Mike’s Top Documentaries of the Decade (50-41)
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:
50. Where to Invade Next
Michael Moore is not a subtle documentarian. He inserts himself fully into his work and he can be hit and miss. Sometimes his stunts work and shed light on an issue while being fun and entertaining, sometimes they fall flat and seem a bit tone deaf. He’s a polarizing figure, and I get that. Still, Bowling for Columbine is one of the best documentaries I’ve ever seen, and Fahrenheit 9/11 remains one of the most important documentaries to come out in the past 25 years. It’s been a bit quiet for him since then, probably because his persona has overshadowed the documentaries themselves, even though the issues he deals with are very important in their own ways. This one — could go either way for people. The premise is that we, as a country, have always just invaded other places. So what he’s doing is going around and looking at other countries to see (insert title here). But, in doing that, what he’s really doing is looking at other countries and seeing what social policies they have that are actually quite progressive and showing you how they can and do work, even though this country refuses to adopt them. So he goes to one country to show how other countries give workers paid holiday and maternal (and paternal) leave. How there are longer lunch breaks and how workers are actually respected rather than paid the bare minimum and forced to work long hours with little pay. He goes to another country to show that kids in schools are being fed real, nutritious lunches instead of reheated frozen ‘meat’. He shows other countries with free college, women’s rights, women in power, universal healthcare and no death penalties and penal systems that actually rehabilitate those who’ve committed crimes rather than needlessly punishing them. It’s a really smart way to go about the documentary and it does highlight a lot of really glaring issues that America just refuses to deal with (for various reasons we don’t need to get into now). It does what a good documentary about a social issue should do, which is inform you while also making you feel like something should be done. And it has the added bonus of being actually entertaining to boot. I’ve been meh on some of his docs before this one (namely Sicko and Capitalism: A Love Story, both of which were important, I just didn’t feel they landed as well as his other ones do), but this is a return to form for him and shows what he can accomplish with his docs when he’s at the top of his game.
It’ll be hard to find a list of best documentaries of the decade without this one appearing somewhere on it. Hell, this won Best EDITING at the BAFTAs, it was so well done. It’s a doc about Brazilian racer Ayrton Senna, and like any movie or documentary about auto racing, it’s just fascinating to see. Mostly you realize how insanely unsafe the whole sport is, even now, and especially how unsafe it was then. Which is why so many of those racers ended up dying behind the wheel. It’s just a thrilling documentary and it’s from the same team that later went on to make Amy and Diego Maradona, so they know how to put together a great piece of filmmaking.
48. The Beatles: Eight Days a Week – The Touring Years
This is Ron Howard’s first foray into documentary filmmaking, and it’s a look into well-known but little-covered aspect of the Beatles, which is just the insane toll the Beatlemania years took on them. While they were traveling around and on tour while still making music and dealing with being the four most famous people in the entire world. There’s a story in there about how they were so famous that they had to be snuck into a hotel and then all four of them lived in the same room and couldn’t leave because otherwise they’d be noticed and swarmed. And years of that grind will take a toll on you, which is why they ended up stopping tours after a while and eventually broke up. It’s a really nice look into the craziness that was that period of their lives and also goes down a couple of surprising routes that I wasn’t expecting which were also quite nice to see. I’m always a fan of a good music doc and especially anything about the Beatles, but this felt especially well done.
47. The Eagle Huntress
This is one of those documentaries that feels like it exists purely to become a movie one day. It feels a little overly staged, and I’m not sure if that’s because that’s the only way they could get the footage they needed or what, but the fact that it does feel staged does take a bit of the drama away. But the story is just so irresistible — Mongolian girl is raised in a society where men become eagle hunters and the best compete in a giant tournament. There’s never been a female eagle hunter before, and that’s her dream. Her entire family has been eagle hunters and she wants to follow in their footsteps. So of course her father allows her and begins teaching her, and we follow as she captures her eagle and begins to train it and eventually enters the big competition with it. It’s — you know the progression of the story before you go in. It’s not about that. It’s about the fact that a young girl entered a male-dominated field and through grit and determination actually succeeded at being as good as they are and potentially in helping change attitudes about a female’s place in society. So I’m willing to forgive some of the more… potentially scripted aspects of the documentary (as much as I want to believe it wasn’t, it’s hard to think that the competition, with documentarians filming it, wasn’t a little swayed in terms of the results. But it is what it is. A good story is a good story) because of that. There’s a better ‘girl power’ documentary from the decade we’ll get into later, but this is a really nice and uplifting tale that’s truly just waiting to become a Disney animated feature. It’s all there.
46. Hired Gun
Another music doc. I love these. In the realm of the ‘under-appreciated musicians’ category, of which there are a few docs on this list, it’s about musicians whose money is made appearing as session musicians or backing musicians during concerts. Not actual band members, but those who just play without any of the notoriety. There’s a whole section in the doc about Pink. It’s just her. But she has to have a band behind her to play the music. So it’s about those guys. The ones who play the instruments and never get any of the spotlight. And it’s about how they jump from session to session, tour to tour, musician to musician, and just have to be the very best at what they do, adapt to any style of music and be able to play almost anything, because otherwise they wouldn’t get work. It’s like being a gig worker in any field. The better you are, the more people want to hire you. So this is a doc about those musicians and shining a spotlight on who they are and how important they are to what we hear. It’s really great.
45. Free Solo
While it’s not the best doc of its year (still holding onto that grudge, Academy), it’s a really thrilling documentary about climber Alex Honnold and his dedication to one thing — climbing. His goal is to ‘free solo’ El Capitan, which basically means he’s going to climb the mountain without any form of safety equipment. Meaning, if he falls, he dies. And he got fellow climbers and documentarians Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi (who did Meru) to film him. So a lot of the doc is them following him and showing who he is as a person (the scenes with his girlfriend are a real certain type of awkward, since it’s clear he does not care at all about anything other than climbing) and what climbing means to him and what his plan is for doing it. Plus a lot of it is just — how can the documentarians film this without making it more difficult for him? And then the last section of the movie is the actual climb. And that part is really well done. Because even if you know instinctively he succeeds in the end, you’re still watching a dude climb 7,000 feet without a rope. Which, I’ll point out, had never been done before this. It’s definitely one of those documentaries you can show to a non-documentary person, because it’s just instinctively entertaining and interesting for all people, and not just those who are into the medium and/or subject matter.
44. Raiders! The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made
Forget the doc itself — this is about the story. A bunch of kids, influenced by Raiders of the Lost Ark, decided to make a shot-for-shot remake of it starring themselves. So really it’s about filmmaking and friendship and that do-it-yourself, ‘let’s go make a movie’ ethos that anyone who loves film will enjoy. The doc itself is secondary to the fact that it happened. And at one point the video started circulating around filmdom, and it gained a bit of notoriety, and then I think Spielberg brought the guys in to talk to them. The doc also gets into how the friends had a falling out over a girl and didn’t talk for years, and now the idea is they’re getting back together to ‘finish’ the film (because they shot everything except the plane sequence), so the doc is gonna help them do it, even though they’re now adults. Not sure I really cared about that aspect of it, the ‘we need to finish it’. I can see why, in the eventual narrative feature, they would have that beat, but here — I didn’t need it. Just tell me about them filming it and all the stories of how they pulled off all the different sequences with no budget and being 11. That’s what I want. Still, it’s an entertaining documentary and another one where the overall story of what it’s about is better than the actual product you’re seeing on the screen.
I didn’t expect to be as touched by this doc as I was. It’s about Jane Goodall and her lifelong study of chimpanzees. And the doc has incredible footage of her. It must be 40 years of her own personal footage that she let out for this documentary, because it’s incredibly captured. This could have been captured today, it looks so good. And Philip Glass wrote one of the most beautiful scores of the decade for it. And the result is one of the best put-together documentaries you will see all decade. (Of course the incredibly broken documentary branch of the Academy refused to vote for it and nominate it and because of that it’s gonna get lost in the ether because people, when they look up the best documentaries, won’t see this one on there, making it harder for more people to see it. But that’s just the reality with live with. You didn’t think we were gonna get ten whole articles without me bringing that up, did you?)
42. Hitsville: The Making of Motown
Love a good music doc, love Motown. This was a match made in heaven. This is basically a documentary about Berry Gordy and Smokey Robinson, but in a lot of ways, those are the two you want. It’s about the origins of Motown and the two of them sharing their stories of what it was like in those early days. And it’s incredible. Just hearing the stories of them all in this one house, and all the different acts there, trying to write a song that’ll be a hit, going to each other and helping each other out, and them churning out hit after hit after hit. Just the sequence of Smokey talking about writing “My Girl” alone is incredible. Or when they talked about “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” and how it was such a great song that no matter who they gave it to, no matter how many times they put it out, it was still a hit. It’s just really fantastic, and Motown is one of the greatest periods in the history of music. So it’s nice that someone put something out to get into it. Of course, what I’d really like to see is the full, ten-hour Ken Burns version where they get into everything, but that’s just wishful thinking. As it is, this is a really terrific music doc.
41. The Act of Killing
I mentioned it briefly when we talked about The Look of Silence. This was the first of the Indonesian genocide docs, and in a way, is the more affecting and effective of the two. It talks about how all these murderers who participated in the mass killings went on to become local and national celebrities, essentially famous for being killers. So what the doc did, under the pretense of covering their ‘heroic’ actions, came to them and said, “If we gave you a budget, can you recreate some of the killings as if they were a movie?” And so you watch these guys create, in their mind, what are these super badass action sequences that are supposed to glorify them and vilify the essentially innocent people who were murdered because they didn’t agree with the people in power in the country. The idea is that by making them recreate these moments, maybe they’ll feel a little bit of guilt for them. There’s one moment where one of the killers actually plays the guy he killed. Which is quite something. It’s a really interesting way to go about a documentary, and pound for pound has to be considered one of the best to come out this decade.
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