Friday, June 19, 2009

Weekly Top Tens: The Best Documentaries of the Decade

Unlike many people, I love documentary films. Some people see documentaries like homework – something that you occasionally have to suffer through, but I have always found great documentaries to be utterly fascinating. This decade has created many great documentaries, and I could have easily doubled the size of this list, and still only scratched the surface. But, these 10 films are the ones that really stand out for me this decade. I limited certain filmmakers to one film, in order to give a better overall view of the best documentaries of the decade.

10. Waltz with Bashir (Ari Folman, 2008)
I’m not sure if Ari Folman’s Waltz with Bashir really counts as a documentary, as it is more a memory piece than actual documentary, and the whole thing is animated, except for some explicit photos at the end of the film. But nevertheless, Waltz with Bashir does what great documentaries do – which is put the audience right in the middle of a real person’s life, and makes us see it from their point of view. Director Ari Folman was one of many Jewish soldiers who in the 1982 Sabra and Shatila Massacre simply sat back and watched as a Lebanese Christian Militia slaughtered innocent Lebanese and Palestinian Muslims. In the years since, Folman has buried his memories of that day so deep, he cannot even recall it anymore. The animation in the film is brilliant, and captures the hallucinatory imagery and dream sequences much better than any other medium could. Waltz with Bashir is an important film about dealing with your past.

9. Paradise Lost 2: Revelations (Joe Berliner & Bruce Sinofsky, 2000)
Berliner and Sinofsky’s Paradise Lost (1996) was a fascinating film detailing the trial of three teenagers – Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley – for the brutal sexual mutilation and murder of three 10 year old boys in West Memphis, Arkansas. It was clear in that film that the boys were being railroaded because they were different – they had long hair, listened to heavy metal music, and were outcasts. The most compelling piece of evidence against the three was Misskelley’s confession – sweated out of the mentally challenged kid after hours upon hours of interrogation. Four years later, the filmmakers return to West Memphis and revisit the major players. Echols, who seemed to relish his notoriety, even while proclaiming his innocence, in the first film is now facing a death sentence, and has matured since then. The stepfather of one of the boys seems like a possible suspect, but no one seems too interested in pursuing the matter. There are lots of documentaries about miscarriages of justice – and this is one of the better ones this decade. Currently, a third film in the series is being filmed, and you can bet I will watch it when it comes out.

8. Bowling for Columbine (Michael Moore, 2002)
Michael Moore does not so much make documentaries, as he does filmed essays. He comes into a movie knowing what he wants to say and then finds the evidence to support that – even if he has to stretch the truth a little to get there. Yet, his films are always insightful and entertaining, none more so than Bowling for Columbine, his films about gun control in America. The film points out the ridiculous in America’s obsession with guns, and its long, checkered history with violence. Moore is front and center in this film and does not seem to be afraid of anything. I do find it quite amusing that however, that neither he nor Charlton Heston realize that they actually agree on the issue on guns and violence in America, even if they have different ways of saying it. Moore argues that it is not the guns themselves that are the problem – but instead it’s the inherent racism and America’s obsession with violence that are. Heston uses different words, but pretty much says the same damn thing!

7. Deliver Us From Evil (Amy Berg, 2006)
There have been a number of documentaries about the clergy molestation scandal that rocked the Catholic Church in recent years, but Amy Berg’s Deliver Us From Evil is the best of the lot. It does not try to look at the entire scandal – which was far too wide reaching to be easily summarized in one film – and instead looks at just one man – Father Oliver O’Grady. O’Grady molested potentially hundreds of children between the late 1970s and early 1990s. Every time an allegation was made against O’Grady, his higher ups would convince the family not to go the police, and simply transfer O’Grady to another parish. Eventually, O’Grady was convicted, but only served 7 years in jail, then was deported to his native Ireland. Amazingly, O’Grady agreed to be interviewed by Berg, and the result is chilling. You get the feeling you are looking into a face of pure evil when he smirks at the camera, and says God has already forgiven him his sins, because he went to confession. It’s impossible to watch this film and not get angry.

6. Grizzly Man (Werner Herzog, 2005)
There has ever only been one Werner Herzog, and thankfully the man has been making wild and crazy films for decades now and shows no signs of slowing down. Grizzly Man is one of his very best films – a documentary about Timothy Treadwell, a failed actor, who spends every summer up in Alaska “protecting” the grizzly bears from hunters. Of course, his luck only lasts so long, and one summer, he and his girlfriend are killed by one of his beloved bears. Herzog assembles the footage that Treadwell left behind, and interviews others, and puts together a fascinating portrait of a man who was completely delusional when it came to his outlook on himself and the world.

5. The Fog of War (Errol Morris, 2003)
Errol Morris is perhaps the best documentary filmmaker in the world right now, and The Fog of War is one of his most fascinating films. Interviewing Robert McNamara, the architect of the Vietnam War, Morris is able to draw out confessions and regrets from the man who is often portrayed as evil and heartless. McNamara admits that had they lost WWII, they would have been tried as war criminals for the way they firebombed Japan, under his orders, and also admits to mistakes about how Vietnam was run. But McNamara remains an incredibly smart man throughout the film, and his insight is fascinating. Couple with Morris’ famed ability to get the best archival footage of every, and Philip Glass’s constant, swirling score, and his trademarked camera which allows McNamara to talk direct at him, while looking directly into the camera, The Fog of War is one of the great documentaries by one of the medium’s few true masters.

4. Capturing the Friedmans (Andrew Jarecki, 2003)
Capturing the Friedmans is the best of the “miscarriage of justice” documentaries of the decade – a personal favorite subgenre of mine. Capturing the Friedmans looks at a disturbing case in Long Island New York, where a former school teacher and his son were accused of molesting dozens of children in their home during “computer class”. The authorities bungled the case in every conceivable way – not trying to verify the children’s claims, not finding physical evidence, asking the children leading questions again and again until they got the answer they wanted. Yet, you almost cannot blame the authorities – there were so many children making claims, they didn’t have the proper training, and the father was sexually attracted to children, as evidenced by the child pornography found in the house. Still, though, you feel sympathy for the Friedmans, as there was no evidence that they actually molested children, especially the son who was just helping out his dad. This is fascinating, troubling film.

3. No Direction Home: Bob Dylan (Martin Scorsese, 2005)
Martin Scorsese’s documentary about Bob Dylan is perhaps the greatest music doc ever made. There I said it, and I stand by it. Scorsese’s four hour made for TV documentary, documents Dylan’s journey from childhood to the height of his fame in the 1960s, as a voice of his generation, then as a reviled musician who “sold out”. While DA Pennebaker’s groundbreaking documentary, Don’t Look Back (1967) portrayed Dylan at the time as a drug crazed, egomanicial, spoiled brat, Scorsese’s documentary looks deeper into the heart of one of music’s greatest enigmas. This is a very special film. (Please note, as part of my ongoing The Films of Martin Scorsese series, I do plan on re-watching and reviewing this film in a few weeks).

2. When the Levee’s Broke (Spike Lee, 2006)
Another made for TV doc from a director who mainly does narrative films, Spike Lee’s When the Levees Broke is a howl of pure rage at the government for their response to Hurricane Katrina. Told in four parts, Lee’s documentary looks at what happened before the storm, during the storm, the immediate aftermath of the storm, and the painfully slow response that left New Orleans crippled for years after the Hurricane. In four hours, Lee is able to capture all facets of this very American tragedy.

1. Lake of Fire (Tony Kaye, 2007)
The best documentary of the decade is one of the least well known. Tony Kaye’s Lake of Fire looks at the abortion debate in America from all possible sides. Just when you think Kaye is leaning too heavily on either the pro-life or pro-choice side, he snaps back and shocks you with another revelation from the other side. What becomes clear during the course of the documentary is that there are extremists on all sides of the debate – nut jobs who want to control the debate with their out there philosophies – just as there are reasonable people on both sides who are capable of thoughtfully laying out their case. No matter if you are pro-life or pro-choice, or unsure of yourself, this is a documentary that will rock your belief system to the core. It is graphic, and sometimes very hard to watch, but essential viewing to anyone who wants to know all sides of this debate. A true and utter masterpiece.

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