The documentaries did justice to this downer of a decade. You could put together a reasonably good outline of the Iraq occupation or the war on terror or the environmental crisis or the financial bubble just by surveying the festival's nonfiction offerings. The good news? Many of the decade's best Sundance docs filled the gaps left by mainstream journalism; all of them told important stories with sophistication and intelligence. These were my top 10.
10. BIGGIE AND TUPAC (2002)
Nick Broomfield investigates the murders of the titular rappers (and hip-hop's East Coast-West Coast rivalry) in his patented mode, somewhere between stalking and performance art. Along the way he scores an unforgettable prison-yard interview with Death Row honcho Suge Knight and finds a surprisingly heartfelt tone embodied by Biggie's redoubtable mom, Voletta Wallace, who welcomes the filmmaker into her home and offers him interviewing tips.
9. CONTROL ROOM (2004)
Covering Al-Jazeera's coverage of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Jehane Noujaim offers a mirror-image view of Operation Iraqi Freedom and debunks the myth of journalistic objectivity, an illusion that all but evaporates during wartime.
8. DIG! (2004)
The most resonant of many fine music-themed docs that premiered at Sundance this past decade, Ondi Timoner's account of the love-hate relationship between the disaster-prone Brian Jonestown Massacre and the much more successful Dandy Warhols evolves into a thoughtful contemplation on the collision between art and industry, and the deathless myth of the artist-madman.
7. NO END IN SIGHT (2007)
Charles Ferguson's scrupulous overview of the Iraq-war debacle runs through a litany of horrors so relentless it borders on farce. The facts speak for themselves in this sober yet enraging documentary, which traces the fateful decisions to a small circle of hawks acting on behalf of a president who was a clueless outsider in his own administration.
6. GRIZZLY MAN (2005)
Werner Herzog found perhaps his ultimate subject in Timothy Treadwell, the bear-loving zoologist who was eaten by a grizzly and left behind ample documentation of his fatal obsession.
5. ZOO (2007)
Another reflection on an unhappy encounter between man and beast: Credit Robinson Devor and his collaborators, co-writer Charles Mudede and cinematographer Sean Kirby, with one of the decade's most original fiction indies (POLICE BEAT) as well as one of its most original docs: this odd hybrid of interviews and re-enactments, which tells the improbably haunting story of a Seattle man who died after having sex with a horse. Much less salacious than it sounds, the film treats its subject with the utmost compassion, freeing him from his posthumous fate as a tabloid punch line.
4. THE WEATHER UNDERGROUND (2003)
Sam Green and Bill Siegel's engrossing portrait of the Weathermen, the antiwar militants who sought to overthrow the U.S. government, powerfully captures the circumstances that bred a revolutionary mindset as well as the factors that led to its demise.
3. IRAQ IN FRAGMENTS (2006)
James Longley's three-part chronicle of life after the fall of Saddam, assembled from two years of guerrilla reporting, is the most memorable of the decade's endless stream of Iraq docs not just for its street-level vantage but also for its poetic stylization, its refusal to portray a war zone in the numbing verite language of news reports.
2. THE ORDER OF MYTHS (2008)
Margaret Brown's wry, keenly observant exploration of the still segregated Mardi Gras celebrations in Mobile, Alabama, expands almost imperceptibly into a rich and complicated story about race and class and the curious power of tradition. More than contemplating the history of racism in America, the film does something altogether trickier: it shows why it persists.
1. THE UNFORSEEN (2007)
While most issue-based docs tend to simplify the issues, Laura Dunn's mesmerizing account of the long-running battle between growth and preservation in Austin, Texas, never stops looking for shades of gray. This beautiful, meditative film embraces a philosophical perspective so vast you might call it cosmic.