2008 Best Documentaries

The following list, selected and compiled by Video Librarian staff, honors the best new documentaries reviewed in the magazine and online during 2008. Unless otherwise noted, titles are available from most distributors.

American Farm

(Passion River, 85 min., DVD: $24.95)

Director James Spione’s documentary tells the story of the Ames family, whose Richfield, NY farm faces a bleak future as aging patriarch Langdon “Lanny” Ames struggles to keep up with the hard work, all the while knowing that none of his three sons will take over. (VL-7/08)

Cover for "Autism: The Musical"

Autism: The Musical

(Docurama, 93 min., DVD: $26.95)

Filmmaker Tricia Regan’s remarkable film focuses on the unique challenges faced by five autistic children—enrolled in the “Miracle Project” program (founded by Elaine Hall, mother of an autistic child)—as they prepare for their stage debut in a musical comedy revue. (VL-7/08)

Cover for "Bigger, Stronger, Faster"

Bigger, Stronger, Faster*

(Magnolia, 106 min., DVD: $26.98)

Former Gold’s Gym staffer and bodybuilder Chris Bell’s complex and entertaining documentary goes far beyond its ostensible subject of steroid use among U.S. athletes to raise serious questions about the nature of American competitiveness in a stylish film that combines archival footage and interviews with medical experts, activists, politicians, and sports figures. (VL-9/08)

Cover for "Billy the Kid"

Billy the Kid

(Zeitgeist, 85 min., DVD: $29.99 [$139 w/PPR, www.zeitgeistfilms.com)

Diagnosed with Asperger syndrome after filming was completed, 15-year-old Maine teen Billy Price walks a lonely path in first-time filmmaker Jennifer Venditti’s compassionate profile, which follows Billy at home, at school, and struggling with a new crush on a local girl, all the while being supported by his patient and loving mother Penny. (VL-11/08)

Cover for "The Business of Being Born"

The Business of Being Born

(New Line, 84 min., DVD: $27.98)

Abby Epstein’s documentary follows both her own pregnancy and actress/former talk show host Ricki Lake’s, while also including commentary from other expectant mothers and fathers, midwives, OB/GYNs, as it explores the topic of birthing—specifically the alarming rise in the number of cesarean births—in the U.S. (VL-7/08)

Cover for "Coma"


(HBO, 102 min., DVD: $19.98)

Oscar-nominated filmmaker Liz Garbus’ emotionally powerful HBO-aired documentary follows four brain trauma patients, their loved ones, and medical staff at the JFK Medical Center in Edison, NJ, over the course of a trying year. (VL Online-5/08)

Cover for "The Devil Came on Horseback"

The Devil Came on Horseback

(Docurama, 85 min., DVD: $26.95)

Directed by Annie Sundberg and Ricki Stern, this disturbing documentary details the horrors of the genocide in Darfur as seen through the eyes and camera lens of former Marine captain Brian Steidle, whose enormous catalog of shockingly graphic photographs are combined with heartbreaking eyewitness reports. (VL-1/08)

Cover for "Garbage Warrior"

Garbage Warrior

(Morningstar Entertainment, 84 min., DVD: $24.98)

Oliver Hodge’s fascinating documentary tells the story of maverick architect Michael Reynolds, who specializes in building self-sustaining houses using recycled materials such as tires, aluminum cans, and plastic bottles. (VL-9/08)

Cover for "In the Shadow of the Moon"

In the Shadow of the Moon

(Image/THINKFilm, 110 min., DVD: $19.99)

Directed by David Sington, this engaging documentary revisits the 1960s Apollo space program—the embodiment of JFK’s dream of putting a man on the moon—interweaving still-wondrous archival NASA footage with candid and charmingly funny reminiscences from the astronauts. (VL-5/08)

Cover for "King Corn"

King Corn

(Docurama, 90 min., DVD: $26.95 [DVD or VHS: $295 w/PPR from Bullfrog Films, www.bullfrogfilms.com])

Aaron Woolf’s entertaining and thought-provoking documentary traces some of America’s health woes to corn (as in calorie-laden high fructose corn syrup), documenting an 11-month project undertaken by college buddies Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis to raise a single-acre crop of corn in an Iowa farming community and then follow the journey of this humble grain from harvest to sugar additive (among other uses). (VL-7/08)

Cover for "The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters"

The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters

(New Line, 90 min., DVD: $19.98)

Filmmaker Seth Gordon’s enormously fun documentary takes viewers into the insular geek world of old-style 1980s-era videogaming, focusing on a competitive battle for high score on Donkey Kong between arrogant longtime record holder Billy Mitchell and laidback science teacher challenger Steve Wiebe, as well as the ramshackle organization that promotes tournaments and tracks scores. (VL-1/08)

Cover for "Lake of Fire"

Lake of Fire

(Image/THINKFilm, 152 min., DVD: $27.98)

Director Tony Kaye’s unflinchingly graphic yet remarkably evenhanded black-and-white filmed documentary examines the decades-long battle between pro-choice and pro-life advocates in the abortion debate, including Norma McCorvey, otherwise known as the “Jane Roe” of the ground-breaking 1973 Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade, who talks about her change of heart. (VL-5/08)

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Man on Wire

(Magnolia, 94 min., DVD: $26.98)

Combining archival footage with contemporary interviews and dramatic reenactments, James Marsh’s fascinating documentary tells the amazing story of Philippe Petit, a tightrope-walker extraordinaire who—with a little help from his friends—successfully (if illegally) strolled between the World Trade Center’s twin towers in 1974. (VL-11/08)

Cover for "Manda Bala (Send a Bullet)"

Manda Bala (Send a Bullet)

(City Lights, 85 min., DVD: $26.98)

Jason Kohn’s Sundance Grand Jury Prize-winning offbeat documentary, which presents a troubling picture of a contemporary Brazil where crime and corruption are both routine and oddly surreal, features interviews with kidnappers, their victims (who often lose an ear during the ransom process), and one very prosperous plastic surgeon. (VL-5/08)

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Monster Camp

(Lifesize, 80 min., DVD: $24.98)

Seattle chapter LARPers (live-action role-players) are the subject of filmmaker Cullen Hoback’s entertaining documentary, which profiles a wide range of gamers who dress up in pseudo-medieval garb and beat the hit points out of one another with foam swords. (VL-11/08)

Cover for "My Kid Could Paint That"

My Kid Could Paint That

(Sony, 83 min., DVD: $19.95)

Amir Bar-Lev’s riveting documentary combines family footage, interviews, and television clips to chart the story of four-year-old Marla Olmstead—daughter of an amateur artist father—who becomes a media sensation after she singlehandedly produced abstract paintings so distinctive they caught the eye of a gallery owner. Or did she? (VL-3/08)

Cover for "Please Vote for Me"

Please Vote for Me

(First Run, 58 min., DVD: $24.95 [$295 w/PPR from The Cinema Guild, www.cinemaguild.com])

Weijun Chen’s wonderful documentary features pint-sized candidates vying for a third-grade class monitor position at an elementary school in Wuhan, China, employing tried and true democratic campaign strategies such as insults and bribes (with help from interfering parents). (VL-11/08)

Cover for "Protagonist"


(Alive Mind, 90 min. DVD: $26.98; $129 w/PPR: public libraries, $249 w/PPR: colleges & universities, www.alivemindeducation.com)

Drawing on psychological observations found in the plays of Euripides to illustrate the universality of human experience, Jessica Yu’s fascinating documentary interweaves the dramatic stories of four contemporary men who struggled with issues ranging from childhood abuse to a propensity towards violence. (VL-9/08)

Cover for "Quantum Hoops"

Quantum Hoops

(Green Forest Films, 85 min., DVD: $24.95 [$225 w/PPR, www.quantumhoops.com])

Narrated by actor David Duchovny, Rick Greenwald’s engaging underdog sports documentary follows the 2006-07 season of the California Institute of Technology’s Caltech Beavers basketball team (all of the members have nearly perfect SAT math scores), who haven’t won a game in 21 years. (VL Online-9/08)

Cover for "So Much So Fast"

So Much So Fast

(Passion River, 87 min., DVD: $29.95)

Broadcast on PBS’s Frontline series, Academy Award-nominated filmmakers Jeanne Jordan and Steven Ascher’s heartbreaking portrait follows Stephen Heywood—diagnosed at the age of 29 with ALS (or Lou Gehrig’s disease)—who starts a family and continues his architectural work even as his health deteriorates, while his brother Jamie launches a multimillion dollar research foundation committed to finding a cure. (VL-11/08)

Cover for "Surfwise"


(Magnolia, 93 min., DVD: $26.98)

Doug Pray’s remarkable documentary focuses on colorful, salty-tongued octogenarian patriarch Dorian “Doc” Paskowitz, a medical practitioner who chucked the professional life to become a surfer, eventually siring nine home-schooled children while traveling the world in an increasingly crowded 24-foot camper. (VL-9/08)

Cover for "Taxi to the Dark Side"

Taxi to the Dark Side

(Image/THINKFilm, 106 min., DVD: $27.98)

Alex Gibney’s Oscar-winning documentary about U.S. government-sanctioned abuse during interrogations conducted in the War on Terror draws viewers in with its tragic story of Dilawar, an innocent Afghan taxi driver who was taken into custody in 2002 by American forces and shortly thereafter died in military custody. (VL-9/08)

Cover for "Triviatown"


(Media Targeting Associates, 85 min., DVD: $19.95 [$89.95 w/PPR, www.media-targeting.com])

Filmmakers Patrick Cady and Brit McAdams’ entertaining documentary focuses on the small town of Stevens Point, WI, where madness erupts over one long weekend each April (for the last 35 years), when as many as 450 teams compete in a round-the-clock marathon trivia contest. (VL-7/08)

Cover for "The Undertaking"

The Undertaking

(PBS, 60 min., DVD: $24.99 [$54.95 w/PPR, www.pbs.org])

Karen O’Connor and Miri Navasky’s PBS-aired Frontline documentary offers a powerful behind-the-scenes look at Lynch & Sons, a multigenerational family funeral home in a small Michigan town run by undertaker and poet Thomas Lynch, author of the National Book Award finalist The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade. (VL-5/08)

Cover for "Young @ Heart"

Young @ Heart

(Fox, 108 min., DVD: $27.98)

Stephen Walker’s charming, poignant, and uplifting documentary profiles a group of Massachusetts seniors (average age: 80) who sing rock songs by Jimi Hendrix, the Ramones, and Coldplay in front of appreciative live audiences. (VL-9/08)

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