Films of the Decade: Documentaries

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

I almost made this list a top ten. Jesus Camp, Capturing the Friedmans, Lost in La Mancha, Sicko, Of Time in the City, Overnight and In the Shadow of the Moon are all amazing documentaries worthy of praise. But these are the ones that I liked best.

Top Five Documentaries

5. Metallica: Some Kind of Monster

Who would have thought that the members of Metallica would be such giant pussies? But as this documentary shows, they act and behave like a bunch of emos, squabbling and bitching around a table as they talk to their therapist. It’s a fascinating insight into band dynamics and quite shocking, too. It’s like This is Spinal Tap come to life. By the way, the funniest moment is when the band is trying to get rid of their therapist. They try and bring him down gently but he tells them that he’s moving closer to them so that they can have more therapy. The deluded son of a bitch almost sees himself as a member of the band – you can almost see the dollar signs in his eyes as he pictures an easy gig that will go on forever.

4. Man on Wire

Part documentary, part heist movie, the tale of Philippe Petit and his walk between the Twin Towers is superbly realised. It has tension, it has laughs and it has lots of emotion – the walk itself is amazingly filmed; in the absence of any film or video, the walk is told through pictures, narration and music. And somehow the lack of video allows the act to take on an added dimension. It makes it bigger, grander and more unearthly. You have to pinch yourself that this actually happened. But it just shows how marvellous human obsession can be – how amazing people can perform the most wondrous acts. Petit wasn’t saying anything with his walk. He just did it because the buildings were there and because he wanted to do it. It’s as simple as that. But it’s also a whole lot more complicated, and Man on Wire captures that contradiction perfectly.

3. The Bridge

A film that forces us to confront the taboo subject of suicide. In The Bridge we get to see people jump from the Golden Gate Bridge to their death. The camera doesn’t pan away and the film doesn’t cut at the last second. We see everything. Therefore we get to see how quick and how violent these acts are. They’re over in a few seconds. But the film isn’t about titillation. Through interviews it forces us to get in the heads of the jumpers. These are people. These are people who think that this is the solution to their problems. And to hear what they’ve been through, you’re compelled to look and listen rather than to turn away.

2. Grizzly Man

Most people would avoid being in close proximity to bears. Not Timothy Treadwell. He decided to make friends with them and to record his encounters and thoughts. What follows makes for fascinating viewing. On the one hand you admire Treadwell for surviving so long in the wilderness but on the other you have to admit that he’s batshit crazy. He gives all the bears cuddly names and he gives them human emotions. Treadwell is obviously a damaged individual who is seeking refuge with wild animals. And for a time it works. They save him from himself (he’s an alcoholic). But eventually his luck runs out and his salvation destroys him. It’s a sad, funny, pathetic, inspiring story.

1. Touching the Void

The last place you want to break a leg is on a mountain. But this is what happens to Joe Simpson. During the descent on an Andean mountain he breaks a limb and then faces an unforgiving struggle to survive. At first his climbing partner helps him down bit by bit by belaying him (he’s basically slid down the side of the mountain on a length of rope as his partner holds on). But when Joe falls over an edge of a precipice, his friend faces a stark decision. Hold on and be pulled off the side of the mountain, or cut the rope and save himself. Rather than take two lives, he decides to cut the rope and subject Joe to almost certain death. But Joe doesn’t die. With a broken leg he falls into a crevasse. Here most people would wither and die. But Joe isn’t any ordinary person. He finds a way out and slowly begins his descent down the mountain. Touching the Void is as good as any documentary as I’ve seen. Honest, powerful and full of emotion, it’s a wrenching journey. The last few moments, as Joe describes his descent into delirium, never fail to get to me. His simple desire not to die alone and his unwavering belief that there’s no god to rescue him are what drive him to keep going. The power of the human spirit shown here is amazing.

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