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The 25 best documentaries since 2000
Business Insider8/4/2017 7:45:42 AM

Sundance Film Festival

As a species, we’re working on our seventeenth year into a new century and everything is on fire. The blurring of the lines that divide fact and fiction has grown so smeared and indecipherable as to allow climate change to still be questioned and corruption has been radically normalized to the point of borderline decriminalization.

Unavoidably, this international tendency to believe what we want as often as what’s factual has bled into moviemaking, both in regards to increasingly untenable productions in the big studios and in innumerable filmic takes on major (and minor) historical events seen in narrative films and, perhaps even more so, documentaries.

This is what makes docs like Waltz with Bashir and Tower, both of which rely heavily on animation to convey the tricks of memory that corrode and aggrandize the truth, so important. Then there’s more narrative-based tricks, such as the anxious shell game that is Banksy’s exuberant Exit Through the Gift Shop or the more existential narrative questions at the heart of Jafar Panahi’s This is Not a Film. Beyond the testing of boundaries between fact and fiction, these movies are infectiously curious about the importance and meaning of truth in movies. Outside of documentaries, one could see this concept being tossed around in the late Abbas Kiarastomi’s Certified Copy, one of the best films of this century full stop.

Nevertheless, these advances don’t discount the power of reinventing more classical stylistic choices in the documentary form. Frederick Wiseman, America’s greatest documentarian, has honed his own no-frills aesthetic over his many decades as a filmmaker and he has made the best documentary of the century thus far. Similarly, elder masters like Steve JamesClaude LanzmannWerner Herzog, and Errol Morris arrived high on my (very rough) list of the 25 best documentaries of the century thus far. Truthfully, had I not limited myself to one movie per director, Wiseman would have dominated a quarter of this list between Boxing GymNational GalleryAt BerkeleyDomestic ViolenceState Legislature, and the upcoming Ex Libris.

Perhaps a list with those titles would be a more honest collection of the most revelatory documentaries that the last decade and this one have produced. More titles from Herzog, Morris, Chinese master Wang Bing, and several others would have also likely made the final cut. In doing that, however, one might not see the staggering breadth of transformation that the genre (or is it style?) has been going under since we all survived the millennium’s imagined doomsday.

25. "Henri-Georges Clouzot's Inferno"

Henri-Georges Clouzot

A thrilling tale of cinematic obsession found amongst the wreckage of an unfinished thriller about romantic obsession. Clouzot, who perfected the art of nerve-rattling with Diabolique and The Wages of Fear, had planned to make a tense, diabolic melodrama called L’Enfer with Romy Schneider in the lead as the beautiful bride to a vacationing bourgeoisie Frenchman who grows ravenously jealous of local male attention. Directors Serge Bromberg and Ruxandra Medrea find vast, feverish undercurrents of paranoia and self-obsession in the remnants of Clouzot’s footage but, more importantly, finds even stronger and stranger visions of the dark side to imagination and creative control in the story of Clouzot’s inability to fully realize his vision. In conflating the stories, this wildly entertaining near-masterwork evokes the infectious spirit of artistic creation, for better and worse.

24. "Zero Days"

Magnolia Pictures

Consider Alex Gibney’s latest work – one of the prolific filmmaker’s very best – as an alternate history of the Iran Nuclear deal, one in which the watchful Western eyes get poked by their own sharp stick. In this metaphor, the stick is StuxNet, a computer worm manufactured by Israel and the USA in secret to keep a leash on Iran. Things did not quite turn out that way, as Iran eventually utilized the cyber-weapon to their own advantage to give us our own national security hair-mussing. At once an engrossing, detail-oriented cyner-thriller and a brilliant primer on the era of cyber warfare, Zero Days renews and reinforces the argument that Gibney is one of the most thoughtful and direct political filmmakers out there.

23. "Bright Leaves"

First Run Features

Ross McElwee is primarily known for Sherman’s March, a poignant masterwork that conflated the director’s fascination with General Sherman’s destructive campaign through the South during the Civil War with McElwee’s own chaotic, ambling romantic life. There’s a similar rousing intermingling between geography, the crimes of history, and personal reflection in 2004’s Bright Leaves, which finds the filmmaker studying his family’s connection to tobacco – his great-grandfather was the man behind Bull Durham – while also studying the poverty and desperation that followed in the wake of the cash crop’s plummet in popularity. Obviously and tragically, the insights and images that McElwee stirs up while rambling around North Carolina still resonate in the age of Trump.

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