I usually hate doing end-of-year lists like this. As only a part-time reviewer of films, I tend not to see the majority of the "best" until long after the next year has begun. I still haven't had a chance to see 'Marwencol,' for instance. And that's cited on many lists as the best documentary of the year. Maybe once I catch it, I'll agree. I also haven't seen the five top-grossing nonfiction films of 2010 -- 'Jackass 3-D,' 'Oceans,' 'Hubble 3-D,' 'Babies' and 'Waiting for "Superman"'. And when I thought I was watching '45365' in full, I was only seeing an abridged version fit to an episode of PBS' "Independent Lens." So it goes.
The fact is, I have actually seen a whole bunch of documentaries this year. More than I've seen in any year prior. Enough to have considered it potentially the best year for documentary ever. But only some were in their official 2010 theatrical run. Some were on Netflix Watch Instantly, which I consider to be one of the best things to happen to docs in years (those titles include old docs that I finally got around to seeing, such as 2009's 'Crude' and 'Collapse'). Many others were at festivals and haven't yet been officially released, if they ever will be.
So I've got two lists for you. One is a straight top ten of 2010, which will surely, once I see 'Marwencol' and/or other titles, change in the future. The other lists ten from the fest circuit that (note to distributors and theater owners) I really, really hope you have an opportunity to see theatrically or streaming sometime in the future.
Top 10 Theatrically Released Documentaries of 2010
1. - 2. 'Last Train Home' (Lixin Fan) and 'Restrepo' (Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington)
The two best documentaries of the year are these two films that don't often feel like documentaries -- but are therefore especially powerful during the moments when they do. 'Last Train Home' is particularly notable for how well it focuses, often filming from a great distance, on a single Chinese family torn apart by urban migration. 'Restrepo,' on the other hand, is most remarkable for how well it addresses the grand scope of the war in Afghanistan by getting as close to the action as possible.
3. - 4. 'Boxing Gym' (Frederick Wiseman) and 'Sweetgrass' (Lucien Castaing-Taylor)
Some have dismissed 'Boxing Gym' as "minor Wiseman," but that's like calling any of the Bard's plays "minor Shakespeare." It's still better than most works of its mode, and actually I think it's been slightly overlooked as far as its sound design and editing are concerned. There may not be a lot of memorable isolated moments or characters this time around, but it's kind of like the poetic, entrancing city symphony films in this way, only here the the city is the inside of a boxing gym. 'Sweetgrass' is comparable in that it's the other best purely observational doc of the year. Also, it really surprised me when it went from being quite a relaxing film (there's a reason counting sheep is considered sleep-inducing) to one of the most profane docs ever ('Winnebago Man,' which I still haven't caught, likely has the most cursing in a doc this year).
5. 'Enemies of the People' (Thet Sambath and Rob Lemkin)
A double-layered documentary, this film documents Sambath's personal investigative project of interviewing Khmer Rouge second-in-command ("Brother Number Two") Nuon Chea on the eve of his going to trial for war crimes. Part of these crimes involves the death of Sambath's parents during the infamous Killing Fields genocides. As uncomfortable, compelling and affecting as that sounds.
6. 'Gasland' (Josh Fox)
Don't watch this necessarily for its expose on natural gas extraction through hydraulic fracking. Or, merely consider it an introduction to the topic. Watch instead for a film about a guy (Fox) learning how to be both a documentary filmmaker and investigative journalist as he makes the best subjective, amateur investigative film since Michael Moore's 'Roger and Me.'
7. - 8. 'Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer' (Alex Gibney) and 'Inside Job' (Charles Ferguson)
I'm not the first to lump these together, but I am considering them alike for a different reason than the Spitzer connection: they both got me very conscious of the power of onscreen interviews. 'Client 9' does something new and interesting with its use of an actress standing-in for an interview subject -- reenactment of reenactment, in a way -- while 'Inside Job' is a great display of unreasonable personalities under reasonable provocation.
9. 'The Art of the Steal' (Don Argott)
This film about the battle over the Barnes Collection gave me a lot more to think about concerning the art world than 'Exit Through the Gift Shop' did. I found the story more engaging, too.
10. 'Catfish' (Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman)
It doesn't matter if some of this film is less than honest. The fact that there is doubt or confusion relates perfectly to the content of the film, which deals in inventions, deceptions and exploitations in both the real world and the online one. Besides, whatever the level of truth (which really is a moot point with documentary and has been for a century), it crafts its narrative, which overlaps two very different stories, incredibly well. It's rare that I can say this honestly, but I was completely on the edge of my seat for most of this film.
Honorable Mentions: 'Exit Through the Gift Shop,' 'Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work,' 'The Oath,' 'Waste Land,' and 'William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe.'
10 Best Documentaries of 2010 To Watch For
'Kati with an I' (Robert Greene) - Candidly does for teen love what 'Restrepo' does for the war in Afghanistan. You'll feel fully embedded into the life of Kati through the days leading up to her high school graduation.
'Cave of Forgotten Dreams' (Werner Herzog) - You seriously have to -- have to -- see Herzog's new film in 3-D. Or just don't bother.
'Into Eternity' (Michael Madsen) - A Beautiful, utterly fascinating and temporally jarring look at nuclear waste storage and its future life beyond our own.
'Armadillo' (Janus Metz Pedersen) - An excellent companion to 'Restrepo' that feels even more like a fiction film and involves even more embedded cameras.
'Windfall' (Laura Israel) - The story of a small town divided on the big issue of windmills will definitely have you rethinking everything you currently feel about alternative energy.
'The Invention of Dr. Nakamats' (Kaspar Astrup Schroder) - I didn't laugh harder during any other movie this year.
'Secrets of the Tribe' (Jose Padilha) - Turns ethnographic documentary on its ear. A brilliant "up yours" to academia, as well.
'HolyWars' (Stephen Marshall) - For a film that intentionally influences its own progression -- by encouraging the meeting of an evangelical Christian missionary from the Midwest and a jihadist Muslim from Ireland -- the outcome is completely worth it.
'Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff' (Craig McCall) - The best film history documentary I saw this year.
'War Don Don' (Rebecca Richman Cohen) - A great companion piece to 'Enemies of the People,' this look at a war crime tribunal in Sierra Leone is one of the most thought-provoking films I saw all year and one of the few human rights-centered docs I found to be important for reasons other than just their issues.