2006 Best Documentaries

The following list, selected and compiled by Video Librarian staff, honors the best new documentaries reviewed in the magazine and online during 2006. Unless otherwise noted, titles are available from most distributors.

Cover for "49 Up"

49 Up

(First Run Features, 134 min., DVD: $29.95, [$298 w/PPR from First Run/Icarus Films, www.frif.com])

Arguably the most fascinating project in the history of documentary film, this seventh installment of Michael Apted’s remarkable series finds the director returning to his original subjects, whom he has interviewed every seven years since 1964 when they were seven years old. (VL Online-11/06)

Cover for "Ballets Russes"

Ballets Russes

(Zeitgeist Films, 118 min., DVD: $29.99, [$195 w/PPR from Zeitgeist Films, www.zeitgeistfilms.com])

Filmmakers Dayna Goldfine and Dan Geller make brilliant use of archival footage to tell the story of the evolution of early-to-mid-20th-century dance in this acclaimed documentary that focuses on acclaimed rival companies Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo and the original Ballet Russe. (VL-3/06)

Cover for "Beethoven’s Hair"

Beethoven’s Hair

(Bullfrog Films [www.bullfrogfilms.com], 84 min., DVD: $295)

Larry Weinstein’s fascinating documentary, based on the book of the same name by Russell Martin, traces the peregrinations of a lock of Beethoven’s hair over the centuries (strands of which were eventually subjected to DNA analysis), through interviews, historical reenactments, and clips from feature films—ultimately offering insights into the great composer’s death. (VL-9/06)

Cover for "Beyond the Gates of Splendor"

Beyond the Gates of Splendor

(Fox Home Entertainment, 96 min., DVD: $14.98)

Home movies, photos, and eyewitness accounts are combined in writer-director Jim Hanon’s extraordinary documentary exploring misunderstandings that led to the 1956 spear-killing of five American missionaries by the Waodani Indians of the Amazon basin of Ecuador…and an amazing act of forgiveness by the surviving widows and children. (VL Online-2/06)

Cover for "Country Boys"

Country Boys

(PBS Video, 2 discs, 335 min., DVD: $34.99 [$64.95 w/PPR])

Filmmaker David Sutherland, who made the superb 1998 documentary The Farmer’s Wife (VL-5/99), returns with an epic three-year-long portrait of two “country boys” who attend an alternative high school in the rural Appalachian town of David, KY. (VL-9/06)

Cover for "The Devil and Daniel Johnston"

The Devil and Daniel Johnston

(Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, 110 min., DVD: $24.98)

Director Jeff Feuerzeig’s documentary combines archival footage, audio tapes, and contemporary interviews to chart the fractured career of Daniel Johnston, a troubled soul celebrated by many for his talents as a singer-songwriter, who descended into mental illness. (VL-9/06)

Cover for "Emmanuel’s Gift"

Emmanuel’s Gift

(First Look Home Entertainment, 80 min., DVD: $26.98)

Narrated by Oprah Winfrey, directors Lisa Lax and Nancy Stern’s documentary tells the story of Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboah of Ghana—born with a withered leg (a mark of shame in his culture)—who received a prosthetic limb from a charitable organization dedicated to helping the disabled in sports, and biked across Ghana to help change the nation’s perceptions of the handicapped. (VL-3/06)

Cover for "The Future of Food"

The Future of Food

(Cinema Libre [www.cinemalibrestudio.com], 2 discs, 88 min., DVD: $19.95)

Backed by a wealth of research, Deborah Koons Garcia’s eye-opening documentary features in-depth interviews with scientists, consumer activists, farmers, and attorneys, who issue an alarming wakeup call about the reckless advances of multinational corporations that are creating genetically modified food. (VL-1/06)

Cover for "Grizzly Man"

Grizzly Man

(Lionsgate Entertainment, 103 min., DVD: $14.98)

Cannes-winning filmmaker Werner Herzog’s remarkable film explores the life of Timothy Treadwell, who lived part of each year in the Alaskan wilderness communing with grizzly bears, until he was mauled to death (along with his girlfriend) by one of his beloved animals. (VL-1/06)

Cover for "The Hobart Shakespeareans"

The Hobart Shakespeareans

(Docurama, 90 min., DVD: $26.95)

Mel Stuart’s award-winning documentary profiles dedicated inner-city fifth grade teacher Rafe Esquith, whose students at Hobart Boulevard Elementary school live amidst street violence and domestic turmoil—and are famous for their Shakespearean acting (attracting guests such as Michael York and Ian McKellen). (VL-5/06)

Cover for "An Inconvenient Truth"

An Inconvenient Truth

(Paramount Home Entertainment, 96 min., DVD: $29.99)

A filmed record of a lecture on global warming that former VP Al Gore has delivered around the world, Davis Guggenheim’s dense but surprisingly sprightly documentary is complemented by a panoply of visuals—charts, graphs, cartoons—that help drive Gore’s alarming message home. (VL-11/06)

Cover for "A Life Without Pain"

A Life Without Pain

(Frozen Feet Films [www.frozenfeetfilms.com], 73 min., DVD: $34.99: individuals; $104.99: public libraries & high schools; $204.99: colleges & universities)

Melody Gilbert’s affecting documentary profiles three young girls who suffer from a rare neurological condition that leaves them incapable of feeling pain—a circumstance that might seem a blessing, but proves to be a terrible obstacle to a normal life. (VL-7/06)

Cover for "Our Brand Is Crisis"

Our Brand Is Crisis

(Koch Lorber Films, 87 min., DVD: $29.98)

Nominated for an Independent Spirit Award, Rachel Boynton’s excellent documentary about unwarranted and ultimately disastrous American hubris follows political strategist James Carville and his band of spin doctors as they travel to Bolivia to “help” reelect former president Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada. (VL-9/06)

Cover for "Racing Against the Clock"

Racing Against the Clock

(Uncommon Productions [www.racingagainsttheclock.com], 80 min., DVD: $20)

Bill Haney’s documentary opens with an inspiring look at senior athletes in action—including a 101-year-old man—before focusing on five amazing women, serious contenders who train for the Senior National Championships in Norfolk, VA in their quest to ultimately compete in the World Championships in Puerto Rico. (VL Online-2/06)

Cover for "The Self-Made Man"

The Self-Made Man

(Bernal Beach Films [www.bernalbeach.com], 57 min., DVD: individuals: $29.95; institutions: $250 [w/PPR])

Originally aired on PBS’s P.O.V. series, filmmaker Susan Stern’s insightful and sometimes darkly humorous documentary tells the story of her father Bob, a successful entrepreneur diagnosed with prostate cancer at the age of 77, who chooses to take his own life. (VL-1/06)

Cover for "Sir! No Sir!"

Sir! No Sir!

(Docurama, 84 min., DVD: $26.95 [$295 w/PPR from Bullfrog Films, www.bullfrogfilms.com])

Blending archival footage and stills, personal 8mm movie clips, and contemporary interviews, David Zeiger’s critically acclaimed, award-winning documentary tells the story of some daring American GI’s protesting the Vietnam War, and their impact on policy. (VL-11/06)

Cover for "A State of Mind"

A State of Mind

(Kino on Video, 94 min., DVD: $29.95)

Filmmaker Daniel Gordon limns an intriguing portrait of life in North Korea under Kim Il Jong’s repressive regime, focusing on a pair of young female gymnasts determined to distinguish themselves at the 2003 Mass Games. (VL-3/06)

Cover for "Stephen Tobolowsky’s Birthday Party"

Stephen Tobolowsky’s Birthday Party

(Monster [www.stbpmovie.com], 87 min., DVD: $24.98)

Character actor Stephen Tobolowsky tells outrageously entertaining stories to the camera and to his birthday party guests—including actresses Mena Suvari and Amy Adams—in Robert Brinkmann’s often uproarious documentary. (VL Online-7/06)

Cover for "Street Fight"

Street Fight

(Genius Products, 82 min., DVD: $24.95 [$295 w/PPR from Bullfrog Films, www.bullfrogfilms.com])

Marshall Curry’s eye-opening Oscar-nominated documentary follows the last 120 days in the 2002 election race for mayor of Newark, NJ—a political slugfest that pitted 32-year-old Cory Booker, an idealistic Rhodes Scholar and Yale Law School graduate, against four-time incumbent Sharpe James. (VL-5/06)

Cover for "Three of Hearts: A Postmodern Family"

Three of Hearts: A Postmodern Family

(ThinkFilm, 95 min., DVD: $29.99)

Filmed over an eight-year period, director Susan Kaplan’s documentary captures the story of a nontraditional family consisting of bisexuals Sam and Steven and their live-in straight partner, Samantha, who each struggle with serious issues when the trio decide to conceive a child. (VL-5/06)

Cover for "Twist of Faith"

Twist of Faith

(HBO Video, 87 min., DVD: $24.98)

Kirby Dick’s Oscar-nominated 2004 documentary about sexual abuse by Catholic priests focuses on two men in Toledo, OH: psychologically-tortured fireman Tony Comes, married with a young daughter, and priest Dennis Gray who molested him 20 years earlier…and moves in to a house just down the street from Comes and his family. (VL-5/06)

Cover for "When the Levees Broke"

When the Levees Broke

(HBO Video, 3 discs, 256 min., DVD: $29.98)

Filmmaker Spike Lee delivers a scathing indictment of the botched governmental response in the aftermath of 2005’s Hurricane Katrina, a Category 5 storm that wreaked havoc in the Gulf states, and nearly blew New Orleans off the face of the earth. (VL Online-12/06)

Cover for "Why We Fight"

Why We Fight

(Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, 98 min., DVD: $24.98)

Using as a motif President Eisenhower’s famous 1961 warning about the dangers of “the military-industrial complex,” Eugene Jarecki’s film convincingly argues that corporate greed has largely controlled governmental decision-making—especially military operations—in America’s post-World War II foreign policy. (VL-7/06)

Cover for "Wordplay"


(IFC, 94 min., DVD: $24.95)

Patrick Creadon’s engaging film about America’s obsession with crossword puzzles—in particular those published in the New York Times—focuses on Will Shortz, editor of the NYT puzzle and founder of the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament. (VL-11/06)

Cover for "Yellow Brick Road"

Yellow Brick Road

(Emerging Pictures [www.emergingpictures.com], 75 min., DVD: $24.95)

A group of mentally and physically handicapped performers struggle to put on a stage production of The Wizard of Oz in Matthew Makar and Keith Rondinelli’s inspirational and often warmly funny documentary. (VL-11/06)

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