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Nine Feel-Good Documentaries to Lift Your Spirits after the Devastating Dear Zachary

By Dustin Rowles | Lists | August 17, 2011 |

By Dustin Rowles | Lists | August 17, 2011 |

On Monday, we presented you with the 9 Most Devastatingly Sad Documentaries of All Time, a list that was topped by Dear Zachary. It seems like, whenever we mention Dear Zachary and how devastatingly sad it is, a few people see it as a challenge. They think, “Nooooo. How sad can it really be?”

It’s not a challenge you will win, folks. Dear Zachary will pummel you every single time. But, if you’re recently watched it, or for another reason feel as though the world has stacked its deck against you, we’ve got you covered. Choose one or more among these 9 documentaries, and the air that life knocked out of you will re-enter and flow through your lungs again. Or at least, put a smile on your face and a lump in your throat.

9. Paper Heart: Finally the hipsters have gone full circle and consumed themselves like an ouroborus recycled from an old Pac-Man t-shirt. Charlyne Yi and her director Nicholas Jasenovec (Jake Johnson) have created a hybrid documentary-romcom. It acts as a deconstructionist-slacker Juno without ever once making fun of the subject matter: love. The notion of love and relationships are stripped down to the barebones remnants of a love story. Normally, you’d expect the tight sweater and hoodie crowd to make some snorting smirk towards the old fashioned notion of old people in love. However, much like Charlyne Yi herself, what comes out is something adorable and kinda sweet.

8. 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.

7. Make Believe: The lives of these six contestants are tidily weaved together to give us a strong sense of each of these individual’s lives before Make Believe turns its focus on the competition at the center of the film, hewing close to the Spellbound template. But the whimsical indie doc formula, which intercuts a few talking-head interviews from leaders in the art like Lance Burton and Neil Patrick Harris(!), makes the film no less enchanting. Tweel takes an affectionate look at the gaggle of dorks, pulling out of each the idea that magic can transform their lives, and at least for a few minutes while they’re up on stage, afford them a level of super-stardom in their community and, for an hour and a half at least, in movie theaters. Make Believe is sweet and rousing documentary, a celebration of both magic and the kids who devote their time to it.

6. March of the Penguins: I should have known when the women sat down behind me that I would be in trouble. Not just one or two of them, but a mom, a grandma, and a horde of middle-school aged girls. Going to see March of the Penguins. On a Friday night. In California. And they didn’t stop saying “awwwwww” the whole time. At one point, one of the young girls even started gasping, “Oh my gawd that’s so cute oh my gawd that’s so cute OH MY GAWD THAT’S — ” and then passed out in catatonic bliss, presumably to comatose dreams of the latest YM issue, geography homework, and text-messaging guys named Devon. And although I wasn’t nearly as vocal, I have to admit it: Some of these penguins really are cute. Does it make me less of man to admit that? I’m not sure, but I’d say it probably does. But director Luc Jacquet is uncompromising, and some of these scenes practically bludgeon you to death with their cuteness. It simply can’t be helped.

5. King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters: King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters: Seth Gordon’s documentary is a heavy-handed but consistently hysterical and ultimately moving chronicle of two men vying to be the world champion of Donkey Kong. Throughout, Gordon capitalizes on a fact that hounds the increasingly tired genre of “mockumentary”: Truth is not only stranger than fiction, it’s also much, much funnier. The King of Kong, corny and improbable as this sounds, is about the values of character and integrity trumping the value of coming out on top. And there hasn’t been an underdog story with this clear a crowd favorite since The Karate Kid.

4. Being Elmo: Being Elmo is just a feel-good film. You may not love Elmo, himself, but who doesn’t love muppets? It’s not an earth shattering documentary that causes you to think or furthers some debate but, like Clash himself, it’s just a warm and lovely little film, with levity and heart. And god damn it, sometimes it’s nice to see a documentary that just lets you walk out of the theater with a smile.

3. Murderball: It’s a misconception that quads don’t have the use of any of their limbs; they do, but with limited functionality. The quadriplegics in the outstanding documentary Murderball, co-directed by Henry Alex Rubin and Dana Adam Shapiro, are eager to make this point. The whole idea behind playing wheelchair rugby is that men in wheelchairs aren’t delicate, fragile, or really all that different from the way they used to be. There’s also a world of difference between the Paralympic Games and the Special Olympics. The latter is a free-for-all where everybody gets a badge and a check-plus for showing up, and while the men of Team USA Quad Rugby are quick to acknowledge the good done by the Special Olympics, their sport is played at a higher level: “We’re going to win a fucking gold medal.”

2. [email protected]: There is no greater purpose to this documentary than telling the story of these geriatric jammers. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. It’s got a positive message, which is a refreshing change of pace from the latest documentaries beating us over the head — George W. Bush will kill you with Iraq while forcing you to eat McDonald’s while shopping at Wal-Mart and then when you get sick, the health care companies will steal your kidneys and all your money! And while there is a time and place for those messages, it’s nice once in a while to hear about something nicer, like old people raging against the light by raging against the machine.

1. Spellbound: : I’ve always believed that — with the exception of soccer, of course — you can love almost any competitive sport if you get to know the participants well enough. Jeffrey Blitz pushes that theory to the limit in Spellbound, a documentary about what would seem, on its face, to be the dullest competition this side of synchronized swimming. Blitz explores the lives of eight spelling bee participants — ages 11 - 14 — getting to know their family and fleshing out their individual personalities before taking us to the 1999 Scripps National Spelling Bee competition. We not only get to know their lives in intimate detail, but we begin to understand what’s at stake for these kids, all of whom are dorky overachievers and social outcasts (one kid even has apparent Aspergers). It’s not just a vocabulary competition, it’s the culmination of a year (or more) of obsession, of constant study (up to 4,000 to 5,000 words a day) and, eventually, the highest form of validation some of these kids have ever experienced or — in some instances — may ever again. If you’re in the right mood, it’s easy to watch Spellbound ironically, as a satire of Middle America, but even the most cynical among you will feel invested in the outcome. You will root for your favorite; and when you experience the heartbreak of their loss and die a little inside, you may even agree that a competition this intense is a mild form of child abuse. Still, it’s a surprisingly intense and involving documentary, but what’s most remarkable about Spellbound is the overwhelming sense of pride you feel for these kids — maybe more than any movie I’ve ever seen, you’ll want to give Spellbound a hug when it’s over.

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Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.