I know people have said this every year since digital video became a viable filmmaking tool, but 2007 really has been a great year for documentaries. Still, it takes more to impress me than a film about the war or the environment, and cute penguins only go so far. Most documentaries behave as if they were newspapers. They're relevant today, but tomorrow they're lining birdcages. Or at least someone is making pretty hanging mobiles out of discarded DVDs. This is not to disparage hot topic films; they serve their purpose. Though Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 failed to prevent G.W. Bush from being re-elected, it sure stirred up some discussion. And it's possible that Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth actually helped, in some small way, improve our planet's chances at a bright future. No, I ask a lot of a documentary. I ask it the toughest question of all: do I ever want to see this again?
I ask this because I'm concerned about film as an art form. Even a newspaper story has to be -- or at least should be -- well written. A great story has a hook, a way with language, and an emotional center. It's one thing to report on an amazing story, but it's another thing entirely to ask people to sit through a dull film. I have no patience for objective journalism in documentaries, mainly because there's no such thing. If a film tries to be objective, it's only pretending. I love films in which the maker throws him or herself into the very fabric of the film. What I hate most of all is films that use the same, tired old documentary format: talking heads and photos, and if we're lucky, some video clips. If you're just going to photograph someone sitting in a room and talking, why not write it as a newspaper story?
One of the most irritating films from this year was An Unreasonable Man, the story of Ralph Nader. The filmmakers had access to the real-life Nader, and yet he appears only sporadically as one of a handful of talking heads. And it's his own story. The best documentary ever made about a living person is Terry Zwigoff's Crumb (1995), which delves so completely into its subject's life that it's funny and painful all at once. The good thing about An Unreasonable Man is that, by the second half, the filmmakers have shown their hand; they've stopped trying to be objective. Actually, I like documentaries that barely talk at all; they merely show. Robert Flaherty was particularly good at this, as seen in his films Nanook of the North and Louisiana Story. Which brings me to the best documentary of 2007, and one of the best I've ever seen: Philip Gröning's Into Great Silence (currently playing on one screen).
This film does what documentaries do best; it observes. It doesn't try to be objective either; Gröning is very clearly an outsider, visiting Carthusian monks living in a charterhouse in the French Alps, and he lets his fascination and curiosity lead the way. If we watch a monk, say, preparing a meal, Gröning lets his camera linger over the whole process. While we watch, our own thoughts enter into the film going experience and we begin to ask our own questions. How does he cook without electricity? What other kinds of meals do they eat? This is why the film, at 164 minutes, never wears out its welcome. Into Great Silence is a documentary that I would see again. (Interestingly enough, the film is a hit: so far it has grossed nearly $800,000 in a nine-month run!)
Another favorite is Mark Becker's Romantico (currently on DVD), which, like Crumb and Into Great Silence, follows its subject for the course of the film and gets to know him in ways that a simple interview could never convey. Carmelo Muñiz Sanchez is a mariachi who lives and works in San Francisco. When he decides its time to come back home and see his family, he realizes that, due to his health and age, he may never be able to return to the U.S. But Sanchez is unflappable and his attitude and presence make this a warm and fascinating film.After that, it gets difficult to name films that I would actually watch twice, but there are many more good ones, including The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters, Strange Culture, My Kid Could Paint That (14 screens) and King Corn (6 screens). The latter is a low-key movie about the way we currently eat, and it's horrifying. The two subjects, Ian Cheney and Curtis Ellis, embark upon a Michael Moore-type stunt: they will grow an acre of corn and see where it goes when it's harvested. It's perhaps not too surprising that it 1) goes to make fuel, 2) is turned into a paste to feed cattle and 3) is turned into high fructose corn syrup, which is in everything from soda to candy to bread. But the most horrifying discovery is that you can't actually eat this corn after it's grown and harvested; it has to be processed first! The filmmakers never act indignant or self-righteous; they remain a pair of slackers who simply shrug and order another cheeseburger.