I had kind of a bad year for documentaries, which is too bad because I love docs. Maybe it’s partly because I missed Sundance, or because docs can be hit and miss and I just happened to fall on the wrong side of that equation this year. Whatever the case, I managed somehow to miss quite a few docs I should have seen.
I’ve done my best to catch up with those I’ve missed for which I have screeners, but even so there are some notable films this year that slipped through the cracks for me, so this top ten list should be taken with the big grain of salt that it very well would have looked completely different if I’d seen the following films (listed in alphabetical order):
Waiting for “Superman”
There’s also the dicey issue of when a film should be considered eligible for an end-of-year top ten — the year you see it? Or the year it finally gets a release? Whatever the case, there seems to be some complex alignment of stars, planets, and the footprints of baby polar bears that determines when a documentary is eligible for year end consideration, and this seems to me to be more frequently an issue with docs than narratives.
So, I saw Winnebago Man at Cinevegas in 2009, but although it wasn’t released in the US until this year, All These Wonderful Things, my go-to site for all things doc, lists it for 2009. On the other hand, I saw fest darling The Topp Twins: Untouchable Girls at TIFF in 2009, and I saw it on some top tens last year, but it was nominated for an IDA award this year and All These Wonderful Things lists it for this year.
And the Harry Nilsson doc … sheesh. I reviewed that film for Cinematical at the Seattle International Film Festival in — no kidding — 2006. But rights issues over Nilsson’s songs kept the film in limbo until now.
Here are my own completely arbitrary rules for when a film is eligible for end-of-year consideration:
1. I saw it this year at a film festival, or
2. It had a theatrical release, or
3. It was nominated for an award by an organization broadly recognized as having some authority or weight (yes, okay, I guess the Golden Globes count for this purpose),
4. All These Wonderful Things lists it for this calendar year,
5. It’s a “critically acclaimed” film being buzzed about and generally considered by people other than me to be eligble for this year.
These rules are completely arbitrary, not to mention subject to interpretation and prone to starting arguments over drinks at the bar at the Yarrow Hotel midway through Sundance. Nonetheless, they are what they are. For the docs, I poured through several different lists of 2010 documentaries to try to capture as many docs as I’ve seen that are considered eligible for 2010. Maybe I included some you wouldn’t have, maybe I failed to include something you think I should have. Let me know in the comments.
There are a couple of docs that did not make the list, to which I want to give special mention. Oscar-shortlisted doc The Lottery, a well-told tale of four kids whose parents are pinning their hopes on their names being drawn for admission to a charter school in Harlem, just barely missed making the cut. Dancing Across Borders, which I first saw at SIFF a couple years ago, is a great example of a documentary evolving naturally out of real life: a woman takes a trip to Cambodia, sees a young boy performing as a street dancer, and is entranced by his talent. She eventually sponsors him to come to the United States to train with the New York School of Ballet; after years of hard work catching up, he lands a company position with Pacific Northwest Ballet, where he becomes one of their star dancers. It’s an uplifting film, and not a bad effort documenting the whole thing by first-time director Anne Bass, the woman who sponsored him.
Passione, which I caught at TIFF this year, is an unusual doc that weaves storytelling and music to tell the story of the importance of music to the culture of Naples, with the always entertaining John Turturro as our guide. And I have to give a shout-out to Song Sung Blue, an underseen and underappreciated doc I caught at Ebertfest, which tells the touching story of a Neil Diamond impersonator named Lightning and his singing partner and wife, Thunder; this was the most surprisingly good doc I saw this year, and it will be available in February through the film’s official website. It’s well worth checking out.
I don’t know if it’s just the way it worked out, or if I was just more drawn this year to docs that entertain as well as inform, and less drawn to “serious” documentaries, but my Top Ten docs for 2010 very much favored films that were about a diverse range of very entertaining subjects. None of them are about the war — and I feel a bit guilty for not including Armadillo or Restrepo, but I’m so tired of war docs right now. Two “serious subject” films made the cut, but the other eight span the gamut from street art to soul music, from a foul-mouthed RV salesman to an obsessed beauty queen. I think you’ll find all of them entertaining in one way or another, if you see them for yourself. Here they are:
1. Exit Through the Gift Shop
By far my favorite doc of the year, and something would have gotten bumped off my top ten overall if I’d caught it sooner. Crazy story, crazy style, but it works. You can read my recent write-up of this one right here.
2. Inside Job
Charles Ferguson is, along with Alex Gibney, one of the smartest “issue” documentary filmmakers working today. He worked with Gibney on his first doc, the Oscar-nommed No End in Sight, and like Gibney, he excels at breaking down the complex and making it clear. Inside Job is on the Oscar short list this year, and I think it’s very likely Ferguson will end up two-for-two with the Oscar noms for his first two films. Not bad.
3. This Way of Life
My favorite doc from SIFF this year, this beautiful film is about an unusual family in New Zealand fighting to maintain the free way of life in which they’ve chosen to raise their children.
4. Thunder Soul
The heartfelt story of the unlikely success of an inner city high school jazz band in the ’70s, and the reunion of its members to honor the band director, whose passion for music and belief in them shaped their lives
5. Winnebago Man
Meet Jack Rebney, whose foul mouth of astonishing proportions made him a legend when video footage of him cursing and stomping his way through a shoot of an RV infomercial. Winnebago Man, though, takes a surprising turn when the filmmaker and Rebney, who’s become a recluse, develop an unusual friendship.
6. The Topp Twins: Untouchable Girls
It’s not every year that two docs with New Zealand subjects end up on my top ten list, but I had to make room for The Topp Twins, who are, perhaps, the world’s only yodeling lesbian musicians.
7. Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work
Surprisingly good documentary about the acid-tongued comic legend.
8. Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer
The second of the serious docs to make the cut this year, Alex Gibney’s searing look at the politics behind Eliot Spitzer’s fall from grace is chilling.
Errol Morris expertly weaves together the oddly compelling tale of a former beauty queen who was charged with abducting and imprisoning the young Mormon missionary she was obsessed/in love with. Not only that, but there are also cloned dogs. Reminded me a bit of 2007’s Crazy Love, which I guess makes me a sucker for stories about nutty people.
10. Who Is Harry Nilsson (And Why is Everybody Talkin’ About Him?)
Even if you don’t know who Harry Nilsson is, you’ll still enjoy this lovely tribute to the legendary musician. If you’re already a fan, you’ll enjoy getting to know more about his life. Lots of little-seen footage, plus strikingly sad/engaging interviews with Nilsson’s abandoned son from his first marriage and the children he had later in life, when he was ready to be a dad.