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January 7, 2007 |

By Daniel Carlson | Guides | January 7, 2007 |

Pinpointing the golden age of Hollywood is fodder for endless debates: Some say it was 1939, some the film-school heyday of the 1970s, and so on. But I don’t think it’s going too far to say that we’re currently living in the golden age of documentaries. The first few years of the 21st century have seen a passionate rebirth of the form, turning them from dour character studies into fiery, entertaining films with mass appeal. From Spellbound to Murderball, documentaries are examining cross-sections of American life like never before, and from the smug Fahrenheit 9/11 to the moving Why We Fight, documentaries offer the kind of pointed political debate that’s often lacking from other media. Following in the footsteps of spiritual ancestors like Hands on a Hard Body and Hearts & Minds, documentary filmmakers are now as skilled as their feature counterparts at weaving a compelling narrative, and it’s all the more fascinating when watching real people. And that, more than any political belief or movement, is the recurring theme in the documentaries that rose to the top in 2006: Real people, with real lives, playing for high stakes. Sure, the stakes might not always seem high to the viewer — the subjects in Wordplay are hanging out in a hotel and doing crossword puzzles, after all, not solving world hunger — but for the subjects of these films, nothing is more important than their chosen passions, and watching them each pursue their respective callings becomes a privilege.

And so, I offer the best documentaries of the year, the ones that stood out from the already stellar pack by showing even more blood, sweat, and creative joy than their esteemed peers. I’m also refraining from giving them a definitive ranking: They are all amazing films, and I wouldn’t want to cheapen one by insinuating that it’s somehow “worse” than others on the list. Here we go:

singfinal.jpg Shut Up & Sing: Barbara Kopple and Cecilia Peck’s inside look at the Dixie Chicks and the fallout over their political jabs at President Bush in 2003 is a stirring tribute to the power of free speech, a compelling look at how to run a band, and an uplifting tale of three women who refuse to compromise their values. Shut Up & Sing shows how the Chicks’ political stand fueled their latest album, and in the process lead singer Natalie Maines has become even more hardened in her stance against her critics. There’s no question that the “polite” country society shunned the group because they’re women; men would have been branded rebels, but the Chicks received hate mail calling them unpatriotic sluts. It’s a fascinating and entertaining movie, even if you don’t like country music.

truthfinal.jpg An Inconvenient Truth: I expected to doze off during An Inconvenient Truth: After all, it’s (a) Al Gore (b) giving a slide show about (c) global warming. But Gore’s reasoned, quietly impassioned plea for ecological responsibility is eminently watchable, thanks in large part to Gore’s mixture of self-deprecating showman and well-researched professor. Covering a broad area of knowledge while also delving into Gore’s personal motivations for his speeches, the film does what the best documentaries do: It changes your mind.

ratedfinal.jpg This Film Is Not Yet Rated: Kirby Dick’s entertaining documentary proves what you probably already suspect: The MPAA is a shady, ethically dubious group. Dick sets out to learn the identities of the members of the MPAA’s ratings board, a famously anonymous and clouded group, in his attempt to learn more about what makes the group tick, and more importantly, why sexually explicit films draw harsher ratings than ones containing violence. It’s a diatribe against the puritanical hypocrisy that governs most of our public society, and also an indictment against the studio conglomerates and theater chains that cozy up to one another, leaving truly independent films — like this one — out in the cold.

wordfinal.jpg Wordplay: Proving that nerds can be worthy subjects for a documentary, Patrick Creadon’s Wordplay mines gripping drama from the most unlikely of places — a crossword puzzle competition — while also keeping things light with a series of entertaining interviews with subjects ranging from Jon Stewart to Bill Clinton. It’s a testament to Creadon that the film never gets boring, even though it’s often nothing more than watching people scribble obscure vocabulary words on giant grids. The five main contestants’ profiles are endearingly human, and the resulting showdown is one of the most suspenseful sequences since Jimmy Chitwood saved the day in Hoosiers. (Well, maybe not. But it’s up there.)

campfinal.png Jesus Camp: Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s fascinating glimpse into the lives of a group of extremist Christians has only grown more potent and relevant since its release. The summer camp profiled in the film has been shuttered; Ted Haggard, president of the National Association of Evangelicals, who appeared in the film supporting its cause and the movement of Christian evangelicals in politics, has resigned in sexual disgrace. But Jesus Camp remains a powerful, eye-opening look at a specific culture in a specific time. It’s necessary viewing for people of all faiths, and generates intelligent discussion even as its young subjects are horribly manipulated by the adults around them.

Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a low-level employee at a Hollywood industry magazine. You can visit his blog, Slowly Going Bald.

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