Current TV, the still-finding-its-identity network co-founded by Al Gore and newish home to left wing commentator Keith Olbermann, concludes its 5-week documentary film countdown - "50 Docs to See Before You Die" - tonight with the naming of its top 10 choices.
Revealed yesterday by the NY Times' Mike Hale, the top choice of the show's expert panel is Steve James' 1994 classic HOOP DREAMS, with Errol Morris' THE THIN BLUE LINE and Michael Moore's ROGER & ME coming in 2nd and 3rd. The latter two films had previously been identified by the show as the demarcation of the beginning of the current "golden age" of documentary filmmaking on which the "50 Docs" list would focus.
It's this take on the modern age of documentary that seems to have brought the list and the series the most criticism: the late '80s cutoff forms a handy but ultimately confusing way for the series to eliminate any of the classic films by the Maysles, Robert Drew, Fred Wiseman, early Pennebaker, KOYAANISQATSI, HEARTS AND MINDS, HARLAN COUNTY, SHERMAN'S MARCH and any number of other influential works from contention.
Despite the fact that the Times' Hale notes the "modern documentary" angle and bemoans the focus on "a relentless preference for the story-based or issue-based films that people now seem to think define the documentary field", commenters on the story still wrestle with the series/list's artificial construct - where is WOODSTOCK? THE LAST WALTZ? 7 UP? THE TIMES OF HARVEY MILK? SHOAH? The fact that potential viewers are still confused or find the current (get it) focus impractical suggests a basic problem with the premise.
Still, these are lists and lists are supposed to be fun, right? Get past the confusion and the Times' comment section is filled with people's righteous indigation that their modern favorites have been overlooked. Or those who argue that something should be higher on the list or lower or not on the list at all.
So if it gets people talking about documentaries, then who's to quibble, right?
For that reason, it strikes us that this list is a huge whiff.
Instead of pointing the doc-curious toward films that may be off or on the edge of their radar, the series embraced a list of films that were already widely known. Of the 50 films, 40 were either Oscar nominated for Best Documentary (at least 9 won the award) or took in more than $1M at the North American box office - or both - including every film in the just announced "top 10".
Of the 10 films that weren't an Oscar fave or a box office hit (at least doc speaking), you have two films that were sensations via their HBO broadcasts - Spike Lee's WHEN THE LEVEES BROKE and Berlinger & Sinofsky's original PARADISE LOST and two by master filmmakers Werner Herzog (LITTLE DEITER NEEDS TO FLY) and Nick Broomfield (BIGGIE AND TUPAC). The others include KING OF KONG and TARNATION, welcome to see on a list like this but not exactly unknown.
In a somewhat strange "behind the scenes" clip chronicling the selection process, the Current folks also reveal - via an erase board where films are divided up into those that the panel "SUPPORT", "OPPOSE" or are "AMBIVALENT" toward - some of the also rans, which included Oscar winners like THE COVE (support), MURDER ON A SUNDAY MORNING (oppose) and BORN INTO BROTHELS (ambivilant), as well as popular titles like BRIEF HISTORY OF TIME (oppose) and BORAT (oppose).
The clip also features a rather revealing debate where the panel seems to be choosing between last year's JOAN RIVERS - A PIECE OF WORK and Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato's THE EYES OF TAMMY FAYE, two films which have seemingly nothing in common save for being portraits of heavily made-up, perhaps cartoonish, women. Executive Producer Jim Fraenkel (like Current's Brian Graden, another panelist, an alum of both MTV and LOGO) is shown addressing the group and saying, "I had an ambivilant reaction to the Joan Rivers documentary because all I kept thinking was THE EYES OF TAMMY FAYE was so much better."
Panelist Betsy McLane, formerly the Executive Director of the IDA, makes another comparison - between TAMMY FAYE's look at Christian fundamentalists and the portrait in Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady's Oscar nominated JESUS CAMP, a film that made the Current list despite McLane saying that it was a film she "didn't much care for".
Watching the clip, it's not hard to imagine that the group pictured might not have been able to rally behind smaller films like THE CRUISE (shown on the dry erase board in the "oppose" column"), Ondi Timoner's DIG! (on which the group was "ambivalent") or more recent works like MARWENCOL, 45365, LOOT, BILLY THE KID, RUNNING STUMBLED, OREDR OF MYTHS or MANDA BALA, none of which set the box office or Oscar voters afire, but which will likely inspire filmmakers for years to come. Also notable was the omission of many of today's most reliable filmmakers - Laura Poitras, Kirby Dick, Doug Pray, Chris Smith, James Longley, Jessica Yu - none of whom (with the possible exception of Smith's AMERICAN MOVIE) have made doc-busters, but who have set the tone for much of what has happened over the past decade.
Maybe I'm just a curmudgeon. The folks behind "50 Docs" would probably argue that my championing of these smaller films is exactly the kind of dialogue that they hoped to spark.
But around these parts, the Current list feels like an opportunity lost, a chance to tell people about the stuff they might have missed instead becomes an affirmation of the stuff they've already heard of and possibly already watched. It's a comforting head pat that Oscar voters and art house patrons have already culled the films you need to see before you die. Pay no attention to the films that remain behind the curtain.
The full Current list:
50. SPELLBOUND (2002)
49. MADONNA: TRUTH OR DARE (1991)
48. THE KID STAYS IN THE PICTURE (2002)
47. ONE DAY IN SEPTEMBER (1999)
46. LITTLE DIETER NEEDS TO FLY (1998)
45. THE DECLINE OF WESTERN CIVILIZATION PART II: THE METAL YEARS (1988)
44. BURMA VJ (2008)
43. WHEN THE LEVEES BROKE: A REQUIEM IN FOUR ACTS (2006)
42. CATFISH (2010)
41. THE KING OF KONG: A FISTFUL OF QUARTERS (2007)
40. WHEN WE WERE KINGS (1996)
39. BIGGIE AND TUPAC (2002)
38. MARCH OF THE PENGUINS (2005)
37. INSIDE JOB (2010)
36. TAXI TO THE DARK SIDE (2007)
35. PARAGRAPH 175 (2000)
34. BROTHER'S KEEPER (1992)
33. TONGUES UNTIED (1989)
32. DOGTOWN AND Z-BOYS (2001)
31. JESUS CAMP (2006)
30. FAHRENHEIT 9/11 (2004)
29. MAN ON WIRE (2008)
28. GASLAND (2010)
27. TARNATION (2003)
26. MURDERBALL (2005)
25. ENRON: THE SMARTEST GUYS IN THE ROOM (2005)
24. PARADISE LOST: THE CHILD MURDERS AT ROBIN HOOD HILLS (1996)
23. THE EYES OF TAMMY FAYE (2000)
22. SHUT UP & SING (2006)
21. EXIT THROUGH THE GIFT SHOP (2010)
20. CAPTURING THE FRIEDMANS (2003)
19. TOUCHING THE VOID (2003)
18. FOOD, INC. (2008)
17. STREET FIGHT (2005)
16. BUS 174 (2002)
15. CRUMB (1994)
14. DARK DAYS (2000)
13. THE FOG OF WAR (2003)
12. BOWLING FOR COLUMBINE (2002)
11. PARIS IS BURNING (1991)
10. GRIZZLY MAN (2005)
9. TROUBLE THE WATER (2008)
8. AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH (2006)
7. THE CELLULOID CLOSET (1995)
6. THE WAR ROOM (1993)
5. SUPERSIZE ME (2004)
4. WALTZ WITH BASHIR (2008)
3. ROGER & ME (1989)
2. THE THIN BLUE LINE (1988)
1. HOOP DREAMS (1994)