Twenty-Five Essential Documentaries of the 2000s

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Begging Naked, 2007

By Marilyn Ferdinand

As anyone who has read my blog partner’s 25 Essential Films of the 2000s knows, Rod concentrated on feature films in compiling his list. It’s my turn as the self-assigned documentary maven at Ferdy on Films to choose a list of notable documentaries of the 2000s. This category of filmmaking is a particular favorite of mine and one that rarely receives the kind of attention that feature films do, unless, of course, it’s a piece of docusnark by some yo-yo from Michigan who is given to channeling Mike Wallace, Geraldo Rivera, and Ub Iwerks all at the same time. Nonetheless, documentaries were on the ascent in the 2000s as a way many people could get the information and education that corporatized, downsized, and increasingly partisan media would or could no longer deliver. Consider the success of the Oscar-winning An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore’s traveling show on global warming, as the official acknowledgment of the documentary as an alternative, legitimate, trusted source of news and analysis.

Yet, documentaries are also films, and the form has developed and changed over time, eschewing a strict talking-heads format for more interpretive methods of relating factual material, including the controversial reenactments that always seem to get Errol Morris in trouble but that caused no one a moment’s worry about James Marsh’s Man on Wire, though they were far more dubiously used. What once would have been considered merely “home movie” footage is now the raw material and finished product of such documentaries as Capturing the Friedmans, Tarnation, and one of my favorites listed below, Trouble the Water. This innovative use of primary-source—particularly self-referential—material has spilled into features such as The Blair Witch Project and Cloverfield, and strongly influenced the “queasicam” features that have become de rigueur.

There were many worthy documentaries in the 2000s—this list could have extended much further and included the entertaining and enlightening March of the Penguins, Murderball, My Architect, Grizzly Man, The Nomi Song, and Bright Leaves, not to mention those I didn’t have the chance or the stomach to catch up with, like Taxi to the Dark Side, Blind Spot: Hitler’s Secretary, and No Direction Home. Ultimately, I chose films that took me places I couldn’t go myself, taught me things, and moved me with their commitment, honesty, and beauty. Here they are in alphabetical order:

Begging Naked (Karen Gehres, 2007)
This film has yet to find a distributor, but it did find a champion in Roger Ebert, who showed it at the 2009 Ebertfest. Exploring Times Square both before and after Giuliani’s “clean up,” what comes through most movingly about this film is the meaning of friendship, as director Karen Gehres films the life and times of her troubled friend, artist Elise Hill.

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Beyond Ipanema (Guto Barra and Béco Dranoff, 2009)
I can’t remember when I’ve learned so much in such a short span of time. Barra and Dranoff’s pulsing exploration of Brazilian music since the 1940s is like a musical composition itself—driving, expressive, and filled with the enthusiasm to stuff as much great music into its horn of plenty as possible.

Born into Brothels (Zana Briski and Ross Kauffman, 2004)
The red-light district of Calcutta is never captured on film, so this documentary is valuable for that feat alone. But it would be nothing more without the children who did—and did not—find a way out of the cycle of poverty and prostitution through photography. Moving, memorable, and a worthy winner of the 2004 Oscar for Best Documentary Feature.

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Chuck Jones: Extremes and In-Betweens, a Life in Animation (Margaret Selby, 2000)
As a big Chuck Jones fan, just about any documentary about this great animator and director would have made my day. But Margaret Selby’s documentary doesn’t leave any aspect of his career on the cutting room floor, while moving with the verve and humor of the animated world the great man himself brought to life.

Cinerama Adventure (David Strohmaier, 2002)
Another film without a distributor, this film represents the most enjoyable documentary movie experience I’ve ever had. My curious obsession with movie technology—particularly widescreen formats—was more than sated on this history of Cinerama and the technology Strohmaier created to simulate a Cinerama experience—Smilebox.

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Control Room (Jehane Noujaim, 2004)
You may not like it, but Al-Jazeera is the voice of news and information for the Arab Middle East. Control Room offers a unique look at this misunderstood organization and the way that American public information workers come to see the world in a different light by watching it, and then watching what their bosses tell them to report. Essential viewing, in my opinion, with real-life drama that will stop your heart.

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DAM/AGE (Aranhada Seth, 2002)
Indian writer Arundati Roy is the focus of this documentary about the proposed construction of a dam in the Narmada valley. Roy, a native of this area, protests the construction and visits communities along the river, so her odyssey is a very personal one, the nuances of which Seth captures beautifully. This affecting profile of a famous person and her fabled country can be viewed for free at the invaluable Snag Films.

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Excellent Cadavers (Marco Turco, 2005)
Despite a slightly awkward framing device, Excellent Cadavers exposes and explains the complicated history of the Sicilian Mafia and two crusading lawmen who paid the ultimate price to try to bring them down. Sad, infuriating, urgent, this is a look at justice and its cost that will have you rethinking your devotion to the Sopranos.

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The Gleaners and I (Agnès Varda, 2000)
Master filmmaker Varda premiered a great autobiographical documentary this year, Beaches of Agnès. But it is this minutely observed documentary on those dedicated to saving what others discard that, to me, provides the best portrait into her life and work. A beautiful exploration of aging and the mystery of life, filmed as only Varda can.

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How to Eat Your Watermelon in White Company (And Enjoy It) (Joe Angio, 2005)
Melvin Van Peebles is the most important African-American filmmaker alive today, and perhaps of all time, but I didn’t know the half of it until I saw this energetic, humorous, and sharp documentary. I felt the kind of rush watching it that I had on viewing Van Peebles’ seminal Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song for the first time. Irreverent, caustic, and vitally important.

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Lost in La Mancha (Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe, 2002)
Terry Gilliam’s loss in failing to film Man of La Mancha is our gain, as Fulton and Pepe use bits and pieces of footage of the failing production to show a train wreck in slow motion. It’s funny, horrifying, and ultimately sad when one considers the film that might have been.

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Plagues and Pleasures on the Salton Sea (Chris Metzler and Jeff Singer, 2004)
I’d never heard of the Salton Sea before viewing this documentary, and now I’ll never forget it. Archival footage of this California resort community’s heyday juxtaposes with dead fish and welfare communities that have sprung up in this real estate fiasco some still remember fondly.

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The Revolution Will Not Be Televised (Kim Bartley and Donnacha O’Briain, 2003)
It doesn’t get any better than this—real footage of the attempted coup against Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez shot by an Irish film crew that happened to be filming a profile of the leader at the time. A lucky break for Bartley and O’Briain and, ultimately, for us, in helping to make sense of a fast-moving event and providing a filmed record of an historic event.

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Riding Giants (Stacy Peralta, 2004)
Step into Liquid is perhaps the better known of modern surfing films, but Riding Giants is the more awe-inspiring. The footage is beautiful and masterfully cut for suspense and visual impact, and the score is hypnotic and inspiring. I can’t think of a better sports or nature documentary of the 2000s.

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A State of Mind (Daniel Gordon, 2004)
Director Daniel Gordon was given unprecedented access to film in North Korea, chronicling school girls spending all of their spare time rehearsing for the yearly Mass Games, an enormous and lavish demonstration to honor dictator Kim Jong-il. An extremely rare look at a truly awesome event, and the mindset of North Korean youth dedicated to pleasing their leader.

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Stevie (Steve James, 2002)
This is the hardest film you might ever try to watch. Hoop Dreams director Steve James looks up the man who was his charge when James was in the Big Brother program. Stevie, a difficult boy James backed away from, has become a sad, lost, and dangerous fringe dweller. James wonders if Stevie ever had a chance, and if he himself failed Stevie. Honest, brutal, unforgettable.

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Tell Them Who You Are (Mark Wexler, 2004)
What’s it like to be the son of a famous director/cinematographer? Mark Wexler demonstrates as he attempts to document his father, Haskell Wexler, for posterity. It’s a fractious ride that will make you wonder why Wexler didn’t become an accountant instead of trying to follow in his father’s footsteps.

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This Film Is Not Yet Rated (Kirby Dick, 2006)
We’ve all wondered about the secret workings of the Motion Picture Association of America’s rating board. Kirby Dick takes us inside the process by recording this documentary’s ratings odyssey, and by cracking the veil of secrecy by interviewing a couple of former raters who have broken their contracted silence. Dick connects the dots and helps us reach some disturbing conclusions about the agenda of censors in the film industry.

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Trouble the Water (Tia Lessin and Carl Deal, 2008)
Go inside New Orleans’ Ninth Ward as Katrina approaches, hits, and recedes. Watching the waters rise higher, higher, higher through the live footage of a family of survivors, cut with follow-up footage and news reports by Lessin and Deal, brings the tragedy of Katrina and the shame of our nation vividly to life.

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The True Meaning of Pictures: Shelby Lee Adams’ Appalachia (Jennifer Baichwal, 2002)
Exploiter. Artist. Appalachian insider and friend. Photographer Shelby Lee Adams is, perhaps, all of these things. But respected Canadian director Jennifer Baichwal allows everyone to have their say. What you ultimately decide is up to you.

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War Photographer (Christian Frei, 2001)
James Nachtwey is one of the world’s preeminent war photographers. Why does he do it? How does he get so close to danger, grief, and anger? Why do his subjects trust him with their rawest emotions and experiences? Swiss filmmaker Christian Frei combines fly-on-wall experiences with interviews to paint a portrait of a complicated man.

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The War Tapes (Deborah Scranton, 2006)
Three American soldiers in Iraq filmed their experiences. Deborah Scranton edited their footage and interviewed them and their families. Together, they created a record of the passage from civilian to survivor for two of the men, as well as the viewpoint of a career soldier. I haven’t seen all the Iraq-related docs that are out there, but I feel I understand so much more about this war than I did before because I got it right from the horse’s mouth.

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When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts (Spike Lee, 2006)
Spike Lee’s documentaries are as renowned as his feature films, and with When the Levees Broke, he has created his most ambitious and meaningful film to date. The four-part, 255-minute opus gives a thorough, impassioned, 360-degree view of the weather event known as Hurricane Katrina and the tragedy that followed.

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Whose Song Is This? (Adela Peeva, 2003)
An exploration that rose out of a lighthearted curiosity about the origins of a popular song turns dark and deadly as Bulgarian filmmaker Adela Peeva makes her way around the Balkan countries that claim the song as their original creation. A shrewder illustration of the term “balkanization” you’ll never find.

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Why the Towers Fell (Garfield Kennedy and Larry Klein, 2002)
The Twin Towers of the World Trade Center were huge blocks of steel and concrete, built to withstand the impact of weather and aircraft collisions. They should have withstood the impact of the jetliners that crashed into them, bruised but unbowed. But they didn’t. This fascinating documentary shows schematics and offers penetrating analysis about the design flaws that brought them crashing to the ground. It’s not easy to watch, but it is an important look at the very heart of why this tragedy was not better contained. The documentary can be viewed here.

  • Bob Turnbull spoke:
    21st/12/2009 to 6:59 pm

    Wow…I see a lot of documentaries and I’ve only seen 7 of your list (there’s a few that I’ve put off to be honest), so I need to catch up a bit.
    Some great picks though – “Riding Giants” is literally jaw-dropping at times; “State Of Mind” is an amazing and frightening look into the mindset that has been created in North Korea; “Stevie” is a tough one, but one of my fave docs of the last decade as well.
    I wanted to like “This Film Is Not Yet Rated” a whole more than I did – I couldn’t help feel that Kirby stooped to making fun of those people a bit too much (that’s not to say they don’t deserve it to a certain extent).
    “War Photographer” and “True Meaning Of Pictures” are both fascinating portrayals, but each focusing on very different aspects. My neighbour is a cameraman/producer/director for the CBC and he actually made a documentary a few years ago about a group of war photographers entitled Beyond Words: Photographers Of War which also included Nachtwey. If I can get off my butt in the new year, I’ll try to get a copy to you as I think you would find it interesting.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    21st/12/2009 to 7:09 pm

    Thanks, Bob. It’s not easy to see some of these films – as I mention, some have no distribution – but I can trade a few with you. I have “Begging Naked” on DVD. The one I’d most like to have my hands on is “Cinerama Adventure,” but I doubt it will happen.

  • Jake spoke:
    21st/12/2009 to 8:45 pm

    Glad to see Stevie and When the Levees Broke. Stevie is such a brilliant piece of work, a profile of a troubled young man that eventually becomes the director’s method of exploring his own role in the boy’s tragic spiral. And it’s interesting (albeit horrific) to see the politics at work over Stevie’s love, between the duplicitous, Machiavellian grandmother and the mother who seems earnest in her attempt to make amends but is all too willing to use Stevie to re-ignite the fight with the grandma. I didn’t know who to hate, pity or celebrate by the end of that movie and with each of them I did a bit of all three.
    As for Levees, the one part of the film I don’t like is the emphasis Lee places on the two dudes who told Cheney to fuck himself, though I completely understand why he was just as mad as the citizens. It took gumption to go there before the hurricane hit, and it’s an invaluable document to sorting out the cataclysmic failure of the government’s response.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    21st/12/2009 to 8:56 pm

    Thanks for dropping by, Jake. I don’t think there are any winners or losers in Stevie, just a bottomless pit of misery. As for Spike Lee’s effort, I liked that he allowed the anger to express itself; it was part of the comprehensive story he told.

  • Greg F spoke:
    21st/12/2009 to 9:57 pm

    What a wonderful change of pace from the other movie lists populating the tubes. This is a great guidelist to go by, thanks Marilyn.
    Also, a favorite documentary of yours and mine, Harlan County, U.S.A. has been added to the ever expanding list of films instantly available for viewing from Netflix so anyone with a Netflix account can see it anytime they want now. After all these years it’s still one of the best I’ve ever seen.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    21st/12/2009 to 10:02 pm

    Well, thanks, Greg. It was fun to do this list, as my beloved docs just don’t get the air time they deserve. It was nice to think over the experiences I had watching these and other films. As for Harlan County, U.S.A., I happen to think it’s the best American doc ever made. I wanted to include a Barbara Kopple film on this list, but Dixie Chicks: Shut Up and Sing was the only one I’ve seen recently, and it just didn’t quite stack up.

  • James Russell spoke:
    21st/12/2009 to 10:41 pm

    I thought I was doing well for documentaries this decade until I saw this list; I’ve only even heard of eleven here, and only seen three of those. Much catching up to do, obviously…

  • Daniel spoke:
    22nd/12/2009 to 10:14 am

    Funny timing – I just analyzed a couple of decade doc lists yesterday, so I’m in the right frame of mind for thinking about these.
    As many as I thought I’d seen from this decade, though, I’ve missed a good half from your list. I’m very glad to see The Revolution Will Not Be Televised here (I’d almost forgotten about that one), and I know we both have a deep appreciation for The War Tapes. I have seen a good number of Iraq-war docs, and I don’t think anything has come as close in relating the pre- and post-war experiences of soldiers in this current fight.
    Speaking of documentaries that we both enjoy, though, I’ve just thought of one that I’ll have to add to my own list that I’m preparing: Mad Hot Ballroom!

  • Marilyn spoke:
    22nd/12/2009 to 10:21 am

    I thought about Mad Hot Ballroom, too. And The Bridge. And Jules Naudet’s 9/11. Even Persepolis might be considered a documentary. All great films. I just had to pick with my gut and went with the ones that had the most lasting impact on me.

  • Jake M spoke:
    22nd/12/2009 to 2:41 pm

    have you seen Street Medicine?

  • Marilyn spoke:
    22nd/12/2009 to 2:50 pm

    No I haven’t, but I see that it is available for free on-line viewing. It would make a nice comparison with Living in Emergency: Stories of Doctors without Borders.

  • Rick spoke:
    22nd/12/2009 to 8:05 pm

    Great list, Marilyn. I think Spike Lee’s doc is the best thing he’s done, period. And though I haven’t seen “Step Into Liquid,” “Riding Giants” is everything you say.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    23rd/12/2009 to 8:18 am

    Thanks, Rick. When I think of some of the films I forgot, like Boogie Man and The Bridge, I wonder if maybe I shouldn’t have expanded it to 50. It has truly been a great time for documentaries. As for Step into Liquid, it’s fine, just not as special.

  • Carin-Anne Strohmaier spoke:
    23rd/12/2009 to 10:41 am

    Hi Marilyn:
    “Cinerama Adventure” is available as a special feature on the latest “How the West Was Won” DVD set from Warner Home video. The Blu-ray version has HTWWW in the Smilebox version. On the HTWWW feature the audio commentary has extension information not only about HTWWW but more on cinerama in general as well.
    We are so glad to be included in your list and that you enjoyed the documentary. Where did you see “Cinerama Adventure” by the way?
    Happy Holidays…

  • Marilyn spoke:
    23rd/12/2009 to 10:49 am

    Carin-Anne, You just gave me the best present I could ever want this year. Thanks! I saw it at the Chicago International Film Festival, and have talked about it ever since. What a treat to have How the West Was Won in Smilebox. Next to real Cinerama, that’s the next best thing.
    How did you find my blog?

  • Carin-Anne Strohmaier spoke:
    23rd/12/2009 to 4:47 pm

    David gets a Google alert whenever there’s anything written up on smilebox and that’s how we found your blog.
    I’ve also read your other film list and found it very interesting and diverse and unpredictable – very good (keep ‘em guessing).
    If you have not done so, please cast your vote on “Cinerama Adventure” on imdb.
    And thanks again for help spreading the word as so many film history books rarely mention cinerama or it’s just a footnote.
    –cas

  • Kimberly Lindbergs spoke:
    24th/12/2009 to 10:24 am

    I’ve only seen 7 of the films you listed and now I’m curious about the others. STEVIE has really sparked my interest so I’ll probably seek out that doc first. Strangely enough I had never heard of STEVIE before but I’m familiar with the director.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    24th/12/2009 to 12:00 pm

    Hi Kimberly – Stevie is a rough movie, so be prepared. Steve James is one of the best documentarians working today.

  • Nick spoke:
    25th/12/2009 to 1:23 pm

    Hugo Chavez is president of Venezuela, not Chile.

  • Mike spoke:
    25th/12/2009 to 1:29 pm

    JESUS CAMP was another really excellent doc.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    25th/12/2009 to 2:43 pm

    Quite right, Nick, thanks! I was just watching The Battle of Chile and had the other country on my mind. It has been corrected.
    Mike – I didn’t see Jesus Camp, but you’re not alone in your assessment.

  • Tim B. spoke:
    25th/12/2009 to 5:11 pm

    Interesting that you pick Riding Giants. I liked it, but was much more impressed by Dogtown & Z Boys (the original doc, not the dramatized version that followed). The way it was put together, from the editing & interviews to the soundtrack, really blew me away. Riding Giants, as good as it was, really seemed like a somewhat pale imitation stylistically. Just substitute surfing for skating. I must admit, however, to skateboarding being closer to my heart than surfing.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    25th/12/2009 to 10:51 pm

    Hi Tim and thanks for stopping by. Skateboarding as a sport does not have the majesty for me that the ocean does. While I can’t deny the appeal of Dogtown & Z Boys, it didn’t stay with me.

  • Max spoke:
    9th/01/2010 to 1:12 pm

    To a list already full of gems like Control Room, Stevie, Tell Them Who You Are, and The Gleaners and I, I would like to also submit for your consideration: The Cats of Mirikitani (Hattendorf, 2006).

  • Marilyn spoke:
    9th/01/2010 to 1:16 pm

    Max – I have heard of, but not seen, the film. I will definitely put it on my list. Thanks for commenting.

  • Leo spoke:
    9th/01/2010 to 5:19 pm

    Hi Marylin and many thanks for this list!
    I can’t wait to learn more about Salton sea in “Plagues and Pleasures…”.
    I would suggest you to watch “Etre et Avoir” if not allready done. “Etre et Avoir” was such a big hit here back in 2001. It’s basically filming one year of the day to day life in a small village school here in France. 2 hours of deep true happiness.
    For the records, I came across your page googling for Salton Sea history, after browsing a set of Urbex photographies of an abandoned Motel and surroundings there.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    9th/01/2010 to 11:01 pm

    Leo – That’s very much for stopping by with that recommendation. It sounds like a wonderful, perhaps nostalgic film, certainly something up my alley. And I hope you enjoy Plagues and Pleasures. It’s really a unique story.

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