True Stories?

The year in documentaries

What a difference a year makes. In 2004, Michael Moore’s Bush-bashing Fahrenheit 9/11 was not only the most-watched and most-debated doc in release, but also among the highest-grossing movies of the year. This year’s most-watched and highest-grossing documentary was, of course, March of the Penguins, which was about as contentious as a cotton ball; your kids are probably watching the DVD at this very moment, for the thirteenth time. And the best-reviewed doc was Murderball, about quadriplegic rugby players asserting their right to do anything able-bodied folks can do, including give or take a punch and throw down in the bedroom with their very hot girlfriends. Was it inspirational? Absolutely, and without a tinge of mawkishness; oh, how you come to love these tough dudes in their Mad Max wheelchairs.

Murderball was funny too, but not as laugh-out-loud, vomit-in-your-mouth hysterical as The Aristocrats, in which almost a hundred comics told the same infamous dirty joke almost a hundred different ways. Best of all was Sarah Silverman’s first-person telling of the show-biz fable, which concluded with her appearing to realize for the first time she was raped by talk-show legend Joe Franklin, who didn’t get the joke and threatened to sue. Silverman also had her own in-concert film, Jesus Is Magic, in which she said things out loud most people wouldn’t dare think to themselves — as in, “Everyone knows the best time to get pregnant is when you’re a black teenager” and her assertion that “it was the blacks” who killed Christ.

There were, of course, more serious-minded, topical docs too: Gunner Palace and Occupation: Dreamland spent countless hours with soldiers stationed in Iraq, where they fought off boredom and anger as often as the so-called enemy. But the most profound and provocative doc that played on US screens — albeit barely — will go unnoticed. Titled The Power of Nightmares, it originally aired in October 2004 on the BBC in three parts, but collectively it’s a three-hour punch in the gut. Writer-director-narrator Adam Curtis, a well-respected documentarian in England, provides a sobering narrative that essentially says not only that there is no al-Qaeda (it’s a name created by the US government and adopted by Osama bin Laden after September 11, 2001, claim several of the doc’s talking heads), but that the same men responsible for selling us the war in Iraq based on shaky evidence also sold us the Cold War in the 1970s using similarly fabricated information intent on scaring the populace into obedience.

Curtis also links the rise of neoconservatives in the United States to the birth of Islamic fundamentalism in the 1950s; both movements, after all, tied Western decadence to Western liberalism. It’s essentially Fahrenheit 9/11 without the screaming, the preaching, the panic — a newsy film that Salon‘s Andrew O’Hehir called “the most important political documentary of this decade, and perhaps of my lifetime.” And you can’t currently see it, unless you scour the Web for the myriad sites hosting bootleg copies. Go figure: The best doc of 2005 is one you have to watch on your computer. Viva la digital revolution, indeed.

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