This is sort of my pre-emptive excuse for not including any documentaries on my “best films of 2008” list (coming later in the month). Plus, I have such respect for the documentary form (i.e. “nonfiction film”) that I think it deserves its own best-of-the-year list. So, without further ado, here are my picks for the five best documentaries of 2008.
5) The Unforeseen: This film—the debut by director Laura Dunn—starts out as an unassuming, no-frills documentary about real-estate development in Austin, TX. But it soon takes on a much larger importance, as a provocative and sobering meditation on larger issues—urban sprawl, unbridled capitalism, the environmental hazards that accompany American “manifest destiny,” etc. It’s not a didactic film, but a sort of poetic cautionary tale, featuring stunning photography by Lee Daniel of a natural world at risk in the path of unstoppable human ambition.
4) Standard Operating Procedure: Documentarian extraordinaire Errol Morris is known for his reflexive approach to the form: his films feature self-conscious melding of fiction and fact, examinations of the very nature of “truth” as seen in photograph, film image, or memory. He is in top form here, in his controversial and highly disturbing documentary of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal. It’s a film that truly floored me—not only because of the images or Morris’ trademark psychologically rich interviews—but because of the unexplained amorality and everyday evil that the film exposes. It’s a film Hannah Arendt would have a lot to say about, I imagine.
3) Man on Wire: This British film from director James Marsh is a striking, powerful look into the life of Frenchman Philippe Petit—the acrobat daredevil who famously walked between the two World Trade Center towers on a high wire in 1974. Aided in no small part by the exuberance of its subject (Petit’s wild-eyed wonder and love of risky beauty is utterly contagious), Man on Wire is a truly gripping, enthralling adventure of a film. Stylishly told with interviews, archival footage and reenactments, this is a story you do not want to miss. It’s a concise film with broad, life-affirming reach, though it doesn’t hammer you over the head with its significance.
2) Encounters at the End of the World: Werner Herzog’s epic “Antarctica film” ends up being less a documentary about Antarctica as it is about the humans who—for some reason or another—are living on the world’s most uninhabitable continent. Always the eccentric and aggressively curious filmmaker, Herzog and his cameras take us to unexpected, awe-inspiring places in and around McMurdo Station in Antarctica. Herzog’s off-the-wall voiceovers—combined with some truly fascinating images and interviews—make this film one of the truly singular documentaries in the modern history of the form. It’s complicated, beautiful, confounding, funny, with a refreshing dearth of answers or arguments but an unbridled and joyous sense of cinematic wonder.
1) American Teen: I don’t know that this was necessarily the “best” documentary of the year, but I think it touched me the most. There were moments of it that touched me deeply, and many moments that felt utterly, devastatingly honest. I think part of it is that the film—about a handful of high school seniors in Indiana—came down so close to my own Midwestern high school experience. For good or ill, it brought back a flood of memories. The film, from director Nanette Burstein (The Kid Stays in the Picture), also does some interesting things with the documentary form: playing with fact and fiction, drama and cliché in the way that The Hills treats its “real” subjects: as characters in an archetypal world where we are all living out roles that are in some sense prescribed for us.