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The 20 Best Documentaries of 2010

December 23, 2010  |  7:00am

This was perhaps the deepest year in history for documentary features. It was a year when three excellent documentaries were released on possibly our most pressing problem as a nation. Our Top 20 documentary films cover America’s education system (1,7), its scandals (3,11,19), its celebrities, (5,8,10,17,18) and its wars (6). It was a year when many of the best films uncovered lies, theft and fraud.

It was also a year when Paste found it impossible to stop at a Top Ten; even compiling a Top Twenty felt painfully exclusive, and some great, great films missed the cut. Nevertheless, a verdict must be rendered at some point. Here are our favorite documentaries of 2010:

20. Mugabe and the White African
Directors: Lucy Bailey and Andrew Thompson
A film where the white hats and black hats seem too clear for the story to be compelling, it works nevertheless. Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe was already universally considered one of the most murderous and unjust despots in the world even before he began his program of systematically seizing land from white farmers. It’s a rare drama of ethnic cleansing with blacks as the oppressors and whites as the victims. Directors Lucy Bailey and Andrew Thompson focus on one single farm and one family’s fight to keep it. Mike Campbell’s calm insistence on civility (in one memorable scene, he says he’ll go investigate an invasion outside after he finishes his drink) is inspiring, and it’s difficult to walk away from the film unaffected.—Michael Dunaway

19. Casino Jack and the United States of Money
Director: Alex Gibney
Casino Jack and the United States of Money is a story so juicy that Kevin Spacey signed on to play the lad role in the narrative film version (entitled, confusingly enough, Casino Jack) as Jack Abramoff, liar, cheater, and all-around bad guy (or, as we call him in America, a lobbyist). It’s difficult to imagine how a narrative film could have been any more intriguing or exciting than Alex Gibney’s treatment here. He’s an expert in the art of pastiche, weaving together clips from earlier narrative films either to support or to undermine the points being made by the speakers in his footage, and tying it all together using a stable of songs that would be the envy of even the most well-connected film music supervisor. Aretha Franklin’s “The House That Jack built” is an especially appropriate — and inspired — choice.—Michael Dunaway

18. William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe
Directors: Emily and Sarah Kunstler
“Growing up it seemed like my father was at the center of everything important that ever happened.” If half the work of the documentary is finding a great opening line, Kunstler’s two daughters hit a home run in their debut feature. Their famous father was, in fact, at the center of many of the most famous events of the ‘60s: He marched with Martin Luther King and defended civil rights leaders, represented the Chicago Seven and negotiated on behalf of the prisoners in Attica and the Native Americans at Wounded Knee. But the girls’ perspective on him is tempered by reality, as later in his life he defended murderers, rapists, terrorists—anyone, it seemed, that would shock and offend. Their complicated view of him drives a fascinating portrait of a fascinating man.—Michael Dunaway

17. American: The Bill Hicks Story
Directors: Matt Harlock and Paul Thomas
In 1992 Bill Hicks was considered by many to be the hottest comedian in the country. By 1993 he was dead of pancreatic cancer at the age of 33. The film employs a unique form of animation that greatly compliments the footage of Hicks’ performances and of numerous interviews with those who knew him well. Hicks had a way of putting a mirror up to his audience and allowing us to look at ourselves from a different perspective. The heart of the film is in the portrayal of Hicks’ relationship with his family and close friends—especially while growing up and during the last days of his life.—Tim Basham

16. Sins of My Father
Director: Nicolas Entel
As a boy in Colombia, Sebastian Marroquin was shielded from the hideous side of Pablo Escobar; he only knew him as his doting father. Even the murders Escobar eventually arranged of a crusading Minister of Justice and a stirringly heroic presidential candidate (the very loose equivalent of the RFK and JFK of Colombia) don’t completely open his eyes. But after Escobar’s death at the hands of Delta Force (a death Sebastian immediately resolved to avenge), the son began a long process of coming to terms with the reality of his past, and when we meet Sebastian in the present day he has long since realized that his father was, outside his family life, a monster. That story alone would be compelling enough, but director Nicolas Entel convinces Sebastian to write a letter to, and later to meet with, the equally fascinating sons of his father’s two most famous victims. The meetings that follow should bring tears to the eyes of anyone who cares about reconciliation and forgiveness. Most filmmakers are content with making a film that tells a compelling story; Entel joins the company a select few filmmakers whose films have actually helped create healing within a society.—Michael Dunaway

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