Unlike the foreign category, I’d say that this has been a banner year for documentaries, both in terms of what’s been released and in terms of what I’ve actually gotten a chance to see. Well sort of, this is still a niche type of film and I haven’t been able to see everything. Actually I haven’t seen the year’s two highest grossing and most talked about docs (Waiting For Superman and Inside Job), and yet I’m still perfectly comfortable picking these five as high water marks for documentary filmmaking, and that shows just how deep the field is this year.
- Exit Through the Gift Shop: How to talk about Exit Through the Gift Shop in so limited a space. I suppose what says volumes about the film is that pretty much everyone seems to love it except for a handful of people whose only complaint is that they think it’s a hoax. I don’t care about that, I’m not an investigative journalist and I’m not obsessed with keeping from getting fooled. All I care about is that a movie is fun, smart, well made, and thoughtful. “Exit” is all of the above.
- Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work: If you only know Joan Rivers as “that old chick who ruined the Oscars,” you need to see this. These “profile documentaries” are a dime a dozen and a lot of them are awfully self serving, this one isn’t, it’s an unflinching look at the lifestyle of an important cultural icon. Over the course of a year we watch Rivers at her lowest and at her highest, and come to understand her in ways we didn’t realize we wanted to.
- Restrepo: If nothing else, the makers of this documentary deserve commendation for their courage. These documentarians put themselves in harms way in order to document the lives of soldiers in a particularly dangerous area of Afghanistan. These filmmakers should also be congratulated for their detached journalistic approach to their subjects. The film is perhaps easier to respect than to like, but that’s still quite an accomplishment.
- Smash His Camera: This film about paparazzi culture is in the interesting position of having a very likable protagonist, albeit a likeable protagonist that seems to be hated by absolutely everyone that’s interviewed for the film. Pioneering celebrity photographer Ron Galella, seems like a charming and harmless old man, but everyone calls him a creep and a locust. It’s an odd dichotomy and it’s at the center of a film that functions quite well as both a biography and as an exploration into the ethics of this strange career choice.
- William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe: This certainly isn’t the most elegant of the nominees here, it has a workmanlike PBS-style presentation and mostly consists of stock footage and talking heads. However, this is a very informative documentary about a fascinating person I frankly feel ashamed for having not really known about beforehand. I suppose this would be less impressive to people who already knew a lot about the progressive lawyer at the center, but I learned a lot. This kind of informative historical documentary is easy to take for granted, and this one is a hell of a work.