The 10 Best Film Documentaries of 2008

Printer-friendly versionPrinter-friendly versionE-mail page to friendE-mail page to friendPDF versionPDF version
No votes yet

6. Man on Wire

6. “Man on Wire”

James Marsh’s “Man on Wire” tells the story of Philippe Petit, a man who strung a wire between the towers of the World Trade Center on the morning of August 7th, 1974, and pulled off the artistic crime of the century. Petit had been building toward the event for months, working out details of the crime and assembling the team that would pull it off. Actually, he had been dreaming of the towers for years and spent eight months planning his specific performance of a lifetime. The people who pulled the Frenchman off the roof had no idea how to deal with him. Was he a criminal? Crazy? Both? Using archival footage and recent interviews with Petit, Marsh brings the completely unique story of “Man on Wire” to life.

5. Young @ Heart

5. “Young @ Heart”

Audiences will never forget the Young at Heart Chorus of Northampton, MA. With an average age of 81, they don’t sing your typical choir songs, choosing instead to perform works by artists as diverse as James Brown, Coldplay, and even Sonic Youth. When an elderly man who has just lost a good friend sings Coldplay’s “Fix You,” the emotional impact is impossible to deny. Only the most bitterly cynical critic would deny that the chorus brings a new layer of life experience to their music. Director Stephen Walker never makes his “Young@Heart” feel like exploitation, choosing to chronicle one heartbreaking year in the life of the chorus. And, quite simply, the Young at Heart Chorus rocks. You haven’t lived until you’ve heard an octogenarian sing “I Feel Good.” You will too.

4. Blindsight

4. “Blindsight”

What did YOU do today? “Blindsight” is one of those films that forces the viewer to reassess what they consider an accomplishment. The story of six Tibetan teenagers climbing the breathtaking peaks of the Himalayas would be fascinating in and of itself if they were just average climbers, but they also happen to be blind. Shunned by a society who believes that blindness is equitable to being possessed by demons, the teens set out to climb the 23,000-foot Lhakpa Ri on the north side of Mount Everest. Blind climber Erik Weihenmayer may be the leader of this inspirational crew, but Sabriye Tenberken is one of the documentary characters this year that has stuck with me the most. Blind herself, she started a school in Tibet for visually-impaired children and her conflict over wanting to protect them while also letting them reach for the peak is the heart of “Blindsight.” Like “The King of Kong,” “Spellbound,” and the other great docs of recent years, “Blindsight” is the kind of documentary that makes you want to know more as soon as it ends. You want to know what these people who you just spent two hours with are doing today. And you take them with you as you leave the theater, knowing that your bad day probably isn’t as rough as you first thought.

3. Up the Yangtze

3. “Up the Yangtze”

One of the most haunting films of the year was Yung Chang’s emotionally and historically resonant “Up the Yangtze.” The Three Gorges Dam project in China is dislocating two million people who live along the Yangtze River. Imagine two million people being forced to uproot their lives, their history, and their ancestry and move to higher ground because of a hydroelectric dam. Now imagine those same people getting jobs on a boat for tourists who want to say goodbye a large chunk of the world before it changes forever. Rarely has a film so vividly captured a country in transition and the lives changed by it. These people aren’t just saying goodbye to the world they’ve always know, they’re giving tours of it. “Up the Yangtze” is one of the most underrated films of 2008, documentary or narrative.

2. Trouble the Water

2. “Trouble the Water”

My immediate reaction to the existence of “Trouble the Water” was shock that it could accomplish anything that Spike Lee didn’t already do in his incredible mini-series “When the Levees Broke.” “Trouble the Water” is not what you think it’s going to be. It’s not a political indictment of how awfully the Bush administration handled the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina (although there is a little of that in there) and it’s not a story of what happened to the city of New Orleans afterwards (although that’s represented by the one story in the film). “Trouble the Water” is a first-person, handheld account of what happened in August of 2005, and it completely defies traditional explanation. The aspiring rapper who holds the camera through most of “Trouble the Water” brings the viewer both an understanding of the chaos and the triumphant assertion of will to survive that followed that no other filmmaker could possibly recreate.

1. Dear Zachary

1. “Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father”

“Dear Zachary” is the most emotionally devastating film of 2008, but what makes it the best documentary of the year is that it’s also unspeakably inspiring. What Kurt Kuenne found when he picked up his camera to chronicle the life of his slain best friend, Andrew Bagby, was both unspeakable evil and unbending good existing together in the same story. It turned out that the woman who killed Andrew, her former lover, happened to be pregnant with Andrew’s son, Zachary. “Dear Zachary” starts as a cinematic love letter to a father who will never know his son, but it evolves into so much more than just another series of talking heads or courtroom twists and turns. What’s remarkable about “Dear Zachary” is what’s remarkable about all great documentaries - the way its director assembles the footage into an experience that rivals and even surpasses most fiction. “Dear Zachary” provides the full range of human emotions. Kurt Kuenne produced, directed, wrote, and edited “Dear Zachary,” and he crafted his true story into something that a lesser filmmaker would have turned into just another true crime story, an overlong episode of “48 Hours Mystery.” The story of Andrew and Zachary Bagby and everyone whose life they shattered has inherent drama, but it took a talented man like Kuenne to craft it into the powerful film that is “Dear Zachary.” I can’t wait to see what he does next. content director Brian Tallerico

Content Director

iconoclast421's picture


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


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 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

Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.

User Login

Free Giveaway Mailing


  • Michael Shannon and Travis A. Knight, Red Orchid's TURRET

    CHICAGO – When in the presence of a powerful acting force like Michael Shannon, the depth of performance is emotional and passionately essential. He co-leads with Travis A. Knight in Red Orchid Theatre’s World Premiere of Levi Holloway’s “Turret,” just extended to June 22nd at the Chopin Theatre.

  • Joe Turner's Come and Gone Goodman Theatre

    CHICAGO – The late playwright August Wilson left a gift to the world in the form of his “American Century Cycle,” a series of plays each individually set in a decade of the 20th Century, focusing on the black experience. Chicago’s Goodman Theatre presents Wilson’s “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone,” now through May 19th, 2024 (click here).

Advertisement on Twitter

archive Top Ten Discussions