Best of the Aughts – Documentaries

Pity the documentary – the saddest and most ignored film genre. Usually the stuff of tearful historical recounting or intimate personal diaries, documentaries have generally been at the bottom of the box office barrel, no matter what their artistic merit. For a mainstream audience more interested in escapism than getting the facts, docs just don’t tend to offer enough excitement to get people to the theater.

In the early part of our new century, however, they’ve had a pretty good run, mostly thanks to this decade’s political and economic shits toward Crapsville. And Michael Moore. His mixture of showmanship and journalism put a spotlight on docs and made a larger audience sit up and take notice. Though he relies more on humor than the facts to get his point across, he made documentaries an event.

The following list isn’t about what docs made the most money, got the most nominations, or even the most critical praise. This is just one audience member’s opinion of the best of the decade and, like all lists, it is meant to inspire debate. So please – debate! I’ll meet you in the comments.

Herewith, a list of the top ten documentary releases from 2000 to 2009.

10. Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004)

There was no greater blinding force in documentaries than Michael Moore during the past decade. Whether or not that is a good thing is up to you, but he brought people out to the theaters back in June of 2004 and beat up on Will Ferrell, Tom Hanks, and Nicole Kidman at the box office but good.

This has to do with the fact that the topic of Fahrenheit 9/11 was red hot at the moment it was released, as each citizen of the U.S. was either rabidly against or rabidly for Bush and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. And while Moore left little to no room for any kind of doubt that he was wrong, it was a convincing and entertaining argument all the same.

While not better than Moore’s Bowling for Columbine, 9/11 belongs on this list because of its reach outside of the theater. Political strategists were certain this film would influence the election between Bush and Gore. Some conservatives sought to shut down advertising of 9/11, saying that commercials for the film qualified as campaign spots. And in the years since, documentaries have been made in response not to Moore’s ideas, but to Moore himself. That’s powerful.

9. Super Size Me (2004)

Morgan Spurlock went to the mat for his film Super Size Me, putting himself up as a guinea pig to prove just how destructive the world’s cheapest, fastest cuisine is to the human body. His movie came out at a time when obesity was becoming latest scary topic in the media and despite tons of other kinds of coverage, Spurlock’s film was able to put an exclamation point on the story like no one else.

Spurlock’s secret weapon seems to be his ordinariness – he is putting himself right in the middle, jumping into the fray, and letting the results speak for themselves. Weight gain, sky-rocketing cholesterol, vomiting, depression – these are the rewards of fast food. But even more than that, Super Size Me raises questions about the industry behind fast food. Questions about an an industry that lures kids into this lifestyle, of believing that this is anything more than junk, and making them junkies for life.

The message is a powerful and sobering one for a nation practically weaned on this stuff. And Spurlock deserves accolades for putting himself at risk to get that message across.

8. Man on Wire (2008)

Few real life crime stories have the drive behind them that Man on Wire does, a captivating doc about a stunt by wire-walker Phillipe Petit. He was determined to walk between the World Trade Center towers, a feat that was nearly impossible for three reasons – the water-tight security, the dizzying heights of the towers, and the fact that they were even finished yet.

The focus and the passion Petit had for this undertaking is immediately compelling – you want to see him succeed and almost can’t believe he will. The planning alone that went into the stunt would’ve put most people off. And then there’s the metaphor of the doc, with the backdrop of the twin towers, a structure that once symbolized power and wealth that has now come to symbolize destruction and death. The playful Petit dances on a high wire above it all, not unlike the rest of us.

7. Winged Migration (2001)

Why should Winged Migration (2001) be included on this list when it doesn’t have any political undertones, harrowing stories of war or tales of corporate greed? The answer is in the question. At least one doc on this list should be here because it documents something that’s just plain beautiful, no? And my God, Winged Migration is beautiful.

It was a huge, sprawling production with filmmakers shooting in 40 different countries and exposing hundreds of miles of film to capture for the audience essentially what it is like to fly like a bird. It’s this immersion, unblinking, into the world of birds that is so captivating. You are there, in the moment, to experience these birds flying making their annuals trek. The visuals work so well that the score and sparse VO feel like distractions.

But in the end, it’s a film experience like few others and well worth the watch.

6. The Fog of War (2003)

Robert McNamara, the subject of Errol Morris doc The Fog of War, was at the forefront of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and even if he had had no other part of big historical war times (he was an Air Force analyst in World War II and Secretary of Defense leading into Vietnam), that alone would be enough for a feature length.

But the fact that McNamara can provide this first person insight into some of the most violent, stressful years for our country makes this an astounding movie to watch. This isn’t a man with an American History degree giving us his feelings on what happened. This is the man himself and he opens up in ways you wouldn’t expect people who served at the top to ever open up. His disagreements with Johnson over Vietnam are especially disquieting and when the movie came out seemed to mirror how most of the country felt about Bush’s war policies.

Morris lets McNamara tell the story and it is a refreshing and disturbing story he has to tell. You should listen.

5. Dogtown and Z-Boys (2001)

This may be the only documentary I didn’t see on any other best of the decade list, though I think as a time capsule, as a character study, and as a sociological document, Dogtown and Z-Boys shouldn’t be ignored. Even if you don’t have the remotest connection to skating (not even roller skating? Really? People – had you no childhood?), there’s an evolution here, a cultural shift, that’s fascinating to watch.

If nothing else, it’s astounding to watch a bunch of punk kids – hoods that you’d chase out of a parking lot – inventing a new way to surf without water. As this pure expression of youth starts to corrode and become an industry, the doc also becomes more about the American way than maybe we’d want it to be. Everything that can be enjoyed can be exploited, it says. And watching this sport go from pure joy to mostly business is bracing.

4. The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (2007)

Much like Dogtown, the doc The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters is a distinctly American story and captures a time and place like few others. It helps that the personalities at the center of this tale are compelling, drawing you in with equal parts fascination and repulsion, no matter who much they might creep you out. Billy Mitchell, a myopic king geek, has the all time high score on Donkey Kong and seems hell bent on keeping it that way. Steve Weibe, a mild-mannered family man, is out to beat him.

Were this fiction, it would play too silly – who really cares this much about Donkey Kong? But the real life answer is – these guys. For Mitchell, who seems to have nothing else going for him but the hair, it’s about ego. He’s actually got minions who act as spies, watching Steve play and reporting to him. For Steve, being crushed under financial stress and feelings of failure in life, it’s about redemption. He just wants to set out and succeed on this thing, the escapist game that becomes an obsession for him. It is silly, but it’s also heartbreaking.

3. Abduction: The Megumi Yokota Story (2006)

Within minutes of sitting down to watch Abduction: The Megumi Yokota Story for the first time – even though I was a few minutes late and had missed the beginning – I was already choked up. This story of a teenage girl from Japan who disappeared in 1977 on her way home after school is a grueling and rewarding one. While the story at its center is filled with heartbreak and hope, there is a larger story about two nations and the strife between the two.

This is because Megumi Yokota’s disappearance was part of a bizarre North Korean scheme – to use her and several others as models for their spies to pass as Japanese. And while the Japanese government tries to cope with this national wound, Megumi’s family must cope with their own. The way these groups deal with the situation lends a complexity to the story that elevates it above the usual detective story fare. It is a multi-layered story, told in spare, straight-forward moments.

2. God Grew Tired of Us (2007)

Had it been science-fiction, a fish-out-of-water story in which an alien comes to America and comments on the strangeness of the culture, it would’ve been a soul-crushingly bad. But as a true and harrowing story of child soldiers, the Lost Boys of Darfur, going through the very definition of hell on Earth and then coming to America, it is perfect and hits notes that no fictional story could hit.

Only the victims of such an enormous, horrific catastrophe could make the revelation of Pepsi in a bottle seem profound and stumbling off of escalators something more than a goofy pratfall. These aren’t simpletons being led to the civilized world and marveling at how perfect and right it is. These are characters so far outside the irrelevancies of pop culture that nothing sentimental ever enters the picture. What gets you is the story of these men trying to reconcile where they came from with where they’re going. Good stuff.

1. Grizzly Man (2005)

There was no better documentary this decade than Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man. Focusing on what seems to be Herzog’s favorite kind of character – the egotiste with delusions of grandeur – this film may do a better job at telling this kind of story than any of his other movies. This may have something to do with the fact that it’s a true story and the way it ends up would’ve seemed more like a hack job than a true ending. But as endings go, it’s a doozy.

Failed actor and grizzly enthusiast Timothy Treadwell spent a dozen summers with the Grizzlies and ended up becoming dinner, but not before constructing a world in his head where these bears and humans get along peacefully. He videotaped his journeys and is as much an actor in his diaries as anywhere else in his life. There’s something about the cold claws of reality ripping through a rationalized fantasy world here, but you need to check it out for yourself.

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