The 20 Best Documentaries of 2010

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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

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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