The world is changing for documentaries. In the past, not only would the ten best documentaries of any given year have been dry and probably quite boring, most of the people who read CHUD would have no chance to see them. Now docs have gone mainstream – they play all over the country, and DVDs have made them completely accessible to everyone.
Also interesting this year is how many of the best docs were music docs – it seemed for a while like MTV had killed the longform music documentary, but 2006 shows that they are not just alive, but doing exceptionally well.
1 – Street Fight. Other political documentaries this year may get you fired up, but none will make you as furious as Street Fight. The film chronicles the sort of dirty local politics that we thought went out of style 50 years ago, but were alive and well in Newark, New Jersey in 2002 when upstart Corey Booker tried to unseat four-term Mayor Sharpe James. Booker is the sort of politician who can inspire excitement in even the most cynical voters; in a lot of ways he reminds me of Barack Obama. James, on the other hand, is a crooked and nasty son of a bitch who will stoop to any level to keep his job. The doc, which premiered on PBS’ POV in 2005, plays like a lawyerless John Grisham thriller and is compulsively watchable and, in the end, very inspiring.
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2 (tie) -Who Killed the Electric Car?. Imagine a world where cars that ran without polluting fuels were feasible and available. Imagine that the car companies opted to squash these cars rather than make them available, going so far as to force all lease holders to return them. That’s what really happened, and Who Killed The Electric Car? follows a number of leads to figure out just who was responsible for this. Was it the car companies? Was it Big Oil? Was it a disinterested public? The answers will outrage you. The film plays like a whodunit, and it did something amazing to me – it made me feel emotional about a car. An incredible film.
2 (tie) – Cocaine Cowboys. This film blurs the line between documentary and narrative. Jan “Miami Vice” Hammer’s retro-synth score rockets forward this breathless retelling of the hyper-violent cocaine-fueled drug wars in Miami in the 80s, and the true stories told here are ten times as thrilling and fucked up as most fictional crime films. Let’s put it this way: bloodthirsty and murder-mad cocaine queenpin Griselda Blanco named one of her sons Michael Corleone.
3 – An Inconvenient Truth. When I reviewed Al Gore’s PowerPoint presentation-cum-movie bout global warming, I wondered what difference it would make – this, I thought, was the kind of movie that would only play to the initiated. Thank God I was completely wrong. An Inconvenient Truth showed what kind of power a movie can have, as it – along with weather that is impossible to ignore (it was almost 60 degrees today in New York City) – rocketed the environment to the top of the national consciousness. Being green is no longer fringe, which means that maybe there’s some hope for the human race after all.
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4 – The Bridge. What’s amazing about The Bridge is the way it creates dialogue. The film examines suicide, and the filmmakers pointed a camera at the Golden Gate Bridge for one year and captured 24 suicides. The movie raises a number of questions, some of them about the movie itself: What causes someone to take their own life? Is it ever acceptable? And what is the value of watching people dive off a bridge, and should the filmmakers have done more to save these people’s lives? Bleak and depressing, The Bridge is a paradoxically great date film, if you’re going out with someone who isn’t afraid of hard, emotional experiences in cinema.
5 – Our Daily Bread. Forget the half-baked Fast Food Nation; this German documentary isn’t just an often stunning look at where our food comes from, it’s also unspeakably beautiful. The film goes for 92 minutes without narration or onscreen indicators of what we’re seeing – we just watch the large scale farming and animal slaughter. No one tells us how we’re supposed to feel about this, but it’s obvious that the filmmakers believe we need to understand how food ends up in our homes. This is a movie that can change the way you live your life.
6 – The Devil & Daniel Johnston. It’s not important to like Daniel Johnston’s music, or to even know who he is. This film chronicles the thin line between genius and madness, and it’s a deftly heartbreaking look at how easy it is for someone to become lost in their own mind. Sometimes funny, sometimes devastating, The Devil & Daniel Johnston is engrossing and unique, and if you give it a chance, you might find that you fall in love with Johnston’s quirky and weird music.
7 – The War Tapes. Filmmaker Deborah Scranton gave National Guard members digital video cameras before they shipped out to Iraq. The most amorphous aspect of the Iraq War debate is the troops – the anti-war types want to bring them home while the hawks want to support them. But the actual troops seem to be left out of the debate… until this film. The video diaries kept by men on the ground in Iraq shows us the war from a perspective that we have never before had. Each of these men go through deep, incredible changes during the course of their service, and so does the audience.
8 – Dave Chappelle’s Block Party. Michel Gondry’s documentary about a fantastic free hip hop show that comedian Dave Chappelle threw in Brooklyn is a blast of joy. Funny and filled with great music, the Block Party movie reminds us why we love music in the first place, and of how music can inspire and bring people together to just have a really, really good time.
9 – Neil Young: Heart of Gold. Hey old man, take a look at my life… After a serious health scare, Neil Young puts on a show at the original Grand Ol Opry in Nashville. Drawing mostly from his latest, mortality-infused album, the heavily acoustic set is beautiful and sweet. Director Jonathan Demme’s cameras get so close to the players and to the action that there doesn’t feel like a separation between the audience and the artists. In a lot of ways it’s the best filmed music doc since Scorsese’s The Last Waltz.
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10 – The Ground Truth. A number of Iraq War docs hit this year, and more are probably coming. But most of them will never be able to be as affecting as Patricia Foulkrod’s The Ground Truth. While The War Tapes shows the Iraq War experience through on the scene video diaries and aspires to a level of objectivity, The Ground Truth has a point to make, and it’s how much this war is fucking up the men and women who serve in it. Foulkrod talks to soldiers who are having trouble reconciling their experiences in Iraq, people who saw and did truly terrible things. The Ground Truth forcefully makes the argument that the best way to support our troops is to get them the hell out of there.