The Best Documentaries of the 2000s

We break up the best of the first decade of the 21st century by genre.

best documentaries of the 2000s Man on Wire
Magnolia Pictures

This list was originally published on Cinematical on December 17, 2009.

The 2000s were a great decade for documentaries, both artistically and commercially. Four films (Fahrenheit 9/11, March of the Penguins, and this year’s Earth and This Is It) grossed more than $100 million worldwide, with two of them even topping the $200 million mark. Meanwhile, plenty of other films, whether due to their politics or their humorous entertainment value, broke through with mainstream audiences, primarily in the arthouse circuit but also on home video. And speaking of home viewing, thanks to Netflix and free online streaming sites like SnagFilms, more and more people have access to more and more nonfiction films than ever before.

So obviously it’s a tough task to narrow down all these docs for a list of the best in the last ten years. In order to spotlight some particularly deserving films (25 of them), I’ve decided to follow the lead of William Goss’ action flick list and break these up into separate categories (15 of them). In a perfect world, all these types of documentary would be respected as their own genre, like fiction is with comedy, action, science fiction, etc. And with the number of nonfiction films produced these days it wouldn’t be difficult to list ten favorites for each style and subject sort. Certainly, I’ve had to leave out a lot of favorites, both mine and yours (doing a list like this really makes you realize the films you’ve not yet seen), so let’s keep the discussion going in the comments section.

Best Expository Doc: Why We Fight (2005)

Documentaries comprised primarily of talking heads and archive footage are so conventional, common and, yes, oftentimes boring that it’s a shame most people associate them with nonfiction cinema as a whole. Occasionally, though, the stringing together of facts and expert testimony can be stimulating as well as educational, such as in the case of Eugene Jarecki‘s Why We Fight (2005), a film that says and asks so much about the questionable direction of the U.S. military in the past 50 years and the complicated origins of our current conflicts in part by referencing, with the intention of contrast, Frank Capra’s far more clear-cut expository Why We Fight films from WWII. Everything within the actual film simply and straightforwardly illustrates history and the filmmaker’s stance on it, which is all you really need from a doc.

Honorable Mention: One of the great things about Charles Ferguson‘s No End in Sight (2007) is how much information it will feed you about the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq in so little time. We should only be so lucky to have such quick, comprehensive detail communicated to us about every topic.

Best Observational Doc: Our Daily Bread (2005)

Forget the currently revered Food, Inc. (2008) and the humorous Super Size-Me (2004), the most revealing and effecting doc about food in the last ten years is Nikolaus Geyrhalter‘s Our Daily Bread (2005), a mostly word-free film that simply observes the goings-on inside slaughterhouses and factories and out in the crop fields. More abstract than could qualify it as the direct cinema style usually associated with observational documentary, the beautifully shot yet gruesome film is nonetheless as objective as any other fly on the wall film.

Best Participatory Doc: The Five Obstructions (2003)

It’s hard to call Jorgen Leth and Lars von Trier‘s The Five Obstructions (2003) a first-person film since there are two of them guiding us through their experiment, but it fits nicely and freshly within the doc genre known mostly for autobiographical works and subjectively political films (a la Michael Moore). As one filmmaker instructs another to remake his own art film (1967’s The Perfect Human) five different ways, this doc is pretty self-indulgent, but it’s also an amusingly fascinating look at artistic restraint. It makes me wish Von Trier made more nonfiction films.

Honorable Mention: An ethical dilemma with participatory documentary is displayed quite tragically in Nick Broomfield‘s Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer (2003), a sequel to his 1992 first-person doc Aileen: The Selling of a Serial Killer, in which he deals with the problem of getting too close to his subject. It’s no wonder he’s now concentrating on making dramatization films.

Best Music Doc: Dig! (2004)

Few nonfiction fans can argue for a better music-based documentary than Ondi Timoner‘s Dig! (2004), which tracks the successes, failures, friendships, and rivalries between two bands, The Dandy Warhols and Brian Jonestown Massacre, over the course of many years. For a while, I thought I was just being subjective in my appreciation for the film because The Dandys are my favorite band, but the more I watch the film I realize how intensely comprehensive it is. Rarely does a documentarian have as much coverage as Timoner achieves here.

Honorable Mention: Surely not the best concert doc of the past ten years, U2 3D (2007) is still seminal for helping to usher in this new format for the genre, which is soon to be all over 3D screens with films featuring all kinds of artists. The Miley Cyrus/Hannah Montana 3D film may have come first, but U2 3D gave the otherwise gimmicky format more credibility. And unlike with Dig!, I don’t even like the band starring in this one.

Best Nature Doc: Winged Migration (2001)

Another genre with an easy pick, the most laudable nature doc in more than a decade is Jacques Perrin‘s Winged Migration (2001). Bird watching has never been so entrancing as in this gorgeous film following the migrations of several species. Definitely one of the many docs that must be seen on the big screen rather than on a TV or computer screen. The fact that it’s so controversial, due to the fact that it’s hardly observing real nature since many of the birds were raised by the filmmakers and trained to fly with them and their equipment, and many scenes were apparently staged, makes the film even more interesting to the topic of documentary. In some ways, it’s no worse than Nanook of the North, right?

Honorable Mention: Werner Herzog‘s Grizzly Man (2005) is less definitively classified as a nature doc because it primarily focuses on the life and death of a man living in the wild among grizzly bears. But again, it’s docs like this, which challenge conventions, that are always going to excite me more.

Best Political Doc: Al Franken: God Spoke (2006)

Of the many, many, many political documentaries made in this decade of tremendous contention, Nick Doob and Chris HegedusAl Franken: God Spoke (2006) is most representative of the circus American politics has become. Specifically, it personifies the problem of the Democratic presidential campaign of 2004 to depend on clowns rather than a ringmaster by following a political humorist (Franken) in place of a political strategist (such as James Carville in Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker‘s The War Room) during the election year. But it’s also telling in general of how people now pay more attention to performers in the media than the actual politicians (of course, now Franken is the latter, too).

Best Iraq War Doc: The Ground Truth: After the Killing Ends (2006)

A significant genre for this decade only, the Iraq War documentary includes many examples of films featuring shocking and awe-inducing first-hand footage from the actual conflict and plenty others that reflectively discuss the war in great detail (see No End in Sight, above), but the film I found most interesting is one of the numerous titles focused on the homecoming. Patricia Foulkrod‘s The Ground Truth: After the Killing Ends (2006) does more than just follow vets around, the film examines their corrupted psychology by presenting the way troops are recruited and trained, as well as showing the kind of combat most are exposed to, before familiarizing us with the damaged individuals.

Honorable Mention: Tony Gerber and Jesse MossFull Battle Rattle (2008) also exposes part of the training process, specifically an Iraq War simulation exercise conducted in the Mojave Desert. Though it doesn’t depict real combat, the film is still tragic in a foreboding sort of way.

Best Biographical Doc: The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara (2003)

I have a preference for autobiographies over biographies in book form, so it makes sense that with documentaries I’m a big fan of the first-person (participatory) genre as well as those biographical films dictated or narrated primarily by their subjects. For The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara (2003), Errol Morris managed to get an astonishing amount of footage of his man, the titular former U.S. Secretary of Defense, talking about his life and career, especially since McNamara had initially only agreed to a one-hour interview. This is partly due to Morris’ use of his invention, the Interrotron, which encourages extra long monologue storytelling straight into the camera, almost making the film a first-person narrative.

Honorable Mention: James Toback‘s Tyson (2008) has a similar autobiographical nature to it with a surprisingly candid and intelligent monologue interview with boxer Mike Tyson.

Best Sports Doc: Murderball (2005)

I’ve never been a sports fan, so a sports documentary has to be especially entertaining to interest me. Henry Alex Rubin and Dana Adam Shapiro‘s Murderball (2005), about wheelchair rugby and the paraplegics who play it, is just that captivating. Part of the crossover accessibility is its novelty, of course, yet it’s also the good fortune of the filmmakers that they found such magnetic subjects, like Mark Zupan.

Best Non-Sporting Competition Doc: Spellbound (2002)

Part of me really wanted to hate on the sometimes seeming exploitation of nerds in Jeffrey Blitz‘s spelling bee doc Spellbound (2002), but the suspense of the competition overcame my subjective judgments. It takes a great film to make audiences sit on the edge of their seat for such a pedantic event.

Honorable Mention: No screenwriter could have possibly invented a villain as odd and despicable as the one in Seth Gordon‘s video game doc The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (2007), another terrific crossover film that proves truth is stranger (and more entertaining) than fiction.

Best Foreign Language Doc: Bus 174 (2002)

Jose Padilha‘s Bus 174 (2002) documents a bus hijacking incident in Rio de Janeiro primarily through the employment of live television footage from the time, all of which displays a surprising level of access and coverage maintained by the Brazilian media. The film contains interviews, both first-hand and reflective accounts, but it’s the editing of the news footage that makes the doc often seem like a dramatization or even a fictional action thriller.

Honorable Mention: Ari Folman‘s Waltz with Bashir (2008) may not have been the first animated feature documentary, as it claimed to be, but it nevertheless presented a fresh style for nonfiction cinema to depict memories in lieu of actual footage (in a way it blurs the line between fiction and documentary by being somewhat less direct in its telling of events than the 2007 animated feature Chicago 10).

Best Doc Miniseries: The Staircase (2004)

Jean-Xavier de Lestrade followed up his terrific Oscar-winning courtroom documentary Murder on a Sunday Morning (2001) with the six-hour masterpiece The Staircase (2004), which follows the murder trial of Michael Peterson from his indictment to his … The story is so full of twists and surprises, usually timed in the editing to be made cliff hangers, that no Hollywood scripted legal thriller could ever compete with it. And the length of the film allows for more intimacy and investment by the viewer than does a feature-length doc. I can’t imagine watching it non-successively on television, as it’s the cinematic equivalent of a page-turner.

Best Discovery Doc: Capturing the Friedmans (2003)

No, I don’t mean docs on the Discovery Channel. Sometimes a documentarian can get lucky with twists or discoveries occurring during the filming process, though it’s what the filmmaker does with these new directions and revelations that make for a great doc. For Capturing the Friedmans (2003), Andrew Jarecki benefited by finding a better story within his initial plans to follow birthday clowns, and then he was also fortunate that his new subjects had so much home video footage to offer. But it’s how he crafted the film, particularly his decision to let the footage speak for itself and keep the things ambiguous, that result in such an engaging portrait of a family torn by allegations of child molestation.

Honorable Mention: Darius Marder‘s Loot (2008) could have been a simple film about treasure hunters, but certain happenstance and things being uncovered during the production allowed Marder to turn his doc into a deeper work about digging up the past.

Best Doc That Transcends Genre: Man on Wire (2008)

How to classify James Marsh‘s Man on Wire (2008), my favorite doc of the decade? It’s been described as a heist film, and it’s been criticized for being too much of a dramatization, but it’s also a dreamy biographical doc, a history of and touching tribute to the World Trade Center and, most importantly, an implicit treatise on how different the world is since 9/11. Plus, it stars one of the most enjoyable characters in cinema ever, let alone the last ten years.

Honorable Mention: Blurring the lines of fiction and nonfiction even further is Mat Whitecross and Michael Winterbottom‘s The Road to Guantanamo (2006), a docudrama combining interviews with dramatization to depict the story of three men detained in the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay. In its dependence on reenactment and its limited perspective, the film reflexively says a lot about the idea of truth in nonfiction cinema.

And, aww, what the heck, here are ten more docs of the decade that had an effect on me: Tony Kaye‘s Lake of Fire (2006); Ondi Timoner’s We Live in Public (2009); Alex Gibney‘s Taxi to the Dark Side (2007); Frank L. Anderson and Barry Poltermann‘s The Life of Reilly (2006); Julian Schnabel‘s Lou Reed’s Berlin (2007); Mark Achbar‘s The Corporation (2003); Harry MosesWho the #$&% is Jackson Pollack? (2006); Albert and David MayslesThe Beales of Grey Gardens (2006); Godfrey Chesire‘s Moving Midway (2007) and Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine (2002).

(Editor in Chief)

Christopher Campbell is the founding editor of Nonfics.