Compelling stories unfolded in documentaries, genre enjoyed resurgence

By Kenneth Turan

Los Angeles Times

Published: Tuesday, Dec. 21 2010 12:01 p.m. MST

A lot of folks go the movies to escape the pressing issues of the day, to forget they even exist, not to explore their implications. Yet films have always profited from their connection to real events. "The Social Network," "The King's Speech" and "The Fighter," to name three current yet very different motion pictures, gain considerable traction because their characters are based on actual people, not anonymous composites.

Although dramatic films based on real life are in vogue, cinema's most direct connection to the world at large remains the documentary film, and 2010 has seen a remarkable resurgence of the form.

It's not that we've returned to the box office golden days of several years ago, when a media sensation like "An Inconvenient Truth" could earn $50 million worldwide and even a small gem like "Spellbound" could gross $7.4 million and lead distributor ThinkFilm to consider documentaries a way to reliable earnings.

If that level of profit has not come back, the passion of filmmakers to tell real stories has led to a true richness of titles this year. Since these films rarely stay around long in theaters but have an extended life on DVD, I've come up with not 10 but a full 20 of my favorites for 2010. Not just to prove a point but to point out how much compelling material is available for satisfying viewing.

Documentaries have always been a favorite of film critics. Every year at Sundance (which has just announced a new Documentary Premiers section for established filmmakers) it's an open secret that if critics had their choice, they would rather see the films in the documentary competition than the ones in the dramatic side of things. With docs, you never feel like you've wasted your time, never feel like you're fighting a losing battle with a self-indulgent infant auteur. With documentaries you can actually learn something.

So why is this documentary resurgence happening now? Several factors can be pointed at, starting with the inexpensive digital equipment that has placed, not to sound too Marxist about it, the means of production in the hands of the workers. And that lower cost, plus the interest of broadcast entities such as HBO, means that audiences don't need to be gigantic to make these films a viable proposition.

It's also hardly a secret that the major studies have, with periodic exceptions, all but given up on making films with the adult audience specifically in mind. So where are moviegoers going to go for involving narrative, fascinating characters, real drama? They're going to documentaries for the same reason that contemporary readers are making the memoir one of the most popular of genres. That's where the stories are.

In the political realm, for instance, "Casino Jack and the United States of Money" reveals how the influence game is played in Washington, while "Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer" provides an unexpected angle on a spectacular political disgrace and "Inside Job" explains why the world economy melted down. "Countdown to Zero" gives you reasons to be even more afraid of nuclear weapons than you already are.

"Exit Through the Gift Shop" goes inside the contemporary art world courtesy of master prankster Banksy, while "Genius Within: The Inner Life of Glenn Gould" takes us behind the scenes with the late great pianist. "Waste Land," explores the power of art inside the world's largest trash dump outside Rio de Janeiro.

The Nazis get close scrutiny this year. "A Film Unfinished" is a close examination of footage shot in the Warsaw Ghetto, while "Harlan: In the Shadow of Yud Suss" shows how a notorious piece of Nazi propaganda affected the filmmakers' descendants. "Killing Kasztner: The Jew Who Dealt With Nazis" traces how a man considered first a hero then a traitor lost his reputation and his life.

Travel around the globe with "Budrus," an Israeli-Palestinian story you haven't seen before; "Last Train Home," a remarkable family story from China; and "The Oath," which introduces an Al Qaeda operative the way you've never imagined one.

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