Monday, December 28, 2009

TOP DOCUMENTARIES OF THE DECADE

As with my previous top ten list, my top documentary list is sure to omit many excellent films which I just did not see. There are many of these films that I had been told I must see, but I just didn’t. That being said, these are my stand-outs in no particular order.

Confessions of a Superhero (Matthew Ogens).
The poster for this film depicts Christopher Dennis, an actor posing as Superman on a therapist’s sofa. This is the perfect image for Confessions. Four struggling actors put on superhero costumes and hang out on Hollywood Boulevard posing for pictures with tourists for cash in between auditions. All four of these individuals are so well fleshed out that you share their broken (and in one case, realized) dreams. Hopeful and heartbreaking at the same time, Confessions shows that in the journey to realize our dreams, through self-delusion or hard work or both, we discover our blessings and true talents.

All We are Saying (Rosanna Arquette). Actress Arquette (8 Million Ways to Die) interviews many famous musicians about the creative process and the changing face of the music industry. What could be a lot of pretentious talking heads turns out to be a life-affirming examination of the passion involved in creating anything that is a piece of yourself.

Maxed Out (James Scurlock). Scurlock does an excellent job of translating his book of the same title to the big screen. An incisive and sobering look at the credit card / lending industry and its predatory practices on those with the most to lose. Maxed Out is a great companion piece to Enron: the Smartest Guys in the Room and The Corporation, two other great docs this decade about the corporate malfeasances that have led to the mess we are in today.

Slasher (John Landis). Famed comedy and horror director Landis examines predatory behavior as well. This time it involves the used car business. The film follows Michael Bennett, a traveling ringmaster of festive “slasher” sales. Bennett, a genius at the art of valuing automobiles and closing the deal, provides a gateway into the manipulations inherent in these activities directed to those in the lower socio-economic circles. It shows how much and how little things have changed since The Maysle’s Salesman from 1968.

Hard Road Home (Macky Alston and Andrea Meller). No doc had the visceral impact on me than this one. HRH profiles the Exodus Transitional Community, a faith-based group of ex-convicts in Harlem who have banded together to provide job-placement for their peers. The struggles that lead to failures and victories are documented so effectively that you know these flawed heroes so well by film’s end. During the screening I attended, Julio Medina, the founder, was introduced and I felt overwhelmed by a heroism that one can rarely find in today’s world. Go to http://www.etcny.org/ to learn more about this exceptional program.

Journeys with George (Alexandra Pelosi). There was such a plethora of political documentaries these past ten years that they sort of blended together. This one stood out by trumping wonkishness with personality. Before the new culture wars and before 9/11, Pelosi, a liberal photojournalist, palled around with George W. Bush on his campaign media tour in 1999. Although on opposite ends of the political spectrum they develop an awkward fondness for each other that cannot exist today in the red meat partisan wars drummed up to sell division and diversion. The relationship between the daughter of the right’s soon-to-be public enemy number one in the House and 43 himself, shown in a light that perhaps is his truest goofy persona (one that should have remained on the bus by the way) mirrors an uneasy harmony between the left and right which was reflected in the screening I attended in the capital of Texas with bigwigs from both parties cheering and heckling at different scenes. Those were the days.

Zombie Girl: The Movie (Justin Johnson, Aaron Marshall, and Erik Mauck). Zombie Girl documents twelve-year old Emily Hagen making her first film, Pathogen. To anyone who has ever set out on a dream project whether it be film, theater, music or anything else, this story can hit home like no other. Part filmmaking tutorial, part family relationship drama, part coming of age comedy, ZG is entertaining, informative and heartwarming. Winners of the Spirit of Slamdance Awards, the filmmakers have succeeded in the art of showing and not telling (or editorializing on) a story about real people creating an unreal world and all the difficulties that lie therein. With a wonderfully appropriate soundtrack that will stay with you as much as Emily and her family does. Side note: An interesting counterweight to this film is the doc Lost in La Mancha which painfully documents the travails of Terry Gilliam failing to realize his big-budget adaptation of Don Quixote.


Fog of War (Erroll Morris), Trials of Henry Kissinger (Eugene Jarecki), and Why We Fight (also Jarecki). These three documentaries are a not-so-unbiased but effective study of the lingering effects of decisions made that affected millions of lives. These films together provide an excellent mosaic of the history of our country, our military, and our leaders during a period of pre-assassination paranoia and later years of our nation’s cancer of hopelessness and despair. Whereas Michael Moore incites and divides, these films make their points with a studied dignity.

Life of Reilly (Frank Anderson and Barry Poltermann). A document of the stage play performed by Charles Nelson Reilly, not long before he passed away. Reilly, who most people would know as the sarcastic Greek chorus from Match Game and (to us Saturday morning geeks) Hoodoo from “Lidsville”, discusses his life in this funny, touching, and revealing dialogue interspersed with clips and photos. You have to see the film (or start googling) to discover what a rich, influential, and troubled life Reilly led. There is so much more to a famous life than what is just remembered and regurgitated.

Fish Kill Flea (Brian Cassidy, Aaron Hillis, Jennifer Loeber) and The Last Western (Chris Deaux). I disingenuously lump these two well-made docs together as they both reflect a lost era in today’s ever-changing world through a place suspended in time. The former a seventies-era supermall in upstate New York turned rag-tag flea market. The latter a Golden Era Western movie set turned into Pioneertown. Interviews and footage of the colorful inhabitants of these respective dinosaurs are sad, funny, and very American. In a changing American landscape.

Honorable Mentions:
Hell on Wheels (Bob Ray) Documenting the re-birth of the female Roller Derby in Austin Texas and the conflicts between the two upstart leagues. Painful and thrilling. Much like roller derby, I imagine.

Hell House (George Ratliffe) A Christian haunted house in North Texas suburbia. What could have been a cynical attempt to mock religion is frightening look at the lengths evangelism can take.

Finally:
A Special screening of A President to Remember with filmmaker Robert Drew doing a q and a afterwards. The father of cinema verite in America (director of the revolutionary “Primary” in 1960 of which footage was used), Drew pieced together candid and incredibly revealing footage of the Kennedy White House. To see behind the scenes “home movies” of Camelot and then hear from the man behind the camera was too much excitement for this political junkie. A night to remember. An honor.

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