Best Documentaries of 2008

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Best Documentaries of '08

by Erin Donovan

FLOW: For Love of Water - Irena Salina's directorial debut examines the privatization and potential crisis of a worldwide water crisis with a brilliant amount of breadth and depth. Most surprisingly of all, this is one of the most inspiring and hopeful documentaries of the year.

Up the Yangtze - Equal parts heart-wrenching coming of age tale and geopolitical expose, Yung Chang's directorial debut follows two teenagers working on the Farewell Cruiseship lines giving westerners tours of the rural villages that would soon be (and now have been) engulfed by the Three Gorges Dam project. [Jeffrey Anderson's review >>]

Faubourg Treme: The Untold Story of Black New Orleans - What started out as a modest tribute to one of New Orleans' most historical neighborhoods took on a far greater poignancy when halfway through filming Hurricane Katrina decimated large swaths of the city. One of the greatest moments in documentary film this year was the generational divide captured here when local historian Lolis Eric Elie, dressed in 1800's period garb, walks the streets giving lectures to polite but suspicious schoolchildren about their local history.

Standard Operating Procedure - Between Iraq doc fatigue and yet another dull controversy about documentary ethics, Abu Ghraib getting the Errol Morris treatment went largely unnoticed this year. But that's to the detriment of the people who missed it. Morris' use of highly stylized reinactments can be off-putting to some but he's also one of the most effective interviewers ever to work in documentary film and truly broke an otherwise untold story of cadet scapegoating with this film.

Taxi to the Dark Side - Director Alex Gibney managed to make one of the best (Taxi) and one of the worst (Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson) documentaries this year. Taxi follows the story of an Afghani taxi driver who was apprehended by US officials and turned up beaten to death. Like last year's equally compelling No End in Sight, it's the film's (winner of the Best Documentary Oscar in 2007 but only widely released this year) access to high level officials that prevent it from dipping into agit-prop territory.

Encounters at the End of the World - After the massive success of March of the Penguins, Werner Herzog was offered piles of money to go to Antarctica and make a film. But please don't expect a heart-warming box office juggernaut from the man who opened his 2005 film Grizzly Man with, "I believe the common denominator of the universe is not harmony, but chaos, hostility and murder." Part allegory for an aging artist, part quirky character study, Herzog seems like the perfect film-maker to put a face on an uninhabitable, unclaimed continent.


Dust - Hartmut Bitomsky's lyrical tribute to one of the most mundane substances on Earth melds poetry and science, the playful and the dowdy, the cosmic and the domestic. Like Thomas Riedelsheimer's 2003 portrait of artist Andy Goldsworthy Rivers and Tides, this film needs to be seen to be believed.

Surfwise - Director Doug Pray (Scratch, The Big Rig) follows the Paskowitz family (a total of 11 people) who lived in a 24-foot camper throughout the 60s and 70s practicing a severe regimine of clean living and surfing. With a wealth of archival footage and the full cooperation of every family member this film is deeply personal without ever feeling exploitive, even while discussing some fairly aberrant behavior.

Girls Rock! - Co-directors Arne Johnson and Shane King got the idea to make a light-hearted documentary about a summer camp that teaches young girls how to play rock'n'roll music because they were such big fans of some of the instructors (Sleater-Kinney's Carrie Brownstein and the Gossip's Beth Ditto). But about a third of the way through the story becomes a thoughtful treatisse on the commercialization of young girlhood and glimpse into some very dysfunctional family dynamics.

Waltz with Bashir - Ari Folman's debut documentary mixes several styles of animation to flesh out his and fellow soldiers' memory loss from their time fighting in the 1982 Lebanon conflict. This film may become a game changer for how audiences think about documentary story-telling.

Best Docs Without Distribution: Forbidden Lie$, English Surgeon, Anvil! The Story of Anvil, Guest of Cindy Sherman, Ice People, Profit Motive and the Whispering Wind, Be Like Others, In A Dream.

Honorable Mentions: The Unforeseen, Hollywood Chinese, Wings of Defeat, Man on Wire, Stranded: I've Come from a Plane That Crashed on the Mountains, Calavera Highway, Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father, Rape of Europa.

Didn't see yet: My Winnipeg, Joy Division, Terror's Advocate, A Man Named Pearl, Trouble the Water, The Order of Myths.


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Since posting this Anvil and English Surgeon have been picked up by American distributors. People, get ready for some heavy metal and skull sawing.

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