2009 Best Documentaries

The following list, selected and compiled by Video Librarian staff, honors the best new documentaries reviewed in the magazine and online during 2009. Unless otherwise noted, titles are available from most distributors.

Cover for "Another Day in Paradise"

Another Day in Paradise

(PBS, 90 min., Blu-ray: $29.99 [$54.95 w/PPR, www.pbs.org])

Made with the full cooperation of the U.S. military, filmmaker Deborah Dickson’s beautifully filmed documentary offers a compelling portrait of three sailors on the U.S. Navy aircraft carrier USS Nimitz during a six-month deployment to the Persian Gulf. (VL-7/09)

Cover for "Anvil: The Story of Anvil"

Anvil: The Story of Anvil

(VH1 Films, 80 min., DVD: $24.98)

Director Sacha Gervasi’s surprisingly amusing and moving documentary explores the rise, fall, and resurgence of 1980s-era heavy metal rock band Anvil, featuring appreciative commentary by Guns N’ Roses’ Slash and Metallica’s Lars Ulrich. (VL-9/09)

Cover for "Coal Country"

Coal Country

(Evening Star Productions, 84 min., DVD: $24.95)

Filmmaker Phylis Geller’s thought-provoking documentary focuses on mountain top removal mining in Appalachia, while also examining various issues involving the economy of the region, national energy policy, and the environmental implications of coal on both the local and global levels. (VL-11/09)

Cover for "Crips and Bloods: Made in America"

Crips and Bloods: Made in America

(Docurama, 99 min., DVD: $26.95 [DVD or VHS: $295 w/PPR from Bullfrog Films, www.bullfrogfilms.com])

Director Stacy Peralta (Dogtown and Z-BoysRiding Giants) turns his attention to another Southern California subculture, chronicling the origins of and feud between the titular gangs in this powerful documentary narrated by Oscar-winner Forest Whitaker. (VL Online-7/09)

Dear Zachary

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

Kurt Kuenne’s extraordinarily poignant child custody documentary tells a personal story full of surprising twists, beginning with the murder of a young Pennsylvania doctor by his mentally unstable pregnant ex-girlfriend, who then fled to her native Canada and bore their son. (VL-3/09)

Cover for "Fatherhood Dreams"

Fatherhood Dreams

(Passion River, 55 min., DVD: $24.99 [DVD w/PPR: $75: public libraries; $150 w/PPR: colleges & universities from Interfilm Productions at www.fatherhooddreams.com])

Canadian filmmaker Julia Ivanova’s documentary looks at the unique parenting experiences of four gay men, deftly intertwining their uplifting stories while also exploring a myriad of related social and legal issues. (VL Online-6/09)

Cover for "Food, Inc."

Food, Inc.

(Magnolia, 91 min., DVD: $26.98, Blu-ray: $34.98)

Emmy Award-winning director Robert Kenner’s disturbing documentary focuses on the industrialization of North American food production/delivery, offering a compelling and alarming portrait of how this growing agricultural monolith affects our health, environment, and economy. (VL-11/09)

Cover for "Frontrunners"


(Oscilloscope, 82 min., DVD: $29.99)

Caroline Suh’s wonderful documentary offers an endearing and at times howlingly funny study of the nature of democratic elections, covering a campaign for student union president at New York’s prestigious Stuyvesant High School. (VL-3/09)

Cover for "The Garden"

The Garden

(Oscilloscope, 80 min., DVD: $29.99)

Scott Hamilton Kennedy’s 2008 Oscar nominee for Best Documentary follows the battle for control of the largest community garden in the United States—14 acres in the middle of South Central Los Angeles that were transformed by a largely Latino population from a blighted lot into a flowering urban oasis of family-farmed plots. After 12 years, the city decided to sell the property for business development, issuing an eviction notice that set off an escalating chain of events. (VL-9/09)

Cover for "The Gates"

The Gates

(Alive Mind, 98 min. DVD: $129: public libraries; $249: colleges & universities)

Legendary documentary filmmaker Albert Maysles (Grey Gardens) has chronicled the creation of many massive, eye-catching works of public art erected by Christo and his late partner Jeanne-Claude. Here, Maysles charts the controversial 25-year-history of the pair’s titular project, in which 7,500 “gates” of flowing saffron-colored fabric were installed along 23 miles of paths in Central Park for a two-week period. (VL-9/09)

Cover for "The Greening of Southie"

The Greening of Southie

(Bullfrog, 72 min., DVD or VHS: $295)

Offering an exciting glimpse into the future of Earth-friendly major building construction, filmmakers Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis’ (King Corn) globetrotting documentary follows the design and construction of the Macallen Building in South Boston, from the gathering of green materials to the winning over of a skeptical blue-collar work crew. (VL-1/09)

Cover for "In a Dream"

In a Dream

(IndiePix, 80 min., DVD: $26.95 [DVD: $295 w/PPR from The Cinema Guild, www.cinemaguild.com])

Shot over the course of a decade, Jeremiah Zagar’s compelling documentary turns the camera inward on his own dysfunctional family: supportive mother Julia, troubled older brother Zeke, and—most of all—his father Isaiah, an eccentric but amazingly productive Philadelphia muralist struggling with mental illness. (VL-11/09)

Cover for "A Lion in the House"

A Lion in the House

(Docurama, 282 min., DVD: 2 discs, $26.95)

Premiering at the Sundance Film Festival and later broadcast on PBS’ acclaimed Independent Lens series, Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert’s emotionally devastating but also occasionally uplifting marathon documentary follows the lives of five patients—ranging in age from seven to 19—from the pediatric cancer ward at the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital over several years. (VL-1/09)

Cover for "Not Quite Hollywood"

Not Quite Hollywood

(Magnolia, 103 min., DVD: $26.98)

Combining colorful anecdotes, witty observations, and a treasure trove of film clips (with copious nudity, violence, and outrageous bad taste), Mark Hartley’s unabashedly affectionate tribute celebrates the disreputable genre films that emerged Down Under in the ‘70s—a body of work that helped make the Australian New Wave possible. (VL-11/09)

Cover for "Nursery University"

Nursery University

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

Co-directors Matthew Makar and Marc H. Simon profile four couples and one single mother in this exploration of the fierce competition between upper-class Manhattan parents who believe they must enroll their children in the most highly regarded preschools to help ensure a chance for Ivy League acceptance further down the line. (VL Online-9/09)

Cover for "Passion & Power"

Passion & Power

(First Run, 74 min., DVD: $24.95)

Based on the 1999 book by Dr. Rachel Maines (The Technology of Orgasm: “Hysteria,” the Vibrator, and Women’s Sexual Satisfaction), directors Wendy Slick and Emiko Omori’s documentary offers an informative and playful profile of the vibrator that also includes insights into the sexual revolution of the 1960s and the post-feminist present. (VL-3/09)

Pete Seeger: The Power of Song

(Genius, 93 min., DVD: $24.95)

Director Jim Brown combines archival stills and film (some shot by Seeger and his family), interviews (with Seeger, Bob Dylan, and dozens more), and extensive concert footage to create this inspiring portrait of folk music pioneer Pete Seeger that originally aired on PBS’ American Masters series. (VL-1/09)

Cover for "The Rape of Europa"

The Rape of Europa

(Menemsha Films, 117 min., DVD: $29.95 [Collector’s edition DVD: $59.95, from www.rapeofeuropa.com])

Exploring the interrelated stories of the Nazi plunder of priceless objets d’art from conquered territories during World War II and post-war attempts to restore stolen masterpieces to their rightful owners, filmmakers Bonni Cohen, Richard Berge, and Nicole Newnham’s fascinating documentary is based on the bestselling book by Lynn H. Nicholas. (VL-1/09)

Cover for "Resolved"


(Image, 90 min., DVD: $27.98)

Whiteley’s HBO-aired documentary focusing on two disparate high school debate teams combines archival footage with clever animation to examine the transformation of debate over the last few decades—from a carefully reasoned rhetorical contest into an intense verbal battle known as “the Flow.” (VL-7/09)

Cover for "Respect Yourself: The Stax Records Story"

Respect Yourself: The Stax Records Story

(Stax, 114 min., DVD: $19.98)

Aired on PBS’ Great Performances series, this Samuel L. Jackson-narrated musical documentary recounts the story of the creation of Memphis’ Stax Records and the evolution of its artists, including Otis Redding, Isaac Hayes, Sam & Dave, and Booker T. & the MG’s. (VL-3/09)

Cover for "Second Skin"

Second Skin

(Liberation, 94 min., DVD: $19.95)

Filmmaker Juan Carlos Piñeiro Escoriaza’s engaging documentary looks at the enormously popular world of online gaming, featuring a quartet of adult roommates whose lives revolve around World of Warcraft, as well as a couple who met in the game world and wound up marrying in real life. (VL-9/09)


(Docurama, 81 min., DVD: $26.95 [DVD or VHS: $295 w/PPR from Bullfrog Films, www.bullfrogfilms.com])

Harvard professors and filmmakers Robb Moss and Peter Galison’s intriguing documentary offers a balanced look at the increasing trend towards classifying government information in the name of national security in the post-9/11 era. (VL-7/09)


(Zeitgeist, 126 min., in Spanish w/English subtitles, DVD: $29.99)

Known to many from Piers Paul Read’s 1974 bestseller Alive, the story of the famous 1972 plane crash in the Andes in which the survivors were forced to resort to cannibalism is told in filmmaker Gonzalo Arijón’s powerful and moving documentary, which interweaves dramatic reenactments with interviews of survivors who recall their incredible ordeal. (VL-7/09)

The Union: The Business Behind Getting High

Phase 4, 104 min., DVD: $29.99)

Canadian director Brett Harvey’s documentary takes a compelling look at British Columbia’s illegal marijuana trade industry, incorporating contemporary research, humorous clips from vintage educational films, and interviews of colorful characters such as Tommy Chong and cannabis culture personality Watermelon Girl. (VL-9/09)

Cover for "Waltz with Bashir"

Waltz with Bashir

(Sony, 90 min., in Hebrew w/English subtitles, DVD: $28.98, Blu-ray: $39.95)

Israeli director Ari Folman embarks on a gripping psychological journey into his own repressed memories of the horrors of the First Lebanon War in 1982—part of the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict—in this surreal animated documentary that was nominated for Best Foreign Film. (VL Online-6/09)

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