As a species, we’re working on our seventeenth year into a new century and everything is on fire. The blurring of the lines that divide fact and fiction has grown so smeared and indecipherable as to allow climate change to still be questioned and corruption has been radically normalized to the point of borderline decriminalization. Unavoidably, this international tendency to believe what we want as often as what’s factual has bled into moviemaking, both in regards to increasingly untenable productions in the big studios and in innumerable filmic takes on major (and minor) historical events seen in narrative films and, perhaps even more so, documentaries.
This is what makes docs like Waltz with Bashir and Tower, both of which rely heavily on animation to convey the tricks of memory that corrode and aggrandize the truth, so important. Then there’s more narrative-based tricks, such as the anxious shell game that is Banksy’s exuberant Exit Through the Gift Shop or the more existential narrative questions at the heart of Jafar Panahi’s This is Not a Film. Beyond the testing of boundaries between fact and fiction, these movies are infectiously curious about the importance and meaning of truth in movies. Outside of documentaries, one could see this concept being tossed around in the late Abbas Kiarastomi’s Certified Copy, one of the best films of this century full stop.
Nevertheless, these advances don’t discount the power of reinventing more classical stylistic choices in the documentary form. Frederick Wiseman, America’s greatest documentarian, has honed his own no-frills aesthetic over his many decades as a filmmaker and he has made the best documentary of the century thus far. Similarly, elder masters like Steve James, Claude Lanzmann, Werner Herzog, and Errol Morris arrived high on my (very rough) list of the 25 best documentaries of the century thus far. Truthfully, had I not limited myself to one movie per director, Wiseman would have dominated a quarter of this list between Boxing Gym, National Gallery, At Berkeley, Domestic Violence, State Legislature, and the upcoming Ex Libris.
Perhaps a list with those titles would be a more honest collection of the most revelatory documentaries that the last decade and this one have produced. More titles from Herzog, Morris, Chinese master Wang Bing, and several others would have also likely made the final cut. In doing that, however, one might not see the staggering breadth of transformation that the genre (or is it style?) has been going under since we all survived the millennium’s imagined doomsday.