2010 Best Documentaries

The following list, selected and compiled by Video Librarian staff, honors the best new documentaries reviewed in the magazine and online during 2010. Unless otherwise noted, titles are available from most distributors.

Cover for "The Art of the Steal"

The Art of the Steal

(MPI, 101 min., DVD: $24.98)

Don Argott’s fact-packed, slow-burn documentary chronicles the decades-long battle over control of the Barnes Foundation, a private collection of impressionist, post-impressionist, and early modern art worth more than $25 billion. (VL Online-7/10)

Cover for "Burma VJ"

Burma VJ

(Oscilloscope, 89 min., in English & Burmese w/English subtitles, DVD: $29.99)

Filmmaker Anders Østergaard’s Oscar-nominated documentary examines the 2007 uprising in Myanmar (formerly Burma), as captured by underground video journalists collectively known as the Democratic Voice of Burma. (VL-9/10)

Cover for "Collapse"


(MPI, 80 min., DVD: $19.99)

Director Chris Smith’s scary doc serves up a feature-length interview with author, decorated cop, CIA whistleblower, political watchdog, and independent investigative journalist Michael Ruppert, who calmly outlines a vision of impending global meltdown due to our unsustainable reliance on oil and petroleum products. (VL Online-7/10)

Cover for "Countdown to Zero"

Countdown to Zero

(Magnolia, 91 min., DVD: $26.99, Blu-ray: $29.99)

Narrated by former CIA operative Valerie Plame Wilson, filmmaker Lucy Walker’s alarming documentary examines the arms race—from the inception of the atomic bomb to the present, with a look at a number of near-accidents—while also fielding comments from figures in academia, government, and journalism, ranging from Russia’s Mikhail Gorbachev to Pakistan’s Pervez Musharraf. (VL-11/10)

Cover for "The Cove"

The Cove

(Lionsgate, 96 min., DVD: $19.98)

Produced by the Oceanic Preservation Society and directed by OPS co-founder Louie Psihoyos, this nail-biting, Oscar-winning eco-documentary focuses on former Flipper trainer Ric O’Barry’s tireless campaign to stop the annual massacre of dolphins off the coast of Taiji, Japan, while also touching on the ineffectuality of the International Whaling Commission, and the popularity of amusement park dolphin shows. (VL-1/10)

Cover for "Defamation"


(First Run, 91 min., in English & Hebrew w/English subtitles, DVD: $24.95 [$395 w/PPR])

Israeli filmmaker Yoav Shamir travels to various places interviewing people across the spectrum of opinion in this controversial look at modern anti-Semitism that raises challenging questions, such as whether discrimination is actually on the rise, or if the issue is being used for right-wing Zionist political purposes and manipulation. (VL-9/10)

Cover for "The English Surgeon"

The English Surgeon

(PBS, 90 min., DVD: $24.99 [$295 w/PPR from The Cinema Guild])

Directors Guild of America Award-nominee Geoffrey Smith helmed this compelling PBS-aired documentary profile of Dr. Henry Marsh, a British brain surgeon who provides much-needed help with medical care in Russia’s financially-strapped Ukraine region. (VL-3/10)

Enlighten Up!

(Docurama, 82 min., DVD: $26.95)

Kate Churchill’s often humorous filmed record of her attempt to prove that “yoga can transform anyone physically and spiritually” follows New York City journalist and yoga novice Nick Rosen on a six-month experiment, during which time he encounters a variety of yoga masters and methodologies. (VL-3/10)

Cover for "Facing Ali"

Facing Ali

(Lionsgate, 100 min., DVD: $19.98)

Short-listed for the 2009 Oscars for Best Documentary, director Pete McCormack’s profile of the life and career of iconic pugilist Muhammad Ali is built around the remembrances of 10 men who stepped into the ring with the champ, including Sir Henry Cooper, Ken Norton, Ron Lyle, Larry Holmes, George Foreman, Leon Spinks, and Joe Frazier. (VL-3/10)

Cover for "Four Seasons Lodge"

Four Seasons Lodge

(First Run, 97 min., DVD: $24.95 [$395 w/PPR])

New York Times journalist Andrew Jacobs profiles a group of Holocaust survivors who have vacationed at the titular Catskills retreat for nearly three decades in this touching documentary that combines personal portraits with a universal look at aging and the solace that social networks provide. (VL-11/10)

Cover for "Good Hair"

Good Hair

(Lionsgate, 95 min., DVD: $19.98)

Director Jeff Stilson’s documentary follows comic Chris Rock on a quest to uncover the lengths (and extensions) to which African American men and women will go to in order to get “good hair” (a euphemism for “white hair”—i.e., straight and silky), along the way serving up commentary from Nia Long, Raven-Symoné, rappers Salt-N-Pepa, Maya Angelou, and the Rev. Al Sharpton. (VL-3/10)

Cover of "It Might Get Loud"

It Might Get Loud

(Sony, 98 min., DVD: $19.99, Blu-ray: $24.99)

Oscar-winning filmmaker Davis Guggenheim here explores the musical styles and personalities of three legendary rock guitar heroes: Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page, U2’s Edge, and the White Stripes’ Jack White. (VL-1/10)

Cover for "Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work"

Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work

(IFC, 84 min., DVD: $27.98, Blu-ray: $34.98)

Indie filmmakers Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg spent 14 months with septuagenarian comedian/actress Joan Rivers in this funny profile that finds the star performing for small Midwest crowds, peddling jewelry on QVC, and preparing for her appearance on the reality competition show Celebrity Apprentice. (VL-11/10)

Cover for "The Most Dangerous Man in America"

The Most Dangerous Man in America

(First Run, 94 min., DVD: $27.95, Blu-ray: $34.95 [$99 w/PPR: public libraries, $295 w/PPR: colleges & universities from New Day Films, web: newdayfilms.com])

Filmmakers Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith combine archival materials, interviews, and dramatic reenactments in this Oscar-nominated documentary about famous whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg and his 1971 leak of the “Pentagon Papers,” which blew the lid off America’s secret (mis)handling of the Vietnam War. (VL-9/10)

Cover for "No Impact Man"

No Impact Man

(Oscilloscope, 93 min., DVD: $29.99)

Author and activist Colin Beavan conducts a year-long experiment in extreme green living through lifestyle shifts such as buying locally, using no disposable packaging, and ultimately turning off electricity in favor of solar panels in his family’s New York City apartment in Laura Gabbert and Justin Schein’s intriguing eco-documentary. (VL-3/10)

NoBody’s Perfect

(Kino Lorber Edu, 84 min., in English & German w/English subtitles, DVD: $129 [$249 w/PPR])

Niko von Glasow’s sometimes hilarious documentary examines the effects of the prescription drug Thalidomide on pregnant women during the 1950s-60s, which resulted in severe birth defects in children, including the dozen now-adults here—von Glasow, among them—who get together for a nude awareness-raising photo shoot. (VL-5/10)

October Country

(Carnivalesque, 83 min., DVD: $24.99 [$295 w/PPR from The Cinema Guild])

Filmmaker Michael Palmieri and photographer Donal Mosher combined forces for this beautifully-lensed cinematic portrait of four generations of Mosher’s seriously dysfunctional, working-class, Mohawk Valley, NY, chain-smoking family—shot over a year—which explores their struggles with poverty, domestic abuse, and war trauma. (VL-9/10)

Pressure Cooker

(First Run, 99 min., DVD: $24.95 [$125 w/PPR])

Jennifer Grausman and Mark Becker’s documentary spotlights a school year in the life of culinary-arts students and their teacher Wilma Stephenson—an instructor at Philadelphia’s primarily African American Frankford High School, who for four decades has been both beloved and notorious for her tough-love approach. (VL-5/10)

Prodigal Sons

(First Run, 86 min., DVD: $24.95 [$395 w/PPR])

A former star quarterback who transformed into a woman, transsexual director Kimberly Reed returns to her hometown of Helena, MT, in this personal documentary that touches on gender identity issues, mental health concerns, and even movie royalty (Reed’s older adopted brother turns out to be the illegitimate son of the daughter of Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth). (VL-9/10)

Cover for "Pulling John"

Pulling John

(IndiePix, 72 min., DVD: $24.95)

Co-directors Vassiliki Khonsari and Sevan Matossian spent four years documenting the sport of arm wrestling for this rousing sports documentary profiling a pair of heavyweight contenders inspired by longtime titular champion John Brzenk, featuring footage of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Lou Ferrigno, and Sylvester Stallone. (VL-9/10)

Cover for "The September Issue"

The September Issue

(Lionsgate, 90 min., DVD: $19.98)

Known for being icy and meticulous, Vogueeditor Anna Wintour and her closest staff are the focus of director R.J. Cutler’s glossy behind-the-scenes glimpse of the creation of the massive, pre-recession September 2007 issue of the popular fashion magazine. (VL-3/10)

Sweethearts of the Prison Rodeo

(Carnivalesque, 90 min., DVD: $24.99 [$99 w/PPR])

Filmmaker Bradley Beesley’s unusual and inspiring documentary profiles inmates who take part in the annual Oklahoma State Penitentiary Rodeo, deftly interweaving comments from convicts and correctional officers with jaw-dropping (and wince-producing) footage of prep work and actual competition. (VL-11/10)

Cover for "The Tiger Next Door"

The Tiger Next Door

(First Run, 86 min., DVD: $24.95)

Originally broadcast on the Animal Planet network, this documentary by Camilla Calamandrei focuses on the breeding of wild animals in American residential settings, with the spotlight aimed at Dennis Hill, who kept 24 tigers on his Indiana property until failing an inspection by the state’s Department of Natural Resources. (VL Online-7/10)

Under Our Skin

(Open Eye Pictures [web: underourskin.com]), 104 min., DVD: $34.95: individuals; $85: high schools & public libraries; $249: colleges & universities)

Director Andy Abrahams Wilson interviewed more than 150 people (including author Amy Tan) about their experiences with Lyme disease for this alarming health documentary, shortlisted for the 2009 Oscars. (VL-3/10)

Cover for "The Way We Get By"

The Way We Get By

(Virgil Films, 84 min., DVD: $19.99 [$99.99 w/PPR from Sunny Side Up Films, web: thewaywegetbymovie.com)

Writer-director Aron Gaudet’s unconventional documentary takes an indirect approach to the topics of aging, loneliness, war, and mortality, focusing on three senior citizens who have found great purpose in their lives from personally greeting hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops leaving for and returning from Iraq and Afghanistan through Maine’s Bangor International Airport. (VL-11/10)

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