December 17, 2010

MRQE's 10 Best of 2010: The 10 Best Documentaries

Some of cinema's biggest thrills this year didn't come from Hollywood's explosion-packed blockbusters. Instead, 2010's documentaries served up some astounding stranger-than-fiction looks at the world. This year's offerings run the gamut from astounding nature scenes to geeky comedies to hard-hitting current events pieces. One thing's for sure: real life is never boring.

10. Oceans
MRQE Metric: 73
Disney's latest edition in their wildlife documentary series takes us under the sea, but it's a very different place than The Little Mermaid would have you believe. Instead of cute singing fishes, we're treated to majestic vistas of underwater seascapes, inhabited by peaceful species and fearsome predators alike. These visuals are just as gorgeous as what you can see in Avatar, except that they're all one hundred percent real. The constant barrage starts to get old after a while--too many breathtaking reveals of sea life while an angelic chorus harps on will do that to you--but you'll definitely leave the theater smiling.

9. Best Worst Movie
MRQE Metric: 74
Ever heard of Troll 2? Don't be surprised if you haven't--it was made in Utah on a shoestring by a no-name Italian director, with actors recruited off the street, a nonsensical script, and shoddy special effects. The end result was about as awful as you'd expect from the previous sentence, and Troll 2 sank into the annals of forgotten bad cinema. But twenty years later, a strange thing happened: people started to really become devoted to this movie. Best Worst Movie looks at this strange phenomenon and manages to track down some of the “actors” (one is a dentist) who find themselves suddenly thrust into the spotlight for a crappy role they took twenty years ago. A loving tribute to a truly horrible movie and the people who love it, Best Worst Movie is the best thing to come out of a cinematic stinker in quite some time.

8. Waste Land
MRQE Metric: 76
The last purely feel-good documentary you'll read about on this list, Waste Land is about the garbage pickers of Rio de Janeiro, a population living in abject poverty, and the Brazilian artist, Vik Muniz, who becomes more and more involved with their community. Inspired by their tenacity and spirit, Muniz recruited several of them to serve as muses for his large-scale artworks,which were constructed among the garbage heaps of Brazil. Every step of the way, he took pains to involve the trash pickers in the process of creating the art, even going so far as to take the subject of one of his works to an auction to see it sold off. A fascinating and, yeah, heartwarming look at an artist and the forgotten community that he fell in love with.

7. The Tillman Story
MRQE Metric: 76
This infamous case of friendly fire and military cover-up becomes an engrossing and chilling film. The Tillman Story seeks to scrape away the propaganda and the heroic symbols and presents former NFL linebacker, Pat Tillman, as the flesh and blood person, filled with hopes and opinions and desires, that he really was. The film takes pains to present the unvarnished truth; at the same time, it doesn't take any unneeded potshots at one political side or the other. This results in a well-reasoned final product that, without taking any partisan sides, exposes pressing issues that all Americans should be concerned with. The other heroes in the film are the tenacious members of Pat's family, who refused to take no for an answer in their relentless search for the truth of what really happened to their loved one.

6. Exit Through The Gift Shop
MRQE Metric: 79
This movie is directed by provocative street artist Banksy (or maybe it isn't) and is about Banksy's art, except when it isn't about Banksy's art and is about an eccentric middle-aged would-be videographer of street artists who eventually meets Banksy and gets caught up in the exciting world of guerrilla art. Except that he's not that good of a videographer. And his own “unique” art looks an awful lot like deliberate Banksy knockoffs, but the art world fawns over it just the same. Oh, and all of it is true . . . except when it isn't. The result is more than a little confusing, but as a cinematic experience it's second to none.

5. Restrepo
MRQE Metric: 80
Named for a fallen soldier, Restrepo follows one platoon situated in Aghanistan over the course of a year. Rather than pontificating on the larger picture or adding to the chorus of political opinions over the conflict, the film instead focuses solely on the individuals behind the uniforms, the grunts who are stuck, day in and day out, between a rock and a hard place. The candid nature of the documentary allows the audience to see the soldiers as non-glorified, uncensored people instead of a faceless entity. Restrepo gives these individuals an opportunity to voice their distinct selves, and for that the filmmakers should be commended.

4. Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work
MRQE Metric: 80
This witty and rollicking look at one of America's premiere comediennes, Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work is the result of more than a year of footage, condensed into just under ninety minutes. The result is an entertaining and insightful look into exactly how driven this celebrity is. Most of us know Rivers from her endless red carpet stints, but the film points out how she was entertaining audiences with her raunchy and candid routines at a time where female comedians were few and far between (and usually self-censoring). The round-the-clock chronicling of Rivers forms a hilarious and sometimes poignant portrait of a lady at the top of her class.

3. Inside Job
MRQE Metric: 80
This timely and no holds barred look at the recent financial crisis should also be heralded as the scariest movie of the year. Matt Damon is the narrator, but the other recognizable names are all ripped from the headlines: figures like George Soros and Elliott Spitzer are profiled. Through interview after interview, fact after undeniable fact, filmmaker Charles Ferguson reveals the corruption and cronyism that led to the current economic disaster, but also points out how the fallout was both predictable and avoidable. An incendiary molotov cocktail of a movie, Inside Job is guaranteed to provoke: if you're not angry, you're not paying attention.

2. Boxing Gym
MRQE Metric: 80
Boxing Gym is the latest documentary from legendary director Frederick Wiseman (Titicut Follies and countless other classics). Don't expect any heart-pounding prize fights or rags-to-riches tales here--Wiseman has a different vision in mind. His portrait of Richard Lord, a former boxer who now runs a somewhat ramshackle gym in Texas, focuses on the little moments rather than the drama and pathos, and is the better film for it. Lord is shown as a gentle-hearted but fiercely dedicated man who has opened his gym to men, women and children alike. For fifty dollars a month, anyone is welcome to train: not for glory or for money, but simply for the love of physical activity and the hope of achieving discipline. Instead of a grand overlying narrative, Wiseman just shows Lord and his pupils at work. The result is surprisingly engrossing.

1. A Film Unfinished
MRQE Metric: 82
A huge winner at documentary festivals worldwide, A Film Unfinished takes a weighty, huge subject and explores it with both care and skill. The documentary deals with a recently discovered reel of film from a piece Nazi propaganda depicting the Warsaw Ghetto. This missing footage dramatically changes the preconceived notions about the nature of the previous footage: it becomes increasingly obvious that much of what the world has accepted as truth has been meticulously and deviously staged. It's hard to elaborate on exactly how devastating the material in A Film Unfinished is. A Film Unfinished is often difficult to watch, but certainly a necessary and important piece of restored history.


  1. great list. thank ... wish i could buy them all here thru the site on the spot

  2. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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