The Best Documentary Films of 2009
We’re coming to the end of the year in movies, and I’m going to be posting lots of these Top 10 lists to the blog in the days ahead, in addition to my usual Top 10 movies of the year list. I’ll start you off with the best nonfiction movies I’ve seen this year.
1. The Beaches of Agnès: Whimsical, unorthodox, and oh so very wise, this contains the reminiscences of 81-year-old filmmaker Agnès Varda as she looks back over her life and career with the French New Wave. Not only does she draw an endearingly modest picture of an extraordinary life. She also reinvents the memoir film as only a gifted director could do. And she uses a giant doodle of a cat to represent reclusive colleague Chris Marker.
2. Afghan Star: The most amazing story any documentary told this year was Havana Marking’s film about the contestants in a nationally televised singing competition in Afghanistan, who frequently risk their lives just by competing. The movie touches on ethnic divisions within the country, styles of pop music, TV production in a war-torn land, and a gripping subplot when one of the female singers dances onstage. Essential viewing for American Idol fans, and anyone who cares about our continuing war in Afghanistan.
3. Anvil! The Story of Anvil: Thirty years after they helped start the heavy metal movement, this Canadian band is still trying to live the rock ‘n’ roll dream in their 50s, taking crappy jobs to pay the bills and getting stiffed on a European tour. Their complex relationship with each other swings through highs and lows until the climax at a Japanese performance makes the dream seem worth hanging onto.
4. Passing Strange: The year’s best concert film is Spike Lee’s documentation of the acclaimed Broadway musical about an African-American youth who tries to find his identity in Europe. Galvanizing performances by the cast, especially by lyricist/writer/composer/narrator Stew. Let’s hope the feature film adaptation in the works measures up to this.
5. The Cove: A movie that’ll make you mad. Louie Psihoyos’ film frequently feels like an action thriller as it exposes the wholesale slaughter of dolphins in a cove in Taiji, Japan. The filmmakers’ viewpoint is unbalanced and irresponsible at times, and its activist hero shows signs of mental instability. Yet the movie isn’t wrong, and you hardly have to be a tree-hugger to be outraged by what it uncovers.
6. Good Hair: Jeff Stilson and Chris Rock take a subject that many people never think about — African-American women and their hair — and construct an entertaining, globe-trotting, informative romp through racial issues, human vanity, economic exploitation, Hollywood, and what it takes to win at the Bronner Brothers International Hair Show. Good times!
7. Burma VJ: Democratic Voices of Burma is a group of underground journalists who secretly film government crackdowns in one of the world’s most repressive dictatorships. Anders Østergaard’s film examines their work during the massive protests of fall 2007. This story doesn’t have a happy ending, yet the tribute to the heroism of these reporters still resonates.
8. Every Little Step: James D. Stern and Adam Del Deo interview the dancers trying out for the Broadway revival of A Chorus Line, while retracing the history of the ground-breaking show. The result sometimes feels like a PBS special, but still executes a nice soft-shoe salute to the “the show must go on” spirit of these foot soldiers of the entertainment industry.
9. Must Read After My Death: “I had four beautiful children. Where did they all go?” So we hear from the weeping grandmother of filmmaker Morgan Dews, as she tape records herself on a bridge during a long dark night of the soul. Through his grandmother Allis’ archive of home movies and recordings, Dews traces a history of family dysfunction, infidelity, and mental illness. This movie is creepy and exploitive, and you can’t look away.
10. Capitalism: A Love Story: Michael Moore’s position here proves that he’s not the only game in town when it comes to nonfiction. His take on the financial shenanigans of our time isn’t as good as his best movies, but he captures an inchoate anger felt by Main Street conservatives and liberals alike that the system has stopped working for us.
Honorable mention: Kenny Ortega’s This Is It; Davis Guggenheim’s It Might Get Loud; James Toback’s Tyson; Lee Chung-ryoul’s Old Partner; Robert Kenner’s Food, Inc.