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The Ten Best Documentaries of 2010

By Brian Prisco | Seriously Random Lists | January 3, 2011 | Comments ()


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It was a year where documentary blurred the line and smashed the U.S. government's policies on everything like a terrible toddler tempestuously trouncing a trainset. Most of these films are actually acts of fiction, and a few are Warholian examples of installation art. There were plenty of genuine marvels that didn't even make the list: Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, which actually pulled off what Sofia Coppola thought she was doing in Somewhere; the madcapped mashup of Intervention and "So You Think You Can Dance" and Jerry Springer that was The Wild Wonderful Whites of West Virginia; the delighfully delusional serious mockumentary stylings of Blood Into Wine about Tool/Puscifer/A Perfect Circle frontman Maynard James Keenan's quest to bottle fine wines. Not to mention smaller and important efforts like Barbershop Punk, which takes on net neutrality, or the fantastic Lemmy, which will get a release in this coming year. It was simply a great year for documentaries, and hopefully you will end the year baffled and furious like I did.

10. 8: The Mormon Proposition*: 8: The Mormon Proposition is a stirring, tragically depressing documentary about the Mormon Church's massive efforts to support and pass California's Proposition 8 ballot initiative (also called the California Marriage Protection Act), which in 2008 redefined marriage in the state of California as being only between a man and a woman, effectively making marriage between same-sex couples illegal and unrecognized. Depending on which side of the debate you stand on, you will find it either silly and pointless, or obscenely infuriating and find yourself filled with a sense of righteous fury. --TK

9. I'm Still Here*: Even though this is simply a mockumentary, sitting back and realizing that Phoenix essentially pulled this hoax for something going on three years is something else. He practically demolished his own career for this joke. It's outstanding. And it's still a funny film. Particularly the various actor cameos through the film -- from Edward James Olmos spouting mountaintop raindrop wisdom, to Puffy playing a less cartoonish version of himself from Get Him To The Greek, to Ben Stiller trying to pitch Greenberg to an angry Joaquin. Which in retrospect makes Stiller's Oscar appearance as Phoenix that much funnier, considering it was actually a fucking joke on us. The film relies a little much on SHOUTY = FUNNY and bodily functions, but it's a damn amusing film. Whether this means Phoenix will rise again from the ashes -- now that this all came out as a put-on -- or if he'll seriously just stop acting remains to be seen. I hope he faux-marries Britney Spears and they make a sex tape. Because what else is there going to be for us to read on the internet? -- Brian Prisco

8. Inside Job: If I told you, "a girl got raped," you'd shake your head and be disgusted. But if I went into great and explicit detail, reading off a minute by minute chronicling of every grunt, sob, thrust, and cry for help, if I showed you video of the testimony of the very men who committed the sodomy, if I held up her bloody clothing and told you she was just 11 and your niece, you'd grab a pitchfork and a couple of sawed-off shotguns and head off for vengeance. This is precisely what Charles Ferguson's documentary Inside Job does in regards to how Wall Street financiers essentially hate-fucked the American economy and its taxpayers. I'm not using that rape metaphor lightly -- we were violated like the Dallas cheerleaders being air-dropped on the island from Lord of the Flies. Ferguson goes through step-by-step exactly how the financial system desecrated our economy, how the special interest lobbyists for the banks and hedge funds passed laws to lube up the process, and how our government was complicit. What makes it most powerful is that it blames all the government -- not just the Democrats or the Republicans, not just Bush or Reagan. It shows how every President, up to and including Obama, have sat comfortably in the pockets of the financial giants like AIG and Goldman Sachs. While the film can't actively give us a way out -- it would take years and endless economic study to even start -- it definitely gives us a call to arms to turn and fight back against the institutions that have gotten us where we are. -- Brian Prisco

7. Jackass 3D: Approximately mid-way through Jeff Tremaine's chef d'oeuvre, Jackass 3D, a severely obese man dressed in only clear plastic wrap saddled an elliptical machine and began an ordinary exercise routine. As the minutes passed, however, this beached-whale of a gentleman began to perspire. Soon, his diaphoresis was collected in a small plastic container, and another man who goes by the name of Steve O retrieved a Bounty paper towel and wiped this corpulent man down, careful to sweep the towel between the many folds of adipose before, finally, collecting the wetty excretions that had amasssed in between this man's buttocks during his exertion. Afterwards, Mr. O carefully wrung the contents of the paper towel into the container and imbibed in this man's fecal-flecked perspiration, only to be so overcome by the putrid savoriness of the man's sudor that he expelled the contents of his stomach, triggering others in the room to regurgitate the morning's buffet of eggs and Hollandaise sauce. As this took place, I sat rapt with attention, choking back my own dry heaves, applauding the bravery of the young man so dedicated to his craft that he would drink another man's excretions.This is a new world order, and Jackass is our master. -- Dustin Rowles

6. Restrepo*: War is hell. It's so easy to politicize and name call, to use the sacrifices of a brave few to pass an agenda, to ignore the trees to point out the forest. What's so affecting about Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington's documentary following one platoon for one year in Afghanistan is that it merely turns a bare bulb on the reality of military conflict. You will walk out feeling justified in your beliefs, no matter what they are. It shows the seeming pointlessness of war, sending men to die so we can get just one more foothold. It shows brave soldiers dying for a cause they may not support and may not love, but because they want to keep their brothers in arms safe. Every day, they may go home missing a limb, with a new scar, or in a bag, and they will never be the same. It's easy to forget when discussing war in the abstract that in reality it is men, some almost boys, dying every day. For me, it made me angry and sad. But it also made me appreciate the sacrifices that are being made. It doesn't ask the questions "Why are we here?" "Why are we fighting this war?" "What is the point?" It doesn't need to. You can see the reason in the eyes of every military man interviewed. -- Brian Prisco

5. The Tillman Story: In 2002, Pat Tillman, a star safety for the Arizona Cardinals, inexplicably gave up a million dollar contract to enlist in the military with his younger brother Kevin to fight in Afghanistan. Tillman refused to give interviews, which seemed ironic coming from a mouthy surfer jock who was never afraid to speak his mind, no matter how blunt the trauma. Tillman kept his reasons private and joined up with the Rangers for a three year tour-of-duty. Tillman made headlines for his "heroic sacrifice," even though he just wanted to be treated the same as any other soldier. He would make headlines two years later after he was killed during combat and returned to his family in a pine box draped with medals, the American flag, and a steaming pile of governmental propaganda that his loved ones would spend the next four years sorting through to get to the truth. The unbelievable efforts to unravel the lies spewed by the Bush administration and to simply find out what happened to Pat Tillman is at the heart of the documentary by Amir Bar-Lev, The Tillman Story. Granted, it's not exactly a stunning insight to point out the American government is underhanded and conniving and that politicians lie, but the extent to which the military went to spin the tragic accidental death of a soldier into what was essentially an enlistment commercial would sicken even the hardiest of hearts. The film is a fierce gut punch to decency and serves as a nauseating reminder that smuggling drugs in the coffins of GIs isn't the worst desecration of a military corpse you can commit. -- Brian Prisco

4. Catfish: I'm hesitant to write anything about Catfish, other than you should give it a gander. Addressing even the smallest part of the film seems like cheating the potential viewer. It was obviously designed to be a small secret documentary that snuck in through the back door of your mind and played all manner of games with your head. The entire project is meant as not the bottom-feeding titular fish, but rather a giant red herring to force you to ponder on various intriguing aspects of our internet culture. But we live in a world where everyone has to know every truth. Nobody can accept being deceived because it somehow makes them feel weak and vulnerable. I learned this from the fiery reaction to Casey Affleck and Joaquin Phoenix's cultural experiment. As people of the internet age, we don't just have to yell "first," we have to take smug comfort in solving the mystery. But sometimes, the point isn't that the fucking kid sees dead people, the point is watching how the world reacts around him once you know. But nobody wants to be fooled anymore. What makes Catfish a terrific movie to me -- and an infuriating cheat to everyone who expected it to be a cheesy horror film in the vein of Dee Snyder's Strangeland -- is letting yourself be sucked in by the story that's unraveling. If you are so fucking anxious to prove to all five of your internet buddies that you figured it out ten minutes in, go pat yourself on the back until your break your fucking spine. The message at the heart of Catfish isn't going to change your life or blow your mind, but it's still a pretty nifty delivery method. -- Brian Prisco

3. Cropsey*: We all have ghost stories we told each other when we were younger. Parents threatened their children's misbehaviors with vengeance by a hook-handed maniac or a blood-drenched witch who took bad kiddies off into the woods where they were never seen again. The same urban legend lurked in shadows up and down both coasts and in the hinterlands between. Countless horror films are based on the campfire tales and babysitter squeals we were taunted with as wee ones. Most of these stories are rooted in folklore or some fact; there really was an Ed Gein who cut up people and ate them. The Blair Witch Project and The Last Broadcast, which the Blair Witch filmmakers pirated their idea from, tried to do a fake documentary to scare up audiences. But filmmakers Barbara Brancaccio and Joshua Zeman took this a step further. They actually dug up the roots of their very own lurking madman Cropsey. While parents whispered warnings of wandering around Staten Island woods after dark in the late 1970s, a maniac was actually taking children from their homes and making them disappear for real. What resulted was a harrowing and fascinating account of the real-life boogeyman and how legend can lead to lynch mobs and frenzy. Cropsey is a thought-provoking and horrifying documentary about how monsters get made. -- Brian Prisco

2. Best Worst Movie: Watching "Troll 2" is an experience like no other. It's regarded as one of the worst films ever made, and there's no way to make it through without drinking. The acting, directing, and writing could not even remotely be considered mediocre, and for a while it was ranked No. 1 on IMDb's Bottom 100. Directed by Italian filmmaker Claudio Fragrasso from a script he wrote with Rossella Drudi, the film is an all-out assault on logic, taste and basic comprehension. The plot, such as it is, involves a family of four who engage in some kind of house exchange with a family from a little town called Nilbog that turns out to be populated by goblins disguised as people. It's that kind of movie. But all that is exactly what also makes the movie so much fun to watch. As so often happens, what was reviled by one generation came to be loved by another ... The resulting documentary is a fantastic and sweet-natured look at the people who love the film and the people who made it. -- Daniel Carlson (link goes to THR)

1. Exit Through the Gift Shop*: As the the NY Times also noted: "Ultimately, wondering whether "Exit Through the Gift Shop" is real or not may be moot. It certainly asks real questions: about the value of authenticity, financially and aesthetically; about what it means to be a superstar in a subculture built on shunning the mainstream; about how sensibly that culture judges, and monetizes, talent." And I think that's exactly right. If Exit is a legitimately true documentary, it's an entertaining ride. If it's one big put-on, it's even better for the questions it forces us to ask about art and culture. -- Seth Freilich


(* indicates film is currently available on Netflix Instant)



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