January 28, 2010

Best of 2009: Part 4

(overlooked performances, disappointments, favorite settings)

(best scenes, worst movies)

(best scores and soundtracks)

The Best Documentaries of 2009
...some great ones, but no year in recent memory can compare to 2008...

"...Anvil! succeeds for the same reason other excellent character-driven documentaries (recently Surfwise, Trouble the Water, Man on Wire) have succeeded because it truly captures the spirit of its subjects. By focusing less on the who, where and when, and more on the how and why, Gervasi doesn't tell a story about music or fame, but about friendship, trust, and determination. As such, you don't have to be a fan of heavy metal or even familiar with the genre to be touched by this film."

2. Crude
"Filmed by director Joe Berlinger over the course of three years, Crude resembles A Civil Action and Erin Brockovich more than Food, Inc. or An Inconvenient Truth. It is a riveting and penetrating legal drama wrapped up in an urgent human interest story, and it takes itself serious enough to know that it doesn't have to demonize anyone or get you riled up in anger in order to engage you. Instead it gradually brings you into the heart of a legal battle and - in a practice far too uncommon these days - actually focuses on the people intimately involved in the story."

3. Milking the Rhino
"As with so many stories about contemporary Africa, the grim, debilitating legacy of colonialism on the continent is on tragic display. Unlike most films, however, Milking the Rhino actually explores these effects, explaining how conservancies developed in the years following independence from colonial powers. It's a real splash of cold water in the face to realize that the institutionalizing of so many national parks figuratively bulldozed over the local people and cultures, creating an even wider socioeconomic gap and leading the tribes to despise the animals that were allowed to stay and roam free on their land."
"Critics of public schools - and there are legion - will throw out the baby with the bathwater here, pointing to the millions of high school dropouts and failed institutions that aren't seen in Heart of Stone. There's no denying this reality, but the message of this film is not that school reform can be achieved by pie-in-the-sky dreams and happy classes. Obviously, it takes a lot of hard work, sacrifice, discipline, gratitude, humility, forgiveness, and determination to turn schools around. But as evidenced by Ron Stone and Weequahic High School, optimism and compassion go a long way as well."

5. Food, Inc.
"Moving forward then, will Food, Inc. change the national conversation in the same way An Inconvenient Truth did? Both films were produced by (the fantastic) Participant Productions, and a visit to their blog will give you a sense of the grassroots support behind both the film and the local food movement. If there is anything standing in the way of this film exhibiting its full power, I think it's the economy and socioeconomic disparity. If people can afford to see it, it's highly likely that won't be able to afford the lifestyle that goes along with it."

6. Letters to the President
"Despite Ahmadinejad's showy display of populism in creating an entire government department to reply to the letters that are sent to him, a number of those responses must have been lost in the mail. Or, more likely, his opponents weren't the ones sending him letters in the first place, but the ones simply waiting and strategizing to replace him in this election...It's one of the weaknesses of Petr Lom's film that we don't get a better sense of the history of Iran or the official policies surrounding democratic freedom, but in broadly surveying the opinions of the Iranian people, Letters to the President offers fascinating food for thought."

7. Blind Loves
I really owed this absorbing documentary a full review after seeing it at MSPIFF in April. Blind Loves is a completely nontraditional documentary, simply a collection of stories about blind Slovakians (it was produced there) as they explore life and love in a way that most of us could never imagine. What is the experience of blind parents, for example? Or marriages in which only one spouse is blind? I've never been more humbled about my strict movie theater etiquette than from a scene here in which a blind mother takes her young son to the matinee to watch cartoons. He gets as much joy from the antics of the characters as he does from narrating aloud the action for his mother. Despite their loud talking and laughing, they are experiencing a bond through cinema that I could only imagine.

8. War Child
"Witnessing Jal visit his family for the first time in 15 years, you can't help but think about that kind of separation that exists in so many war-torn regions. Families completely shattered in an instant, not knowing if they will ever see each other again, and often never finding out. It's an idea that is unimaginable to me, and the fact that it happens with such frequency to this day is horrifying...After hearing, reading, and now watching his story over the last few years, his visit back to his home country makes the people and places that shaped him much more real to his fans. And this authenticity, credibility, substance - isn't it a welcome sight? There are no politicians, Hollywood celebrities, models, or pop stars (even Bono, bless his heart). In War Child, there is only Emmanuel Jal: a resilient voice of Africa, a dedicated voice for Africa."

9. We Live in Public
"Chances are I've never met you, for example, but I value the relationship that I have with you through this blog, through our shared thoughts and interests in film. It's an exclusively virtual relationship, but yet I feel like I know many of my regular readers well, even more intimately than some of the people I interact with in "real life". A bizarre new reality, isn't it? But should we embrace it, adapt to it, fear it or reject it - and do we even have a choice? It's hard to make a blanket generalization for everyone, but as Harris' many experiments have shown, the virtual world can only supplement the real world, it cannot replace it. Observe his failed business, romantic, and familial relationships as evidence of this. And observe the social chaos that occured during "Quiet: We Live in Public", as one participant found, 'the more you get to know each other, the more alone you become.' "

10. Tyson
"Despite the number of new realizations you may have about "Iron Mike", however, such as how incredibly young he was during the troubled years of his career, there are almost as many ideas about him that are confirmed...It's tempting to say that Tyson is a documentary meant to portray Mike Tyson as a human instead of a monster, but Tyson himself addresses this misrepresentation head on. He says he's not a "monster", and despite all of his flaws and faults and follies, Tyson is a deserved opportunity for one fascinating human to tell his own fascinating story."

*Notable documentary blind spots from 2009 include Burma VJ, Unmistaken Child, The September Issue, Garbage Dreams, The Beaches of Agnes, Mugabe and the White African, and Soundtrack for a Revolution.

Tomorrow - The Best of 2009: Part 5


  1. ANVIL! Hell Yeah! Totally agree with you about it being the best doc of the year, it's a shame not enough people got around to this one. Gotta love Lips and Rob, awesome, awesome movie. Keep up the great work, btw! Digging the site.

  2. Thanks for the props, Aiden - I'll be sure to check your place out as well (a fellow LAMB I see - nice).

    Anvil hit me a lot harder than I expected walking in, and its exclusion from even the shortlist of 15 potential Oscar nominees was outrageous. At least it won the IDA award, which should be considered the most important documentary award anyway. An Independent Spirit Award would be nice on March 5, too, but it might face stiff competition because of the groundswell of support for Food, Inc.

    Anyway it shouldn't be judged by its awards, but it's ironic that a film about trying to rise above the competition and make a name for yourself is actually going through that exact process.

  3. Tsk tsk, you didn't see UNMISTAKEN CHILD. :-P

  4. Like salt in a wound, Matthew.

    The worst part is that I had multiple chances to see four of the seven that I list at the end there.

  5. What about The Cove? One of my favs of the year.

  6. Tough call on The Cove, which I do expect to win Oscar in six weeks. Originally I was high on it, but processing it more over time I began to feel as if I'd been hoodwinked somewhat into believing it was not an out-and-out agenda film. The funny thing is that in the months leading up to it I was already dismissing it as some kind of "documentary" disguised as an action-adventure thrill ride. Then I saw it and it wasn't that (at least not as much as I expected), so I was relieved.

    But gradually I realized there was still something missing. As I noted, there "could have been a little more exploration at the history behind the practice and the effect that stopping it would have on the local economy," and though I did conclude that "based on the evidence presented you can't help but be convinced that something is very wrong when ocean water is turned bright cherry red with blood," it became too much of an activist film for me. In the end, I felt like O'Barry was standing in front of me with his portable computer screen, trying to force me to care about the issue rather than think about it. I think I just had too many unanswered questions at the end, and in compiling this list I saw The Cove continue to drop until eventually it was out of the top 10.

    Kind of a muddled response - sorry!

  7. A new low for me: I saw but one doc this year. Feel free to let me hear it...

  8. Tell you what, catch up on my top 10 list from last year instead and you'll be just fine. Unless you want to get into some heavy social issues (i.e., Crude, Milking the Rhino, Heart of Stone), the most entertaining docs from the year were probably Food, Inc. and The Cove, maybe Capitalism: A Love Story (the one you've seen?).

    But see Anvil - absolutely see Anvil.

  9. Hey, I'll have you know I've seen a whopping two from last year's picks. ;) What can I say - a) we don't get a ton in theaters round these parts and b) docs are not generally the most interesting genre to me, but if the subject matter is right, I'm game.

    Yes on Capitalism, and I'd like to see Anvil.

  10. Huzzah - I guessed correctly. Look forward to hearing your thoughts on Anvil. Don't let its outrageous award exclusions keep you away.


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