The 10 Best Film Documentaries of 2008

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CHICAGO – One of the most wonderful things about the world of documentary film is the complete unpredictability of the form. It seems much easier to look at a list of upcoming works from major and minor narrative directors and know what’s going to stand out at the end of the year than to even attempt the same thing with an upcoming batch of documentaries.

Critics will tell you that they go into every film with a blank slate of opinion, but it’s naive to think that we don’t have different expectations for the next Coen brothers film than we do for the next Uwe Boll piece of “work.” (You were expecting a different word to end that sentence, weren’t you?) And most years shake out with a healthy mix of cinematic veterans and relative newcomers delivering movies of a somewhat predictable baseline of quality with a few healthy surprises sprinkled in between.

However, with rare exceptions, the world of documentaries usually follows much different and less predictable rules. Big names like Martin Scorsese, Bill Maher, Errol Morris, Morgan Spurlock, and last year’s Oscar winner for “Taxi to the Dark Side,” Alex Gibney, all released documentaries this year that didn’t make the cut for the ten best. Meanwhile, newcomers with unpredictable subject matter that ranged from personal accounts of tragedy and triumph to international stories of controversy and climate change made 2008 one of the better years for non-fiction film in a long time. And none of us saw it coming.

Runner-ups: “American Teen”, “At the Death House Door”, “Flow”, “Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson”, “Kurt Cobain: About a Son”, “Religulous”, “Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired”, “Shine a Light”, “Standard Operating Procedure”, and “Surfwise.”

10. Encounters at the End of the World

10. "Encounters at the End of the World"

The "biggest" director on this list, Werner Herzog, made one of his most personal films with "Encounters at the End of the World," a travelogue about the people who choose to live WAY off the grid. Herzog has always been fascinated with Mother Nature in both his fictional (Aguirre, Wrath of God) and non-fiction (Grizzly Man) films, and it's his inquisitive, intellectual personality that makes "Encounters" work. As he says early in his narration, this is not "March of the Penguins." Herzog is much more interested in if penguins ever go crazy from the tedium of their lives than how they nurture their newborns. And it's Herzog's refusal to turn "Encounters" into just another nature documentary that makes it interesting. With some of the most riveting photography of the year - non-fiction or not - "Encounters at the End of the World" is one of the most unique films of 2008, a personal, spiritual, and magical journey to a place that most of us will never see.

9. Stranded: I've Come From a Plane That Crashed on the Mountains

9. "Stranded: I've Come From a Plane That Crashed on the Mountains"

Gonzalo Arijon's "Stranded" forces its viewers to ask several difficult questions. If it meant your survival, could you eat human flesh? Would you judge those who did? Would you ever be able to forgive yourself? By focusing his camera almost entirely on interviews with the survivors of the famous 1972 Andes plane crash - best remembered nowadays thanks to the 1993 movie "Alive" - Arijon has turned the emphasis from the horrifying action that the survivors had to participate in to live another day and, instead, attempts to learn more about the crash victims themselves. Consequently, "Stranded" is not just the recreation that it might have been in someone else's hands. Arijon treats his subject matter without tabloid sensationalism, turning it into a sentimental and emotionally powerful experience. Documentaries often succeed or fail from their conception, and Arijon's smartest decision was when he realized that all the power of his work was there in the words of the people who did everything they had to do to survive. "Stranded" could have been a little shorter but it contains some of the most powerful interviews of the year.

8. Bigger, Stronger, Faster

8. “Bigger, Stronger, Faster”

The issue of steroid use is a lot more complex than Capital Hill, Barry Bonds, and Hulk Hogan would have you believe. It’s certainly complex for Chris Bell. His older brother “Mad Dog” and his younger brother “Smelly” openly use steroids every single day. All three of the Bell brothers grew up obsessed with ’80s icons like Ah-nuld, Sly, and the Hulkster, and they desperately wanted to have muscles like their heroes. But the catch of the body-building world is that it’s impossible to do so without a little “help.” How do you survive in a culture that so openly rewards the person who rises to the top thanks to using steroids and you’re not? And are the stories about the damaging effects of steroids overblown? Did Barry Bonds cheat or did he do whatever it took to become the best? The great thing about “Bigger, Stronger, Faster” is that it refuses to answer those questions. It just asks some new ones that you might not have considered about the issue of steroids. The irony of it all is that it took steroids to show Chris Bell what he truly does excel at - making films. (Note: A real-life tragedy recently befell the film when Bell’s older brother passed away. We send our deepest condolences to the entire Bell family.)

7. Chicago 10

7. “Chicago 10”

Brett Morgen does not make traditional documentaries. “The Kid Stays in the Picture” was a fascinating one-man show with Robert Evans telling riveting stories about his more-than-a-little colorful life, and Morgen’s approach to “Chicago 10” was one of the more unique filmmaking slants of 2008. Instead of just telling the story of the insanity that happened in Chicago in 1968 and the ridiculous court case that followed, Morgen made a film more consistently entertaining than most fictional movies this year. Morgen blends archival footage of the riots that surrounded the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968 with animated recreations of the court case that are based on the transcripts. Eight of the counter-culture leaders who protested in Chicago were brought before a clearly-prejudicial judge and charged with inciting to riot. Using motion-capture animation and talented actors like Hank Azaria, Nick Nolte, Mark Ruffalo, and Jeffrey Wright, Morgen gives the viewer a “you-are-there” experience that a typical recreation, archival footage, or basic interviews never could have achieved.

iconoclast421's picture

meh

You forgot the most important documentary of 2008: Wake Up Call: Remastered! Google it. It may not be as high budget as any of these escapist, entertainment-centric films, but it is far more relevant in today’s world (and the new world we are entering).

Anonymous's picture

Thank you, I can’t wait to

Thank you, I can’t wait to watch it

Dudley Sharp's picture

Can Rev. Carroll Pickett be trusted "At the Death House Door"?

Can Rev. Carroll Pickett be trusted “At the Death House Door”?
Dudley Sharp, Justice Matters, contact info below

Rev. Pickett is on a promotional tour for the anti death penalty film “At the Death House Door”. It is partially about the Reverend’s experience ministering to 95 death row inmates executed in Texas.

Rev. Pickett’s inaccuracies are many and important. (Continue reading this long reader comment here…)

Anonymous's picture

movie

These are truly the best documentaries but, i would have to disagree about the order in which they are arranged here

Anonymous's picture

"Countdown to Zero" Tragically Omits Life-Saving Strategies

No surprise the new ‘Countdown to Zero’ disarmament documentary omits life-saving strategies jority, not right at ‘ground zero’ and already gone, the blast wave will be delayed in arriving after the flash, like lightening & thunder, anywhere from a fraction of a second up to 20 seconds, or more.

Today, without ‘duck & cover’ training, everyone at work, home, and your children at school, will impulsively rush tfrom their agenda of banning nukes, like advocating public Civil Defense, to try and better survive nukes in the meantime. The disarmament movement for decades has hyped that with nukes; all will die or it will be so bad you’ll wish you had. Most have bought into it, now thinking it futile, bordering on lunacy, to try to learn how to survive a nuclear blast and radioactive fallout. In a tragic irony, the disarmament movement has rendered millions of American families even more vulnerable to perishing from nukes in the future. For instance, most now ridicule ‘duck & cover’, but for the vast mao the nearest windows to see what that ‘bright flash’ was, just-in-time to be shredded by the glass imploding inward from that delayed blast wave. They’d never been taught that even in the open, just laying flat, reduces by eight-fold the chances of being hit by debris from that brief, 3-second, tornado strength blast.

Then, later, before the radioactive fallout can hurt them, most downwind won’t know to move perpendicular away from the drift of the fallout to get out from under it before it even arrives. And, for those who can’t evacuate in time, few know how quick & easy it is to throw together an expedient fallout shelter, to safely wait out the radioactive fallout as it loses 99% of its lethal intensity in the first 48 hours.

The greatest tragedy of that horrific loss of life, when nukes come to America, will be that most families had needlessly perished, out of ignorance of how easily they might have avoided becoming additional casualties, all because they were duped that it was futile to ever try to learn how to beforehand.

The disarmament movement’s sincere supporters, just wanting a world safe from nukes, will discover those unintended consequences to be inconvenient truths of the worst kind.

The Good News About Nuclear Destruction! at www.ki4u.com/goodnews.htm dispels those deadly myths of nuclear un-survivability, empowering American families to then better survive nukes. For as long as nukes exist, these life-saving insights are essential to every families survival!

Zoe F's picture

Fudge 44

My all time favourite documentary is Fudge 44 which is about creatures spotted in Tokyo in the early eighties I think

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jac2-XMGd1w

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