Best of the Decade Derby: What’s the Best Documentary of the Decade? (Two Case Studies)

I rewatched Platform last weekend as the first of two Jia Zhangke films I consider truly worthy of “best of the decade” status – the other is his much overlooked and underrated documentary Useless. Over his prolific output this decade (six features), Jia has made some great cinema – at least one other film, Still Life, can be considered a masterpiece, and 24 City keeps deepening in its layers of meaning – aesthetic, cultural and historical – the more I think about it. But Platform and Useless are really the stand-outs in my book. I entered my re-viewings wondering if Useless was possibly better than Platform, but that possibility was quickly dispeled for me moments into my reviewing of Platform. Apart from being a monumental achievement, the film simply has too much personal significance for me to deny its inevitable place on my top ten list.

But that doesn’t take anything away from Useless, which, after re-watching it this past week, I consider hands down one of the great documentaries of the decade.  I re-read my review from 2007 (never mind that 3 1/2 star rating, it should be at least four), which clearly reflected how much I was still processing this work in my mind. Seeing it again, the three parts work more fluidly as a whole, as if in dialogue with each other, both thematically and visually. Visual matches like the dirt on Ma Ke’s haute couture (a desire to return to a natural, organic relationship between people and products) and the coal dust that blackens miners’ bodies.  Or the mind-numbing shifts in the clothing factory, where workers pass away hours under repetitive movements without speaking a word to anyone vs. Paris fashion models getting undressed and dressed, idly waiting for their show to start, talking about the extreme physical demands of staying still for hours under the spotlight vs. underemployed small-town tailors idly chatting or passing time on a cellphone while waiting for a customer to show up. What links them together is Yu Lik Wai’s incredibly attentive camerwork, which moves fluidly through spaces in masterful tracking shots or sits in a corner taking in the geometric properties of a given workspace and how it influences the dynamic of social interactions within that space.

This is observational documentary filmmaking of the highest order, yet graced with dramatic touches that speak to the director’s inspired manipulations and fictional stagings in order to intensify the connections and bring this film into something more than straight verite (something he does to even more beguiling effect in 24 City). In light of Ma Ke’s fashion show with its bizarre sense of art-as-showmanship in the film’s middle stretch, Jia’s deliberate fictional elements seem to link themselves with Ma Ke’s attempt to dramatize sociological issues the presentation of her work.

Watching Useless again shifted the attention of the Best of the Decade project into the realm of documentary. I went through my screening logs of the past several years and jotted a list of significant documentaries to see if I could come up with a working list to delve further. One name gave me pause for reflection: Adam Curtis. If only because of David Bordwell’s excellent essay reconsidering the definition of “documentary film” published earlier this year on his blog. When I first watched Curtis’ The Power of Nightmares back in 2004, I found it to be one of the most provocative and stimulating documentaries investigating the reasons for the Iraq War and the war against Islamic terrorism; certainly more focused, reasoned and persuasive than the buckshot invective of Fahrenheit 9-11. The film does such a masterfully sophisticated job over its three hour running time of analyzing and intertwining the history and motives of neo-conservatism and radical fundamentalist Islam. By doing so it exposes the aspirations of both ideologies to control their respective spheres of influence by perpetuating a state of social paranoia that effectively terrorizes its citizenry.

Watch The Power of Nightmares on Google Video – Part 1 embedded below:

But towards the end I felt something kind of lacking as the film makes its closing arguments. It doesn’t entertain questions about what makes these ideologies so seductive and influential to John (or Muhummad) Q. Public, and more generally, what sort of ideology could take their place to provide for a safer, more peaceful world. Maybe such an ideology is implied in the film itself and Curtis’ erudite and discerning, perpetually skeptical and subtly snarky narration. The most it seems to offer is that we must always be vigilant and exercise our better judgment whenever ideologies try to captivate us with their utopian visions concealing nightmarish outcomes.

The sensation of watching Adam Curtis’ compulsively watchable films (I went through all ten hours of The Century of the Self, The Power of Nightmares and The Trap within a 24 hour period – once you get sucked in, it’s hard to look away) has been consistent for me through my recent viewings of each of his last three features: initial enthrallment and a sense of revelation, eventually giving way to a feeling of emptiness and even despair at the perpetual folly of human beings in trying to better their world. This was especially true in watching his most recent work, 2007’s The Trap, a revelatory examination of the impact of Game Theory on modern economic and social policy.  For the first hour or so, it stays focused on defining Game Theory, and how economists and social policy architects alike derived grand plans for improving society based on the belief that people’s inherent selfishness could become a driving force for increased innovation, freedom and prosperity for all.  In the second hour or so, its ambitions grow larger, opening into questions about the what defines individual freedom, how the indulgence of personal desire becomes a trap in itself, and the paradox of how institutions that tried to promote ideas of freedom ended up trapping people in systems that created even bigger disparities in wealth and social mobility than has been seen since World War II.  This film was made a full year before the economic meltdown that has put us where we are now, and today it looks downright prophetic.

Watch The Trap on Google Video – Part 1 embedded below:

But by the time the film enters hour three, its steady project of dismantling the authority of a misguided ideology, as with The Power of Nightmares, leaves us with a vacuum. After giving a provocative account of post-invasion Iraq as the ultimate folly of establishing free market society, positing Liberation Theory with its values of revolutionary sacrifice as a sort of antithesis to the individualist underpinnings of Game Theory, and putting in a final warning against overzealous attempts to impose and promote freedom around the world, he leaves us with a hopelessly vague exhortation to embrace “positive, progressive freedom” without delving significantly into what such a kind of freedom is.

I think my key limitation with Curtis is summed up by a quote from an interview near the very end of The Power of Nightmares: “A society that believes in nothing is particularly frightened by a society that believes in anything.” Swap the first “society” with “filmmaker” and you get an idea of what Curtis’ films seem ultimately to be about, and why I feel somewhat empty at the end of watching these films despite having my eyes opened and my brain troubled by so many fascinating provocations about the misguided agendas that have shaped our world. Curtis’ films argue viciously against both ideologues who stand too much for narrow ideals and demagogues who stand for nothing, but the middle ground (which Curtis presumably occupies) remains frustratingly undefined. Maybe the point is to leave the audience with the necessary challenge of defining that middle ground for itself, rather than have the film presume to provide a convenient answer.

If that’s the case, I consider The Century of the Self, the most satisfying of the three Curtis efforts of this decade. It is revelatory, exhaustive and cohesive in its four-hour argument for how psychological practices were co-opted by big businesses and governments as a way for them to target and exploit people’s desires. But more than just fulfill its stated thesis, the film is more successful than Curtis’ other films at engaging with the more philosophical questions that emerge from his social critique, in this case, nothing less than what the meaning of having a fulfilling life is about, and what sort of relationship we are to have with our impulses and desires. It doesn’t engage that question directly, but its persistent critique of the many attempts of 20th century schools of psychology and self-help, from Freud to Wilhelm Reich to Werner Erhard, attest to the frustrations and follies that arise in human beings’ repeated attempts to liberate or govern themselves, asserting value systems that invariably expose their own limitations. In other words, it’s like watching the BBC documentary version of a Luis Bunuel film.  Indeed, watching The Century of the Self, and Curtis’ other monumentally ambitious works of this decade, I’m convinced that he is the Luis Bunuel of our time.

Watch The Century of the Self on Google Video – Part 1 embedded below:

This comparison may fit not just in terms of their worldview, but in Curtis’  awesome compilation of archival and original footage to create a brilliant montage that seems to take up multiple perspectives towards the image – sometimes it supports the point being made, sometimes it offers a snarky counterpoint, and sometimes it just seems to offer a stupefying depiction of humanity beyond description. Like video footage taken from a corporate market research video that illustrates different types of consumers: the interview subject labeled “societally conscious” is a bookstore owner so deep into the stereotype that he that we can’t tell if he’s an actor or not. It’s those fluorishes of bizarreness that give Curtis an edge beyond the ostensible polemic of his projects, because they illustrate the persistent weirdness of humanity to defy its attempts to define itself.

So we have Jia’s Useless, an exceptional observational documentary with intriguing elements of fiction, and the films of Adam Curtis, a master social documentary essayist. These are but two of the many forms of documentary that have thrived in this past decade.  The following are those that I consider the best of the decade that I’ve seen:

Capturing the Friedmans
The Century of the Self
The Gleaners and I
Grizzly Man
My Architect
Los Angeles Plays Itself
S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine
Useless
When the Levees Broke: A Tragedy in Four Acts
Where Does Your Hidden Smile Lie?

I’m sure there are many titles I have yet to catch up with – I still haven’t finished watching Wang Bing’s lauded magnum opus West of the Tracks. But please submit your favorite documentaries of this decade in the comments. I’ll be revisiting a select few over the course of the year, and fully expect at least one or two titles to make my list for best films of the decade.

Author: alsolikelife

This is my pet project

  • http://vinylisheavy.blogspot.com Ryland Walker Knight

    I much prefer _White Diamond_ to _Grizzly Man_.

    Also, would you throw something like _Vanda's Room_ into this discussion?

  • http://vinylisheavy.blogspot.com Ryland Walker Knight

    Another crazy thought: both _Jackass_ movies are bizarre, fascinating and hilarious.

  • Jonathan Woollen

    You hit the nail on the head with The Century of the Self and the feelings and thoughts it evokes. I just wish it didn't also feature so much over-the-top music with shots of cityscapes when talking about some of the “bad guys”.

  • alsolikelife

    I haven't seen In Vanda's Room – you have a copy?

    I suppose I should check out White Diamond and Encounters at the End of the World – haven't seen either.

    I am most definitely watching Jackass again as part of a focus period on the best comedies of the decade – but your calling it a documentary is fascinating and smart. I was planning to write about it for the next Reverse Shot symposium, but I haven't heard anything lately from those guys…

  • Eric

    Co-sign on LOS ANGELES PLAYS ITSELF, and agree with Ryland that the JACKASS movies (especially the second one) merit consideration.

    Also:
    THE LIFE OF REILLY
    THE JOY OF LIFE
    THE CASE OF THE GRINNING CAT
    LA COMMUNE (PARIS, 1871)
    DOMESTIC VIOLENCE
    CINEVARDAPHOTO

    I have those Curtis films on DVD-R but haven't yet committed to watching them.

  • http://filmlinc.com/blog Amanda McCormick

    Ooh, I love this topic. I'm voting for Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room and Darwin's Nightmare for pure documentary terror.

  • http://krelllabs.blogspot.com Christianne

    You know I love The Gleaners and I. Love, love, love. I also really liked last year's Trouble the Water. (As an aside, last year was a weird one for me, because I saw three of the documentary Oscar nominees in the theater and only one of the Best Picture nominees. Go figure). I also really liked The Endurance: Shackleton's Legendary Antarctic Expedition and The Heart of the Game. But I don't know that I could pick a “best of the decade” list. Yours is probably as good as any.

  • http://vinylisheavy.blogspot.com Ryland Walker Knight

    Varda, derrrrrrrrrrrrrr

  • http://vinylisheavy.blogspot.com Ryland Walker Knight

    I think we can find a copy. Maybe we can watch it together. Maybe with some other people, too. I feel like I need to see it with people whenever I watch it. That is, people I care for… And, to be honest, I have not seen it since I saw it that first time about a year ago.

    And, to echo what Eric typed below: I think the second _Jackass_ may, in fact, be the better of the two. I remember it being more, uh, “cohesive.” Also, I saw it first, and its shock defo made it more outrageous…

  • alsolikelife

    So are we watching movies together or not? After the postponement of Speed Racer I wasn't sure how much time you have.

    I'm probably diving into Mulholland/Inland in the next week or two…

    Jackass 2 is interesting because it's obvious that they're trying to one-up the previous film, and it's causing no small measure of anxiety in them to perform up to standard, to the point that they're negotiating stunts in order to beg off the really hard ones. (like when one guy volunteers to drink horse semen so that he gets a free pass on the next stunt)

  • vadim

    I nominate WORKINGMAN'S DEATH as most aesthetically overwhelming, AILEEN: LIFE AND DEATH OF A SERIAL KILLER as the most picaresque, DIG! as the most music doc ever, and SOUND AND FURY as the most purely enraging.

  • vadim

    *best music doc. Obv.

  • http://www.twitter.com/nobordersfilm NoBorders

    Heartily agree with Travis Wilkerson's AN INJURY TO ONE. Watch it over and over every time I see it on Sundance. Also strongly second MY ARCHITECT and S21. And don't forget THE PEOPLE OF ANGKOR. [I'm dying to see Rithy's feature with Isabelle Huppert.]

    I think ZOO is one of the most remarkable docs I've seen in a long time. Any film that can make me empathize with such controversial subjects. And very beautifully shot and edited. THE BRIDGE is in a similar vein. Also strongly recommended, Jenni Olson's THE JOY OF LIFE.

    Other films I've liked a lot: Jan Krawitz's BIG ENOUGH. For personal docs, I really like GUNNAR GOES COMFORTABLE and Nina Davenport's PARALLEL LINES. Two music docs I've liked a lot are JANDEK ON CORWOOD and WILD COMBINATION.

    A few others: MONSTER ROAD about animator Bruce Bickford, THE SWENKAS about working class men and their weekend rituals in South Africa, MADEMOISELLE AND THE DOCTOR about euthanasia in Australia.

    What about James Benning's 13 LAKES? And this list may be stacked with features, but can I make a pitch for a remarkable short film SEEDS by Wojciech Kasperski? I don't think I've seen another film (short or feature) that has stopped me as cold as the first time I saw this film.

  • Dashanzi

    I have been reading about USELESS for some time, but I have no idea where to see it. Has it been released on DVD? If so, I appreciate you directing me to the appropriate site.

  • Hannah

    Top of my head – the Curtis films, your analysis is valid, but I'll still remember scenes more vividly from The Power of Nightmares than Century of the Self, and it also gave us context at a time when it was lacking, so its role at that moment of time should be considered. The Gleaners and I is one of my favorites as well.

    Some others, but I don't know if they'd make the top 10: Darwin's Nightmare is a must, absolutely. My Winnipeg definitely if it counts. Manufactured Landscapes. I thought Radiant City was great. Rivers and Tides? Beyond the Call was underrated. Dig!, Grizzly Man, Iraq in Fragments.

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  • http://vinylisheavy.blogspot.com Ryland Walker Knight

    Hey, I want to. I don't know how you consume so much and turn it around into words so quick. Plus, you have a job! (I guess trying to get a job is a full time job in itself.)

    Hmn… let's defo talk Lynch.

    They aren't dumb, those guys. They just do “dumb” stuff.

  • HarryTuttle

    If you go that way, Borat deserves the mention of transgressive “documentary” before Jackass IMHO. 😉

  • alsolikelife

    Amazing. Over 50 unique titles recommended both here and on my Facebook page. Only five with more than one mention: DARWIN'S NIGHTMARE, DIG!, AN INJURY TO ONE, MANUFACTURED LANDSCAPES and WHITE DIAMOND. I'll try to check those out (I've only seen MANUFACTURED LANSCAPES – personally I think USELESS blows it away), and others as they come to me. From my initial list, lots of love for THE GLEANERS AND I – one might speculate that the film set the tone for much good personal documentary to come over the decade.

    Thanks Everyone.

  • http://celinejulie.blogspot.com Celinejulie

    These are my favorite documentaries of this decade, though I don’t think they really belong to the “ten best of the decade” list. I just love them for some personal reasons. I think they may belong to the “100 best documentaries of the decade” list. :-)

    1.MODERN LIFE (2008, Raymond Depardon, France)
    2.THE HALFMOON FILES (2007, Phillip Scheffner, Germany)
    3.1/3 OF THE EYES (2004, Olivier Zabat, France)
    4.FINAL SOLUTION (2004, Rakesh Sharma, India)
    5.A WEDDING IN RAMALLAH (2002, Sherine Salama, Palestine)
    6.ALEXEI AND THE SPRING (2002, Motohashi Seiichi, Belarus)
    7.SOMETHING MORE THAN NIGHT (2003, Daniel Eisenberg, USA)
    8.UN ABOLITIONNISTE (2001, Joel Calmettes, France)
    9.TREES (2002, Sophie Bruneau + Marc-Antoine Roudil, France)
    10.DUTCH LIGHT (2003, Peter-Rim de Kroon, Netherlands)
    11.THE PAINTBALL PROJECT (2007, Wafaa Bilal, USA)
    http://www.youtube.com/user/mewafaa
    12.OUR TIMES (2002, Rakhshan Bani Etemad, Iran)
    13.TARNATION (2003, Jonathan Caouette, USA)

  • dogandpony

    Dying to see Useless.

    I think a film like Manufactured Landscapes gets bouyed by its subject. It's a dicey proposition making a creative work about another creative force. Are you doomed if your subject is a greater artist than you are?

    No one likes Fog of War? Not sure it excels at imparting information but it sure is entertaining to hear a brilliant and historic figure (like him or not) speak at length.

    Workingman's death was moving. I still think of the Ukraine segment on a regular basis.

    I think White Diamond is an interesting example of how Herzog can still pull a film out when the original premise/subject ends up going nowhere.

    I nominate the commentary track from Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang. Almost two hours of Val Kilmer and Robert Downey Jr. riffing off of each other (including a running Klosterman nose thumbing) could be the funniest thing I've heard (seen?) in the last few years.

    b.t.w.- no analysis of Jackass would be complete without viewing the originals: videos produced by Big Brother Magazine (purchased by Larry Flynt). The only one I've seen is Boob. Same guys, mostly. Same concepts. Very funny (if you like that sort of thing).

  • http://celinejulie.blogspot.com Celinejulie

    These are my favorite documentaries of this decade. I just think they are wonderful. :-)

    1.MODERN LIFE (2008, Raymond Depardon, France)
    2.THE HALFMOON FILES (2007, Phillip Scheffner, Germany)
    3.1/3 OF THE EYES (2004, Olivier Zabat, France)
    4.FINAL SOLUTION (2004, Rakesh Sharma, India)
    5.A WEDDING IN RAMALLAH (2002, Sherine Salama, Palestine)
    6.ALEXEI AND THE SPRING (2002, Motohashi Seiichi, Belarus)
    7.SOMETHING MORE THAN NIGHT (2003, Daniel Eisenberg, USA)
    8.UN ABOLITIONNISTE (2001, Joel Calmettes, France)
    9.TREES (2002, Sophie Bruneau + Marc-Antoine Roudil, France)
    10.DUTCH LIGHT (2003, Pieter-Rim de Kroon, Netherlands)

  • Celinejulie

    These are my favorite documentaries of this decade. I just think they are wonderful. :-)

    1.MODERN LIFE (2008, Raymond Depardon, France)
    2.THE HALFMOON FILES (2007, Phillip Scheffner, Germany)
    3.1/3 OF THE EYES (2004, Olivier Zabat, France)
    4.FINAL SOLUTION (2004, Rakesh Sharma, India)
    5.A WEDDING IN RAMALLAH (2002, Sherine Salama, Palestine)
    6.ALEXEI AND THE SPRING (2002, Motohashi Seiichi, Belarus)
    7.SOMETHING MORE THAN NIGHT (2003, Daniel Eisenberg, USA)
    8.UN ABOLITIONNISTE (2001, Joel Calmettes, France)
    9.TREES (2002, Sophie Bruneau + Marc-Antoine Roudil, France)
    10.DUTCH LIGHT (2003, Pieter-Rim de Kroon, Netherlands)

  • alsolikelife

    I haven't heard of any of these. Thank you!

  • http://vinylisheavy.blogspot.com Ryland Walker Knight

    BAMcinematek will be showing the Depardon in April…

  • HarryTuttle

    I second the exceptional Depardon documentary, which is actually a trilogy on traditional family farming in French mountainous countryside, a job dying out slowly. 3 films made 3 years apart each on the same old farmers.

    1 Profil paysans : l'approche (2001)
    2 Profil paysans : le quotidien (2005)
    3 La vie moderne (2008)

    I also loved Arbres/Trees ! It's a bit “National Geographic” but the narration is very interesting.

    From those I saw on Kevin's list, I definitely back up : S21; Grizzly Man; Where does your hidden smile lies?; Gleaners and I (there is a sequel too).

    I would add Our Daily Bread (2005/Gerhatler/Austria), De l'autre côté / From the other side (2002/Akerman/France/Belgium); Elegy of a Voyage (2001/Sokurov/Russia); Estamira (2004/Prado/Brazil); In Public (2001/Jia Zhang-ke/China); Into Great Silence (2006/Gröning/Germany); Les Hommes (2006/Ariane Michel/France) these are all major documentaries with a very powerful and creative approach to documentary.

  • Alsolikelife

    Of course it has to play the night I fly to Berlin. Let me know how it is.

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  • http://freedocumentaries.net/ Free Documentaries Online

    thanks for the great post:)

  • ari

    please have a look at my list for favorite documentaries of the decade:

    http://www.electronicbeats.net/Lifestyle/Featur