Monday, January 4, 2010

Best of the Decade - Documentaries

And the lisztomania begins. It's part of my new year's resolution to update this lovely little corner of the interweb a little more frequently, and it also serves to kill some time before my top 50 films of the Naughts list is ready to go public. My goal is to post my ranked favorites among the typical range of performances, genres and technical categories, and while I'm at it for screenplays and directors, before capping it all off with the big movie list. There will be commentary where I'm moved to do so, but some of these categories inspire far less words.

I'll launch things with my genre awards, and in this first decade of the 2000s, not all genres are created equal. Horror films have never been in such a sorry state. Musicals are back, except really, they're not. Animation is changing, for better and for worse. Fantasy has gained respectability, and with it, has produced as many god-awful failures as it has near-masterpieces - quite a number more, actually. And the only genre I intend to cover that I think has had a fantastic past 10 years is documentary. For that reason, let's go ahead and start with that one. Because today my glass is half full.

10. Encounters at the End of the World (dir. Werner Herzog)
There's no one working in Documentary - nor in the filmmaking business in general - who can see the world quite like Werner Herzog. That's of course why he's all over today list. And aside from Encounters marking a personal milestone for him, he's the only filmmaker to have made a film on every continent, it's also a gorgeous and haunting exploration of the furthest corner of the world. Plus, it's a giant bitchslap to March of the Penguins and how could you not love that?

9. Bowling for Columbine (dir. Michael Moore)
Michael Moore strikes the perfect tonal balance that he managed in Roger and Me, and it's a shame his comic stunts have driven his more recent films further away from the effectiveness that Bowling For Columbine had.

8. The Beaches of Agnes (dir. Agnes Varda)
For the eyes of those familiar with the French New Wave only, but it's a lovely watch if you've had the pleasure. Varda recreates dream images on a picaresque beach and explores her history, so inextricably tied to that most famous of film movements. Her introspection comes off far better in this context than in her earlier The Gleaners and I.

7. Man on Wire (dir. James Marsh)
How marvelous that this single act of a death-defying tight rope walk across the Twin Towers can hold such taught anticipation through a feature length film. Marsh builds suspense through the almost-as-impressive story of how such a feat was planned, and the extended segment of the crossing dares you to blink. Michael Nyman's collection of Peter Greenaway scores are recycled to arresting results.

6. The Fog of War (dir. Errol Morris)
Robert S. McNamera ruminates on camera for an hour and a half and we hang on every word. His wisdom is often as frightening as it is enlightening, and Errol Morris puts us face to face with this giant of the cold war in one of the most intimate documentaries ever made. The Philip Glass score sets a bleak mood.

5. Capturing the Friedmans (dir. Andrew Jarecki)
The film that first introduced me to the power that a well-made documentary can really have. It penetrates a family torn apart by multiple incidents of child molestation and masterfully guides the viewer to inevitable conclusions. Troubling, but powerful.

4. The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (dir. Seth Gordon)
Continuing the idea of what unexpected things documentary can accomplish, how about The King of Kong? A humble suburban dad vying for the title of highest score in the arcade classic Donkey Kong is thrown into a classic battle of good vs. evil as he faces of with hot sauce mogul Billy Mitchell, the reigning champion who comes complete with nerd minions. The story may be shamelessly manipulated, but you'd be daft not to know that from the get-go. There's still a place for great story-telling in the world of documentaries. A fictional adaptation could never be quite as fun as this.

3. Grizzly Man (dir. Werner Herzog)
It's no surprise that Timothy Treadwell, ranking among the most batshit crazy human beings to ever declare war on the laws of nature, drew Werner Herzog to his story. He falls right in line with every classic Herzog protagonist from Aguirre to Fitzcarraldo. His end is tragic, if inevitable, but Herzog for once comes across as the voice of reason, indicting Treadwell's delusional lifestyle and calling for us to do the same.

2. My Winnipeg (dir. Guy Maddin)
Not a documentary, you say? I respectfully disagree. Sure, Guy Maddin's darkly humorous essay on his hometown is built around fabrication, but he's just telling tall tales, and they all have roots in the colorful stereotypes that one can't help but laugh about from their childhood surroundings. We see Winnipeg as Maddin recreates it for us, and if it's not a documentary on the city itself, then it still accounts for us the impression it left upon him. Murky territory I suppose, but many of my favorite docs push the definition of the genre (F For Fake, Sans Soliel, Koyaanisqatsi) and this falls right in their company.

1. The White Diamond (dir. Werner Herzog)
Yes, Werner Herzog rightly deserves his three spots on this list, and the best of his documentaries practically stands as one of the best of his films period. More uplifting than Grizzly Man, The White Diamond still chronicles one man's obsessions while adding in a longstanding quite for atonement. A scientist helms an expedition of the South American tree canopy with his shining white airship, designed with the exploration of a secluded waterfall in mind. Few images from the past decade leave the impression of the airship drifting through the misty air, or of one member of the crew gracefully moonwalking on a ledge above the falls. It's as powerful as any film I've seen, fictional or documentary, and even coming out of a strong decade, this was handily my top choice.

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