Bests of the Decade - Documentary

Because we reckon you’ll not have had enough of voting for things yet, every day between now and Christmas Eve we’re giving you the chance to vote for The DreamCage Bests of the Decade. Today’s category is Documentary...

It’s nearly the end of 2019 and that means it’s also the end of the decade [according to some – Ed] so we asked our stalwart team of writers to give us some suggestions of what they considered to be the “Best of the Decade” in NINE different categories – English Language Film, Foreign Language Film, Documentary (Film or TV), TV Series, TV Mini-Series, Fiction Book, Non Fiction Book, Comic/Graphic Novel and Gaming.

Their nominations were collated, hard sums were done [there was even a spreadsheet! – Ed] and the list has been narrowed down. Now we want you, our readers, to decide which of the final four nominations will become The DreamCage Best of the Decade winners!

"I don't watch documentaries, they're boring." What?! I heard someone say that the other day and it annoyed me. A lot. But, once the spluttering had stopped, I sat and thought about it. Yes, I guess, back in the day, documentaries were pretty much extended news reports or talking heads or Open University lectures in a theatre in front of a chalk board but that has changed so very much!

In 2004, Fahrenheit 9/11, the Michael Moore documentary about the Bush administration, won the Palme d'Or at Cannes film festival. The first documentary ever to do so. From there, the increase in interest for investigative journalism and, to some extent, the explosion in popularity of reality TV, have meant that the documentation of the world around us and our reactions to it has been a growing phenomenon, both in cinemas and on TV, especially over the last 10 years. A lot of this, as with films not in an English language that we talked about (here) yesterday, can be attributed to their increased availability to audiences courtesy of streaming services and original content producers.

But I think something else has also contributed to the increase and that is the vast improvement in how documentaries are made as well as what they are trying to tell us.  Gone is the dry, lecture style of presentation with a few photos, a graph and a droning voice that very quickly starts to sound like the school teacher in Charlie Brown. Instead we have interesting (and interested) enthusiastic experts transmitting the passion for their work through the screens at us - think of David Attenborough, Brian Cox, Simon Reeve, even Louis Theroux, and you'll see the difference that an engaging presenter can make. Documentary makers are also far better story-tellers than they used to be, understanding the need for cinematic moments, often using unscripted human reaction or the thrill of nature in action to create drama and keep us hooked.

It's ironic too, that in the post-truth world that we seem to be living in now, where spin makes lies into facts, that facts themselves have become so much more important in people's lives. They are seeking out sources of information to see for themselves what, before, they may have just believed without checking. They are also being made aware of the history and future of peoples, places and events that were only names to them before. The danger is, though, that some documentaries still present a skewed version of the truth with a conscious or unconscious bias creeping in to the documentary makers art. However, if watching documentaries of any sort can spark water-cooler discussions, open doors to previously inaccessible areas of knowledge or lead us to re-engage with the people, and the planet, around us, encouraging us to learn and discover more, then more power to them.

Our four main nominations are below, but other recommendations from our writing team included the 2011 TV series All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace, arguing that computers have not freed up humanity but have instead distorted our view of the world. There's also 180° South, a 2010 travelogue with a difference as a conservationist's 1968 trip from California down the coast of Chile to Patagonia is recreated. On the political front, both CitizenFour, the Laura Poitras documentary about Edward Snowden after the NSA spying scandal, and Fahrenheit 11/9, Michael Moore's follow up to his 2004 documentary, this time looking at the 2016 Presidential election and what that would mean for America, get a mention. And, on the arts end of the spectrum, we recommend that you seek out We Are X, about the biggest rock band in the world, who are not the band you think they are.

Here are our four nominations, in no particular order. Bear in mind that we couldn’t watch/read/play everything that came out in the last ten years, so your own personal favourites may not be here, but these are some of ours…

We Steal Secrets (read Steve's review)

"A documentary that details the creation of Julian Assange's controversial website, which facilitated the largest security breach in U.S. history. Filmed with the startling immediacy of unfolding history, Academy Award-winning director Alex Gibney’s We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks details the creation of Julian Assange’s controversial website, which facilitated the largest security breach in U.S. history. Hailed by some as a free-speech hero and others as a traitor and terrorist, the enigmatic Assange’s rise and fall are paralleled with that of PFC Bradley Manning, the brilliant, troubled young soldier who downloaded hundreds of thousands of documents from classified U.S. military and diplomatic servers, revealing the behind-the-scenes workings of the government’s international diplomacy and military strategy."

The Act of Killing (and the follow up, The Look of Silence)

"In the 1960s, Anwar Congo was a leader in Indonesia's pro-regime paramilitary the Pancasila Youth who, along with his band of dedicated followers, was amongst those who participated in the murder and torture more than a million alleged Communists, ethnic Chinese and intellectuals. Proud of their deeds and completely unpunished, Anwar and his pals are delighted when the film's director ask them to re-enact these murders for their documentary - in any genre they desire. Initially Anwar and his friends enthusiastically take up the challenge using hired actors, making elaborate sets and costumes and even using pyrotechnic, but eventually as the movie violence is played out and reconstructed, Anwar finally begins to feel unease and remorse."

Best Before Death (read Susan's review on

"Bill Drummond is on tour... for the rest of his life. Filmed in Kolkata, India, and in Lexington, North Carolina, Drummond does his self-imposed 'work' – building beds, baking cakes, making soup, shining shoes – to the variously amused, perplexed or annoyed reactions of those around him. Made by a team including Oscar-nominated cinematographer Robbie Ryan & Emmy-winning producer Robert Gordon, Best Before Death follows Drummond over two years of the 12-year World Tour which Drummond expects to take him the rest of his life to complete."

I Am Not Your Negro

"Told entirely in the words of James Baldwin, through both personal appearances and the text of his final unfinished book project, I Am Not Your Negro touches on the lives and assassinations of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., and Medgar Evers to bring powerful clarity to how the image and reality of Blacks in America today is fabricated and enforced."

So, which will it be? There are polls running today on our Twitter page for you to vote for your favourite from the final four listed above (no prizes, it’s just for fun). Also, the polls will change every day so be quick if you want to vote in this one! The winners, as decided by you, of all nine categories will be listed on The DreamCage website in a special article on Christmas Eve when we announce The DreamCage Bests of the Decade!

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