Wednesday, February 3, 2010

2009 Year in Review: The Best Documentaries of the Year

For the second year in a row, I have to say that I was disappointed by the documentary films that came out this year. That’s not to say that there were no good docs this year, but I do not think that there were any truly greats ones either. Of course, I missed some of the more acclaimed docs this year - most notably The Beaches of Agnes, but also several others. It’s too bad that docs don’t seem to get very wide releases, and even in Toronto, I often find that docs don’t get much play. The exception this year was Kenny Ortega’s Michael Jackson’s This is It, but was that even really a film? I did enjoy, at least slightly, Pete McCormack’s Facing Ali a fascinating doc about the legendary boxer through the eyes of his opponents. Under Our Skin was a surprisingly involving doc about Lyme disease, and how the medical establishment seems to be completely ignoring the massive effect the illness has on its victims. The recent Oscar nominated doc Which Way Home is a fascinating, real life Sin Nombre – yet the film is somewhat hurt my that comparison (look for a full length review of the film either today or tomorrow). I know that a lot of critics loved Terence Davies’ Of Time and the City, but although I think it was a great looking film, it was also dull. Valentino: The Last Emperor was an audience favorite as much as a doc can be anyway, but I didn’t find it very illuminating. I was also disappointed in Youssou Ndour: I Bring What I Love, which should have been fascinating, but was actually rather dull. The Michael Moore tactic of documentary filmmaking reached a new low with The Yes Men Fix the World a doc about two clueless idiots with none of Moore's talent or charm, who think they are doing something clever – spoiler alert, they’re not. Nevertheless, these 10 docs were actually worthy of a look.

10. In a Dream (Jeremiah Zagar)
One of the rare “family” documentaries that is actually insightful and enlightening. Zagar documents his father’s artistic work all over the city of Philadelphia, where he has create murals on the walls of his neighborhood that document his life and his family. The art is interesting, but it takes on a darker tone when it is revealed that the father is having an affair, and his mental demons are coming back to haunt him once again. Most films about a family made by one of their own are not very involving or interesting – this is the exception.

9. Every Little Step (Adam Del Deo & James D. Stern)
A Chorus Line is one of the biggest shows in Broadway history, and is beloved by the dancers, singers and actors who actually work on Broadway, because it tells their story of grueling auditions and personal pain and triumph. When they decided to do a revival of the show on Broadway a few years ago, they opened up the audition process to these documentarians, who I think have created a movie that is going to be as loved by Broadway actors as the original show was. You go along with these actors for the entire, grueling 8 month audition process, and feel their joy and most particularly their pain (I felt really bad for the one woman who was told in the final round of auditions to “do what you did last summer”, when last summer was 6 months ago, and she had no idea what the hell it was she did). One of those rare documentaries that could actually be called a crowd pleaser.

8. Good Hair (Jeff Stilson)
Chris Rock is a funny guy, and his documentary Good Hair is without a doubt the funniest documentary of the year. Rock questions why black people, especially women, have such an obsession with their hair, and specifically making their hair look long, luxurious and straight – or more specifically like white women’s hair. Rock goes from place to place talking to people – celebrities to just regular people, and finds out their opinions, and then follows the money to see where it all goes. Black hair is worth millions upon millions every year. Yes, it takes a few missteps along the way, but overall, Good Hair is just downright fun to watch.

7. Capitalism: A Love Story (Michael Moore)
Michael Moore has become the biggest name in documentary films with his own brand of rabble rousing with his movies, which are more like filmed essays than an objective documentary. But really, who says documentaries need to be objective? In Capitalism: A Love Story, Moore takes direct aim at the economic system that let America down, and sent them spiraling into a recession in the first place. When Moore is playing his pranks and focusing on the real people who were hurt by this recession, and contrasting it to the banks which got bailed out, his film is strong. When he tries to look at capitalism itself, and prove its inherent flaws, he is on shakier ground. Capitalism: A Love Story is perhaps the weakest documentary of Moore’s career (it’s kind of a tie with The Big One), but it is still a fine film.

6. Anvil: The Story of Anvil! (Sacha Gervasi)
In the early-1980s, Toronto based heavy metal band Anvil was poised to breakout big time. Their album, Metal on Metal, had influence such bands as Metallica, and a tour of with Bon Jovi made them huge – at least they thought it would. Now 25 years later, the success never came, but the boys in the band are still struggling, still believing in their rock star dreams. Perhaps the most critically acclaimed doc of the year caused mixed feelings in me – yes the friendship between the two guys at the heart of the movie is sweet, and it is kind of inspiring to see two guys who will not give up on their dreams. But they also struck me as kind of pathetic – at what point are you supposed to give up on your dreams and face reality? Still, the movie is involving and entertaining from beginning to end. But I’m still not going to go out and buy an Anvil album.

5. Food Inc. (Robert Kenner)
Our food system likes to keep us fat. That is why food that is horrible for you is so cheap, while healthy food is so expensive. Well, that and the fact that farmers get huge subsidies for growing corn, so “agricultural” companies purchase large quantities of it and make high fructose corn syrup that is in pretty much everything we eat, despite the fact that it is terrible for you. Profit trumps everything else, and farmers who want to grow healthier food are singled out and picked on by the government, who receive massive contributions for the giant agricultural companies. There really is nothing new here – if you’ve done any reading on this subject, what the movie has to say will not shock you – yet it is still important to get the information out there, and director Robert Kenner does so in a fascinating and entertaining way.

4. Burma VJ (Anders Ostergaard)
Anders Ostergaard’s film is made up of real footage caught by on the ground video journalists during the protests in Burma in August and September 2007. Because foreign journalists are banned from the country, and the major networks in the country are just pawns for the government, the only way the Burmese people – and the rest of the world – got to see what was actually happening was through the cameras of these brave journalists who were risking their freedom and lives in order to capture it all. The film is gripping in its imagery, and the story it tells.

3. Tyson (James Toback)
Mike Tyson is one of the more controversial figures in America. From his huge success and fame in the boxing ring at a young age, to his conviction for rape, to his marriage to Robin Givens, to his eat biting episode and everything in between, it seems like everyone has an opinion on Mike Tyson – and very few of those opinions are positive. James Toback’s Tyson is a chance for Tyson to tell his side of the story in full. Toback is a trusted friend of Tyson’s, and he gets Iron Mike to open up about his childhood, his legal problems and everything else. No, this is not an objective view of Tyson – Toback and Tyson have the objective of trying to cleanse his image. Yet, this is perhaps the best movie we are going to see where Tyson tells his story the way he sees it. It may not all be true, and you could walk out of the film hating Iron Mike as much as you did going in, but it is a fascinating movie, and Mike Tyson is a fascinating person.

2. Collapse (Chris Smith)
Michael Ruppert is a former LAPD officer, who has made his modest living for the last three decades as an investigative journalist, uncovering conspiracies and stories that the “mainstream” media has left alone. Now, he is talking about the inevitable collapse that is going to hit the world when we run out of oil. He believes that there is no viable alternative to oil, and that we are on the down slope of what there is left in the world, and that soon we will all be living in some sort of Mad Max like world. I didn’t agree with everything that Ruppert had to say – hell, I didn’t agree with most of it – but he is a fascinating person to make a documentary about, and he a great speaker. Chris Smith, best known for his great comedic doc American Movie, steps into Errol Morris territory here, and makes a fascinating doc.

1. The Cove (Louis Pishoyoas)
Easily the best documentary in this weak year was Louis Pishoyoas devastating film The Cove. The movie is about an isolated cove in Japan where fishermen lure dolphins in by the hundreds to try and sell them to people from zoos the world over. They need a constant supply of dolphins, because in captivity and forced to perform, dolphins become depressed easily, and are miserable enough that they commit suicide. The even bigger tragedy however is that after the zoo people go home, the fishermen slaughter the dolphins, and then sell the meat to supermarkets, passing it off as a different kind of meat. The movie is a meticulously made film, with undercover cameras exposing the dirty little secret Japan denied was even happening at all. The movie is a powerful, devastating film that left me shaken.

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