Truth hasn’t just been stranger than fiction this year; it’s been better, with documentaries emerging as some of the strongest — and best-reviewed — films so far. Granted, we’re not even halfway through 2006 yet.
But every year, starting in January — the notorious dumping-ground time for films — my Los Angeles-based counterpart, Dave Germain, and I keep a running tally of contenders for top-10 list status come December. At the end of an average year, I’ll have to scrap two or three titles; last year, I had to slash my list in half, the offerings were so solid.
It’s a good problem to have.
This year, I’ve noticed, nearly all the films on my possible top-10 list are documentaries: “Dave Chappelle’s Block Party.” “Neil Young: Heart of Gold.” “The Heart of the Game.” “The War Tapes.”
Similarly, when people ask me what they should go see, I might grudgingly suggest that they check out “The Da Vinci Code,” if only because it’s a ubiquitous pop culture phenomenon, and they should at least see to be able to trash it knowledgeably, right? But I really hope they seek out one of these documentaries, instead — which may be hard to find wherever they live, if they’re playing in their cities at all.
The other movie on the list thus far — one which I heartily recommend, and it’s been a tough sell — is the devastating “United 93.” I know of maybe one person who’s really wanted to see it, but it’s the only feature of 2006 that’s moved me. Then again, it’s based on true events — how passengers on one of the four planes hijacked on Sept. 11 fought for control of the aircraft before crashing into a Pennsylvania field — and it’s shot with a documentary’s pure, fly-on-the-wall perspective.
Apparently, I’m not alone in this sentiment. One look at the highest-rated movies on the Rotten Tomatoes Web site reveals some familiar titles.
“The War Tapes,” in which filmmaker Deborah Scranton handed digital video cameras to New Hampshire National Guardsmen and told them to shoot everything they did and saw in Iraq’s Sunni Triangle, is ranked No. 2 so far this year with 95 percent positive reviews. (No. 1, in case you’re curious, is “Iron Island” from Iran.)
“Dave Chappelle’s Block Party,” which chronicles a hilarious, joyous rap concert the comedian staged in Brooklyn, is the third-highest with 93 percent.
Coming in at No. 7 with 92 percent is “The Heart of the Game,” about the girls’ basketball team at a Seattle high school and their eccentric coach. Right behind that is “United 93” with 90 percent — the same amount of critical praise lavished on “Neil Young: Heart of Gold,” Jonathan Demme’s warm, intimate concert film, featuring Young performing songs from his new album, “Prairie Wind,” as well as some old favorites.
Then there’s “An Inconvenient Truth,” about Al Gore’s crusade to warn the world about global warming, which also ranks high on both Web sites.
(Germain liked it better than I did; I thought it was scary as hell but left you feeling helpless, and ultimately played like an extended campaign ad for a possible presidential run in 2008.)