A Documentary Blog Holiday Feature: Top Docs of the Decade as Chosen by Documentary Filmmakers

As the blog-o-sphere goes into ‘End of the year’ and ‘End of the decade’ list overload, I thought it might be cool to contact the filmmakers responsible for some of my favourite documentaries of the past ten years and see if they might be interested in sharing their own personal ‘best of decade’ lists here at The Documentary Blog. Luckily, a lot of awesome people responded and quickly sent in their choices for their personal favourite non-ficiton films of the past 10 years. I love these sort of lists because it provides a great resource for people looking for some good documentary recommendations to get 2010 off to a great movie-watching start!

Most of the lists below are in no particular order, when not numbered otherwise. There are some really great choices here. There’s even a few TV series’ and short films that have made the cut. Also, it’s worth noting that some of the choices might fall outside of the technical past decade, but I thought we’d go easy on this rule. Also, at the end of this post I will be highlighting some of our contributor’s past work with some select trailers, so check them out! Let’s get started:

CRAZY LOVE (2007)
Directed by Dan Klores and Fisher Stevens

As a fan of truth is stranger than fiction stories, Crazy Love is a gem that cuts to the heart of loneliness and has burned a permanent scar in my brain since I sat in a theater alone in 2007 mesmerized. Directors Dan Klores and Fisher Stevens combine fantastic still photos, amazing archival footage, simple talking heads and great songs to bring this mind bending tragic New York saga to life.

DEEP WATER (2006)
Directed by Louise Osmond and Jerry Rothwell

Another truth is stranger than fiction film, Deep Water is the story of a sailing race around the world. It is a classy British production with amazing 16mm archival footage, self documentation, extraordinary graphics of the globe and a twist that you do not see coming.

CAPTURING THE FRIEDMANS (2003)
Directed by Andrew Jarecki

It’s tough not to love this treasure trove of self documentation as nothing achieves a deeper truth than the Super 8mm and Home Video found and used by Director Andrew Jarecki about this dysfunctional Long Island family.

BILLY THE KID (2007)
Directed by Jennifer Venditti

Though it’s never addressed in the film, Billy The Kid clearly has Asperger’s Syndrome which makes every line out of sweet Billy’s mouth an emotional truth which is totally endearing. Director Jennifer Venditti’s achievement is that the film plays like a well constructed three act narrative – transcending verite’.

TYSON (2008)
Directed by James Toback

James Toback delivers the great monologue film of the decade, revealing the emotionally complex human behind boxer Mike Tyson in ways I could never have imagined. The story of Tyson and his trainer/manager/mentor/father figure Cus D’Amato is pure food for the soul.

Here are 5 films that I really love from the past decade, not necessarily in rank order. They are at once poetic, meditative, expansive and odd. All five are crafted artworks and highly inspiring.

ENCOUNTERS AT THE END OF THE WORLD (2007)
Directed by Werner Herzog

THE WHITE DIAMOND (2004)
Directed by Werner Herzog

THE STORY OF THE WEEPING CAMEL (2003)
Directed by Byambasuren Davaa and Luigi Falorni

CITY OF CRANES (2007)
Directed by Eva Webber

CARNY (2008)
Directed by Alison Murray

I want to break my list into two parts: my favorite documentaries of the century that I found on a lot of similar lists (by people much smarter than myself), and my favorite docs of the decade that the lists have generally overlooked.
-So let’s start with my favorite docs that made a lot of lists:

THE GLEANERS AND I (2000)
Directed by Agnes Varda

Agnes Varda incorporates herself into her films in such a confident and playful way. The film becomes as much about her telling the story as the story she’s telling. It’s creatively daring and inspiring, especially when you consider that the director is seventy years old.

THE DEVIL AND DANIEL JOHNSTON (2005)
Directed by Jeff Feuerzeig

There are two scenes in this movie that I’ll never forget. One is Daniel’s father recounting the plane crash they were in together. He breaks into tears while looking at still photos of the wreckage and it’s as if he is just realizing the gravity of the situation. The other is the re-enactment when Daniel, in a delusional state, accidentally breaks into a woman’s house and frightens her so badly that she jumps out the window. The steady-camera POV shot is terrifying as it re-traces his steps… highly recommended!

NO DIRECTION HOME (2005)
Directed by Martin Scorsese

This movie is worth it alone for the D.A. Pennebaker footage of Dylan playing with The Band, right after he had made the switch to electric guitar. In this footage, Bob Dylan is arguably the coolest person in the world.

ANVIL! THE STORY OF ANVIL (2008)
Directed by Sacha Gervasi

I’ve seen this movie three times. Its heart warming, funny and poignant – plus it’s about music! It has all the elements in my book. You can feel the close relationship between the director and the two friends, Lips and Rob, and it shows in how comfortable they are on screen.

SPELLBOUND (2002)
Directed by Jeffrey Blitz

If you haven’t seen this, you don’t like documentaries.

THE KING OF KONG: A FISTFULL OF QUARTERS (2007)
Directed by Seth Gordon

The access the filmmakers have to the subjects is simply incredible. The editing and insanely well-covered subjects (they are filming both sides of most phone calls) combine to make the film play like a wacky 80’s narrative comedy. Watching with an audience is mandatory.

GRIZZLY MAN (2005)
Directed by Werner Herzog

What I love about this film is how Herzog took what could have been the story of a insane man who got to close to wild animals and turned it into a meditation on the human condition. Plus, it’s worth it for the very thick German narration, “Where Timothy Treadwell saw peace and harmony, I see chaos, aggression and death.”

MAN ON WIRE (2008)
Directed by James Marsh

I knew that Philippe Petit survived his walk in between the Twin Towers, but the film is so well constructed that I forgot he was telling the story in flashback and was convinced that he might slip off his wire at any moment. This documentary plays out like a great heist film. Absolutely incredible.

And here is my list of documentaries of the decade that didn’t make the other lists, but served as inspiring reminders of the power of documentary filmmaking.

THE FEARLESS FREAKS (2005)
Directed by Bradley Beesley

In full disclosure, Brad is one of my good friends and I shot some of this film with him, so I am biased. But what makes this film special for me is the relationship Brad has to the Flaming Lips. He’s known them for almost twenty years and the film compiles footage that shows both filmmaker and subject growing in their respective careers. It was really fun to watch Brad make the film and I am very lucky to have participated.

I’M KEITH HERNANDEZ (2007)
Directed by Rob Perri

Rob gave me a copy of this short doc at a film festival and since then I have had to buy three additional copies because I keep loaning them out and not getting them back. But that’s okay because every dvd comes with a cool t-shirt. This documentary is great to watch in a group as it’s hilarious (especially if you’re a baseball fan) and made entirely of archival footage including Seinfeld, Magnum PI and 70’s porn.

BE HERE TO LOVE ME: A FILM ABOUT TOWNES VAN ZANDT (2004)
Directed by Margaret Brown

Margaret’s heartbreakingly beautiful portrait of country music legend Townes Van Zandt has become something of a legend in it’s own right. I love how she uses his audio recordings and stylized scenic shots to set the tone and place the viewer inside Towne’s head.

TO BE AND TO HAVE (2002)
Directed by Nicholas Philbert

Anyone who has ever taught or whose life has been influenced by a great teacher will appreciate this very quiet and majestic portrait of a year in the life of a school teacher in a one room school house in the French countryside.

BENJAMIN SMOKE (2000)
Directed by Gem Cohen and Peter Sillen

Much like The Fearless Freaks the impressive thing about this film, aside from it’s beautiful aesthetic, is the close relationship between the filmmaker and subject. The documentary is compiled from years of intensely personal footage that the filmmaker was able to collect through his friendship with the singer, Benjamin Smoke.

BRIGHT LEAVES (2003)
Directed by Ross McElwee

Ross McElwee is back with another essay film about growing up in the South. This is familiar territory but McElwee is such a savvy writer and director that he manages to infuse this film, about his relationship to tobacco, with new twists and turns that are surprising and hilarious. Anyone interested in personal essay filmmaking needs to see this film.

FOLLOWING SEAN (2005)
Directed by Ralph Arlyck

My friend and collaborator, Malcolm Pullinger, edited this film about a director’s relationship to a child of hippie parents whom he filmed in 1968 in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco. The four-year old boy, Sean, said hilarious things on camera about ‘smoking grass’ and ‘the pigs hassling him’ and the resulting footage turned into a successful short film for the director, Ralph Arylck. In 2005, Ralph wanted to know what became of Sean and went looking for him. What he found was a real-life version of The Big Chill.

THE SWEETEST SOUND (2001)
Directed by Alan Berliner

Alan Berliner may be my favorite documentary filmmaker. His use of archival footage to tell very personal and hilarious stories is nothing short of mind blowing. This film makes you reconsider everything you thought you knew about the importance of names and the fact that he invites all the Alan Berliner’s in the world over to his apartment for dinner is hilarious.

THE BEACHES OF AGNES (2009)
Directed by Agnes Varda

Agnes Varda is part installation artist, part filmmaker in this recounting of her life in films. Among the highlights for me are the way she stages reenactments by positioning herself as the narrator in the foreground, the opening sequence with the mirrors on the beach, and the amazing story she tells about keeping herself close to her house while filming her movie by running a long extension cord from her front room to the sets, which could only be 90 feet from her front door.

OFF THE CHARTS: THE SONG POEM STORY (2003)
Directed by Jamie Meltzer

This incapsulates all that I love about documentaries – unique music, wonderfully strange characters and privileged access to something mysterious. Truth is stranger than fiction and song poems are the embodiment of all things strange. If you don’t know this film, drop everything and see it. It will blow your mind.

THE WILD PARROTS OF TELEGRAPH HILL (2004)
Directed by Judy Irving

This is one of the most colorful documentaries ever made. The parrots are bright green and red, set against the beautiful blue and brown backdrop of San Francisco Bay. The colors, along with the eccentric characters, literally shimmer on screen. The main character’s tenderness towards the birds he feeds and shelters made me laugh and then cry. The parrots develop through the story as personalities of their own, which is a remarkable feat for a filmmaker to accomplish. In fact, all the relationships in the film, especially the one between the main character and the director, are incredibly personal, which climaxes in one of the best endings I’ve ever seen.

1. MODERN LIFE (2008)
Directed by Raymond Depardon

This French film is a meditation on the death of agrarian culture; not only the death of a way of life but of a way of being . Depardon lets the camera roll on ‘awkward documentary silence’ in an a wonderfully artful way. Its just great to sit with these French farmers the filmmaker has such a long relationship with in meditative silence.

2. THE CENTURY OF SELF (2002)
Produced by Adam Curtis

This is an excellent evolution in the genre of the ‘philosophical essay documentary’. Curtis clearly expresses a powerful societal force at work in the last century (and this one) that has profoundly effected the human experience.

3. KABUL TRANSIT (2006)
Directed by David B. Edwards, Gregory Whitmore & Maliha Zulfacar

This is my favorite film about the American conflict in the middle east. It is a wonderfully subtle meditation on the experience of the the conquered, and the conquerer. Nation building at its core has always been problematic and this kind-hearted film lets us understand all of the well intentioned mistakes and limitation we as Americans face.

4. WALTZ WITH BASHIR (2008)
Directed by Ari Folman
Everyone knows all about it. It was very good for most of the reasons people say.

5. HELL HOUSE (2001)
Directed by George Ratliff

Unlike most other documentaries on the subject there is no explicit or implied judgments of the behavior of those involved. It is a loving, interested, neo-verté stare into the minds of evangelical christians in America.

49 UP (2006)
Directed by Michael Apted

Chosen because it is this decade’s edition of the ongoing Up Series. Each additional installment adds to the value of the project in total. The simple continuance of the story is refreshing compared to the all lives forced into narrative structures in so many other films.

KABUL TRANSIT (2006)
Directed by David B. Edwards, Gregory Whitmore & Maliha Zulfacar

One of the finest verite films I saw in the last ten years. It is rare to find a film set in a location of US military presence that resists supervising the viewer’s reaction. I felt like I was seeing Afghanistan in away I’d never seen it before when I watched this (an experience made all the more gratifying by Whitmore’s camera work).

WALTZ WITH BASHIR (2008)
Directed by Ari Folman

Animation has the ability to simplify the world and call back to the safety of unmarred youth. This film uses this power with great irony to address material about guilt, denial, war and murder. It is a compelling and affecting approach.

THE CENTURY OF SELF (2002)
Produced by Adam Curtis

Probably the best essay documentary of the decade. A psychological history of our consumer capitalist society, uniquely told with Curtis’ associative editing choices and ethereal archival media.

PROFIT MOTIVE AND THE WHISPERING WIND (2007)
Directed by John Gianvito

While many people complained about the state of affairs during the two Bush presidential terms, it seemed political activism voicing disapproval about the direction the US and the world was being led were largely out of the question for most of us. This is a considerable part of the last decade’s legacy, and I have seen no film that identifies this absence of recent political engagement in the US better than Profit Motive.

In no particular order…

GRIZZLY MAN (2005)
Directed by Werner Herzog

DARWIN’S NIGHTMARE (2004)
Directed by Hubert Sauper

THE DEVIL AND DANIEL JOHNSTON (2005)
Directed by Jeff Feuerzeig

THE KING OF KONG: A FISTFULL OF QUARTERS (2007)
Directed by Seth Gordon

CAPTURING THE FRIEDMANS (2003)
Directed by Andrew Jarecki

MAN ON WIRE (2008)
Directed by James Marsh

BODY OF WAR (2007)
Directed by Phil Donahue and Ellen Spiro

GENGHIS BLUES (1999)
Directed by Roko Belic

IRAQ IN FRAGMENTS (2006)
Directed by James Longley

SUPER SIZE ME (2004)
Directed by Morgan Spurlock

FAHRENHEIT 9/11 (2004)http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0361596/
Directed by Michael Moore

METALLICA: SOME KIND OF MONSTER (2004) (I must believe in my own work!)
Directed by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky

1. AMERICAN MOVIE (1999)
Directed by Chris Smith

This film came out in 1999, but it’s so damn good that I must include it on my list. I remember watching it in the theater, and I literally fell out of my seat with laughter. I also peed myself just a bit. When I watch it today, the over the top humor holds, but I’m able to hold the urine. Mark and Mike are amazingly comedic, albeit sometimes unfortunate, characters that drive the film. Let’s give major props to the filmmakers for their tenacity. American Movie was shot on 16mm film, and the filmmakers Chris and Sarah did everything themselves. This tiny crew allowed a level of intimacy rarely achieved in documentaries. It’s a perfect example of a classic narrative style documentary complete with all three acts. If documentary film classes don’t use this film to teach the craft, they need to start.

2. THE WEATHER UNDERGROUND (2002)
Directed by Sam Green and Bill Siegel

It’s amazing how this film mimics so many current affairs. Also, it reminds us how passionate and drastically violently we can become when thousands of innocent people are being slaughter. The film traces the epic story of the ‘Weathermen’, a clandestine revolutionary group formed in the late 1960′s. This documentary offers a rare glimpse into one of the most radical movements of the 20th Century and provides a compassionate viewpoint of the times. The Vietnam or ‘American’ war footage is among the most graphic war imagery you’re likely to see. Additionally, the soundtrack adds a strange sense of uneasiness throughout this monumental story. This picture really should have won the Academy Award.

3. SPELLBOUND (2002)
Directed by Jeffrey Blitz

I watched Spellbound at the 2002 SXSW Film Festival in a tiny theater that held 30 people max. In no way however, did this diminish the impact of the film. After the screening, I was giddy. I went up to the filmmakers and gave them a hug and introduced myself. I might have been crying? Needless to say, I was moved by this charming documentary. I have seen this film over twenty times and you should too.

4. BE HERE TO LOVE ME: A FILM ABOUT TOWNES VAN ZANDT (2004)
Directed by Margaret Brown

The thought of making a documentary film about a dead person can be intimidating. You can’t rely on your main character. In this case the tragic and deceased singer/song writer, Townes Van Zandt. However, what Margaret Brown does rely on is a keen understanding of tone, mood, pacing and the ability to unfold a beautiful and sometimes haunting story. Although other filmmakers tried before Margaret, they were unable to gain the access and level of trust that she obtained from those that helped her tell the story. It certainly shows.

5. THE KID STAYS IN THE PICTURE (2002)
Directed by Nanette Burstein and Brett Morgen

This film showed all of us traditional documentary dorks a new and exciting way of telling non-fiction stories. Using 3-D photo moves, and unconventional voiceover and some Hollywood glamour, this kitschy film remains highly entertaining throughout. It seems like commercials are still ripping off their After Effects photo moves. Regardless of the techniques employed, the filmmakers tell the compelling and lavish story of Paramount Pictures media mogul Robert Evans, in a way seldom seen within the documentary genre.

In no particular order…

GEORGI AND THE BUTTERFLIES (2004)
Directed by Andre Paounov

ONE DAY IN SEPTEMBER (2000 IN AUSTRALIA)
Directed by Kevin McDonald

WALTZ WITH BASHIR (2008)
Directed by Ari Folman

MUGABE AND THE WHITE AFRICAN (2009)
Directed by Andrew Thompson and Lucy Bailey

MR. DEATH: THE RISE AND FALL OF FRED A. LEUCHTER, JR (2000 IN AUSTRALIA)
Directed by Errol Morris

THE POWER OF NIGHTMARES (2004)
Directed by Adam Curtis

MURDER ON A SUNDAY MORNING (2001)
Directed by Jean-Xavier de Lestrade

BORN INTO BROTHELS (2004)
Directed by Ross Kauffman and Zana Briski

SVYATO (2005)
Directed by Viktor Kosakovsky

1. AMERICAN MOVIE (1999)
Directed by Chris Smith

THE DEVIL AND DANIEL JOHNSTON (2005)
Directed by Jeff Feuerzeig

THE BEALES OF GREY GARDENS (2006)
Directed by Albert Maysles and David Maysles

THE KING OF KONG: A FISTFULL OF QUARTERS (2007)
Directed by Seth Gordon

GRIZZLY MAN (2005)
Directed by Werner Herzog

CAPTURING THE FRIEDMANS (2003)
Directed by Andrew Jarecki

45365 (2009)
Directed by Bill Ross and Turner Ross

THE COVE (2009)
Directed by Louie Psihoyos

NEW YORK DOLL (2005)
Directed by Greg Whiteley

THE WAY WE GET BY (2009)
Directed by Aron Gaudet

Over the course of last year as I was editing 45365 I tried to watch one doc a day. Some days when i was feeling uninspired this was easy. Some days I’d throw one in and immediately fall asleep but I kept up with it and in that year I kept a sort of diary of these viewings at: http://www.documentaryclass.com. Some were watched for the first time some for the twentieth. Some were found on Netflix and others I had to go through some rather seedy shit to obtain. Anyway, these aren’t all from this past decade but they are the films I watched last year that really had an impression on me. As for a list from this decade here’s what immediately came to mind:

LAKE OF FIRE (2006)
Directed by Tony Kaye

DAVE CHAPPELLE’S BLOCK PARTY DVD FEATURETTE “OHIO PLAYERS: BUS RIDE” (2005)
Directed by Michel Gondry

THE RING OF FIRE: AN INDONESIAN ODYSSEY (2003)
Directed by Lawrence Blair

LOUIS THEROUX PROGRAMS

IRAQ IN FRAGMENTS (2006)
Directed by James Longley

THE FIRST 48 (2004-PRESENT)

BROCK ENRIGHT: GOOD TIMES WILL NEVER BE THE SAME (2009)
Directed by Jody Lee Lipes

METALLICA: SOME KIND OF MONSTER (2004)
Directed by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky

LONG GONE (2003)
Directed by David Eberhardt and Jack Cahill

THE STAIRCASE (2004)
Directed by Jean-Xavier de Lestrade

AMARILLO BY MORNING (1998)
Directed by Spike Jones

To end this all off I would like to extend a big thanks to all of our contributors! I’ve personally enjoyed the work of everyone involved and just want to share some trailers of my personal favourite films these folks have worked on over the years. Enjoy!

Jeff Feuerzeig – Director, The Devil and Daniel Johnston

Sarah Price – Producer/Sound, American Movie

Ben Steinbauer – Director, Winnebago Man

Andrew Neel – Director, Darkon and New World Order

Luke Meyer – Director, Darkon and New World Order

Joe Berlinger – Director, Paradise Lost

Bradley Beesley – Director, The Fearless Freaks

Geoffrey Smith – Director, The English Surgeon

Michael Paul Stephenson – Director, Best Worst Movie

Bill Ross – Director, 45365

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