Scenes from 'Best Worst Movie,' 'Restrepo,' and 'Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work'
It's a "tremendously exciting" time for documentaries, says Oscar-winning documentarian Alex Gibney. "There's no rules anymore except the rules that you set," explains the director of 'Casino Jack and the United States of Money,' which helped kick off a summer season full of rule-breaking true-life tales. "It's like fiction film. In fact, I would say, it's way ahead of fiction films."

Gibney's film opened as canny counter-programming against 'Iron Man 2.' In fact, there are more than a dozen exciting-looking documentaries this summer that belie the season's reputation as a time strictly for big-budget action filler. And they're not spinach movies, either; many are about famous people, so you can see them and satisfy your celebrity jones while still feeling virtuous about supporting indie non-fiction film instead of mass-market Hollywood product. Not that there aren't some potential box office hits on this list; 'Babies' is already a modest success, and one or more of these movies could be the next 'March of the Penguins' or 'An Inconvenient Truth.' Here are some docs to keep an eye out for as they open across the country this summer. Scenes from 'Best Worst Movie,' 'Restrepo,' and 'Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work'
It's a "tremendously exciting" time for documentaries, says Oscar-winning documentarian Alex Gibney. "There's no rules anymore except the rules that you set," explains the director of 'Casino Jack and the United States of Money,' which helped kick off a summer season full of rule-breaking true-life tales. "It's like fiction film. In fact, I would say, it's way ahead of fiction films."

Gibney's film opened as canny counter-programming against 'Iron Man 2.' In fact, there are more than a dozen exciting-looking documentaries this summer that belie the season's reputation as a time strictly for big-budget action filler. And they're not spinach movies, either; many are about famous people, so you can see them and satisfy your celebrity jones while still feeling virtuous about supporting indie non-fiction film instead of mass-market Hollywood product. Not that there aren't some potential box office hits on this list; 'Babies' is already a modest success, and one or more of these movies could be the next 'March of the Penguins' or 'An Inconvenient Truth.' Here are some docs to keep an eye out for as they open across the country this summer.

'Babies'
Opening: May 7
What It's About: Director Thomas Balmes follows a year in the lives of four infants from around the world (the tots hail from Mongolia, Namibia, San Francisco and Tokyo). It's an exercise in compare-and-contrast social anthropology, served up with heaping helpings of irresistible adorableness.
It's Kind of Like: 'March of the Penguins' meets 'Look Who's Talking'

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'Casino Jack and the United States of Money'
Opening: May 7
What It's About: Alex Gibney's portrait of convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff is about more than the colorful Republican operative who bribed Congressmen, bilked Indian tribes and advocated for shady third-world sweatshop owners and death-squad guerillas. It's about the money-corrupted political system that nurtured him, made his scams possible (and often legal) and enabled the recent financial catastrophe, since we haven't mustered the political will to implement reforms.
It's Kind of Like: Gibney's 'Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room' meets 'Big Love' (the recent season, the subplot involving Sissy Spacek as a double-dealing lobbyist for Indian casinos) meets 'Thank You for Smoking'

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'The Oath'
Opening: May 7
What It's About: Laura Poitras talks at length with two former jihadis, one a longtime Guantanamo prisoner, the other a former bodyguard for Osama bin Laden. Both look on their past association with Al Qaeda with deep ambivalence.
It's Kind of Like: 'Syriana' meets 'Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay'

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'Best Worst Movie'
Opening: May 14
What It's About: For a long time, 1990's 'Troll 2' held the dubious distinction of being rated the worst movie of all time on IMDB and RottenTomatoes. But the film's Ed Wood-like so-bad-it's-good watchability made it a cult favorite, and it made the movie's star, small-town, aw-shucks dentist George Hardy, into a minor celebrity on the midnight movie circuit. Director Michael Stephenson traces the movie's history from frightful flop to fan phenomenon.
It's Kind of Like: 'Mystery Science Theater 3000' meets 'Waiting for Guffman'

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'Picasso and Braque Go to the Movies'
Opening: May 28
What It's About: Martin Scorsese produced and narrates this film exploring the early-20th century intersection of the birth of cinema, the dawn of aviation and the beginning of the modernist art movement. Such artists and scholars as Julian Schnabel, Chuck Close and Eric Fischl discuss how movies and art have influenced each other, then and today. Art gallery owner-turned-director Arne Glimcher ('The Mambo Kings') directs.
It's Kind of Like: 'A Personal Journey With Martin Scorsese Through American Movies' meets 'The Aviator' meets 'The Mystery of Picasso'

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'Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work'
Opening
: June 11
What It's About: Can we talk? The indestructible comic legend offers a candid self-portrait to filmmakers Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg, who follow Joan Rivers over the course of a year, during which she rehearses for an one-woman show in the UK and participates on a reality TV show. Along the way, Rivers (along with colleagues like Don Rickles and Kathy Griffin) discusses her pioneering career, her personal triumphs and tragedies and her hard-won longevity.
It's Kind of Like: 'Truth or Dare' meets 'The Aristocrats' meets E!'s 'Live from the Red Carpet'

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Oliver Stone and Hugo Chavez'South of the Border'
Opening: June 25
What It's About: Oliver Stone talks to the leaders of several Latin American countries, including Venezuela's Hugo Chavez and Cuba's Raul Castro, and finds they're not the scary boogeymen they're made out to be in the American media. On his tour, he also finds populist fervor and movements toward greater autonomy from the economic might of the United States.
It's Kind of Like: Stone's 'Salvador' and 'Comandante' meet 'The Motorcycle Diaries'

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'Restrepo'
Opening: July 2
What It's About: Sebastian Junger (author of 'The Perfect Storm') and Tim Hetherington spend a year embedded with the Second Platoon in Afghanistan's Korengal Valley, site of some of the fiercest fighting against Al Qaeda and Taliban members.
It's Kind of Like: 'The Hurt Locker' meets real life

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Bernardo Bertolucci in 'Great Directors''Great Directors'
Opening: July 9
What It's About: Filmmaker Angela Ismailos strikes up intimate conversations with 10 world-class film directors from around the globe, including Bernardo Bertolucci, David Lynch, Agnès Varda, Richard Linklater, Stephen Frears, Catherine Breillat and Ken Loach.
It's Kind of Like: Ten interlaced episodes of TCM's 'Elvis Mitchell: Under the Influence'

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'Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child'
Opening: July 21
What It's About: The tragically brief life of Basquiat, the graffiti artist-turned-1980s art world sensation, is recounted by his friend, director Tamra Davis, and figures from the New York art scene who knew him.
It's Kind of Like: 'Basquiat' minus David Bowie

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'Countdown to Zero'
Opening: July 23
What It's About: The end of the Cold War has not reduced the threat of nuclear annihilation. In fact, the danger is as great as ever, what with more countries trying to join the nuclear weapons club, as well as rogue states and terrorist groups that would love to get their hands on a warhead. We won't be safe until the world's stockpile of 23,000 nukes (not all of which are currently accounted for -- yikes!) is reduced to zero. Director Lucy Walker and the producers of 'An Inconvenient Truth' talk to world leaders and nuclear experts to learn what's being done to disarm the world's nuclear arsenal.
It's Kind of Like: 'An Inconvenient Truth' meets the loose-nuke subplot of every James Bond movie

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'Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist, and Rebel'
Opening: July 23
What It's About: You may think of Hugh Hefner as a guy who spends all day hanging out in his bathrobe and popping Viagra, but it turns out the Playboy magazine founder has been active in many of the social movements of the last 60 years, fighting for racial integration, reproductive freedom, anti-McCarthyism, First Amendment Rights and, yes, feminism. Filmmaker Brigitte Berman's in-depth portrait of Hefner is the sort of exposé that could give hedonism a bad name.
It's Kind of Like: E!'s 'The Girls Next Door' meets 'The People vs. Larry Flynt'

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'The Wildest Dream: Conquest of Everest'
Opening: August 6
What It's About: George Mallory, who famously said he wanted to climb Mt. Everest "because it's there," died in the attempt in 1924. In this movie from National Geographic, director Anthony Geffen intercuts recently found footage of Mallory's last ascent with shots of modern-day mountaineer Conrad Anker re-enacting Mallory's climb in period gear.
It's Kind of Like: 'Vertical Limit' meets 'Into Thin Air: Death on Everest'

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'The Tillman Story'
Opening: August 20
What It's About: Pat Tillman gave up his pro football career to fight in Afghanistan, only to be killed by friendly fire and to have the circumstances of his death covered up by the Army. Director Amir Bar-Lev traces the life and death of Tillman, the reasons behind the cover-up and his family's search for the truth.
It's Kind of Like: 'Restrepo' meets 'Courage Under Fire'

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• Follow Gary Susman on Twitter @garysusman.