Thursday, February 17, 2011

2010: The Best Movies of the Year: Documentary

I love documentaries. This year, I decided to include them separately from the “feature” films – because they really are different from them in pretty much every way – if one had of been good enough to be in my top 10, I would have included, but the best documentary of the year wasn’t quite that great (it along with the next three were close though). I make no real distinctions when it comes to documentaries – made for theaters, TV or video, they all count, as there are some that blur that line so much it becomes impossible to tell (for instance, almost everyone who saw 12th and Delaware saw it on HBO, but it was eligible for the Oscars this year, whereas Public Speaking, which just aired on HBO was not). Documentaries can be hard to track down – but aside from Marwencol I think I saw everything I wanted to. The following docs, in addition to my top 10, deserve a little attention as well: Boxing Gym, Casino Jack and the United States of Money, Catfish, A Film Unfinished, Freakonomics, Gasland, Henri Georges Clouzot’s Inferno, Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, The Lottery, The Most Dangerous Man in America, October Country, Smash His Camera, South of the Border, Sweetgrass, Waiting for Superman, Waste Land, William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe, You Don’t Like the Truth: 4 Days Inside Guanatnamo.

10. 12th and Delaware (Rachel Grady & Heidi Ewing)
Abortion is such a loaded issue – one where seemingly everyone has a very strong opinion, and seems unwilling to listen to the other side. People are entrenched in their views on abortion like almost no other issue. 12th and Delaware is a fascinating documentary about one corner in a Florida that has an abortion clinic on one side of the street, and Pregnancy Care Center on the other. The people who run the Pregnancy Care Center are, of course, anti-abortion, and they set up shop where they did hoping that some women seeking an abortion would come to them by mistake, and then they could talk them out of it. Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing, who last time out pissed off Conservative Christians with Jesus Camp, pissed off the Pregnancy Care Center workers this time (and there are thousands of these clinics across America). Yet, I don’t know why they are complaining. Grady and Ewing allow them to air their views – film what they say to the patients – and lets you make up your own mind. True, they are clearly pro-choice, and the abortion clinic is shown in a softer light, yet 12th and Delaware remains a fascinating doc about one little corner where the battle over abortion is fought day in and day out.

9. A Letter to Elia (Martin Scorsese & Kent Jones)
Martin Scorsese is one of the best film historians in the world. A Letter to Elia is his third documentary about film history - following A Personal Journey Through American Movies and My Voyage to Italy. The difference here is that Scorsese, along with co-director, film critic Kent Jones, focuses on one filmmaker - Elia Kazan. Kazan’s duel legacies - for his films and for talking to HUAC - are both explored here, but mainly it is his films, and what they meant to Scorsese growing up - and how it shaped him as a filmmaker and a person. The film, only an hour long, A Letter to Elia is a moving documentary, and one that explores not only why Kazan was a great filmmaker, but why we all love films. It is another reason to love Scorsese.

8. The Oath (Laura Poitras)
The Oath is a documentary about two men. One was the driver for Osama Bin Laden, who appears to have known nothing about the inner workings of Al Qaeda. The other was Bin Laden’s bodyguard, who seemed to know everything. So guess which one spent little time in prison before being “rehabilitated” and set free where he continues to talk to young Muslim men about Jihad, and which one spent years in Guantanamo Bay? The Oath is a fascinating movie – we never see or hear from the man in Guantanamo, while his brother in law becomes a little bit of a media star in the Muslim world – who also seems to be rife with contradictions, often times disputing what he says in one interview in the next. The Oath is an intriguing, fascinating, difficult film. On one hand, it very clearly criticizes the Bush Administration for the way they conducted the War on Terror – on the other it serves as a reminder that yes, there are really are people out there who want to destroy America.

7. Restrepo (Sebastain Junger & Tim Hetherington)
Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington put themselves in harm’s way to spend time with a group of soldiers on a 15 month deployment to the most dangerous area in Afghanistan. And yet, this film is not about the directors (like so many docs seem to be these days) – but about the soldiers, who are over there in a nearly impossible position, being shot at every day by a faceless enemy and trying to win the “hearts and minds” of the civilians. This film is not about politics – the bigger issues of the war are never mentioned – but about the on the ground immediacy of what is happening. No matter what you think of the war, you cannot possibly watch this film and not be in awe of the soldiers and what they have sacrificed to fight for their country.

6. Last Train Home (Lixin Fan)
Last Train Home is a film about a China in transition - a country that has become an economic powerhouse, but whose population is becoming increasingly detached from their own families. The film focuses on one family where both parents have to leave home in order to make a living, and leave their two kids at home with grandparents. They really only see their kids once a year at Chinese New Year - although they try and impress upon them the importance of school, and not follow their path - but their teenage daughter doesn’t listen - to her money equals freedom and power. The Chinese culture values family highly, so watching the movie you wonder about the cost of China’s emerging economy has on their families.

5. The Tillman Story (Amir Bar-Lev)
The Tillman Story is a sad, angry film about Pat Tillman, the most famous enlisted man in the Army. He gave up a career in the NFL, and along with it millions of dollars, to enlist in the army in the months after 9/11. When he was killed, serving in Afghanistan, the Bush administration did their best to make him into a symbol of American selflessness and heroism - but as more and more questions about his death surfaced; it became clear that things were not what they seemed. This is a film that sees Tillman as a person - by telling his story not through the lens that either pro or anti-war people want to present him, but as his family saw him. It has been nearly 7 years since Pat Tillman was killed - and the family still wants to know exactly what happened to him. Don’t they deserve that?

4. Public Speaking (Martin Scorsese)
On its surface, Martin Scorsese’s Public Speaking is just an enjoyable movie about the life of Fran Lebowitz – a writer who is more famous for not writing than she is for anything she has actually written. She casts her gaze on the work of other writers, and can be devastating in her critiques – but is also hilarious with her dry wit. And better still, she can tell a story better than almost anyone else out there – much of the movie is simply her talking – to Scorsese, to the various student groups which is how she makes her living, and all of it is supremely entertaining. But underneath the surface, this is really a portrait of a woman who is too scared to bare her soul in her writing – which is why she suffers from writer’s block. She isn’t able to examine herself, to turn that merciless gaze inwards, so she directs it all outwards. Like Exit Through the Gift Shop, Public Speaking is really about the meaning of art – and what it takes to be a great artist. As talented as she is, Fran Lebowitz is not a great artist.

3. Exit Through the Gift Shop (Banksy)
Documentaries are often issue oriented – even many of the best ones look at a problem facing the country or the world, and examine it. Which is why a film like Exit Through the Gift Shop is so invigorating. How much of the film is “real” is beside the point – the director’s, the elusive street artist Banksy, point remains the same. The film is about a man who obsessively documents his life on his video camera – who starts to document street artists around the world, supposedly to make a documentary. But when Banksy tells him it’s time to finish the doc, and he sees what this artist came up with – he is horrified. Banksy tells him to give him all his footage and he’ll see what he can do – and encourages the “artist” to become a street artist himself, just to keep him out of his hair. Little does he know that he will become a sensation in the art world? Like I said, I don’t really care if Banksy and the artist were in on this together – and the whole thing is an elaborate hoax or not. The fact remains that Exit Through the Gift Shop is a fascinating film about the nature or art, and what it means to be an artist – and how so few people out there can tell the genuine article from a fake.

2. Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer (Alex Gibney)
Eliot Spitzer is one of the most infamous politicians of the last decade. He was a man who had it all – he made a name for himself for being uncompromising as the New York Attorney General – going after people that no one else would. He parlayed that into a successful run for Governor – and was one of the rising stars of the Democratic party – a possible Presidential Candidate one day. And he blew it, because he liked to have sex with high priced hookers. Alex Gibney’s documentary is fascinating, because it shows us not only the world Spitzer inhabited, but also the seedy world of prostitution. What’s more, it asks tough questions about the nature of democracy, and how bad Spitzer’s crimes really were – and if America is better off having him out of office, for something that was really no worse than many other politicians have been caught doing. Spitzer caused his own downfall – he and documentary make no excuses for that. Yet it also asks what role his enemies may have played in his downfall. Client 9 is undoubtedly the most fascinating, thought provoking documentary of the year.

1. Inside Job (Charles Ferguson)
Charles Ferguson’s first documentary, No End in Sight, remains the best one ever made about the Iraq war. It didn’t just sit back and criticize the decision to go to war, but looked at how the entire operation was a failure. Inside Job uses the same approach to the financial meltdown of 2008, which we are still feeling the effect of two years later. Ferguson gets interviews with pretty much everyone who would talk to him – and paints a devastating picture of a financial system that was built on greed and lies, and which has not been fixed at all in the intervening years – meaning we are on pace for another disaster to strike. Ferguson takes what seems like a complex issue, and boils it down to its essentials. I think the ending of the film goes a little too far – is a little too on the nose – but overall Inside Job is a great film – and what’s more perhaps the most important film to be released this year.

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