Top 5 Documentary Films of the Noughties.


I've recently established a new-found interest in documentary films. No - I don't mean 'The 1000lb Babysitter' or 'Get Famous or Die Tryin': The Russel Brand story', but rather the slightly more artistic strain of the genre. I don't want to get too bogged down in the meta-aspects of cinema but the purpose of any film (however fictional, fantastical or supernatural) is to convey some sort of truth/reality which will be understood by a wider viewership in an emotive way. In virtue of the nature of documentaries this purpose to convey reality is arguably far more evident in documentary films. I find that the documentaries I find to be most effective are those which tell the story of a very personal reality or subjective life experience seemingly applicable to only the subject individual but which has a wider baring on society as a whole.

                                                 [5Man on Wire (2008, dir. James Marsh)
The tale of Philippe Petit's crossing the void between the the two towers of the World Trade Center on a tight wire is an example of the great artistry which can be used in making a documentary, despite the confines one normally associates with duller documentary offerings built up purely of interview and bland photography. The film is an amalgamation of original film-clips and re-staged footage, seamlessly blended together. This technique adeptly conveys Petit's burning obsession to brave great heights from a very young age. In essence this is a documentary about a burning obsession to push the boundaries and defy gravity. It shows how in an age where it seemed only NASA Astronaughts could be pioneers, a fairly ordinary Frenchman of fairly humble birth could do something extraordinary. Perhaps the most striking decision by the director James Marsh is to make absolutely no mention or reference to the 9/11 Attacks, which seems very peculiar when making a film predominantly about the towers in the decade shaped by the acts of terror. It seems Marsh would sooner have the film as a trophy to man's great accomplishments rather than a condemnation of his darkest capabilities. 

 [4]  Grizzly Man (2005, dir.Werner Herzog)
Documenting the mayhem, mischief and madness of Timothy Treadwell's and his eventually fatal obsession with Grizzly bears, this documentary is the only entry on my list to have been made by a supposed master of cinema in Werner Herzog. Despite his lofty reputation as a film maker Herzog's hand is barely visible in this film and for the most part he lets the footage filmed by Treadwell in the wilderness speak for itself. This film encapsulates at once the beauty of the Alaskan wilderness alongside the impact this level of solitude can have on the individual psyche. Like a few other films listed in this Top 5 there is a strong sense of obsession in the story of Timothy Treadwell. Perhaps it would be flippant to brand this obsession as being outright self-destructive as it seemed in many ways to fill Treadwells peculiar life with a sense of poetic value and purpose though it is hard to overlook his very grizzly end (pun not intended). Society is - behind closed doors - riddled with strange humans such as Treadwell, each with their own madcap, insane, ludicrous obsessions. 'Grizzly Man' is a valuable documentary film as it gives a rare, highly intimate insight into one of the more interesting of these extreme life-consuming compulsions.

 [3]  Talhotblond (2009, dir.Barbara Schroeder)
The dangers of the internet are all too well documented these days in the news. Particularly offensive trolls. Spam. Online bank fraud. Trojans. Child pornography. However, 'Talhotblond', from what I understand a fairly under-watched documentary film, details an online horror story unlike any I have ever encountered before. Through a clever combination of a series of pull-back-and-reveal interviews and original emails/social network chat messages recovered from the computers of those concerned, the documentary tells the story of an online love triangle involving two men and a woman. Not wishing to spoil the experience of watching the documentary and the slow process of realizing what occurred, the film examines how people almost categorically lie online - more precisely they use the internet as a space to project the person they truly wish they were. Indeed, the film's tagline is 'Everybody Lies Online'. In more extreme cases as one psychologist interviewed tries to explain, this can lead to a complicated form of schizophrenia where the online persona becomes an entirely independent agent from the 'real life' person. When this type of schizophrenia emerges in one of the members of the love triangle carnage ensues. This film can be watched as much a Thriller as a Documentary. We are asked to consider some harrowing questions about culpability  and whether telling a lie which fuels an atrocious crime makes the liar as culpable as the criminal. In an age where it is so widespread to find love online 'Talhotblonde' raises some daunting, yet fascinating questions about how safe it is to engage in such a relationship.

 [2]  The Bridge (2006, dir. Eric Steel)
 Where 'Man on Wire' celebrates the feats of human enterprise, daring and more widely structural design, 'The Bridge' gives a very different insight into how a building may be perceived - as a means to suicide. Filming the Golden Gate Bridge for a full calender year, this brutal documentary follows the stories of the 24 people (and 1 survivor) who took their own lives plummeting off the iconic bridge. 30,000 people commit suicide in the United States every year but this film grounds this national dilemma into the chilling, poignant tales of the 25 jumpers going through psychological crisis. The film opens with a surfer relaying the more romantic nature of the bridge; a symbol of civilization, freedom and manufactured beauty. This image is abruptly and unapologetically shattered as the reality of the structure as being an elephant graveyard for the jumpers society has seemingly abandoned becomes apparent. At one point a jumper who has been stood beside the railing on the bridge crying is asked by a tourist to take a photograph. Viewers are shown how a  sizeable portion of society is apathetic and disinterested, preferring to mind their own business as people endure obvious emotional and psychological hardship standing on the bridge. In a way this movie poses the question, after being given an insight into the very intimate, personal crisis of the individuals concerned whether or not we would intervene, seeing someone in a position of distress. This haunting film stayed with me long after my first viewing and is a very worthy entry in this Top 5.

 [1]   King of Kong (2007, dir.Seth Gordon)
Tom on Jerry. Ali against Frazier. Romney and Obama.

Some of the great rivalries of history pale in comparison to the rivalry between Steve Wiebe and Billy Mitchell, competing to have the #1 spot in the Donkey Kong world high score ranking. There is something strangely fascinating about this tale which - on paper - should seem boring and trivial compared to some of the other pics in my Top 5 list (not least my #2 choice). Billy Mitchell who had - prior to the making of the documentary - held the high score since the 1980s, bares many of the qualities viewers look for in a great antagonist - boarish beyond reason, arrogant and entirely hypocritical while at the same time remaining absolutely hilarious. Like many of the classic Disney villains he surrounds himself with a retinue of sycophantic minions who harbor less skills at video games than himself. The challenger to this long held high score is Steve Wiebe - an every-man hero working as a science teacher by day before dropping this facade under cover of darkness to become the number 1 contender for the Donkey Kong high score. What follows is a hilarious battle between the two vying for the coveted high score. Many critics have dismissed this film based solely on its seemingly trivial subject matter. However, they are overlooking the intrinsic value of this documentary. Like many of my other picks this film has a strong theme of obsession running throughout. In addition, it says a lot about the very foundations of capitalist-driven western society - the Darwinian struggle to constantly desire to be at the peak of your given food chain whether its yearning to be the starting Point Guard for the college team, striving to become the head of a global investment bank or simply wanting to be the undisputed champion of Donkey Kong (a game originally contrived to be a relaxing past-time, not a lifestyle choice).

RUNNERS UP: Bowling for Columbine (2007), Taxi to the Dark Side (2007), March of the Penguins (2005), Waltz with Bashir (2008).

2 comments:

  1. I've not heard of Talhotblond, but I'm adding it to my watchlist. My top 5:

    1. Dying at Grace (2003)
    2. Capturing the Friedmans (2003)
    3. Grizzly Man (2005)
    4. Burma VJ (2008)
    5. Murderball (2005)

    Runners up: Inheritance, Last Train Home, Lost in La Mancha, No Direction Home, Dark Days, The Beaches of Agnes

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    1. Definitely check out Talhotblonde, its genuinely fascinating.

      I'm sad to say of your Top 5 picks I've only seen Capturing the Friedmans and obviously Grizzly Man. I'm definitely going to check out Murderball first as I play a little bit of Rugby myself.

      Thanks for the response (my first ever comment!)

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