Mike’s Top Documentaries of the Decade (70-61)

When I first got into film, I somehow decided I was adamantly against documentaries as a medium. Part of it’s an attention span thing — most of the time when I watch a documentary, I get what it’s trying to say within fifteen minutes and the rest of the time it just feels like I’m being beat over the head with the same themes over and over again. I also, for a time, felt like every documentary was the same. They were either about how badly the government and corporations were screwing us and how awful certain issues are, or they were looking back at the Holocaust for the millionth time. So, for a time, I avoided all documentaries unless I had to or if they seemed really interesting.

Though, over the decade, there’s definitely been a real uptick in how many documentaries I see. To the point where I now rank my favorite 15 documentaries at the end of each year. I still, of course, have a preference for certain subject matters over others and do tend to not care about docs others might deem important and essential, but I’m definitely not as dismissive as I used to be about them. So as I rank my favorite 100 documentaries of the decade, the message I’d like to impart is this — people grow. The fact that I’m even doing this list when, a decade ago I’d have scoffed at the notion of it — you don’t have to love everything in order to appreciate everything.

So here are my favorite documentaries of the past decade:

70. Leviathan

This isn’t a documentary so much as it is an experience. It’s an experimental documentary that takes place on a fishing boat. And it’s not really about anything so much as it’s a collection of images and sounds meant to evoke the feeling of being there. Some may consider this a horror movie in that way. This is one of those where — just sit down, put it on, and go for the ride. Which I guess could also be summed up in the word ‘drugs’, but that’s just making a cheap joke out of it. I do think there’s really great stuff here, because it’s a different way to tell a story, and I like that it does something totally different from almost any other documentary I’ve seen, and submerses the viewer into this experience in a really visceral way.

69. Paul Williams Still Alive

Paul Williams has such a fascinating story. Huge star in the 70s, writing hit song after hit song, appearing in movies. Dude won an Oscar for A Star Is Born, wrote all the music for Bugsy Malone and Phantom of the Paradise (while also starring in the latter), and wrote a little song called “The Rainbow Connection.” He also acted in Smokey and the Bandit and a Planet of the Apes sequel, was on a bunch of TV episodes and guest-hosted the Tonight Show a bunch. Dude was everywhere for a time. And then it felt like he disappeared. And that’s what the documentary gets into. Mainly the result of drug addiction, he receded from the spotlight to live a quiet life with his family. And this documentary is basically a love letter to him and a way to tell people just how big a star he was and how important his contributions to film and music are. The doc is a bit self-serving… it’s basically about the documentarian as much as it is Williams (kind of like how The Muppets is as much about Jason Segal’s love of the Muppets as much as it’s about the Muppets themselves) — the guy is a character in the documentary and really inserts himself in there. Of course it becomes a joke after a while, that Williams seems to be in on, but you kind of wish they focused solely on Williams rather than whatever the other bits are. Still, it’s really solid and gets its point across well.

68. Three Identical Strangers

What a fascinating story this is. Kid goes off to college and runs into a guy he’s never met who says, “Hey, buddy, how you doing?” And he’s like, “I have no idea who you are.” And the guy realizes, “Oh wow. You look exactly like this guy I know.” So they drive to go see the guy and they find out… they’re twins. Identical twins who have never met before. And then it becomes a bit of a story and articles and things are written. Which leads to them finding a third identical brother, who sees the picture and contacts them. So they’re triplets who were raised in separate families, unbeknownst to one another. And so the doc gets into that story and how these brothers met and became the best of friends and even gained a bit of fame from it. And it deals with the various issues they all faced over the course of their lives since they met and all that. But then it gets into this whole other story… about the adoption agency that handled their adoption when they were separate. That part is crazy. It doesn’t get too far into it, but it’s still really fucked up. It’s such an interesting story and is one of the more interesting docs you’ll see from this decade.

67. The Look of Silence

A sequel to The Act of Killing. It’s not as shocking as that one is, but it’s a good followup. Act of Killing is almost a Michael Moore-level stunt, meant to make a statement in a big and ostentatious way. This is much more personal. That has those who helped commit genocide recreating their murders in the hopes of making them empathize with their victims and maybe see some of the horrors they’ve committed. This is a guy who survived the genocide (whose brother was killed) confronting some of the men responsible. He goes to visit them, pretending to be an eye doctor, and while there he gets the men to recount what they did. It’s treading the same ground as The Act of Killing, though there is that more immediate personal element to it that makes it interesting.

66. Citizenfour

The Edward Snowden documentary. Mostly what makes it interesting is that the filmmakers snuck into a hotel in Hong Kong to see him and are filming this almost guerrilla style as he’s in the middle of the whole firestorm and laying low. It’s mostly an interview of him explaining why he did what he did with clips and things telling the audience about it all. It’s kind of dated at this point, since the Oliver Stone film came out two years after this and he’s given a bunch of interviews in the years since. But at the time, this was a really fascinating watch. The best scene is the moment when, mid-interview, the fire alarm at the hotel goes off. And he immediately goes into paranoid mode, wondering if it’s a trick and someone’s there to get him. That was one of the most tense moments I saw in film all decade. It’s a good doc, though it worked best if you saw it at the time in which it was released.

65. I Am Not Your Negro

If I was making a list of the ten most important documentaries to come out this decade, I’d probably have this on there. It came out at a really important time in our country’s history and is about a really important subject. In Baldwin’s own words, “The history of America is the history of the Negro in America. And it’s not a pretty picture.” It’s based on Baldwin’s unfinished manuscripts and is about the story of race in America and how it is what it is. He died while he was only 30 pages into his novel, and detailed his friendships with Malcolm X, Martin Luther King and Medgar Evers, all assassinated in the pursuit of Civil Rights. It’s just such an important story to have been told, and is really something that is woefully undertaught in schools. I think most people would do themselves a favor by just seeing this documentary at some point in their lifetime.

64. One of Us

This is so up my alley. It’s about the Hasidic Jewish community in Brooklyn, a community I know very well. I grew up near it, my mother worked in banks in those neighborhoods for just about half my life. I live near another one of those communities now, oddly enough. So the idea that a documentary was made about such an insular community was exactly something I wanted to see. They chose to tell it through three specific stories — all three of whom are not currently part of the community. One is a boy who was abused by a rabbi, one is a boy who wanted to go be an actor and had doubts about his religion and wanted to do more than live within the community forever, and the third is about a woman married into the community who had several children at a young age and then became a victim of domestic violence and had to get out. Those three stories allow for a really complete portrait of the Hasidic community, because it’s very close-knit and very much — it doesn’t stomach outsiders well. Watching the woman try to leave her abusive husband, only for the community to band together and help pay for all his legal support and basically railroad the legal proceedings in order to allow him sole custody (even though he did nothing to help raise the children) while also subjecting her to such emotional abuse is a hell of a thing to watch. This is one of those docs — I wish there was more. (Apparently the success of it allowed for there to be more. I’m told there’s a miniseries on there now that’s sort of based on the community and has a lot of this stuff in it.) I really liked this one a lot.

63. Fire at Sea

One of the best documentaries about the refugee crisis you’ll see. Because it starts as this peaceful, lazy, slice-of-life documentary and then gets into its story. You follow this boy living on this quiet Sicilian island and just go about his daily life and see the kind of life all the residents there have. And then you realize — all the North African migrants are trying to get to this island. So you juxtapose the two stories as they happen and it’s just really fascinating to see. Truly one of the best documentaries to come out this decade, and very good for someone like me who doesn’t really want the ‘issue’ aspect of the documentary. I have the news for that. So juxtaposing it with the life of the people on the island was a really smart move, because it made it seem almost like a narrative feature (or at least made me see how it could be a narrative feature) and didn’t beat me over the head with statistics and horrible things happening to people all the time. I felt so much more during this than I would have if they just covered the refugees trying to cross the Mediterranean. That’s the power of a good documentary and finding the right angle to tell your story.

62. Undefeated

It’s a sports doc. And people forget how great this was. There are at least one or two Netflix doc series now that came about purely because of this one. It’s weird how well this works, even though you completely understand everything that’s happening (to the point where it almost feels a bit staged), know how it’s going to end, have seen this story a hundred times. But still… you go along with it. Because that’s the power of sports. It’s about a high school football team in Tennessee that was mired in years and years of losing and finally tries to pull it all together for one winning season, all turned around by that one special coach. You know the story. You’ve seen it before. Still works. That’s sports.

61. Icarus

Such a fascinating documentary. It starts as a big of a “Super Size Me” doc, where a guy is trying to investigate illegal doping in sports and contacts the head of the Russian anti-doping agency to help him dope. Basically — he’s gonna measure himself on a bike as-is, and then the doctor is going to give him drugs (he’s not competing so it doesn’t matter. It’s like if you or I took steroids. No one would give a shit because we’re not professional athletes) and he’s going to see how much they help him, while also doing so in a way that he won’t get ‘caught’. Basically, he’s gonna illegally dope and test himself for the drugs to see if he can come up positive. And the idea is to show how broken the world of drug testing in sports is. So that part of the doc is fascinating in and of itself, and the Russian doctor is absolutely a character. He’s so amusing. But then… then some shit goes down. Because then the doctor reveals that he was involved in helping dope athletes for the Olympics, and then it comes out that Russian athletes were doping during the last Olympics (and have been for decades) and that this dude is right in the middle of all of it. And even worse — the government is probably gonna murder him so he doesn’t talk. So then it becomes some espionage film. The guy has to get out of Russia and hide out so people don’t murder him. And then he ends up testifying about everything he did to help Russian athletes avoid detection with the doping (the stories are insane — passing clean samples through the walls.. it’s nuts) and has all this evidence. The whole thing just gets more and more interesting as it goes on. It’s a really fascinating documentary.

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