Best of the 2010s: Documentaries
What do we call this decade? The Tweenies? The Teens? The Onesies? Or simply The Tens? Whatever we call this decade, there is no denying it is coming to a close with this year. By year's end, you'll notice professional critics and bloggers looking back at the decade that was. But, being as how there's been over 2,000 films released this decade, doing a proper retrospective can be a bit daunting. Therefore, it is time for the return of my Best of the Decade series!
Every month I'm going to focus on a particular genre of film and count down the 10 Best of the Decade from that genre. This will, ultimately, lead to a 100 Best list. In addition to this, our podcast, The Movie Lovers, will have a corresponding segment monthly during the Film Faves portion of the show wherein we count down our favorite films.
This month we'll be counting down the best documentaries of the decade.
It's important to note the obvious caveat - the decade isn't quite over, yet. We realize this, thank you. Documentaries are an interesting genre in that there's less than ten a year that get much critical or mainstream recognition and fewer that make an impact on the genre in some way. It's possible that something will come along during the course of the year that is a huge hit and should be taken into consideration. It's possible, but, like foreign films, it can be tough to really tell what lies ahead. If anything does come along it will surely be included in the 100 Best list at year's end.
Second, what qualifies for this list? This is something that can make it even more difficult to forecast what's ahead for this genre, as many films end up being released on HBO or the major streaming services. Because of this the genre has exploded in popularity. Netflix in particular has released nearly 100 original documentaries over the past few years. However, we only take into consideration movies that have experienced a theatrical release. No festival films. No HBO documentaries. Nothing released exclusively on Netflix, Hulu, or Amazon. Limited release films, which is the norm for documentaries, are included - even if they were only released in New York City or Los Angeles.
So, the documentary genre exploded in popularity last decade with Michael Moore's Bowling for Columbine and Fahrenheit 9/11 and Morgan Spurlock's Super Size Me taking a more accessible, populist approach to non-fiction subject matter. That approach, more or less, continued this decade, but not always. There was, however, a huge rise in two forms of documentaries this decade:
1) the Profile Doc - documentaries about a particular person or their work. This type of documentary includes films like Senna, Jiro Dreams of Sushi, Hal, Whitney, and several others. Often the Profile Doc focused on a celebrity.
2) the Journey Doc - documentaries that take the viewer on a journey so full of surprises it can be tough to describe the film. It's often best going in 'cold' to a Journey Doc and let the story - and all of its surprises - unfold before you. Dear Zachary from 2008 was one of the first Journey Docs I remember seeing. Catfish was probably the first Journey Doc of the decade - and a total sensation that led to coining a widely-popularized term that is known by even those who haven't seen the film.
A large number of the decade's best documentaries fall under these two categories, as you'll see. However, you'll also find no Michael Moore on the list, no Morgan Spurlock. I named an Errol Morris film the best documentary of the previous decade, yet you will not find an Errol Morris film on this list. Yet this was an extraordinary decade for documentaries. Let's take a look at what did make the list.
The Interrupters (2011)
This spot was the toughest spot to fill. There were literally ten other films that could have taken this spot and squeezed into the list (see the Honorable Mentions below - no, really, go see them!). I gave it to Steve James' first feature of the decade, a look at an organization committed to ending violence in its Chicago neighborhood. The organization is called the Violence Interrupters of CeaseFire and it comprises of men and women who grew up in the area and lived a life of crime before turning their lives around. This is actually quite brilliant of the organization, because there is so much power and effectiveness behind having someone talk to a youth who looks like that youth, is from that youth's neighborhood, and has lived similar experiences as that youth telling them that there is another way and they are on a bad path. And you look at the make-up of the Interrupters and they are mostly black and Latino. It is such a different approach. But we learn that, even though these volunteers have street credibility and the respect of the youth to be heard, it is still hard work and people don't immediately change. We also learn that a lot of gang crime doesn't involve guns. Those that do often involve collateral damage, the deaths of innocents. And sometimes what the Interrupters do puts them in harm's way. These are real-life superheroes making a difference in their community. We need more people like them.
Life Itself (2015)
It just so happens that the next film is the other stand-out by Steve James, his documentary on Roger Ebert, Life Itself. There's a lot of Profile Docs this decade. But not a lot about film critics. What's also special about this Profile Doc is its mix of biography, one man's love of film, his effect on the film community, and the deterioration and death of that man. That last part is what really takes the film up a notch. We witness Ebert's struggles in physical therapy and daily activity, his trips to the hospital, his loss of energy to continue an interview in his final days. It side-steps exploitation, because we see a man so full of positivity and joy slowly slip into frustration and unable to put on a brave face (we also see for the first time on video his face post-jaw removal and it is striking). Life Itself is a great documentary about the man whose words affected generations of film lovers and filmmakers. It is one of the most exceptional of its kind.
Searching for Sugar Man (2012)
Searching for Sugar Man is a mind-blowing music doc that doubles as a Journey Doc about a mercurial singer/songwriter in 1970s Detroit, who became huge in South Africa before suddenly disappearing into obscurity. Filmmaker Malik Bendjelloul, who committed suicide two years after his film's release, skillfully lets a little-known legend unfold before us via fans and those connected to his recordings. It is a whopper of a tale made more magnificent by its subject's music. He is compared to Bob Dylan in terms of sheer talent, a comparison often made to sell one's brilliance as a songwriter that few actually live up to. After listening to several songs played throughout the first 30 minutes of the film you will be convinced of this man's talent and frustrated over society's collective shrug likely due to his name and race. Thanks to Malik, we are now privy to one of a generation's greatest talents, once lost to most and now found.
Free Solo (2018)
Free Solo is another Profile Doc, yet one that provides one of the most nerve-wracking experiences of the decade. Alex Honnold loves climbing mountains. He has climbed some of the most famous mountains many times. What makes Alex exceptional is he has also done so without the help of a rope. And he aims to conquer Yellowstone's El Capitan, a 3,000+-foot granite cliff. This Oscar-winning documentary follows Alex as he trains for his endeavor, however, it also interviews those around him - including the documentary crew who must come to terms with the possibility that everything could go wrong in an instant and there isn't anything they can do! The film also scratches at what sort of personality makes one want to free solo (climbing without rope) and how such activities may affect the relationships surrounding that person. But nothing compares to witnessing one man undertake something so dangerous that humans simply are not naturally meant to do. It is a real-life superhuman achievement of absolute perfection. Because one small mistake leads to tragedy.
Credit must be given to this exceptional animated documentary. It was in consideration for the Best Animation list, but it felt more appropriate to recognize here. On August 1, 1966 the University of Texas was suddenly under fire from a sniper on top of the campus tower. The shooting lasted for 96 minutes, almost the length of the film. Sixteen people were killed and three more were wounded. We see the events play out as told by several survivors of the incident via actors filmed and animated in rotoscoping, as well as archival footage. It is absolutely riveting. But also moving, as the rotoscope is removed and survivors meet for the first time. We realize what is now something we hear about monthly was once so unspeakable that it was never talked about even by those who experienced it. This adds another layer of suffering to an already unbearable situation. Tower is a unique and unforgettable film.
Won't You Be My Neighbor? (2018)
Fred Rogers hosted a show for children called Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood for over 30 years. In that time his desire to create a space where children learn about life and are treated with respect and love affected generations of American children. It's good to reflect, in a time of such divisiveness and hate in American society, on a man who did so much to bring love and light into people's lives. But what makes this film transcend that is the last third reflects on us since his passing. Who can fill the void he left behind? The answer provided turns the attention to the viewer. In a time when so many are crying out and taking action, this film's battle cry of love and kindness is an antidote to everything we see on the news and social media. Let's hope its legacy has a fraction of the impact Mr. Rogers did.
Citizenfour is not for the casual viewer. The documentary genre is full of pop filmmaking sensibilities, allowing for information to be easily and entertainingly digested. Citizenfour's aesthetic and approach is more like the documentaries of old, where it requires your undivided attention to understand rather than grabbing your attention by the throat. It can be a bit dry. So, what makes it so damn great? The fact that you are seeing one of the most important events of the decade as it happens. Filmmaker Laura Poitras, who made an acclaimed documentary about Guantanamo Bay, is contacted by someone via encrypted emails under the name Citizenfour who had information about government surveillance. Eventually, she meets the person who reveals himself to be Edward Snowden. What follows is the real-time events of Snowden's information going public and the government's reaction to it. This is as close as we'll get to witnessing the stuff of spy movies in real life. Identities are protected. Locations are secretly changed. Measures are taken to prevent audio and data surveillance. This is incredible stuff. But the information is not for the layman so it requires the viewer's undivided attention to follow. Regardless, Citizenfour is one of the decade's most important documents of history.
Minding the Gap (2018)
Some of the most defining aspects of this decade involves racism, the treatment of women, and toxic masculinity. Each one is enough for one if not many documentaries (I trust you'll easily find some). Minding the Gap addresses all of them. Bing Liu's directorial debut follows a couple of his skateboarding friends over several years from their teen years into adulthood. Keir is a black youth surrounded by white friends. How does that shape him? How was he raised as such? Zack is a Goodtime Charlie whose drinking and go-with-the-flow attitude comes into conflict with the demands of his relationship with his girlfriend, which requires him to grow up quickly. Even Bing can't deny his role in the story and attempts to reconcile the abuse a previous father figure inflicted on him - and to what extent his mother was complicit. Through these lives the film looks at the experiences we pass on to our kids and how that imprints something in them that is passed on to their kids. Some of that involves toxic masculinity, domestic abuse, and race relations. Yet Bing manages to accomplish this by simply letting these people and their lives creep into you and build to a lasting impact that may hit you like a ton of bricks. These days we need more empathy towards each other and Minding the Gap definitely helps give us that.
O.J.: Made in America (2016)
So, this might be a controversial pick since most people probably saw this on ESPN. But it does qualify for this list since it received a limited theatrical release in New York City and Santa Monica. This 7 hour and 47 minute documentary is the most thorough look at the O.J. Simpson trial we'll ever get. We go back all the way to his USC days and follow his football career, eventual celebrity, his relationship with Nicole Brown and its collapse, the murder trial, and beyond. Doing this helps us understand the man and what lead up to the famous trial of 1994. It also helps us understand the cultural atmosphere and how it was manipulated into dismissing facts and resulted in his acquittal. This is much more than just a documentary about one of the most famous murder trials in our country; it's a documentary about us as a society. It warns us that truth and facts matter and if we aren't beholden to them then we'll acquit powerful people of heinous acts - and do so cheering.
The Act of Killing (2013)
In Indonesia in the year 1965 a fascist coup overthrew the country's first president, a progressive who garnered independence from the Dutch and grew closer alliances to communists. This fascist coup led to a repressive government that included media censorship, the rise of death squads, the extortion of Chinese citizens, and the massacre of over 1,000,000 supposed communist sympathizers. The genocide, known as the Communist Purge, was the start of a three-decade long authoritarian presidency. Yet it is widely unknown to the Western world. Josh Oppenheimer gains unprecedented access for six years to a handful of those responsible for much of the massacre. His goal: to have these men reenact the killings on film, using three Hollywood genres - gangster, musical, and western - sometimes acting as the victims, and watching those reenactments. This is an absolutely remarkable concept and that Oppenheimer was able to successfully gain the trust of these men and create such a project is astounding. To be able to interview those responsible for one of the 20th century's biggest genocides - and get genuine responses - is unprecedented. Furthermore, to have them reenact and reflect on their actions makes The Act of Killing one of the greatest film projects ever accomplished. We realize that monstrous acts are made by men. They are capable of empathy and remorse. But powerful men let loose to their whims in the name of their country are capable of irreparable and unspeakable harm to the citizens of said country. That is the danger of real evil.
Waiting for 'Superman' (2010), Weiner (2016), Exit Through the Gift Shop (2010), Stories We Tell (2013), Amy (2015), Blackfish (2013), Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work (2010), The Queen of Versailles (2012)
Those are my picks for the best documentaries of the decade. What do you think is the best of the decade? Comment below.
Don't forget to check out the rest of the Best of the 2010s series, including last month's foreign films list. Next month we'll continue our look at the best of the decade with Best of the 2010s: Action! That should be a lot of fun, so look for it in June.