2005 Best Documentaries

The following list, selected and compiled by Video Librarian staff, honors the best new documentaries reviewed in the magazine and online during 2005. Unless otherwise noted, titles are available from most distributors.

Cover for "Big Enough"
Big Enough

(Fanlight Productions [www.fanlight.com], 53 min., VHS: $229, DVD: $249)

Filmmaker Jan Krawitz revisits several dwarves–profiled in her 1981 film Little People–who are now typical American middle-class adults raising families in this warm, funny, stereotype-busting documentary. (VL-11/05)

Cover for "Deadline"

(Home Vision Entertainment, 90 min., DVD: $29.95)

After students in a journalism class prove that three prisoners sentenced to die were wrongfully convicted, outgoing Illinois governor George H. Ryan weighs the decision to commute the sentences of the state’s 167 death row inmates in this powerful look at capital punishment from filmmakers Katy Chevigny and Kirsten Johnson. (VL-1/05)

Cover for "February One"
February One

(California Newsreel [www.newsreel.org], 61 min., VHS or DVD: $49.95: public libraries & high schools; $195: colleges & universities)

Dr. Steven Channing and Rebecca Cerese’s film chronicles the courageous story of four black college freshmen who reinvigorated and galvanized the Civil Rights movement by sitting at a whites-only Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, NC on February 1, 1960. (VL-3/05)

Cover for "Fred Rogers: America's Favorite Neighbor"
Fred Rogers: America's Favorite Neighbor

(Triumph Marketing, 2 videocassettes or 1 disc, 100 min., VHS or DVD: $19.95)

Hosted by Michael Keaton, filmmaker Rick Sebak’s film offers a moving and inspirational profile of the late Fred Rogers—who for 30 years invited young viewers into his unique TV neighborhood, and ceaselessly advocated for meaningful children’s programming. (VL-1/05)

Cover for "Ghosts of Rwanda"
Ghosts of Rwanda

(PBS Video, 120 min., VHS or DVD: $29.98 [$59.95 w/PPR])

Greg Barker’s excellent PBS-aired Frontline documentary asks how could 800,000 people be slaughtered in the 1994 Rwandan genocide without anyone raising a hand to halt the murderous rampage? (VL-7/05)

Cover for "Home of the Brave"
Home of the Brave

(Home Vision Entertainment, 74 min., DVD: $29.95)

Paola di Florio’s compassionate film pays tribute to Viola Liuzzo—a 39-year-old white mother and Civil Rights activist fatally shot in 1965 on a lonely Alabama highway following the historic voter registration march in Selma—and examines how her family has struggled to embrace her legacy. (VL Online-10/05)

Cover for "March of the Penguins"
March of the Penguins

(Warner Home Video, 80 min., DVD: $28.99)

Narrated by Morgan Freeman, filmmaker Luc Jacquet’s visually enthralling box-office hit captures the extraordinary migration, mating ritual, and survival skills of Antarctica’s emperor penguins. (VL-11/05)

Cover for "Murderball"

(ThinkFilm, 86 min., DVD: $29.99)

Co-directors Henry Alex Rubin and Dana Adam Shapiro’s brash and funny film follows Team USA’s quadriplegic indoor rugby players (a wild bunch of guys who battle in souped-up wheelchairs) as they fight their way to the finals of the 2004 Paralympic Games in Athens. (VL Online-11/05)

Cover for "My Flesh and Blood"
My Flesh and Blood

(Docurama, 83 min., DVD: $29.95)

Jonathan Karsh’s deeply moving film focuses on Susan Tom, a single mother of two in Fairfield, California, who adopted 11 children with severe physical disabilities and emotional problems, all abandoned by their birth parents, and created an extraordinary family. (VL-1/05)

Cover for "No Direction Home"
No Direction Home

(Paramount Home Entertainment, 2 discs, 207 min., DVD: $29.99)

Martin Scorsese’s biographical profile follows the life and career of folk rock king Bob Dylan up to his motorcycle accident in 1966, capturing the charisma and the chameleon-like genius of this true American icon. (VL Online-11/05)

Cover for "Prisoner of Paradise"
Prisoner of Paradise

(PBS Video, 100 min., VHS or DVD: $24.99 [$54.95 w/PPR])

Malcolm Clarke and Stuart Sender’s chilling 2003 Oscar-nominated film follows the tragically ironic life of German-Jewish screen star and director Kurt Gerron, whose decision to ignore the growing Nazi threat ultimately led to his imprisonment in the Theresienstadt concentration camp, where he we was forced to make a propaganda film depicting a fictitiously idyllic life for the Jews held there. (VL Online-9/05)

Cover for "Punk: Attitude"
Punk: Attitude

(Capital Entertainment, 2 discs, 88 min., DVD: $39.98)

Don Letts’ excellent film not only covers nearly all of the leading lights of punk (Iggy Pop and the Stooges, the New York Dolls, the Ramones, the Sex Pistols, the Clash, the Buzzcocks, and the Dead Kennedys)—and features credits-to-credits examples of the music—but also beautifully captures the zeitgeist of nonconformity in all its pierced and tattooed glory. (VL-11/05)

Cover for "Ryan"

(Rhino Home Video, 14 min., DVD: $19.95 [$99 w/PPR from National Film Board of Canada, www.nfb.ca])

Chris Landreth’s Oscar-winning “animated documentary” biographical portrait takes a poignant look at early 1970s National Film Board of Canada filmmaker Ryan Larkin’s rise and fall–from creative artist to alcoholic panhandler. (VL-9/05)

Cover for "Sister Helen"
Sister Helen

(Docurama, 88 min., DVD: $29.95)

Filmmakers Rob Fruchtman and Rebecca Cammisa’s profile of the earthy, occasionally foul-mouthed Irish-American Sister Helen Travis focuses on the South Bronx group home she runs for men recovering from drug and alcohol addiction, who subject themselves to the caring but strict nun’s particular brand of tough love. (VL-3/05)

Cover for "The Staircase"
The Staircase

(Docurama, 2 discs, 344 min., DVD: $39.95)

Filmmaker Jean-Xavier de Lestrade’s compelling nonfiction miniseries chronicles the investigation and trial of Michael Peterson–a Durham, NC writer who was arrested for the 2001 murder of his wife Kathleen—serving up an extraordinary truth-is-stranger-than-fiction story full of remarkable twists. (VL Online-9/05)

Cover for "Sunset Story"
Sunset Story

(Capital Entertainment, 73 min., DVD: $24.98)

Filmmaker Laura Gabbert delivers an honest and unflinching portrait of life’s endgame at Sunset Hall–a Los Angeles-based rest home that caters to retired political progressives and elderly artistic types–focusing on the moving, odd couple relationship between two fascinating women residents, 81-year-old Irja and 95-year-old Lucille. (VL-7/05)

Cover for "The Take"
The Take

(First Run Features, 87 min., DVD: $29.95, avail. Feb. 21 [VHS: $440 w/PPR from First Run/Icarus Films, www.frif.com])

Avi Lewis and Naomi Klein’s compelling personal look at a group of unemployed Argentinean auto-parts workers determined to keep their livelihoods, who reopen their recently-closed factory, raises serious questions about the one-size-fits-all exported capitalism at the heart of globalization. (VL-5/05)

Cover for "Tarnation"

(Wellspring Media, 89 min., DVD: $29.98)

Filmmaker Jonathan Caouette’s autobiographical collage of creatively edited home movie footage is a powerful cinematic cry of anguish that focuses on his
relationship with his mentally-ill mother and his struggle to acknowledge and embrace his homosexuality. (VL-5/05)

Cover for "This Divided State"
This Divided State

(The Disinformation Company, 88 min., DVD: $19.95)

Presenting a vivid microcosm of polarized American politics, Steven Greenstreet’s film details the virulent, community-dividing anger and passion that arose in Utah when controversial muckraker Michael Moore was invited to speak at a local college. (VL-11/05)

Cover for "A Touch of Greatness"
A Touch of Greatness

(First Run Features, 54 min., DVD: $29.95, [$248 w/PPR from First Run/Icarus Films, www.frif.com])

“Students are turned on by greatness and bored by mediocrity,” says Albert Cullum, an unorthodox teacher who is the subject of director Leslie Sullivan’s loving,
engaging, and inspiring portrait, which ultimately serves as a powerful plea for educational reform. (VL-7/05)

Cover for "Unforgivable Blackness"
Unforgivable Blackness

(PBS Video, 2 videocassettes or discs, 214 min., VHS or DVD: $24.99 [$54.95 w/PPR])

Ken Burns’ film chronicles the life and times of controversial early 20th-century African-American heavyweight boxing champion Jack Johnson–whose flamboyant lifestyle (and attraction to fast cars and white women) galvanized the witch-hunt fervor that ultimately put him behind bars–while also presenting a no-holds-barred exposé of American hypocrisy. (VL Online-2/05)

Cover for "Venus of Mars"
Venus of Mars

(Emily Goldberg [www.venusofmars.com], 105 min., DVD: $25: individuals, $300: institutions [w/PPR])

Emily Goldberg’s film is an introspective, entertaining, all-access documentary about the everyday life of a transgendered punk rocker named Venus—a lead vocalist for a Minneapolis glam-fetish band, dressed in vinyl corsets, leather thigh-highs, and nothing but pasties over his/her hormone-enhanced breasts—who is celebrating 20 years of marriage to his English-professor wife Lynette. (VL-5/05)

Cover for "West 47th Street"
West 47th Street

(Lichtenstein Creative Media [www.lcmedia.com], 83 min., VHS or DVD: $89)

Bill Lichtenstein and June Peoples’ day-to-day look at New York’s Fountain House (a 50-year-old center for helping the homeless and mentally ill) follows four inhabitants over three years–a schizophrenic Rastafarian, an immigrant woman (and brilliant cook) battling voices in her head, a gender-conflicted political activist, and a 60-ish fellow struggling to be on his own—vividly capturing their trials and triumphs. (VL-7/05)

Cover for "The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill"
The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill

(Docurama, 83 min., DVD: $29.95)

Judy Irving’s sweet-natured film follows the work of San Francisco Bay area resident Mark Bittner, an affable free spirit who discovered a life purpose in the care and feeding of a flock of 45 non-indigenous tropical parrots. (VL-11/05)

Cover for "Word Wars"
Word Wars

(Anchor Bay Entertainment, 81 min., DVD: $19.98)

Eric Chaikin and Julian Petrillo’s quirky film follows four adult players in competition for the North American Scrabble Championship: three-time champion Joe Edley, aspiring standup comic Matt Graham, the pot-smoking dreadlocked Marlon Hill, and G.I. Joel Sherman (the “G.I.” is a reference to Joel’s gastrointestinal problems)–a decidedly eccentric group of wordsmiths going head-to-head for the triple letter scores. (VL-5/05)

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