January 4, 2010

Considering the Best Documentaries of the Decade (2000-2009): Part 2

Among the best: The War Tapes, Mad Hot Ballroom, In the Shadow of the Moon

Recently I analyzed a couple of "Best Documentaries of the Decades" lists. Soon after that post I found similar lists at Cinematical and The Playlist, as well as a terrific selection from Marilyn Ferdinand. Since some of my favorites from the decade are missing from these lists, I found it only right to come up with some version of my own.

I've been really inspired considering these films and everything they've taught me about the world in the last decade. So long as a story is well-told and relevant to my life, I don't really have a preference between documentaries or traditional feature films. But truth is always stranger than fiction - and a lot funnier, and more emotional, and more horrifying, and generally more compelling. So documentaries represent a powerfully transformative tool in my life, allowing me to be taken to times and places I could never otherwise go and be introduced to real people that I would never otherwise meet.

So I've developed a somewhat raw list of more than 40 documentary films that have added greatly to my worldview this decade while making me laugh, sob, recoil, or quite often, all three. For reasons I explained in the last post, they are all from 2002 or later and are not ranked in any order (I also listed some notable documentaries I missed from this decade). Also, I stand by my previous claims in this space that 2008 was the best documentary year of the decade, which explains why nearly all of my top 10 from last year are represented here (also, reviews for many of these below can be found via my Review Index). This is not a definitive collection by any means, but it is a personally meaningful one for me:


Why We Fight (2005) 
The War Tapes (2006) 
No End in Sight (2007)
Pray the Devil Back to Hell (2008)
Crude (2009)

Comments: Considering the U.S. has been at war for nearly an entire decade, it's disappointing and yet understandable that many of the war documentaries have been forgettable, or dated too quickly. For every stellar No End in Sight, there was a mediocre Gunner Palace, Fahrenheit 9/11, or Standard Operating Procedure. Only years after combat can the big picture perspective of a war truly come into form, which is why The Fog of War and Shake Hands With the Devil were so compelling, and why The War Tapes was so surprisingly insightful. On domestic matters, the political fireworks on display in The Weather Underground and The Revolution Will Not Be Televised showed just how far some people are willing to go - even beyond the boundaries of law - in pursuit of their ideologies.


Spellbound (2002) 
Blind Loves (2008)
Young@Heart (2008)

Comments: That I saw both Spellbound and Mad Hot Ballroom in the theater three times each should tell you how much enjoyment I get from watching pre-adolescents awkwardly discover their place in the world. This theme also played out in American Teen (amusingly) and The Boys of Baraka (tragically), the latter of which was both more truthful and more important than the next film its directors made, the overrated Jesus Camp. On the other side of the life spectrum was Young@Heart, which squeezed every ounce of emotion out of me, and Blind Loves, a little-seen but outstanding documentary from Slovakia that, among other things, forever changed my perspective on people talking in movie theaters.


Surfwise (2008)

Comments: Generally speaking, if someone is making a documentary about their family, you can expect it's going to involve some kind of sordid tragedy or disturbing mystery - sometimes both. Regardless of your own family history, these films made you reflect on the the familial love and loyalty you have either enjoyed or missed during your life. I still don't know why the fascinating Surfwise didn't reach a wider audience last year, and I think My Kid Could Paint That also received much less attention and acclaim than it deserved. I saw it again recently and was so impressed by its presentation.


Up the Yangtze (2008)
Milking the Rhino (2009)

Comments: This category is a personal favorite of mine because it includes films that literally pick you up and take you to another place, teaching you about world history and culture in vivid detail (Manufactured Landscapes being perhaps the most visually striking). Born Into Brothels, La Sierra, and Up the Yangtze were immediately and intensely affecting for me, and the latter was my favorite documentary from last year - the best year of the decade. Does that make it the Best Documentary of the Decade? I won't make that claim, but arriving when it did last year it might be one of the most urgently relevant.



Grizzly Man (2005) 
Murderball (2005) 
Man on Wire (2008)
Tyson (2009)

Comments: Sometimes experiencing someone else's trials and tribulations is the best way to gain perspective about your own. This decade was packed with documentaries about characters so bizarre and quirky that you couldn't even make them up; some were so interesting that they've already inspired upcoming feature film adaptations (King of Kong and Man on Wire). The people in these documentaries overcame tragedy (War Dance), disability (Blindsight, Murderball), and mockery (Anvil!, Tyson) with grace, humor, and determination, providing viewers the opportunity to gain meaningful life lessons without shedding any of our own blood, sweat, and tears. Well, maybe we shed some tears.


Food, Inc. (2009)

Comments: Putting a spotlight on the United States and shoving a mirror in the faces of its citizens, these films showed us the best and (more often) the worst of our American culture, often drawing on recent history to show us how much or (more often) how little we've changed over the years. Probably none of these documentaries could be considered patriotic by any definition other than Michael Moore's, but hey, you have to identify and agree on problems before you can begin to solve them, right? Perhaps many more films could be added to this list, but most of them (and some of these) crossed that fine line between well-balanced documentary storytelling and one-sided agit-doc activist agenda-pushing. But then, I suppose pushing your opinion on others is just the American way.

There you have it - the documentaries that reached me during the last 10 years and that should be added to your Netflix queues immediately. Please share thoughts or additions, and if you want to talk about my reasoning behind certain omissions from these categories (e.g., An Inconvenient Truth), we can do that, too.


  1. Thanks for the shout out, Daniel. It's so nice to have another doc enthusiast to talk with about this great area of filmmaking.

    There are several films on your list that I need to see, but others that I was not at all happy with. Bowling for Columbine was such a mess - a muddled thesis, seemingly random acts of filming that Moore tried to tie into some kind of atmosphere of violence - I never saw another film he made. Enron, slightly better and certainly informative for those who hadn't been following the story in the papers, but again, so much sloppy filmmaking, I couldn't bear it.

  2. For what it's worth, both of those fall into the same category that I admitted included some agenda-ish documentaries. For me, Enron connected for exactly the reasons you mentioned - I'd either ignored or just not understood the scale of corruption until this film. Funny that you mention your reaction, though, because it's exactly why I felt Taxi to the Dark Side (also made by Gibney) was so weak. I was thinking, what, did people really not know any of this beforehand?

    As for Michael Moore, I went back and forth about whether to include Bowling or not. Definitely I would not consider any of his other this decade (Fahrenheit, Sicko, Capitalism), but Bowling arrived during my senior year of college and was like catnip for the activist/idealist in me. It was the right time for me to get behind someone with a megaphone who was saying some things were wrong in our country. These days I know little more about how the world works, and the fact that his last three documentaries have failed to make any significant social statement (most notably Sicko, a hugely missed opportunity) makes sense to me. In any event I still think Bowling is the strongest of the four, so don't bother with the others.

  3. The only film of his that was anything close to a pleasurable experience was Roger & Me, and even that one was loaded with cheap shots. He's just a lot of hot air who doesn't really know how to conceive a thesis and then present coherent, cohesive evidence. If he can't talk to Roger Smith, he'll pretend all kinds of things to make up for that fact. If he can't figure out why the Columbine killers did what they did, he'll point to missiles being moved through the streets of Denver and say, see! We have weapons. Well, duh. I have the screener for Capitalism: A Love Story that will never get played. Why? Well, capitalism, money, love - weren't they talking about this in biblical times? What could Moore possibly add to the discussion other than his cute little cartoons. If he confessed how much his no-news docs make for him, then he might be adding somthing that would interest me.

  4. Haha, well I can't remember if there were cartoons in Capitalism or not, but if you look back on my review you'll see that I actually had the opportunity to call Moore out on the one-sidedness he presented in the movie. Actually most of my thoughts on moore can be found there, and I recommend watching the clip of him at the Q & A here, if only to hear where his head is at these days. Also, I think we can expect him to follow through on a veiled threat to make his next film about Obama and Afghanistan.

    Ah, Michael Moore - always hogging the discussion, even here. Well he wasn't the best documentarian of the decade, but he was among the most prolific, alongside Errol Morris, Stacy Peralta, Doug Pray, and Werner Herzog.

    If anything can be said for Moore (and Spurlock behind him), he's been one of the major factors for the popularization (and diluting) of this genre over the last decade.

  5. Dumbing down of the genre, in my opinion, just the like the entertaining blowhards on Faux News. If this is what it takes to be popular, then I'll keep wearing penny loafers and baggy sweaters.

  6. Careful, those are coming back into fashion in due time...

  7. Nice list - need I say, I am impressed. I've seen a lot of those but far from all of those!

    Did you ever see Garbage Dreams that was out last year -- I think you'd like that one as well.

  8. Thanks, RC - it's a working list and you still have another decade to catch up on them!

    I did see and briefly write about Garbage Dreams, though not until recently. I remember reading about it at your place when it was first making the rounds and my patience was tested for it to finally arrive here via two film festivals.

  9. Thank you for this wonderful list I would like yo shar a documentary 'The Garbage Trap'


    Synopsis: Rapidly expanding cities, rising affluence, inadequate resources and almost total lack of “garbage literacy” amongst the citizenry has lead to a garbage crisis of monstrous proportions. Garbage workers include the drainage cleaners, public urinal cleaners, street sweepers and those who deal with unclaimed corpses and animal bodies. The film explores health, social, and economic issues faced by the garbage workers by juxtaposing citizens, administrators, politicians, labor leaders and the "Garbage soldiers"; and lets the viewers draw their own conclusions. This film truly belongs to the workers and advocates development that is human-centric, equitable and just.


  10. Thanks for visiting and recommending, Yogesh. I've never heard of The Garbage Trap but it does sound like an incisive examination, maybe cut from the same cloth as last year's Garbage Dreams (although I see The Garbage Trap was produced three years prior). Thanks again.

  11. I'm glad I've stumbled on this informative blog about films. I've read the comments and I realized that there are people who could see the dark, fine, and messy side of a film. I remember my cousin, he told me about a passionate documentary film producer, Gadi Leshem who invested a lot of money just to impart to viewers relevant messages on business, environment, economy, and other trivial matters in the society.

    Thanks for your wonderful insights on films and film making, Daniel!

  12. Thanks for stopping by, Victor - always nice to have fellow documentary fans around here.

  13. You 're always welcome, Daniel!

  14. You all need to watch this one, "Rough Aunties" about women in South Africa who run a non-profit organization to help children who are victims of abuse. The women literally push themselves beyond their limits for these children, while tremendous things are also happening in their lives. Check it out! These women deserve credit!

  15. Thanks, anonymous. I know that screened at a festival here and I believe it also played on PBS, but I missed it both times. Ah well, I can't see everything - thanks for adding it to this list for others to find.

  16. documentaries like Food Inc. , Simply Raw - Reversing Diabetes in 30 Days (documentary that I have not seen you put on the list, but til I recommend it to you) and Super Size Me ,made me to be more careful about my diet and my lifestyle . This documentaries should be recommended especially for those parents who push their children to eat all kinds of foods that are full of e's and all sorts of chemical substances that are harmful to our body.

  17. Thanks for visiting and adding a couple - never heard of Simply Raw, but I agree that the Food, Inc. and Super Size Me have and will hopefully continue to be influential on the way we eat.


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