte Cook's 50 Documentaries of the Decade: 

What I agree with: Charlotte makes it clear this is not a numerical ranking, but still I can't help but nod my head at seeing The Fog of War, Jonestown, and Guerrilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst all listed near the top. I also like her inclusions of The Weather Underground and Control Room, in addition to some of the other consensus bests (Spellbound, The King of Kong, Grizzly Man, Born Into Brothels).

What I haven't seen: I have missed more than I've seen from this list and I actually haven't even heard of several of these films, no doubt the sign of her well-rounded viewing and unique selections. Among the notable ones I know of but have not seen are The Staircase, The Bridge, Bus 174, Dark Days, Standing in the Shadows of Motown, and a few others.

What's missing: Hard to say that some of these should be replaced considering I haven't seen many of them, but in a list of 50 I think I'd find room for Up the Yangtze, Bigger, Stronger, Faster*, The Betrayal, Surfwise, The War Tapes, Trouble the Water, Riding Giants, The Boys of Baraka, Who Killed the Electric Car?, American Teen, Blindsight, My Kid Could Paint That, Tyson, Young @ Heart, Anvil! The Story of Anvil, Crude, War/Dance, and Tupac: Resurrection.

Other thoughts: As someone commented below her post, this is a pretty "out there" list, but I think it has some great selections and stands in stark contrast to Paste's more populist list. Charlotte obviously has a deep interest in traditional documentary filmmaking and her choices don't represent really at all what the general public would choose (e.g., not one Michael Moore selection here). I admire that.

Well now that I've gone and looked through these lists, and it in the process found others at Cinematical and The Playlist, I guess I'm just going to have to sit down and come up some modified version of my own.

Coming next week (hopefully), "Considering the Best Documentaries of the Decade (2000-2009): Part 2"...


  1. The only reason I clicked on links to Paste and the blogger was to see where Fog of War was placed and I am happy to see it on the top. Although not as much of a LC/DT as FofW, "Why We Fight" was also extremely enlightening and well made.

  2. Yiiip. Check out that Cinematical list to see where Why We Fight ended up...

  3. I have missed a ton of documentaries from this decade, so it's tough for me to comment on a lot of the ones you mentioned. I can say that from 2009, I have really enjoyed Tyson and The Cove.

  4. If it makes you feel any better, Danny, I feel like I've missed a ton of documentaries from the decade, at least compared to someone like Charlotte (who I have just heard from, incidentally - she explains that she worked on a documentary strand for two years and saw many films that weren't released internationally; she also says that Young @ Heart was a tough choice and that The Fog of War is likely her #1 for the decade).

    But it's all relative because I do know that I see many more than the average movie-goer. 2009 has been a little less than stellar compared to last year, which I considered the best documentary year of the decade. Highlights from this year for me have been Anvil, Tyson, Food, Inc., Milking the Rhino, Heart of Stone, P-Star Rising, Living in Emergency, Afghan Star, and Crude. I was initially high on The Cove but it's cooled significantly in my estimation for some reason. Also rans are Capitalism: A Love Story, We Live in Public, Diary of a Times Square Thief, The Way We Get By, Good Hair, and maybe This is It, if that counts.

  5. I'm really glad to see her listing of Boogie Man. I'm surprised I didn't remember that myself. I was not personally that taken with Standing in the Shadows of Motown: it thought it was kind of shallow and too traditionally crafted. A music documentary must be musical itself, IMHO. I'd also like to mention Missing Allen (2001), an affecting look at friends and family of indie filmmaker Allen Ross who search for him after he disappears into a cult.

  6. Music documentaries are tricky, no doubt, having to choose whether they focus on the artist (Patti Smith: Dream of Life, Anvil! The Story of Anvil) or the music (This is It, Shine a Light, U23D). Sometimes I think I can forgive a music documentary for not being musical in the same way I can forgive a war documentary for not being violent, particularly if the focus is more on the artist and/or the culture of their time. But then, how can you talk about the significance of an artist without highlighting their music in some way?

    Depending on the artist, that might be a good thing. I wouldn't want a documentary about Britney Spears and tween pop singers to feature any music, but then I wouldn't call her an artist anyway and would be uninterested to learn anything else about her, so it's a wash.

    While I'm on the subject, though, I would be interested in a thoughtful documentary about the death of meaningful and/or musical and/or talent-necessary pop music over the last decade, thanks in large part to the rise of Spears and other manufactured icons. But I digress.

  7. I could see how your feelings on The Cove have died down a bit. I just recently saw it, and I didn't think it was overwhelmingly powerful, but I thought it was well done. What I liked most about it was the fact that it took a subject I knew absolutely nothing about, did a great job of explaining it, and then convinced me that something has to be done to change the current situation.

  8. You sum it up pretty well, and I appreciate that it discussed a serious issue in a serious manner. But in hindsight maybe it was too serious, going past the line of telling and story and entering the zone of agenda-pushing activism.


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