Friday, December 17, 2010

The Best Documentaries of 2010 (of those I saw)

I've seen hundreds of movies this year, of myriad types, from all eras, across numerous countries of origin. As such, my pontificating on The Best Movies of 2010 will be split between posts on Best Feature Films, Best Foreign Films and Best Documentaries, with perhaps also a ranking of the Best Films of any type and time period that I watched over the past 12 months.

The great Roger Ebert takes a similar approach with his "Best Of" lists, but whereas he began today with The Best Feature Films of 2010, since that's the category in which I most expect to still see some good ones before year-end, I'll start with what I felt were the Best Documentaries that came out (or became available for viewing in the U.S.) in 2010.

Or more accurately, these are the best new documentaries I got a chance to see. Overall, I watched 23 documentaries, including 15 new ones eligible for this list. So my scope isn't all that great, but I found 13 docs to be no less than excellent and the other 2 to be worthwhile.

You may wish to refer to this article for the 15 documentaries that have been shortlisted for Oscar consideration; I have seen five of those selected and a few others that it and similar articles suggest were overlooked.

I tried my best to base my ranking below primarily on artistic merit, but it's hard not to intertwine, even if subconsciously, appreciation based on the importance of a documentary's subject, my own affinity for such and/or how much I might agree with the message being conveyed. So like all my opinions, take it for what it's worth--and what you're paying to read it. Most of the movies should be or will be available through Netflix, you can learn more through the links to and in some cases, I had written a review or related article that you may also wish to see.

The Best Documentaries of 2010

1. Inside Job - directed by Charles Ferguson. (IMDB) (my article)
Regardless of political stripe or station in life, this is a movie all Americans should see to better understand why our economy is in the shape it's in, and that it goes far beyond bad fortune.

2. The Tillman Story - directed by Amir Bar-Lev (IMDB) (my review)
A moving, even-keeled look at how the U.S. military stonewalled the family of Pat Tillman in trying to learn the truth (and reasons behind the initial cover-up) of his death by friendly fire in Afghanistan.

3. Budrus - directed by Julia Bacha; made in Israel (IMDB
Israel's government and military built a wall separating its land from the Palestinean-controlled West Bank. Objecting to the contours of the wall through the small village of Budrus, Palestineans--and activist Jewish Israelis--peacefully protested, and Bacha makes a poignant point without preaching.

4. Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage - directed by Sam Dunn & Scot McFadyen  (IMDB)
Not everyone may enjoy the erstwhile Canadian power trio as much as I do--they should be in the Rock 'n Roll Hall of Fame--but this documentary on them is outstanding.

5. Waiting For Superman - directed by Davis Guggenheim (IMDB)
Davis Guggenheim, who directed An Inconvenient Truth, paints a distressing picture about the U.S. educational system while showing seemingly sensible ways to help fix it.

6. Restrepo - directed by Tim Hetherington & Sebastian Junger (IMDB)
Filmed on-site with a platoon of American soldiers in Afghanistan, Restrepo--the surname of a fallen serviceman and an outpost named in his honor--provides an vivid vantage point into war, somewhat like a real "Hurt Locker." Certainly worth anyone's while, but the storytelling isn't quite as compelling as the subject itself.

7. Casino Jack and the United States of Money - directed by Alex Gibney (IMDB)
An exquisitely composed film--devoid of Michael Moore-ish sarcastic rancor--that shows how the U.S. Congress often serves its members' self-interests (and those pushed by lobbyists like Jack Abramoff, who is the main focus) far more than that of the populace.

8. Last Train Home - directed by Lixin Fan; made in China (IMDB)
A Mandarin-language film personalizing the mass migration from (and once-per-year, back to) small Chinese villages to large cities made by hundreds of millions of workers who often sacrifice family unity in the name of better wages.

9. Exit Through the Gift Shop - directed by Banksy (IMDB)
A movie about street artists and a videographer who follows them; engaging throughout, it ultimately takes a rather interesting turn.

10. Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child - directed by Tamra Davis (IMDB) (my review)
A very well-made biography of a young painter who rose to fame in NYC art circles--and beyond--in the 1980s before his untimely death at age 27.

Honorable Mention 

Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work - directed by Ricki Stern & Anne Sundberg (IMDB)
A great documentary should reveal rather than fawn, but how Joan herself comes off made the film less enjoyable for me. 

Who Is Harry Nilsson (And Why Is Everybody Talkin' About Him?) - directed by John Scheinfeld (IMDB)
I've never known a whole lot about Nilsson, his music or his life. Without going too far beyond what one can learn through Wikipedia, this documentary serves as a good introductory overview.

The Promise: The Making of Darkness on the Edge of Town - directed by Thom Zimny (IMDB) (my related article) A must-see for Springsteen fanatics like me, but probably not that crucial or interesting to everyone else.

Also Worth Mentioning

Do It Again - directed by Robert Patton-Spruill (IMDB) (my review)
An extremely worthwhile premise about one man's quest to reunite The Kinks, with more than its share of great moments, but its primary appeal is probably for existing fans of the grossly underappreciated British Invasion band.

Only When I Dance - directed by Beadie Finzi; made in Brazil (IMDB)
The story of aspiring young ballet dancers rising above struggles in Rio de Janeiro wasn't bad, but felt a bit too contrived. You'd be better off exploring the 2010 reality-based feature film Mao's Last Dancer for a look into the world of big-time ballet; I found it superior to the fictional Black Swan.

Agree? Disagree? Got recommendations of others I should see? Feel free to share your comments, but if in the Chicago area, consider coming to the Film Discussion Brunch Meetup this Sunday where we will be discussing our favorite films (of all types) of 2010. One of my Meetup compatriots has hailed Boxing Gym, a documentary by Frederick Wiseman, as one of his favorite movies of the last year and I look forward to seeing it once it hits Netflix.


Anonymous said...

Just popping in to say nice site.

DocCritic said...

best doc of the year (that *i* saw) was, by far, SWEETGRASS. it played the music box for a week or two. i only saw three of your ten (a couple i avoided) and none of them made my 10 (Last Train is probably around 10). anyway, i think SWEETGRASS might be streaming netflix now (but it probably should have been seen in the theatre ;)