March 31, 2011

The Best Documentaries of 2010

"Listening to the media echo chamber discuss President Obama's tax deal this week, I realized that it's been more than two months since I saw Charles Ferguson's illuminating Inside Job, and, shockingly, I think I still understand his deft explanation of the reasons behind the financial meltdown and, consequently, our current panic about tax rates and unemployment benefits. After numerous films - including but not limited to Capitalism: A Love Story (0/2 for Michael Moore after he dropped the health care ball with the forgettable Sicko), American Casino, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, and even The Other Guys - tried and failed to explain what led to The Great Recession, Ferguson's film was like a breath of fresh air, illustrating the financial foolishness in terms that anyone can understand. Good thing, too, because as I said in my pan of the meaningless Wall Street, this was probably the last chance The Recession Movie had to establish itself as a viable genre."

"If Restrepo isn't the most visceral war film we've ever seen, it's at least the most visceral movie about the war in Afghanistan that we've yet seen, and the most insightful documentary on the 21st-century soldier's experience since The War Tapes...Restrepo almost seems to exist in a vacuum, like a fictionalized action movie (Predators, Avatar?) in which a dozen American soldiers accidentally land on another planet and have to fight for their lives. Of course, that's not the case. These are real twenty-somethings from Wisconsin, Florida, California, and elsewhere, fighting for their lives in a desolate valley on the other side of the world, wearing our flag on their shoulders, shooting at the trees in the hopes of killing unknown enemies who may or may not be connected to one of several networks that could be planning attacks against us somewhere on the planet and sometime in the near, or long-term, future. If this represents our very best attempt at securing American freedom and prosperity and liberating the world from themselves (that's the mandate we've proclaimed, right?), I'm afraid we should be deeply concerned."

"Maybe I'm just a more observant viewer than most, but I would think that most focused movie-goers and critics would pick up on at least a few of these clues.But whether or not you feel like you've been unfairly taken for a ride, there are a few aspects of I'm Still Here that I think should be appreciated. First, the film shows us just how little the average person actually knew about Joaquin Phoenix to begin with; that we still don't know anything about the "real" him is fascinating to consider. Second, I'm Still Here probably chronicles the death of a Hollywood career as it would happen - as it does happen, to many former stars. Lastly, it demonstrates just how talented an actor Joaquin Phoenix is, playing an alternate version of himself in a much more committed way than, say, John Malkovich in Being John Malkovich. Few actors would ever take the risk to spend two years on a project like this, and I hope Phoenix's career is justly rewarded - even if Hollywood is bitter that the joke was always on them."

4. Last Train Home
No review, but consider it a worthy follow-up to Up the Yangtze.

"Summarizing the storyline is not really helpful, but suffice to say it is extremely rare that you will see a documentary cover this much material and still remain grounded in its primary subjects. If you have any interest in international relations, history, war, terrorism, Guantanamo Bay, the Supreme Court, Islam, or the Middle East, The Oath may be considered required viewing."

"Believe me, I can't explain it, but I can admit it: Catfish was one of my favorite films of the year, not because it offered a scathing social critique (I'm Still Here still has a subtly brilliant position above it), but because it made me think, really think hard and long about what I was watching. Is there anything better than that?"

"Topically similar to Garbage Dreams but thematically similar to Born into Brothels, Lucy Walker's endearing Waste Land is a humble, tender tribute to the millions of people we walk by daily but avoid looking in the eye. In the U.S., as in Brazil and maybe every other developed nation, an undercurrent of classism wreaks havoc on the social fabric. We marginalize and generalize about the groups below us on the social ladder, never considering to recognize the ambitions and talents of the individuals who comprise those groups. If a picture is worth a thousand words, Vik Muniz' portraits of workers in the world's largest landfill (Jardim Gramacho, outside Rio de Janeiro) tell a timeless story of human ambition, cooperation, innovation, beauty, and creativity.That's pretty flowery language applied to a film set amongst mountains of rotting garbage, but it's there if you look for it - and you don't have to look too hard...It's probably not a coincidence that the subjects chosen by Muniz for this particular project are quite attractive by most standards, but if he has shown anything, it's that even beautiful people might not recognize their beauty until someone shows it to them."

"If you became angry or frustrated while watching Inside Job, wait until you get a load of Gasland, the award-winning documentary exposing even more egregious shenanigans committed by Corporate America. All things considered (including his personal relationship to the story), filmmaker Josh Fox lays out an honest, objective examination of hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking", the controversial new trend in domestic natural gas production. Gasland is this decade's Erin Brockovich or A Civil Action, the significant difference being that in this documentary, and thus in real life, companies aren't committing crimes by breaking or going around government regulations meant to protect citizens. That's because relatively speaking, there are no such regulations in place."

"'s the most engrossing installment of the handful of "30 for 30" films I've seen thus far, but I'd go so far to say it's also one of the most captivating documentaries I've seen in a few years. Granted, I am a former soccer player (as in, I played it for a dozen years growing up) and World Cup fanatic who rather vividly remembers hearing the news in 1994 that Andres Escobar had been gunned down mere days after committing that disastrously unlucky own goal. I was entering my teen years at the time and was too young to understand global politics very well (let alone the dirty underside of global politics in drug-producing countries) but suffice to say I knew something was very abnormal and disturbing about a player I had just seen on the field being killed for something that happened on that field. The Two Escobars tells the full story in gripping, frequently graphic detail, and if you are a veteran football fan or a newcomer to the sport during this terrific World Cup season, it is truly must-see TV."

"What 9500 Liberty confirms, not surprisingly, is that there are no easy answers to the problem of illegal immigration. Moreover, it underscores how much of this debate - on both sides - is driven not by rational logic, but by emotional panic. It becomes apparent while watching 9500 Liberty that the Arizona bill will be a trumpeted success in some aspects and a humiliating failure in others. The trick will be learning how to navigate between the rhetoric and the reality while maintaining a big picture perspective on the future of the United States. At the end of the day, and as it has for every controversial social change this country has experienced, this question remains begging: What will adapt first - laws or people? The American Constitution or the constitution of America?"


  1. I'm not much into documentaries... I guess I should start cultivating more interest in this form of filmmaking. By the way, I've seen Inside Job that has topped your list, and have also recently reviewed it at my place.

    Interestingly (and ironically), the movie was screened by the Finance Club at the institute where I'm pursuing an MBA - which is where I watched the film :)

  2. That is rather ironic, Shubhajit, but I think films (and documentaries, to be more precise) really do have great potential to inform and educate, so maybe it makes sense that Inside Job is part of the modern day MBA curriculum.

    I hope you do get a chance to check some of the others on the list. This was a pretty solid year for documentaries all the way around.

  3. Restrepo and Inside Job are money. As was Exit Through the Gift Shop, extremely interesting if nothing else. Sad to see it off this list. Maybe if you'd see movies in the theatre and not 10 months later on DVD you'd agree. ;)

    ps... Did you see the Restrepo director was killed in Lybia today?

    pss....Client 9? Nothing??? This was #5 of all 35 movies I saw in the theater this year! No love....

  4. Hmmyeah, I guess I could have given Client 9 an honorable mention, where, by the way, Exit did get some love. But Client 9 really has come and mostly gone in my mind - entertaining as I remember it but not really heavy enough to make a lasting impression...

    Hetherington in Libya, just still a shock to consider that this guy worked in the trenches and foxholes in so many places. As he was living and working like a soldier (and alongside them), I suppose we shouldn't be all that surprised at the real risks he was facing. Very tragic.


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