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Member Lists

GreenCine's Official 50 Best Documentaries List!
List creator: GreenCineStaff
Created on: November 15, 2005 - 4:37 PM PST
Description: Each of these inspiring documentaries will take you to a world you've never been or tell you a story you've never heard, and deserve a place in the archives. One prerequisite: the films had to be currently available on DVD.

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South: Shackleton & the Endurance (1919)
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  Photographer Frank Hurley probably didn't know what he was getting into when he asked to join Ernest Shackleton's planned expedition to cross Antarctica. One of the miracles of the near-tragic story of the Endurance: that Hurley was able to save film he shot during the trek. Gripping history.
Nanook of the North (Criterion Collection) (1922)
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Not Rated
  From South to north: Robert Flaherty's milestone 1922 documentary was given a deserved restoration on a Criterion DVD. Not only a fair-minded, humanitarian ethnographic study of an Inuit family, but surprisingly entertaining.
Man With a Movie Camera (1929)
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Not Rated
  One look at this Dziga Vertov masterpiece today will reveal a multitude of then-groundbreaking conventions still in use by today's filmmakers -- montage, juxtaposition, handheld camera, even mockumentary; uncategorizable, funny, playful, and invigorating. Ostensibly about post-revolutionary Soviet life, it's as much about film as it is about history.
Night and Fog (Criterion Collection) (1955)
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Not Rated
  "I am not interested in memory, but in interpreting reality." So said Alain Resnais, about his reflective yet captivating, and absolutely harrowing, documentary on the Holocaust. Night and Fog was one of the first on that horrific subject, and remains so to this day. Only thirty minutes long, but unforgettable.
Jazz on a Summer's Day (1959)
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  The first full-blown concert movie was by Bert Stern, better known for his portrait photographs of personalities like Marilyn Monroe. Watching this will make you wish he had done more films. A priceless collection of jazz talent was involved, from Louis Armstrong and Thelonious Monk to Dinah Washington and Mahalia Jackson. A treasure.
Tokyo Olympiad (Criterion Collection) (1965)
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Not Rated
  Acclaimed Japanese director Kon Ichikawa's record of the 1964 Olympics is a real one-of-a-kind, not the standard summary of sports that a more traditional filmmaker might have produced. Funny, bold, atmospheric, watching it is a great experience
Bob Dylan: Don't Look Back (1967)
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  Dylan, the focus of this influential doc, may not want to look back at this often unflattering portrait, but you will. D.A. Pennebaker was one of the first to use the now oft-imitated cinema verite style, but this is insightful and engaging look at the young troubadour in action.
Salesman (Criterion Collection) (1969)
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Not Rated
  Still timely, tragicomic 1969 film follows the travails of a group of door-to-door salesmen (none of whom are named Willy Loman). The fact that Criterion released the DVD version of the Maysles brothers film should tell you something about this film's significance and relevance.
Woodstock: Three Days of Peace & Music (The Director's Cut) (1970)
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  Much more than just footage of a bunch of hippies dancing around stoned; it's one of the most important music documentaries ever made. Michael Wadleigh perfectly captured the zeitgeist of the sixties, getting the rich atmosphere behind the scenes away from the music (much of which is still incredible). By the way, one of his editors was a guy named
Gimme Shelter (Criterion Collection) (1970)
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  Albert and David Maysles captured not just a concert (the Rolling Stones), but the end of an era (the Sixties) in an unforgettable portrait of a concert gone horribly wrong, when the word "Altamont" entered the American lexicon.
The Sorrow and the Pity (Disc 1 of 2) (1971)
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Not Rated
  Marcel Ophuls' story of the Nazi occupation of France masterfully weaves together (often contradictory) interviews with newsreel footage and Nazi propaganda films into a shattering but cohesive whole. An "important" film that happens to deserve its acclaim, at four hours long it's remarkably rarely boring.
Hearts and Minds (Criterion Collection) (1974)
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  Peter Davis' groundbreaking and unflinching investigation of the disastrous Vietnam War won a well-deserved Oscar back in 1974 -- when the issue was still foremost on all Americans' minds. Still packs a wallop today. The director's commentary on the DVD is a fascinating bonus.
Grey Gardens (Criterion Collection) (1976)
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Not Rated
  Of all human-interest docs, this is "among the first and best," wrote Mark Kitchell in hisdocs primer. "A portrait of eccentric aristocrats - Jackie Kennedy's aging aunt and cousin - going to seed in a crumbling mansion."
Best Boy (1979)
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  Craig Phillips prefaced his interview with director Ira Wohl: Best Boy "is both heartbreaking and uplifting... has become one of the most important films ever made about the mentally disabled." Oscar winner remains an infectious tale of a family overcoming obstacles.
Burden of Dreams (Criterion Collection) (1982)
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  As compelling as the film it chronicles (Fitzcarraldo), Les Blank chronicles that film's troubled production and the passionate director Werner Herzog's near-descent into madness. Funny, scary and profound.
The Times of Harvey Milk (Criterion) (1983)
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  Expertly crafted doc on Milk, a martyr for the gay rights movement, California's first openly gay public official, who, tragically, was gunned down along with San Francisco mayor George Moscone. Extremely compelling story told with care and affection; fascinates throughout.
Stop Making Sense (1984)
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Not Rated
  Jonathan Demme just didn't film Talking Heads live; he helped design the performance specifically for film. One of the most perfect, energetic concert film ever, it builds from a quiet note (David Byrne solo performing "Psycho Killer") to a crescendo, as a huge group of musicians assembles on stage to rock out. Guaranteed to get you moving and grooving.
Shoah (Criterion) (Disc 1 of 6) (1985)
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  Long, yes, but amazing. Roger Ebert wrote: " A memory of the most debased chapter in human history. But I had also seen a film that affirmed life so passionately that I did not know where to turn with my confused feelings...It is an enormous fact, a 550-minute howl of pain and anger in the face of genocide. It is one of the noblest films ever made."
Sherman's March (1986)
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  Or, McElwee's March, though the filmmaker does set out to follow Civil War general's path to the sea - along the way, meditating on his romantic failures, "finding the extraordinary in the ordinary." That he eventually arrives at a destination is part of the miracle of unique film.
The Thin Blue Line (1988)
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Not Rated
  Talk about a film that sets the record straight. Errol Morris' groundbreaking film successfully proved that a Texas man had been wrongly imprisoned for murder. Phillip Glass' hypnotic score and Morris use of stylized reconstructions adds to what is a surprisingly poignant and funny crime story.
Roger & Me (1989)
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  As controversial (for its techniques) as any of muckraker Michael Moore's subsequent docs, but the truth at the heart of this story comes through. Also happens to be a damned entertaining, rabblerousing look at corporate callousness.
Common Threads: Stories From the Quilt (1989)
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  Moving Oscar winner, narrated by Dustin Hoffman, weaves together personal memories and television news stories to expose the U.S. government?s failure to respond to the AIDS epidemic.
Berkeley in the Sixties (1990)
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Not Rated
  Mark Kitchell's comprehensive but entertaining survey of the student protest movement of the 50s and 60s centers on Berkeley but has far-reaching relevance. Required viewing in many college history classes and for good reason - fair-minded and insightful, never feels like a lecture.
The Civil War - Collector's Set (Disc 1 of 5) (1990)
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Not Rated
  Ken Burns made history when his 9-part series about the War Between the States became the most successful program in PBS history, and got people talking about a documentary. Even if Burns' style has since been much imitated and parodied, this happened to be a brilliantly produced chronicle of a seminal time in history. Essential viewing.
Paris Is Burning (1991)
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  As TimeOut wrote, this is "the original fly-on-the-wall vogueing spectactular." A "giddy celebration of the [drag queen] subculture," adds PlanetOut. In a word: fabulous.
Incident at Oglala: The Leonard Peltier Story (1992)
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  Apted's eye-opening documentary tells the enervating story of Leonard Peltier, a Sioux Indian political leader who may have been made a fall guy in the 1975 killing of two FBI agents at Pine Ridge South Dakota. A vitally important document of what may very well be a terrible case of injustice; will make you feel even more suspicious of the US Gov't.
Lessons of Darkness (1992)
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Not Rated
  Werner Herzog went to Kuwait in the aftermath of the Gulf War to film this striking and uniquely constructed documentary. The end result is essentially a depiction of Hell on Earth, a surreal, smoking nightmare of a place. As the guide through all this, Herzog acts appropriately awestruck, and so do we.
The War Room (Criterion) (1992)
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  Very entertaining look at the Clinton presidential campaign and the men behind the curtain. Would make a good double-bill with Pennebaker's much earlier Primary.
The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl (1993)
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Not Rated
  Was the controversial, indisputably brilliant filmmaker an ally of the Third Reich, or "just following orders"? The film's a bit overlong (but then, she's lived a long time) but captivates as both a portrait of an amazing woman and great film artist - no matter what you think of her politics - and as a record of ideological debate.
Hoop Dreams (Criterion Collection) (1994)
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  "Amazing documentary," exclaimed Marc Savlov in the Austin Chronicle of this epic film about two inner city high school basketball players in Chicago. "More of an extended, rousing sociology lesson than anything else, it's also the single most remarkable documentary to come down the pike in a long while. And I'm not even a basektball fan."
Crumb (Criterion) (1994)
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  Anyone who thinks their family is messed up might feel better after watching this portrait of controversial comic book artist Robert Crumb and his dysfunctional clan. Terry Zwigoff's extremely haunting and memorable film is also a darkly funny entry into the inner workings of an artist's demented mind.
When We Were Kings (1996)
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  No mere sports film, this, but a remarkable experience. It captures the time leading up to the "Rumble in the Jungle," the 1974 boxing bout between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman in Zaire - the backdrop for which is as exciting as the fight itself. You don't have to be a boxing fan to be fascinated by this movie.
Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills (1996)
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  Murder charges filed against three Arkansas teenagers accused of participating in Satanic rituals were fairly questionable. Stellar doc is unusual in the access the filmmakers had to all sides of the case, here depicted as a sad example of rushing to judgement. Vivid and disturbing. [Sequel.]
Waco: The Rules of Engagement (1997)
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  Grim but fascinating account of the 51-day standoff between the FBI and David Koresh's Branch Davidian sect in 1993. Decidedly not the account we got on the news that year. Unsettling, but essential, viewing.
The Up Series: 42 Up (1998)
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Not Rated
  Michael Apted's milestone, (life)long-running series is on Ebert's "Great Movies" list, too. We slightly prefer the previous incarnation, 35 Up, but for newcomers this is a fine place to start. Comparing their childhood optimism with the often harsh realities of adulthood is particularly poignant.
Buena Vista Social Club (1998)
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  Wim Wenders' infectious and surprisingly emotionally involving doc about a group of aging Cuban musicians who are brought together by American musician Ry Cooder to record a CD. More than a performance film, you'll get to know these woefully underappreciated talents, learn about Latin jazz, hear some astonishingly good music. Looks and sounds beautiful.
American Movie (1999)
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  Indie doc about extremely indie Wisconsin filmmaker Mark Borchardt, who is obsessed with making a great splatter, er, horror flick. Frequently hilarious, especially whenever his drug-fried companion Mike is on screen, the story becomes a bit sadder as it progresses. You will admire Borchardt's tenacity even while wondering about his sanity (or talent).
Genghis Blues (1999)
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  A truly remarkable, emotionally engaging film about unheralded, blind blues musician Paul Peņa's journey (real as well as spiritual) from San Francisco to the distant land of Tuva, to compete in a throat-singing competition. Only the coldest of hearts won't shed any tears while watching this amazing documentary by Roko and Adrian Belic.
My Best Fiend (1999)
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Not Rated
  "I was not excellent! I was not extraordinary! I was monumental! I was epochal!" So says Klaus Kinski in Werner Herzog's documentary/cinematic memoir recounting his tempestuous, codependent, love/hate working relationship with the eccentric (some would say crazy) actor. They made five memorable films together; this doc makes for a fitting final salute.
One Day in September (1999)
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  A worthy Oscar winner, this exciting film recounts the story of the 1972 Munich Olympics terrorist attacks which killed 11 Israelis. An inventively assembled piece, using bold editing strokes, computer graphics, multiple perspectives and a nifty rock music score, as well as the dramatic story itself adds up to an outstanding documentary.
Dark Days (2000)
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Not Rated
  Marc Singer's amazing documentary follows a community of homeless people living underneath New York City. The director lived underground for two years to get to know them, and it's a remarkable achievement. Poignant and ultimately redemptive story of forgotten folks.
The Gleaners and I (2000)
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Not Rated
  Veteran French filmmaker Agnes Varda shows youthful exuberance with a DV camera, and seems to identify with her subjects -- people on the fringe in France who "glean" things from the earth or from garbage. A shrewd, sympathetic and intimate portrayal of the marginalized.
Sound & Fury (2000)
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Not Rated
  Wrenching documentary about a Long Island family on two sides of the fence in the debate over cochlear hearing implants. Does what every documentary should -- make you empathetic for both sides while educating about a little known issue. Powerful, dramatic stuff. Don't miss this one.
Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport (2000)
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  It seems odd to call a doc about the Holocaust "hopeful," but this addresses an aspect of that hideous chapter in history to show the extent some people will go to do the right thing. Interviews a handful of the 10,000 European Jews who were children on the eve of WWII, and almost certainly would have perished had the U.K. not intervened.
Murder on a Sunday Morning (2001)
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Not Rated
  Worthy Osar winner, this investigation into a Florida murder case would make a good double-feature with Thin Blue Line, with a similar amount of shoddy detective work on display. Absolutely riveting film was made by French filmmakers.
Promises (2001)
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Not Rated
  A heartfelt, and often heartbreaking, look at children of the Middle East, separated by walls and religious differences. There are some contrivances here, but it's hard not to be moved by it, especially when some of the children get together near the end for sport, food, play - and political dialogue.
Rivers and Tides: Andy Goldsworthy Working With Time (2001)
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Not Rated
  Thomas Riedelshiemer's sleeper hit practically saved San Francisco's broke Roxie Theater all by itself. The German-made documentary beautifully chronicles the work of quirky and wonderful Scottish landscape artist Andy Goldsworthy. Hypnotic and affectionate.
My Flesh and Blood (2002)
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Not Rated
  Absolutely inspiring and tearjerking in equal measure, this documentary about a California woman who adopted eleven children, many of whom suffer from rare, often incurable diseases, is one of the more provocative and personal looks at the challenges of raising a family.
The Fog of War (2003)
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  Who would've thought a doc consisting primarily of former Sec. of Defense Robert McNamara reminsicing, philosophizing, could be so fascinating, even moving? Further evidence of Morris' mastery, and the incredible timeliness of McNamara's story, his unsurpassed knowledge of warfare.
Grizzly Man (2005)
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  "I persevere," insists Timothy Treadwell of his life among Alaskan bears in Herzog's absolutely one-of-a-kind, nonjudgemental film."I will protect these bears with my last breath," And so it went.
In the Year of the Pig (1968)
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Not Rated
  Honorable Mention. We're glad to see more of Emile de Antonio's films arriving on disc.
Gates of Heaven (1978)
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Not Rated
  Honorable Mention. Errol Morris again, in one of his more touching films. Woof!
The Day After Trinity (1980)
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  Honorable Mention. Two films about the atomic age, this one, somber and well crafted. And this one:
The Atomic Cafe (1982)
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Not Rated
  Honorable Mention. ...Entertaining and a little creepy.
Brother's Keeper (1992)
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  Honorable Mention. Read our interview with the filmmakers about the making of this film and their other fine work.
Manufacturing Consent (1993)
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  Honorable Mention. Fine intro to a fascinating man.
Silverlake Life - The View From Here (1993)
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Not Rated
  Honorable Mention. One of the best films about AIDS; simple, touching, devestating and humane.
Anne Frank Remembered (1995)
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  Honorable Mention. Tragic story, beautifully told.
The Celluloid Closet (1995)
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  Honorable Mention. Fun yet enlightening, Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman's film chronicles the history of gay and lesbian portrayals in Hollywood cinema. A ton of great clips, ranging from fascinating and funny to cringe-worthy. A little more lightweight than some other films about gay history, but a good intro to the movement's struggles.
Microcosmos (1996)
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  Honorable Mention. A bug's life, up close and personal. Amazing photography. See also a bird's life, a.k.a., Winged Migration.
4 Little Girls (1997)
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Not Rated
  Honorable Mention. Spike Lee's underrated and important film retells the tragic story of four African American girls who were murdered in the KKK Birmingham church bombing. Chilling, well-crafted documentary.
The Saltmen of Tibet (1997)
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Not Rated
  Honorable Mention. Lovely.
Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter Jr. (1999)
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  Honorable Mention. Errol Morris does it again.
The Filth and the Fury (2000)
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  Honorable Mention. God save the Sex Pistols!
Southern Comfort (2001)
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Not Rated
  Honorable Mention.
Bowling for Columbine (2002)
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  Honorable Mention. Michael Moore's important and often unforgettable 2002 documentary wasn't deemed consistent enough, and marred by a maddening ending, for us to award it top honors.
Bus 174 (2002)
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  Honorable Mention. "A remarkable and unsettling film" - London Times
Capturing the Friedmans (2002)
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Not Rated
  Honorable Mention. Brilliant, intense doc that leaves one with the sinking feeling that most everyone involved in this case was in some way a victim.
The Corporation (2003)
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Not Rated
  Honorable Mention. Perhaps a little too long and overreaching, this ambitious doc gets props for its stylized approach and for being much more pointed than didactic.
Dig! (2003)
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  Honorable Mention. One of the more fascinating music docs in recent memory.
Bright Leaves (2003)
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  We recommend all of Ross McElwee's work, each one a personal journey that parallels a larger story - but this, his most recent, his particularly winning. (You can also rent this edition.)

Related interview.

Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004)
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  Honorable Mention. Incendiary, to be sure, biased, to be sure, but it gets at a lot of truths at a time when no one else was willing to explore them.
Murderball (2005)
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  Honorable Mention. Uplifting without being at all sappy. These guys don't want your sympathy, they want to kick some ass.
The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill (2004)
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  Poignant and surprising, this isn't just for bird lovers (though the titular birds are wonderful characters) - it's a touching portrait of a destitute man's life changed...twice.
A Great Day in Harlem (1995)
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  Honorable Mention. A single photo, on a single event, on a single day in 1958 - and so many terrific stories. Wonderful, warm, touching, this film will do the spirit good.

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