The Best Documentaries of the 2000s - Part IX of a series
The Fog of War (c) 2005 Sony Pictures Classics
The 2000s treated the Documentary genre quite good. In fact, the genre had a certain resurface, as the films are quite cheap to make and there are plenty of interesting true stories to be told. So it's no wonder inventive filmmakers, both old and new, tend to take the opportunity to do a documentary. I even had to drop out music documentaries and some war documentaries from the list (they will probably appear in later lists). This time around doing a mere Top 10 proved to be hard, so here's a Top 15.
The 3 Rooms of Melancholia (Melancholian 3 huonetta, 2004)
Director: Pirjo Honkasalo
One of the most acclaimed Finnish films of the decade was this documentary by the veteran filmmaker Honkasalo. On the surface the film is about the war in Chechnya told from three different perspectives. Yet there is quite little narration and Honkasalo allows her strong imagery to do most of the storytelling. The end result is actually a film more about mood than story, which is quite a rare feat for a documentary. The athmosphere is very intense all through and one could even compare this piece of art to certain other anti-war art pieces, such as Picasso's Guernica. Both give the strong impression of grief, chaos, fear and death lurking around every corner during the wartime.
Bigger, Stronger, Faster (2008)
Director: Chris Bell
A Michael Moore -like populistic documentary about American steroid abuse. The twist is that the film is not actually against the use of steroids per se. Rather it takes on the mindview that makes people want to grow big, phony medical firms, and two-faced politicians and athletes. It brings up some important questions such as what is considered cheating, and is funny at the same time. The whole movie even starts with Hulk Hogan beating the Iron Sheik. What's not to love?
Bowling for Columbine (2002)
Director: Michael Moore
Say what you will about Moore, it's a good chance someone has already said it. At least his example brought documentaries to multiplexes and revitalized the political agenda in films. As such, he may be one of the most important directors of the 21st century (so far). I myself am a Moore-apologists, although I do recognize he has a tendency to go over the top at times. Not so here, his most balanced work which takes on the American mindset of fear as a explanation of the nation's obsession with guns. One would be amiss to think of the film as journalism. This is a pure pamphlet, although entertainingly told and very funny to boot. And this time Moore still had the ability to go around unbothered to ask annoying questions to the people in power. Okay, the much-maligned bothering of Charlton Heston is maybe a point where Moore goes too far. But people keep forgetting that the demented old man, looking almost symphatetic, was an extremely powerful frontman of one of the biggest lobby groups in America, which had even power over legistlation. Why shouldn't he be asked some hard questions?
Capturing the Friedmans (2003)
Director: Andrew Jarecki
While Moore's filmmaking style is to start searching for proof to his presupposed answers, Jarecki stumbled upon his own story while attempting to do a film about birthday clowns. The end result was a film about a normal-looking American family. The Friedmans appear regular to the point of boredom until it's revealed that there is evidence that the family's father and son have committed cruel perversive acts with small children. Jarecki's film is one of the most equal towards its interviewees I've ever seen. Everyone gets a turn to speak their mind, whether they believe the Friedmans are guilty or just framed. Everyone can make their own mind what to think about the charactera. At the same time the story is a clear tragedy happening before our eyes. The Friedman family is slowly disintegrating as the tensions grow and the final judgement seems imminent.
The Cove (2009)
Director: Louie Psihoyos
I've always said that the measure of a good movie is how big emotions it wakes up in the viewer. The Cove made me furious. And I expect I'm not the only one. The documentary about the mass-murder of the second-most intelligent creatures on the planet for altogether petty reasons should have awoken a number of activists. I'm glad they won the Academy Award for the film so that the message will get across. This is essentially another pamphlet-like documentary, but one which destroys every argument the opposing side has with a clear, unnegotiatable argument. The Japanese fishermen are depicted as brutal and ruthless, yet the film wisely has time to interview also regular Japanese people that are as appalled at the treatmen of dolphins as the filmmakers (and the viewers). The world of humans is shown to be ugly and dirty, yet the underwater shots are amazingly peaceful and beautiful. The message is clear: as people have destroyed their own habitat on land, they will move on to destroy the life on the sea. I probably won't go to any dolphinarium as long as I live. If I'll ever have children, I'll make sure thay won't either.
The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons From the Life of Robert S. McNamara (2003)
Director: Errol Morris
Man, oh man, is it hard for me to think of anything to say about this wonderful film that wasn't just said in Helsingin Sanomat in a column about this film. So you'll excuse me if I have some similar arguments.
There are a couple of movies on this list that feature only one old man talking about their life. They all are fascinating looks back and tell a lot about the past times and the world itself at the same time. Morris's film focuses on the former Secretary of defense Robert S. McNamara. He was an extermely controversial figure, with having planned military operations in WWII and Vietnam which killed a lot of people. Yet in the documantary can be seen that he was an extemely intelligent man who just happened to be put to these hard decision points. McNamara was the kind that learned from his mistakes and used working methods again. Thus he's just the right man to tell about lessons in war. It's obvious that it's not easy to make decisions that kill people, and McNamara takes his responsibility and is even moved by some painful memories. All in all, the film is a fascinating look behind the curtains of some of the biggest decisions in the military history in the 20th century.
Grizzly Man (2005)
Director: Werner Herzog
This is truly a story too weird to be fiction. A man loved bears with all his heart and lived with them every time he could. Eventually he became too trustful and one of the wild animals killed and ate him. Chillingly, the movie makes you ponder whether the worst thing a man could do to an animal is to treat it as a fellow human. And what about man's relationship with nature? If one tries to be one with it, will he destroy his mind first and eventually his whole life? This is a very unexpectional film, which dares to ask these hard questions.
Werner Herzog utilizes much of the material left behind by Timothy Treadwell. There is a strange beauty and poetry to Treadwell's images. Yet at the same time the film material portrays a really sinister spiral into madness. It's clear why Herzog has chosen him to be a worthy main character for a film. The man has so many times depicted men with obsessions which come to overtake them as well as the ultimate power of nature over man. In Treadwell's madness there is something Kinski-like, which Herzog himself confesses in his narration. Gold.
Jesus Camp (2006)
Directors: Heidi Ewing, Rachel Grady
From one man's madness to a whole community's. Jesus Camp is a film that may be seen as a hilarious comedy or the most spine-chilling horror film of the decade. It takes us to children's camp in mid-America. The kids are brainwashed there by one-sided opinions and charismatic evangelist speakers. I don't care what your religious stand is. When one subject dominates your life in every category and is the only thing which you think about when reasoning, it is dangerous. And one shouldn't pass this narrow-mindnessness to children. Yet this is a film that addresses some of the core issues of being an American. As such it's much more than the chance for a liberal European to laugh at the stupid white trash.
The Kid Stays in the Picture (2002)
Directors: Nanette Burstein, Brett Morgen
Another documentary that has an old man speaking. Yet for anyone interested in the history of Hollywood, this is a must-see. For the man interviewed is Robert Evans, one of the most important figures in the 60-70's revitalization of American film industry. The man produced, both individually and as a studio chief, classic films such as The Godfather, Rosemary's Baby, Chinatown, Love Story, Marathon Man and the Odd Couple. Yet like the case usually is in these sort of cases it's a Rise and Fall story. Evans is a very likeable main character in that he doesn't shy away from his weaknesses. He has a certain amount of regret for doing mistakes, yet it is clear that this is a man who lived for his work and the results can be seen in a wonderful filmography. The film material in the film itself is good too, and although nothing shocking or particularly new isn't shown, it suits Evans's speech well. It doesn't feel flat and obvious like someone like even Errol Morris can sometimes fall into.
Directors: Henry Alex Rubin, Dana Adam Shapiro
I'm not a sporting man and don't usually like sports movies. Yet I'll have to say this film was quite captivating. It's about the world of full-contact rugby for paraplegics. Even though these guys don't have functioning legs, they are every bit as macho (maybe even more so) than any other athletes. The will to win is big. The film follows American sport-hero Joe Bishop who has jumped to coach the Canadian team, which is seen as betrayal by many fans and athletes themselves. Joe himself just wants to prove himself, which he felt he couldn't do back in the American team. The paraplegic-stuff is handeled pretty early on. The rest of the movie the viewer is just captivated by the sporting drama unfolding before his (or her) eyes. Like in the world of sports, I imagine one can have their own hero in the film which one can root for. It is a good sign of the documentary's quality that one is allowed to do so. There are no real villains here, save for the natural competitiveness of people.
The Pervert's Guide to Cinema (2006)
Director: Sophie Fiennes
This is an unresistably charming entry gate to the world of Slavoj Žižek. The film features just the undeniably charismatic old communist-philosopher Žižek talking about the way to interpret films via psychoanalysis and sexuality. It may jump from one subject to another quite quickly, but the interpretations are very clever and the film gives a great deal of why-the-hell-didn't-I-think-of-it-like-that -moments. I could listen to Žižek talking for hours, which is good because the film is a bit long. Yet it doesn't feel a minute too long and the viewer is kept at the edge of his (or her) seat to hear all this wonderful analysis.
The White Diamond (2004)
Director: Werner Herzog
Herzog again, and once again with a tale about both aviation and the jungle. For doing so much films about similar themes, Herzog is an incredibly inventive filmmaker. Every one of his films has something unforgettable. This one tells the story of an attempt to build a blimp in the middle of the jungle to shoot the treetops and caves. The film has the luxury of a great main cast from the friendly main character who carries a lot of guilt over his friend's death and ambition to do things properly this time around. The supporting cast of exentrics is memorable too, the highlight being Marc Anthony, the rooster-owning family man. Herzog himself is also prominently a character here too, going so far as to affecting the outcome of some situation just so he could get to shoot his film. And great shots he does achieve, from the weird and wonderful nature of the jungle to the technicity of blimps to a crew member dancing like Michael Jackson with the majesticity of waterfalls behind him. The emotional centre however, is the confession of the tragic events that happened previously near the film's end.
The Winged Migration (Le Peuple Migrateur, 2001)
Directors: Jacques Perrin, Jacques Cluzaud, Michel Debats
An extremely impressive nature documentary. The French filmmakers decided to follow birds on their migration flight. This required an insane amount of time and the construction of a huge number of complex flying cameras. Not to mention getting the birds used to being photographed. But the end result is nothing short of breath-taking. To see the birds in the air one feels like flying himself, so I would recommend watching this on a canvas a sbig as possible. Time is also spent on following the bird's life on the ground. Although these scenes aren't bad themselves, they are more of the regular nature documentary stuff.
Workingman's Death (2005)
Director: Michael Glawogger
Yet another documentary without narration. As Glawogger also trusts a lot of his storytelling on his strong images, this list has gone a clear circle from Honkasalo to here. Glawogger has toured the Earth to find places and occasions where work is still the activity which creates and defines a man. People go to weird extremities just to do their work from a sulphur mine in Asia to a meat-market in Africa. This all is contrasted when we finally come back to Germany, where an old factory building has been put to museum use, and children are playing among the once-dangerous machinery and platforms. I don't know whether the documentary is nostalgic towards old times or hints that the western countries make the poorer countries do all the actual dangerous work. Yet it is a powerful piece of filmmaking however one wishes to interpret it and a terrific mood-piece as well.
The King of Kong - A Fistful of Quarters (2007)
Man on Wire (2008)
Not Quite Hollywood: The Wild, Untold Story of Ozploitation! (2008)
Standard Operating Procedure (2008)
Viva Zapatero! (2005)
To be seen:
Darwin's Nightmare, Hell House, The Staircase, Stevie, Wings of Hope