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Posted by Patricia Zimmermann at 6:43PM   |  22 comments
Production still from Sweetgrass

Blog posting written by Patricia Zimmermann, professor, cinema, photography and media art at Ithaca College and codirector of the Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival

What Makes Me Mad

We need more top ten lists of the best documentaries of the year. 

Enough of this entertainment industry pablum about the rise of the theatrical documentary.  Most of the documentaries celebrated in these reviews are American, use narrative arcs and characters, and draft genre conventions to minimize complexity, abstraction, and explanation. 

Here’s my challenge: we should multiply and amplify as many lists as possible of the best documentaries of the year. And not just the wanna-be-theatricals-coopting-community-as-outreach-until-the-feature-is-greenlighted films.

This is that endlessly fun time of year when e-blasts from Variety, the New York Times, The Village Voice and Indiewire announcing endless top ten lists percolate like mustard seeds popping in hot oil in a wok in my inbox. 

Okay, I’ll admit it: I love the lists.  

They rank up there with the Academy Awards as beloved film rituals that mean everyone I know will want to chat about film rather than the Republican coup d’etat in Washington.   How glorious:  at my local haunts, Island Fitness and  Gimme Coffee, the talk shifts from Obama and nautilus and  sustainable coffee to…cinema.  Heaven!

These lists jab me with guilt about films I saw earlier in the year that drifted away from memory. And then they flood me with regrets about other films that I never got around to seeing or that only had a short run at Cinemapolis in Ithaca. Netflix can’t remedy the exhilaration of a packed house and popcorn.

But something really, really bugs me about these lists. They overflow with commercial American industry narrative films with big budgets for marketing even though the films pirate the ambiguities of episodic plots and exploration of philosophical ideas from international art cinema. So please, DO NOT TALK TO ME ANYMORE about BLACK SWAN!

Professional film reviewers joust to outdo each other to write the most pithy one-line descriptions advertising their penetrating wit and puns. They always seem to toss in a film that only rarefied people who go to film festivals in Rio, Seoul, Mumbia or Berlin can see. 

What I Did About It

So, I am fighting back.

I'm reverse engineering these lists. I ‘m crowdsourcing top ten lists, call it participatory listmaking, or the end of the US centric cinematic empire of the top ten list. 

I popped out a status update on Facebook asking my friends for their picks for groundbreaking and game-changing documentary of 2010. Then I culled the lists and put them in alphabetical order.

If you want to know what the films are about, just click on the link. If you want to add a film, just slide it into the comments section of this blog, or find me on Facebook. 

Oh, I forgot to mention something. On my lists, the films don’t have to be theatrical. They just need to be game-changers. 

The Results

Bhutto (Duane Baughman and and Johnny O’Hara, USA, 2010), submitted by Elisabeth Hoffman, Northwestern University in Qatar

Catfish (Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost, USA, 2010), submitted by Terry Huynh, Los Angeles

Exit through the Gift Shop (Banksy, USA/UK, 2010), submitted by Jason Longo, self-employed Director of Photography

His and Hers (Ken Wardup, Ireland, 2009) , submitted by Matt Fee, Ithaca College

I’m Still Here (Casey Affleck, USA, 2010), submitted by Emily Gallagher, Lower East Side Tenement Museum, New York

Last Train Home (Lixin Fan, Canada/China/UK, 2010), submitted by Elisabeth Press, Open Plans, New York

Sweetgrass (Ilisa Barbash and Lucien Castaing-Taylor, USA, 2009)  submitted by Patricia Zimmermann, Ithaca College

Tears of Gaza (Vibeke Lokkeberg,Norway/Occupied Palestinian Territory, 2010) , submitted by Bjorn Sorenssen, Norwegian  University of Science and Technology

The Regretters (Marcus Linden, Sweden, 2010), submitted by Patrick Sjoberg, Karlstad University, Sweden

Waiting for Superman (Davis Guggenheim, USA, 2010) , submitted by Dave Prunty, Ithaca College


22 Comments

From your list so far, I've only seen "Exit Through the Gift Shop" (loved) and "Waiting for Superman" (disliked its simplistic scapegoating of teachers unions). I thought the following were nearly perfect:
Nostalgia for the Light (Patricio Guzman)
Waste Land (Lucy Walker)
Get Out of the Car (Thom Anderson)
Louder than a Bomb (Greg Jacobs and Jon Siskel)
The New Rijksmuseum (Oeke Hoogendijk)
Kinshasa Symphony (Claus Wischmann and Martin Baer)
The Woman With the Five Elephants (Vadim Jendreyko)

Technically, it came out earlier, but I think Zhao Liang's PETITION (PRC) is making the rounds now in the US. I highly recommend it (long or short version).

LIXO EXTRAORDINARIO/WASTE LAND (Brazil/UK 2010; dir. Lucy Walker) is great, as are EIN EL HILWEH/THE KINDGOM OF WOMEN (Lebanon 2010; dir. Dahna Abourahme) and SOLUTIONS LOCALES POUR UN DESORDRE GLOBAL/THINK GLOBAL, ACT LOCAL (France 2010; dir. Coline Serreau).

Agrarian Utopia - a film by Uruphong Raksasad
Set in Thailand, this maker used locals as actors and a gorgeous setting to weave a tale of change, nostalgia and the realities of farming.

This morning's 2011 Film Independent Spirit Award nominees for doc:

Exit Through the Gift Shop
Marwencol
Restrepo
Sweetgrass
Thunder Soul

I was really impressed with David Dufresne and Philippe Brault's new webdoc Prison Valley:
http://prisonvalley.arte.tv

I think the genre is finally finding its feet and producing some stunning work. For a great selection of the latest works, check out IDFA's DocLab: http://www.doclab.org/


Great idea Patty. Here are a number of films I saw in the last year worthy of viewing. (Full disclosure - descriptions are from film festival catalogs)

14­-18: The Noise and the Fury –(Jean-François Delassus)
Ten million men killed and 23 million wounded in World War I. Why did they follow orders implying certain death or injury? With an unseen French soldier as our guide and narrator, this gripping documentary offers some answers in a powerful compilation of archival footage.

Garbo the Spy (Edmon Roch)
An enthralling narrative woven from the mysteries surrounding Garbo the Spanish double agent who perpetrated the greatest fraud in World War II this masterful documentary shows us just how thin the line is between truth and fiction.

Beautiful Darling, the Life and Times of Candy Darling, Andy Warhol Superstar (James Rasin)
Transgender pioneer Candy Darling was a queen among muses, inspiring Andy Warhol, Lou Reed and Richard Avedon, among others. This hypnotically engaging film explores the universal question her life poses: Does anyone see me for who I really am?

William S. Burroughs: A Man Within (Yony Leyser)
This long-awaited documentary follows the life and times of Beat writer, literary outlaw, and ex-junkie William S. Burroughs. Combining never-before-seen footage and interviews with a countercultural Who’s who, A Man Within is a revealing portrait of the man behind the icon.

Your list contains some great picks, as well as some I'll have to see. Just one question, why no Restrepo? It's a great film that shows the horrors and stress our soldiers with every day. As America's wars linger on I personally found myself becoming apathetic about the whole thing, as the rising death tolls and frequent attacks became relegated to being placed into TV news tickers. Restrepo is sure to make me never forget that every day men and woman are risking their lives, a message effective regardless of political orientation. However as some-one who is anti-war I couldn't help see the fear and ambivalence in the soldiers eyes as a sign that we need to bring them home.
Your other choices struck me as interesting as well, because the three of the films I have seen (Catfish, Exit Through the Gift Shop and I'm Not Here) are being debated about if they are really documentaries. I'm Not Here I would say is a documentary, but one more along the lines of Borat. Joaquin Phoenix became a twisted version of himself, and the film is great at capturing the reactions to him. Now that Joaquin Phoenix has revealed that "I'm Still Here" is more or less a joke I am reluctant to except praise for it, but perhaps this is out of jealousy because who wouldn't want to be applauded for taking a year off to party and pretend to record a rap album?

Confession: I would rather be watching nearly any one of these documentaries than blogging. Same as saying one prefers opening gifts to writing thank you notes. The gift here is much more than the list -- it is the repartee, the hospitality of Open Spaces, the excitement of knowing there is a place where talk matters. This comment is a thank you note to Patty for sparking the dialogue, distilling the list, sharing her sharp insights and commentary, and serving as a trusted seal of approval. can't wait to watch them all and join the conversation!

While I enjoyed Catfish, I am surprised by all of the positive feedback it is receiving. There have been many questions regarding the authenticity. I'm not sure is this is due to the misleading marketing and promotional material, or outlandish story they tell. Whatever it is, it does makes me question what really defines a documentary. While it seems like such a silly question, it does make me wonder what truly separates nonfiction from fiction, and how we should appreciate the films that fall into that grey area.

Thank you for posting a top ten documentaries list. With so many documentaries out there its sometimes nice to have a place to start when choosing a new one to watch. I really want to see Exit Through the Gift Shop and Waiting for Superman. I cannot think of any to add at the moment, but would like to see more on the list!

Exit Through the Gift Shop= pure genius!
I know that there are a lot of people who think it was staged by Banksy, but it's still great either way. The odd situations and Thierry's thoughts keep the audience wanting to know what will happen next. This film has made me completely respect street art and see it in a new way.
I'm definitely going to check out some of these other top 10s.

The only one of these documentaries that I have seen so far was "Exit Through the Gift Shop." I look forward to watching these other documentaries. Thanks for the list!

Since we have been exploring more works in Nonfiction Film Theory, it has inspired me to find more inspiring documentaries to watch. Out of the documentaries we watching in your class so far I really enjoyed "Darwin's Nightmare," "Fallujah," "Iraq in Fragments," and "Gimme Shelter."

While I appreciate a good list, especially one with a credible author, the concept of employing a specific groups' opinion as the 'top ten' pulls me in two ways. On one hand, now I feel compelled to watch Exit Through the Gift Shop more than I had and Sweetgrass which I've heard only good things about is more tempting than before. But something I personally value as an audience member is 'virgin response.' My favorite way to come upon a movie is with as little preconception of it as possible. Now, a fallacy has been applied to these documentaries; I have a discriminatory notion that they'll be really good. This skews my ability to look at the film with an unbiased, critical eye. If everyone nods at each other and agrees, "Yes, this was an excellent movie, I agree!" then potential questioning dialogue is lost. It could even go the other way, maybe now I'm predisposed to be overly critical of the film because it's been hyped up and a documentary I may have really enjoyed is distracted by others' raving reviews. Of course it's hard to escape people's opinions, but sites like Rotten Tomatoes or IMBD really kill it for me. I feel like the times I've been most impacted by a film or performance is when I went in knowing nothing and expecting nothing.

While I appreciate a good list, especially one with a credible author, the concept of employing a specific groups' opinion as the 'top ten' pulls me in two ways. On one hand, now I feel compelled to watch Exit Through the Gift Shop more than I had and Sweetgrass which I've heard only good things about is more tempting than before. But something I personally value as an audience member is 'virgin response.' My favorite way to come upon a movie is with as little preconception of it as possible. Now, a fallacy has been applied to these documentaries; I have a discriminatory notion that they'll be really good. This skews my ability to look at the film with an unbiased, critical eye. If everyone nods at each other and agrees, "Yes, this was an excellent movie, I agree!" then potential questioning dialogue is lost. It could even go the other way, maybe now I'm predisposed to be overly critical of the film because it's been hyped up and a documentary I may have really enjoyed is distracted by others' raving reviews. Of course it's hard to escape people's opinions, but sites like Rotten Tomatoes or IMBD really kill it for me. I feel like the times I've been most impacted by a film or performance is when I went in knowing nothing and expecting nothing.

While I appreciate a good list, especially one with a credible author, the concept of employing a specific groups' opinion as the 'top ten' pulls me in two ways. On one hand, now I feel compelled to watch Exit Through the Gift Shop more than I had and Sweetgrass which I've heard only good things about is more tempting than before. But something I personally value as an audience member is 'virgin response.' My favorite way to come upon a movie is with as little preconception of it as possible. Now, a fallacy has been applied to these documentaries; I have a discriminatory notion that they'll be really good. This skews my ability to look at the film with an unbiased, critical eye. If everyone nods at each other and agrees, "Yes, this was an excellent movie, I agree!" then potential questioning dialogue is lost. It could even go the other way, maybe now I'm predisposed to be overly critical of the film because it's been hyped up and a documentary I may have really enjoyed is distracted by others' raving reviews. Of course it's hard to escape people's opinions, but sites like Rotten Tomatoes or IMBD really kill it for me. I feel like the times I've been most impacted by a film or performance is when I went in knowing nothing and expecting nothing.

While I appreciate a good list, especially one with a credible author, the concept of employing a specific groups' opinion as the 'top ten' pulls me in two ways. On one hand, now I feel compelled to watch Exit Through the Gift Shop more than I had and Sweetgrass which I've heard only good things about is more tempting than before. But something I personally value as an audience member is 'virgin response.' My favorite way to come upon a movie is with as little preconception of it as possible. Now, a fallacy has been applied to these documentaries; I have a discriminatory notion that they'll be really good. This skews my ability to look at the film with an unbiased, critical eye. If everyone nods at each other and agrees, "Yes, this was an excellent movie, I agree!" then potential questioning dialogue is lost. It could even go the other way, maybe now I'm predisposed to be overly critical of the film because it's been hyped up and a documentary I may have really enjoyed is distracted by others' raving reviews. Of course it's hard to escape people's opinions, but sites like Rotten Tomatoes or IMBD really kill it for me. I feel like the times I've been most impacted by a film or performance is when I went in knowing nothing and expecting nothing.

I really liked this post for many reasons. I think you bring up really good points about the film industry and the need for a good top 10 list of Docs. I'm in your Non-Fiction Film Theory class and you've opened my eyes to documentary. Now I would rather see a documentary than some big budget Hollywood film. The importance of linking docs and politics is changing the discourse in our everyday lives. Like you said in the beginning... "How glorious: at my local haunts, Island Fitness and Gimme Coffee, the talk shifts from Obama and nautilus and sustainable coffee to…cinema. Heaven!" I think that by linking these in our conversations we can further our knowledge dramatically.

Although I have seen none of these ten films, I would just like to agree with your views on the lists created by reviewers that seem to only contain big-budget Hollywood productions. Sometimes it appears that the top ten are more based on popularity and box office sales than anything else. For example I'm sure Avatar made it to a few top ten lists, but there has been a lot of debate about whether it is actually a good film or just so visually mind-blowing that it seems to be good. True, if they wrote about obscure films (however amazing they might be), they would probably get less publicity, but it would be really great if reviewers catered less to popular media.

Exit through... is the only one on the list that I have seen. I think its value lies in its reflexive analysis of the medium and art in general. Many have questioned whether or not Mr. Brainwash is even a real person or just an actor. Either way it completely disassembles the idea of what goes into "valuing" art and definitely does a good job of mocking the LA art scenes gullibility.

I think Exit Through the Gift Shop is a perfect case study example of the "faction" type of hybrid documentary that was being discussed in the german/american film student blog. Theres a fascinating controversy regarding whether or not the main character Mr. Brainwash is a real person or just an actor pretending to author and sell actual banksy works.

One film that stands out to me as a revolutionary film and mental experiment is I'm Still Here. This film follows Joaquin Phoenix through his hoaxed transition from actor to rap artist. This highlights the problem with calling something real or true. He did, indeed, live this life as a rapper for a year, but it was all an act. So was it real? In one sense it was and in one sense it wasn't. This shows that it is problematic to say that something is real or fake and that documentary must deal with "real life" things. I think this type of immersion and mockumentary will almost be impossible to pull off again with this type of believability because we have been tricked once and will always have the thought that we are being tricked again.



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