To elaborate on the last article and to shine a light on a genre that ordinarily remains relegated to the festival circuit, the Akron Movie Examiner has assembled a short list of the best documentaries of the last ten years. A good documentary must demonstrate the technical competency of the filmmaker as well as fashion a unique style that pulls the viewer in. Beyond technique, though, the value of a documentary is really determined by its subject matter. Some documentary subjects are only interesting to a small niche audience, while other subjects have the ability to transcend genre and even film itself, to become a cultural icon. Without further ado, here are some recent documentaries that have largely been overlooked despite the admiration of critics and the creation of cultural icons:
Anvil! The Story of Anvil (2009) tells the story of the revered hair metal band Anvil that never quite made it. The band’s members still have day jobs and play gigs for free, despite having been around for 30 years and releasing some 13 albums. The film is able to communicate a palpable sense of desperation and human vulnerability that is uncommon in cinema.
Capturing the Friedmans (2003) documents a family struggling to regain a sense of normalcy after the patriarch and youngest son are charged with molesting a slew of children from around their Long Island neighborhood. The truth becomes truly obscured as the evidence is put on display. Home movie footage and interviews introduce us to very complex and enigmatic individuals. The documentary becomes more of an exposé on a dysfunctional family than on a crime or the two accused criminals.
The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (2007) is an underdog story chronicling everyman Steve Wiebe as he vies for the Donkey Kong world record against heavyweight video game champion Billy Mitchell, famous for his Pac Man perfect game. A collection of quirky characters that even the best Hollywood screenwriters could not dream up dominate the screen and our attention as they compete for various video game records and the friendship of the infamous and egocentric Billy Mitchell.
Man On Wire (2008) profiles French tightrope walker Philippe Petit and his famous World Trade Center exhibition of 1974. The documentary plays out like a heist film as Petit and company unveil and examine their plan to break in to the World Trade Center and conquer the American landmark in the name of art. Petit, a truly engrossing character, is as mesmerizing during interviews as he is while walking a tightrope at 1350 feet.
This Film is Not Yet Rated (2006) investigates the Motion Picture Association of America in an attempt to gain some understanding on the ratings system that governs mainstream American cinema. Interviews with a variety of filmmakers and former MPAA movie raters illuminate a disconcerting reality - the MPAA is in the pocket of the Hollywood studio system. The investigation is really the heart of the movie and plays out like a classic detective piece.
Word Wars (2004) delves into the wild world of competitive Scrabble play, centering on three unlikely friends bonded by their love of Scrabble. These three interviewees steal the show with their quirky charm and dogged dedication to the game as the filmmakers document the road to the 2002 National Scrabble Championship.
For a review of the recent film The Cove, which is the best documentary of 2009, go here.