Upton Sinclair, Bob Woodward, and Carl Bernstein may have set the standard for muckraking in the 20th century, but their heirs apparent are as likely to pick up a video camera as they are a pen when they fight the battles of the 21st. Technical advances have put professional tools into the hands of amateurs, but they explain only part of the reason that so much muckraking has moved from newspapers to video.
Living in an information-rich society, we’ve all become skimmers. Reading a book from cover to cover, is a luxury that fewer people indulge in, yet the headlines, sound bites, viral videos, and tweets that season our daily ambiance don’t have the depth to help us understand an increasingly complex world. Bridging that paradox is the documentary film: short enough that it doesn’t require a major commitment but long enough to make a complex argument without interruption.
Whether you think they’re full of holes or iron-clad, films like An Inconvenient Truth, Sicko, Bowling for Columbine, Expelled, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, The Corporation, and The Fog of War—all made in the past decade—present arguments that develop only with time and concentration.
And where the problems are too complex for even 90 minutes, a hybrid approach can work. The best example is the recent film Food, Inc., which opened many eyes to the major problems of the country’s food supply, mostly by skimming ideas that are probed more deeply in the books of Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser. Having seen the film, newly engaged viewers, energized by its potent, condensed content, might next turn to the books themselves, and maybe the authors’ blogs, for more information, letting the media work in tandem.
Given the troubled state of theatrical distribution, many documentaries are more likely to be seen at home than the mall. But who will finance them? Even with so many outlets—from traditional theaters and aging broadcast television to new and unproven avenues like SnagFilms, YouTube, and Netflix Instant—most documentarians are unlikely to earn enough to keep working. It’s a gap that’s yet to be bridged: the distance between the obvious value of hard-nosed reporting and the cost of getting the results in front of an audience. Robert Davis
25. Food, Inc. (2009)
Director: Robert Kenner
Starring: Eric Schlosser, Michael Pollan
Studio: Magnolia Pictures
Instead of filling his film with scary, hard-hitting footage, Kenner made a well-reasoned documentary that politely pushes you towards its viewpoint. This lack of radicalism has made the film one of the most effective propellers for expanding the farm-to-table movement.
24. Dig! (2004)
Director: Ondi Timoner
Starring: Courtney Taylor-Taylor, Anton Newcombe
Studio: Palm Pictures
Chronicling seven years of the turbulent, fast-paced career of The Dandy Warhols and The Brian Jonestown Massacre, Dig! reveals the gritty, messy details of the ‘90s rock scene and complicated friendships and ambitions that formed it. The film goes beyond footage of sex and drugs to tell the urgent and compelling story of two bands seeking fame and radical musical revolution. Plus, the whole thing is available to view for free at Hulu.com. Caroline Klibanoff
23. Gleaners and I (2000)
Director: Agnès Varda
Starring: Bodan Litnanski, François Wertheimer
Studio: Zeitgeist Films
The law of the ancient Israelites commanded farmers not to be overzelous in harvesting so that some crops would remain for travelers and the poor to collect (Leviticus 19:9-10). This tradition of gleaning from the fields—and even from urban environments—continues in France, where director Varda follows the various gleaners in the city and country. Josh Jackson
22. The Devil and Daniel Johnston (2006)
Director: Jeff Feuerzeig
Starring: Daniel Johnston
Studio: Sony Pictures Classics
A haunting profile of a man obsessed with the devil and plagued by mental illness, and the transcendent music he made throughout his life. Daniel Johnston captured the hearts of critics and fans while being shuffled in and out of mental hospitals, burdened by his demons and liberated by his piano keys. Caroline Klibanoff
21. No End In Sight (2007)
Director: Charles Ferguson
Starring: Campbell Scott
Studio: Magnolia Pictures
After several years of fine and varied documentaries on Iraq, Ferguson came along to sum up the American side of the debacle—the fear, hubris and missed opportunities—with great efficiency. It’s an especially good, if infuriating primer for those who’ve grown exhausted of following daily reports from the Persian Gulf. Robert Davis