Truth Is Stranger Than Fiction: 10 Unforgettable Sundance Docs From the ‘00s

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The documentaries that came out of Sundance did justice to this downer of a decade. You could put together a reasonably good outline of the Iraq occupation, the war on terror, the environmental crisis or the financial bubble just by surveying the festival’s nonfiction offerings. These are our top 10.

1. Biggie and Tupac
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.

2. Control Room
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.

3. Dig!
The most resonant of many fine music-themed docs that premiered at Sundance in the’00s, 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.

4. Grizzly Man
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. Iraq in Fragments
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.

6. No End in Sight
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.

7. The Order of Myths
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.

8. The Unforseen
While most issue-based docs tend to simplify things, 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 movie embraces a philosophical perspective so vast you might call it cosmic.

9. The Weather Underground
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.

10. Zoo
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 movie treats its subject with the utmost compassion, freeing him from his posthumous fate as a tabloid punch line.