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The 20 Best Documentaries of 2010

December 23, 2010  |  7:00am
10. Ain’t In It for My Health: A Film About Levon Helm
Director: Jacob Hatley
From Levon Helm’s days as the drummer for one of the most influential musical groups in American history, The Band, to his recent Grammy award-winning albums, the singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist has made a lasting impact. But bankruptcy, drug abuse and throat cancer are just some of the demons exposed in this enthralling documentary. Director Jacob Hatley follows Helm on the road, on the farm, in his home and to the doctor, where he eventually learns that his vocal cords are in dire straits. Hatley allows us to bear witness to Helm’s life today while, at the same time, inserting just enough backstory to provide a foundation to that life. Others, like current and ex-wives, fill in the blanks where Helm is reluctant to speak.—Tim Basham

9. Freakonomics
Director: Heidi Ewing, Alex Gibney, Seth Gordon, Rachel Grady, Eugene Jarecki and Morgan Spurlock
A book on economics by two dweeby guys with six different directors and no stars shouldn’t have worked. But it crackles with energy and intelligence, and the different directorial visions provide infectious energy. Alex Gibney’s “chapter” on fixing sumo wrestling matches is the best overall, and Morgan Spurlock’s on baby names is the most entertaining. But the whole film is fascinating, and it flies by before you know it. Entertainment and education in one fell swoop.—Michael Dunaway

8. Who is Harry Nilsson (And Why is Everybody Talkin’ About Him)?
Director: John Scheinfeld
Lennon and McCartney allegedly said that Nilsson was their favorite group, thinking he was a band, not a man. That sums up well the enigma of Harry Nilsson—always there but always missing. With rare footage and frank interviews, director John Scheinfeld fills in much of the missing parts on one of popular music’s greatest and strangest talents. For example, in 1972 Nilsson followed up his commercially successful Nilsson Schmilsson (containing the Grammy winning “Without You”) with the more self-indulgent album Son of Schmilsson containing one of the greatest break-up songs of all time, “You’re Breakin’ My Heart” (“…you’re tearing me apart, so fuck you.”)—Tim Basham

7. The Lottery
Director: Madeleine Sackler
Waiting for “Superman” was the most intellectually rigorous argument of 2010 in favor of school reform, but The Lottery was undoubtedly its most emotionally compelling. Rather than touch all the bases of the debate, Madeleine Sackler chooses to focus primarily on four Harlem kids hoping to win the lottery… to enter Harlem Success Academy, a charter school. Demand is so great at many charter schools that a lottery is required to choose which children have a shot at a better life. Why don’t school systems move those schools into some of the echoing buildings of the failing schools all those students are fleeing? The New York Public School System tries just that, but is foiled by crusading parents bamboozled by sloganeering propaganda artists. It all seems too good guy/bad guy, but it’s typical of situations in large cities all over the country. When the final names are announced, you’ll find yourself on the edge of your seat.—Michael Dunaway

6. Restrepo
Directors: Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger
CNN has called the Korengal Valley in Afghanistan the deadliest place on earth, and that’s where filmmakers spent time embedded with a platoon of U.S. soldiers during heavy combat. Dealing with at least four fire fights per day instills a close comradery among the troops that is especially evident when one of them is killed. The film’s title comes from a fallen comrade.—Tim Basham

5. Exit Through the Gift Shop
Director: Banksy
When renowned graffiti artist Banksy took the camera away from the man shooting his biopic and decided that the subject would become the documentarian (and the documentarian, the subject), the zaniest doc in years was born. Was it Banksy’s own attention and the pressure of the film that motivated Mr. Brainwash to become an international sensation in his own right, with his inaugural show in Los Angeles becoming the largest and most profitable in street-art history? Or was the artist born, not made? Or is his whole career just part of the whole huckster atmosphere of the film? Banksy’s not saying. But it’s certainly a wild ride to watch.—Michael Dunaway

4. The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia
Director: Julien Nitzberg
You can have Gene Simmons, the Palins and the Kardashians. I’ll take the Whites of Boone County, West Virginia for pure reality entertainment. Produced by the “Jackass” MTV folks, the film takes a close look at these modern day hillbillies with a bent for crime. They make the Gotti mob look like the Osmonds. Openly using and selling drugs, milking the government entitlement system and, maybe worst of all, giving their kids names like Cheyan and Tylor. In one scene Derek White demonstrates the “Boone County mating call” by shaking a bottle of illegal drugs and shouting, “Come and get it, baby.” Hank Williams III contributes some tunes to the movie with “Punch Fight Fuck!” being the most appropriate theme song.—Tim Basham

3. Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer
Director: Alex Gibney
Alex Gibney was a presence in 2010 with four major documentary features. Client 9 was his tightest, his most personal and his best. Gibney has great sympathy for Spitzer and great anger at the powers that brought him down, but his impatience at the weakness Spitzer exhibited in making that fall possible is evident. As with most of Gibney’s films, expect a sharp intellect, crisp photography, brilliant use of music and a strong viewpoint.—Michael Dunaway

2. Marwencol
Director: Jeff Malmberg
Some of the best documentaries are the ones that confuse and confound you before
completely winning you over. Marwencol does that, sneaking up on you with a
simple story of a damaged man whose unique form of self-treatment is making him
whole again. That part of Mark Hogencamp’s life would suffice as a pleasing story,
even if we never looked closer. But director Jeff Malmberg does bring us closer, and
the result is a story rich in awakenings, Barbie dolls and shoes.—Tim Basham

1. Waiting for “Superman”
Director: Davis Guggenheim
In a year that gave us three major documentary features about the glaring need for educational reform in America, Davis Guggenheim’s Waiting for “Superman” presents the most unavoidably compelling argument. In one of the biggest eye-openers, he shows that housing a man in prison (where inner city high school dropouts are statistically likely to wind up) costs three times as much per year as sending them (as kids) to even the most exclusive private school. Another—in order to bring the U.S. from close to last in developed-world education to close to first, we’d only have to get rid of the worst 10% of teachers. Like his previous epic An Inconvenient Truth, it’s not the most balanced picture, but he does give the largest teachers’ union their say. They’re on the wrong side of history, however, and one day this film, like An Inconvenient Truth, will be seen as one of the turning points in the conversation.—Michael Dunaway

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