Best Documentaries of 2010

Because I love movies and I love sharing good movies with others, I love end-of-year listmaking. I love reading others critics' and friends' lists and seeing what resonated with them, and I love the process of looking back on the films that have stuck with me this year as I compile my own list. It's a great opportunity to introduce new audiences to the year's cinematic cream of the crop. I'm currently putting together my top ten list for 2010, but since there are still a handful of films I need to see, I'm going to wait until the middle of next week (around Jan. 5) to post my list. In the meantime, and because 2010 was a great year for documentaries, here are my picks for the top 5 documentaries of the year. If you have Netflix, I believe all of these are available to rent or watch instantly:

5) The Art of the Steal (dir. Don Argott): This insightful, gripping film exposes what it touts as one of the biggest recent scandals no one has heard about: The fight for control of the legendary private early modern collection of Arthur C. Barnes. With a great cast of heroes and villains and an exemplary investigative journalistic approach, Steal tells a story that represents some of the biggest tensions in the art world, but also society in general (class, race, etc).

4) Sweetgrass (prod. Ilisa Barbash): In the spirit of classic nature documentary, this is a film of pure observation--following modern-day cowboys as they lead their flocks of sheep up into Montana’s stunning Absaroka-Beartooth mountains for summer pasture. With no commentaries, talking heads or background information (until the final minute of the film), Sweetgrass is a film that lets its subjects just be. And the result, if you have the patience for it, is breathtaking.

3) Restrepo (dir. Sebastian Junger, Tim Hetherington): Until last year's Oscar-winning The Hurt Locker, no film had remotely done justice to the current military conflict in Iraq. And until this year's phenomenal documentary Restrepo, the same was true for Afghanistan. Restrepo, a raw, on-the-ground combat documentary that follows American soldiers fighting in Afghanistan's harrowing Korangal Valley over the course of 14 months, is a must-see. For most of us, it's the first and only glimpse we've gotten inside the day-to-day life of the war in Afghanistan.

2) Waiting for Superman (dir. Davis Guggenheim): It might seem a tall order to make a succinct, engaging documentary on something like "the problems of education in America today," and indeed it is. But Guggenheim manages the task, in part because he frames the issue in personal terms, by focusing on five individual students and their families, each hoping to win "the lottery" (see also The Lottery, another great 2010 documentary) to get into a charter school. It's an engaging, entertaining, disturbing film, full of infuriating facts and heartbreaking figures about the state of education and the uphill battle we face if we want to turn the ship around.

1) Exit Through the Gift Shop (dir. Banksy ... maybe?): Whether or not this is a documentary in the proper sense is an open question that you'll be asking far after you're done watching this film, which is certainly one of the best of the year. Whether it's fact or fiction, we don't know; What we do know is that it's an insightful, tremendously entertaining study of street art, fashion, the culture industry and "The Art World." Banksy--mysterious agitator/icon that he is--is somewhere in there, in front of and (maybe) behind the camera, poking and provoking his audience in the direction of self-examination as only he can.

Honorable mention: The Lottery, William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe, Joan Rivers: Piece of Work, Babies, Inside Job.