2010 was a year where I saw an unusually high number of documentaries. Though I missed Inside Job and most of Waiting for Superman (it's a long story), I did see four documentaries that seemed to seep into the mainstream consciousness. Although no documentary film ultimately made my final year end top ten list, Prodigal Sons came very close and is much better than any of the four films I'm about to discuss in very abbreviated form.
Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work (dirs. Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg)
An enjoyable and often funny time at the movies, but hardly deeply probing and wildly unfocused. Joan Rivers does make for a fascinating subject, but one can't help but feel that the glimpses into her life are shallow and rehearsed.
Exit Through the Gift Shop (dir. Banksy)
Fascinating, but ultimately unspectacular, especially given the acclaim it has received. It's portrait of a certain type of artistic counter culture feels very self-congratulatory and judgmental from where I'm sitting, but I certainly got a kick out of it. My enthusiasm rests slightly below the hype.
I'm Still Here (dir. Casey Affleck)
Vile, desperate and attempting to offend, none of which are qualities that have ever precluded me from liking a film. However, this mockumentary glimpse into the staged downfall of actor turned "rapper" and then actor again Joaquin Phoenix manages to contain all the aforementioned qualities while still also being boring and uninteresting, to the point of near-unwatchability. Affleck and Phoenix made the worst choice at every turn in service of very bare, transparent and facile intentions.
Restrepo (dirs Tim Heatherington and Sebastian Junger)
Hearkening back to the days of true, war-embedded journalism, Restrepo follows the tour of duty of the 2nd platoon stationed in the Korengal Valley, the most dangerous region of Afghanistan. It's harrowing, emotional and rather moving (I fought tears more than once watching it). Ultimately, what makes the film suffer is its omniscient point of view and lack of structure (which some have argued is the film's strength, so take my very contrary opinion with a grain of salt). I certainly understand why it's being acclaimed and, like Exit Through the Gift Shop, it's refreshing to see true outsiders achieving success in the closed circle that is notable documentary filmmaking. But again, if you're looking for moving, emotional, outsider documentary filmmaking, subject matter aside, why not take a look at Prodigal Sons, which is all of these things and impeccably structured to boot. Just a thought.