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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

15. Waking Sleeping Beauty
Director: Don Hahn
During the 1980s it was obvious from Disney Animation’s films that the studio was in a devastating decline. Its low point arrived when The Black Cauldron was embarrassingly knocked out at the box office by The Care Bears Movie. This comeback story pulls no punches in describing just how bad it was for the people who worked there and centers around three men Walt Disney’s nephew Roy hired to turn things around: Michael Eisner, Jeffrey Katzenberg and Frank Wells. It was a change that led to success stories like Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, The Lion King and The Little Mermaid. But they came at a great cost.—Tim Basham

14. The Art of the Steal
Director: Don Argott
In the early 20th century, Albert Barnes rose from his blue-collar beginnings to considerable wealth, assembling what would become the most impressive collection of post-impressionist art in the world (181 Renoirs, 59 Matisses), currently valued at over $25 billion. He housed it all in an impeccably civilized foundation on private property outside the city of Philadelphia as an act of defiance against his lifelong enemies, the Philadelphia art establishment and city government. Then, as a final middle finger to those forces, he clearly demanded in his will that the collection never be sold, loaned or moved, and specifically never to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. You can guess from the title what happened next. An infuriating look at a government’s brazen attempt to steal a priceless collection from a foundation that Matisse called “the only sane place to see art in America.”—Michael Dunaway

13.Louder Than A Bomb
Directors: Greg Jacobs and Jon Siskel
It’s impossible to be unmoved by these school kids, some from badly broken homes, who eloquently reveal their inner emotions on stage with “poetry slam”. The spoken-word competition climaxes with the largest high-school slam in the world, with competitors from clubs around the country. It’s a get-up-and-clap kind of movie.—Tim Basham

12. Catfish
Director: Henry Joost, Ariel Schulman
The talk of Sundance 2010 was whether this film belonged in the Documentary or Narrative category, but nearly everyone agreed it was brilliant (Morgan Spurlock reportedly approached the filmmakers after a screening and quipped “That’s the best fake documentary I’ve ever seen!). New York photographer Nev Schulman gets a gift in the mail one day, a painting of one of his photos that’s been published in the New York Times. He begins a correspondence with the eight-year-old prodigy that sent it to him, eventually getting to know her family and friends as well, almost exclusively through Facebook. When he begins to suspect that he’s not getting the whole story, he sets out for Michigan with his brother and another friend to get some answers. It’s as suspenseful, entertaining, and thought-provoking as any film this year, documentary or otherwise.—Michael Dunaway

11. Inside Job
Director: Charles Ferguson
Charles Ferguson tracks our country’s steady financial deregulation back 30 years, presenting it not as any great conspiracy but rather as a series of risks not worth taking. He presents the financial crash not as a disaster out of nowhere, but rather as a wave we all saw coming while remaining immobile on a beach, waiting patiently for it to hit us. You’ll know a lot more at the end of Ferguson’s film than you do at the beginning. Above all, though, you’ll know that you’re furious, and Ferguson is too.—Bennett Webber

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