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Documentaries of the 2000s

Movies, Year-End | By The Top 13 on February 9, 2010

Though we're now a little more than a month into the new decade, here at The Top 13, we're still pondering the best of the decade that just ended. Today, we take a look at the best of one of our favorite genres of film - documentaries. This list includes a number of Academy Award winning films, as well as a few quirkier offerings. Either way, each of the 13 documentaries on this list provide a compelling look at a fascinating - and in many cases - obscure topic.

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The Fog of War

1

The Fog of War

2003

A somber and captivating portrait of former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara, Errol Morris tells McNamara's story through a series of interviews with his 85-year-old subject about the military's failures in Vietnam and other aspects of his life, including his tenure as president of Ford Motor Corp. The Fog of War, which won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Film, slickly incorporates archival footage of the war and a tense Philip Glass score.

Man on Wire

2

Man on Wire

2008

Another winner of the Academy Award for Best Documentary Film, Man on Wire is the stunning story of Philippe Petit's remarkable (and illegal) 1974 tight-rope walk between the towers of the World Trade Center in New York. The documentary, which is based on Petit's own book about the stunt, is compellingly paced like a heist film and incorporates recent interviews with the participants, reenactments and still photos of the walk, and footage of Petit's preparations for the walk.

Capturing the Friedmans

3

Capturing the Friedmans

2003

When director Andrew Jarecki first interviewed David Friedman, he was planning to make a documentary about children's birthday party entertainers. But when he learned that several members of Friedman's family had been convicted of child sex abuse, he found himself a new topic for his debut film. The result is a poignant and disturbing story of family dysfunction. By the end, you'll have a hard time deciding whether you think the Friedmans are guilty or not.

Born into Brothels: Calcutta's Red Light Kids

4

Born into Brothels: Calcutta's Red Light Kids

2004

Like Jarecki's experience with Capturing the Friedmans, this is an example of an artist undertaking one project but having the process result in something totally unintended. Zana Briski went to Calcutta to take photos of prostitutes. But after befriending the children of those prostitutes and offering to teach them photography, the resulting work came in the form of an intensely moving and beautiful Academy Award winning documentary by Briski and Ross Kaufman about those children and her work with them.

Super Size Me

5

Super Size Me

2004

Funny and informative, Super Size Me was the one of the first documentaries of the decade to break through commercially. Directed by and starring Morgan Spurlock in his film debut, this documentary follows Spurlock over a 30-day period in which he only eats food from fast food giant McDonald's in order to shine a light on America’s dramatic increase in obesity. The diet takes a clear toll on Spurlock - he gains nearly 25 pounds – but he manages to keep his sense of humor throughout.

Grizzly Man

6

Grizzly Man

2005

This film from acclaimed German director Werner Herzog (Rescue Dawn) tells the troubling story of the life and death of bear enthusiast Timothy Treadwell, who left behind more than 85 hours of video footage he shot in Alaska showing his interaction with grizzlies. Herzog uses that footage, plus interviews with people who knew Treadwell and wildlife experts, to recount the final years of Treadwell's life in this poignant, yet disturbing and unforgettable documentary.

Murderball

7

Murderball

2005

This documentary about paraplegics who play wheelchair rugby is so much more than just a good sports documentary. It is a powerful, life-affirming, and unforgettable film that spends far more time delving deeply into the psyche of the paralyzed protagonists than it does depicting the rugged games (even though the film ostensibly is about the rivalry between the American and Canadian teams). And that is a good thing; the protagonists of Murderball are inspiring and their stories prove worth telling.

Spellbound

8

Spellbound

2002

Logorrhea. Though we admit to having to look it up to know what it means (if you're wondering, it's defined as "excessive and often incoherent talkativeness or wordiness"), logorrhea is the word Nupur Lala spelled correctly to win the 1999 Scripps National Spelling Bee, which is the focus of this funny, yet inspiring documentary. Lala was one of eight competitors Jeffrey Blitz followed for this debut film, which received a well-deserved Academy Award nomination (though it lost to the more hyped, but not as good Bowling for Columbine).

Stone Reader

9

Stone Reader

2002

Stone Reader is a low-key, yet eminently interesting mystery film. The fact that it's a documentary makes it all the more amazing. We follow filmmaker Mark Moskowoitz in real-time as he tries to track down Dow Mossman - a practically unknown author who published the novel The Stones of Summer in 1972 to modest critical acclaim, only to vanish completely from the literary scene, never to publish another book. Moskowitz's quest was not only successful in providing an in-depth look at what led a talented author to never pen another work of consequence, but also in getting Mossman's novel republished after being out-of-print for over 30 years.

An Inconvenient Truth

10

An Inconvenient Truth

2006

This film proved many things, none more shocking than that a documentary about environmental science, narrated by Al Gore, could be hit movie. An Inconvenient Truth had good timing in looking for an interested audience - it was released the year after the Hurricane Katrina disaster forced people to take a serious look at the potentially catastrophic effects of climate change. This film is the fifth-highest grossing documentary of all time, took home Oscars for both Best Documentary Feature and Best Original Song, and played a major part in helping Al Gore and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change win the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize.

March of the Penguins

11

March of the Penguins

2005

Nature documentaries are typically fodder for the Discovery Channel and IMAX theaters at museums, not international box office blockbusters. The fact that March of the Penguins broke away from its subgenre's typically modest successes to become the second-highest grossing documentary of all time (behind Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11) is a testament to the fascinating life of emperor penguins and its breathtaking Antarctic cinematography. This film, which won the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature, is interesting in that the original French-language version is markedly different from other translations; it is narrated from the perspective of the penguins themselves and features experimental electronic music. English-language audiences instead got Morgan Freeman and a classical score.

Who the #$&% Is Jackson Pollock?

12

Who the #$&% Is Jackson Pollock?

2006

This straightforward documentary tells the story of a 73-year-old former truck driver's attempt to prove that her $5 thrift shop purchase was actually a long-lost Jackson Pollock painting worth tens of millions. And award-winning director Harry Moses does an admirable job depicting her dogged efforts. Watching the uneducated protagonist go up against the art world's elite is simply fascinating and often funny. We couldn't find the trailer for this fantastic documentary, but below you can see its protagonist being interviewed briefly by Anderson Cooper.

The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters

13

The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters

2007

The King of Kong is an absolutely fascinating look at the subculture of competitive gamers who spend their days striving to set records for high scores on antiquated arcade games. It tells the story of Steve Wiebe, a newcomer to the gaming scene, who sets the world record in Donkey Kong, only to have the game's governing body refuse to acknowledge his score. His bid for recognition is as funny as it is endearing.

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Comments Leave a comment

tloveisready ★★

2, 7, and 13 are my favorites, but there are a few that I haven't seen yet on this list so I'll have to seek them out soon. Two that I think deserve to be on this list are Lake of Fire and Dear Zachary. I found them both to be quite powerful, and Dear Zachary delivered the biggest emotional shock that I've ever experienced watchin any film.

8:16 AM   Feb 09, 2010

holmessss 

Excellent list, who knew this decade had produced so many excellent documentaries? Fog of War and Man on Wire are outstanding movies, on any level. A couple of omissions I would have included: The Bridge (2006), a documentary on people who committed suicide off the Golden Gate Bridge. It provoked some controversy when it was released, as the filmaker had placed cameras all around the bridge and actually recorded (and shows in the film) some suicides occur. This is far from snuff, however, and the movie is tastefully shot and really haunting, following the stories of a few of the individuals who died and the impact on their families. Also, This Film is Not Yet Rated (2006), great expose on the MPAA Ratings Board and the bizarre standards by which they rate movies. Entertaining and enlightening.

8:36 AM   Feb 09, 2010

bdouble 

OMG Not even close. The only 1 I agree with is 13. All the rest shouldn't b listed. Here are the real top 13. Not in order. Bowling for Colembine, The Arbor, Gasland, Exit through the gift shop, Inside job, Terrorstorm, The Tillman Story, Lifting the Veil, The people vs. George Lucas, Life in a Day, If a Tree falls, The Weather Underground, Sicko. I could go on but it's a Top 13 n I'll play by the rules.

12:41 PM   Jan 02, 2012

bdouble 

I mean Spellbound and Who the Freak is Jackson Pollack? Should be on a top 13 worst documentries. Horrible.

12:46 PM   Jan 02, 2012

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