For those of us who think that film is important, there is no better case in point than documentaries. Last year two films stood out in the pack of acclaimed docs in their importance. Burma VJ, about journalists smuggling footage of the 2007 uprisings in a corrupt Burma military state, and Oscar-winner The Cove, about the annual dolphin slaughters in a small Japanese coastal town. But if you’ve seen either of these docs you know they don’t just serve to document important events, they are also examples of riveting filmmaking.
2010 was another good year for documentaries. While everyone raved about The Social Network, the so-called “other Facebook movie” was forgotten, but Catfish was unmatched by other docs for suspense. Other docs tackled such diverse topics as marriage equality, graffiti, and flammable tap water. After the jump, see how 4 docs rank by filmic standards and in importance.
Never has a movie ever felt more like the perfect public service announcement for mental health. Almost everything about this screams Blair Witch Web 2.0, but Catfish is apparently all authentic (as they say, you can’t make this shit up) – and it’s certainly all fucked. What starts out as just a little weird, turns into the deeply creepy as Nev Schulman and his filmmaker friends investigate his Facebook girlfriend. Most of the doc’s effectiveness, including some surprisingly poetic moments, can be attributed to sheer luck rather than real filmmaking skill, but Catfish ends up being an undeniably engaging meditation on the effects of a networked world. Film: 3.5/5 Importance: 2/5
8: THE MORMON PROPOSITION
An occasionally powerful exposé on the tragic consequences of the blurring of church and state, 8: The Mormon Proposition tackles the marriage equality debate in California and the damaging effects of a rigid religion on humanity. There’s no denying the importance of this one, but it too often adopts the poison of its enemy as its own weapon. Fighting propaganda with propaganda isn’t always its best approach, even if the subject matter is often shatteringly important. Film: 3/5 Importance: 5/5
EXIT THROUGH THE GIFT SHOP
Billed as “the world’s first street-art disaster movie”, this engaging documentary, directed by elusive street artist Banksy, tracks the peculiar life of obsessive amateur filmmaker-turned street artist Thierry Guetta. Exit Through the Gift Shop is that rare character study that succeeds in becoming the kind of social commentary it features. The “what is art?” question has never been tackled so effectively. As the bastardization and commodification of art is exposed in Banksy’s documentary, you might feel duped in thinking you knew what it was. Film: 4/5 Importance: 2.5/5
Josh Fox’s love song to nature is important alright, but it’s also not much more than a dull drum roll. Aside from the final 10 minutes’ glimpse at a tense congress, there is little payoff in GasLand. The documentary treads water for the majority of its running time, and while instances of flammable kitchen faucets are disturbing, GasLand mostly plays like the lame cousin of Erin Brockovitch, lacking all the push. As a statement on the corporate greed of fuel industries, it has its moments, but one can’t fight the feeling it might play better as a victim impact statement in a courtroom. Film: 2/5 Importance: 5/5
The bravery and ambition of docs like The Cove and Burma VJ are only emphasized after watching a film like GasLand. While props should be awarded to Fox for documenting the insanity anyway, by filmic standards it’s not so special.
For documentaries made to get a message out, the Oscar ceremonies are the ultimate moment of truth. Last year, The Cove was victorious and that likely boded well for the filmmakers’ efforts in putting a stop to dolphin slaughters. Burma VJ, a much more important film in terms of humanity, came out empty-handed. Oscar voters were likely swayed by the exciting thriller structure of The Cove, which raises the question: on what grounds should documentaries be judged at the Oscars? Since these filmmakers will likely never see a stage as big as the Kodak Theatre’s, maybe the importance of the documentaries’ messages should weigh more heavily in the voting process.