10. Festival Express: Special Edition
After years of delay following rights issues, the legend of the Festival Express has finally been given new life. This 1970 tour of the music world's most talented acts---including The Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin, Buddy Guy, and more---was more than just a popular tour: it was an experience. The massive, customized train than held all of the artists (and their gear!) was home to some very interesting stories, many of which come to light in Festival Express, a fly-on-the-wall portrait of the infamous tour by director Bob Smeaton. Countless hours of footage were shot---both on the stage and behind the scenes---and the finished product is a real blast from the past. Though there are a few disappointments with this release (especially the shorter running time, since there was so much footage available), it's a miracle this film saw the light of day in any condition. All in all, it's a uniquely satisfying trip back in musical history and one of this year's most pleasant surprises.
Reviews by Randy Miller III and Aaron Beierle.
9. The Line King: The Al Hirschfeld Story
I can almost hear Al Hirschfeld's art teacher when he was a young boy, doodling away: "You'll never get anywhere by drawing those silly cartoons!" The late, great caricature artist used his flowing style to create countless portraits for the better part of the 20th century, making it look ridiculously easy in the process (of course, caricatures are far from easy: in addition to pleasing yourself as an artist, you've got to please the buck-toothed guy you're drawing). His artwork was featured in The New York Times for seven decades, and his love of art kept him drawing for many years after. The Line King paints a fantastic portrait of this artist, family man, and all-around nice guy who used his natural ability to create a truly legendary body of work. Although it's a fitting tribute, there's only one drawback to this terrific documentary: it'll make you miss his work even more.
Reviews by Glenn Erickson and Gil Jawetz.
8. Fahrenheit 9/11
Easily one of 2004's most controversial films, Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 disappointed me upon first viewing. Furthermore, the actual labeling of the film as a "documentary" may not be completely accurate; after all, it heavily favors personal opinion over a completely objective presentation. Still, it's hard not to admire Michael Moore's spirit: he goes to new lengths to look for the truth, and that's worth a lot in my book. Our media-saturated world has given many Americans good reason to second guess the powers-that-be, and it's good to know that films like Fahrenheit 9/11 can be created with passion and put under the microscope. No matter if you love Michael Moore or despise him, there's one fact about this film that can't be denied: it's a provocative film that took guts to get made, and---above all else---encourages viewers to look closer, get up and take action.
Review by Geoffrey Kleinman.
7. Super Size Me
I'll admit it: I really didn't want to see Super Size Me when I first heard about it. It seemed like an unnecessary sermon to anyone with an ounce of common sense: "if you eat too much junk food, you'll probably end up in bad shape". The growing problem of obesity in America led director Morgan Spurlock to do the unthinkable: eat at McDonald's for 30 days (for every meal!), and capture it on film for the world to see. Spurlock is certainly a changed man during this experiment, but obviously for the worse: his health is rapidly in decline and he's ignored his doctor's advice to quit, but he presses onward to prove his point. It's a wild, nauseating ride for sure, but easily one of 2004's most compelling subjects. A real wake-up call to the fast food lovers of the world, Super Size Me essential viewing for habitual drive-thru patrons...just don't eat anything while you're watching, and you'll be fine.
Review by Aaron Beierle.
6. Horns and Halos
Perhaps one of 2004's most overlooked releases, Horns and Halos follows the controversy surrounding author J.H. Hatfield's Fortunate Son, a biography about a certain governor of Texas that would later become President of the United States (that's George W. for the cheap seats). After including a few remarks about Bush's use of cocaine in the 1970s, though, the book was recalled and burned (yes, books are still being burned...go figure). Anyway, the book was eventually put back into print by an independent publisher, but Hetfield had since committed suicide. If that isn't an intriguing premise for a documentary, I don't know what is. Horns and Halos takes a detailed look at the author, his work, and the controversy surrounding it. It's one of the best documentaries that you've probably never heard of, but it's well worth tracking down. Microfilms has also really gone the extra mile with the DVD, as this 2-disc Special Edition is absolutely packed with invaluable supplements.
Review by Ian Jane.
5. Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch's War On Journalism
Politics, politics, politics. It's enough to make your average American viewers either fall asleep, change the channel, or be driven to insanity. Fortunately, director Robert Greenwald and company have taken it upon themselves to cut through most of the red tape with Outfoxed, a scathing look at the dark underbelly of the Fox News Network. Although it leans toward to the opininated extreme---much like Fahrenheit 9/11---this film is absolutely filled with footage of the "fair and balanced" network acting as anything but. I'll have to warn you, though: if you're not a fan of Bill O'Reilly now, Outfoxed won't change your mind. In all honesty, it's one of the most chilling accounts of media bias you're likely to see, and really worth watching...especially if you're a regular viewer of the network. It's not the most feature packed and glossed-over DVDs you'll ever see, but the information found herein is worth its weight in gold.
Review by Stuart Galbraith IV.
4. Tom Dowd and the Language of Music
Remember that Al Hirschfeld guy back at the #9 spot? There's another legendary man who spent his life doing what he loved, though it was behind a control panel instead of a drawing board. Tom Dowd, one of the music industry's most prolific and well-respected producers, spent his life making sure hundreds of classic albums sounded just right. Through his life-spanning career, he'd worked with Eric Clapton, Ray Charles, Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, and many other of the best artists of the 20th century. Tom Dowd and the Language of Music is a compelling look at the man behind the production, and a terrific example of someone who changed an industry by doing what he loved to do. This bulk of the new footage was completed right around the time of Dowd's passing, making it a truly unique reflection on his life's work. Palm Pictures presents the film in a solid DVD package, making this one a must for any music lover.
Review by Randy Miller III.
3. Wisconsin Death Trip
eath Trip was easily one of 2004's most surprising DVDs. Essentially, it's an adaptation of Michael Lesy's 1973 book about a series of strange, violent events that took place in late 19th-century Wisconsin. Newly-shot footage has been combined with a series of actual photographs from the time period to create a truly unique portrait of this mysterious chapter in American History. The slow, lyrical pace of the film and several graphic events depicted onscreen may be too potent a combination for some viewers, but this reviewer considers Wisconsin Death Trip to be in a class all by itself. Originally completed in 1999, director James Marsh's film was finally released on DVD this year courtesy of Home Vision, and it's one of the most overlooked discs that's really worth hunting down.
Reviews by Randy Miller III and Glenn Erickson.
2. Capturing The Friedmans
One of the most talked-about documentaries upon its release in January of 2004, Capturing the Friedmans is still near the top at year's end. It's one of the darkest portraits of the average American family you'll ever see, and the film's strong undercurrent of mystery makes this a gripping watch...even on repeated viewings. Utilizing a virtual library of home footage and more recent interviews with the family members, friends and victims, Capturing the Friedmans takes a long, hard look at a family accused of unspeakable crimes and the media hype that surrounded the legal proceedings. Like several other films on the list, this film can be incredibly tough to watch...but Capturing the Friedmans is still one of the year's best, and well worth adding to your DVD library. If the film wasn't enough, this two-disc set is packed with terrific bonus features, including more behind-the-scenes footage and the controversy surrounding the film itself.
Review by Matthew Millheiser
1. My Flesh And Blood
Sometimes the most inspiring stories come in the most unlikely of places. First-time director Jonathan Karsh has created something of a modern marvel with My Flesh And Blood, an extremely personal look at an extraordinary family. The brave leader of the house, Susan Tom, has taken the concept of motherhood to new heights by adopting eleven children, many of whom suffer from rare, often incurable diseases including Cystic Fibrosis and Epidermolysis Bullosa. With the help of her natural-born children, Susan deals with the complications these diseases bring to her family, and does so in a completely selfless manner. This amazing footage---taken over the course of a year by Karsh and a small film crew---covers family life at its most tragic, heartwarming, and above all else: realistic. Thankfully, Docurama has given this film an excellent treatment on DVD, including a great widescreen transfer and a generous dose of appropriate special features. In all regards, My Flesh And Blood is one of the rare films that not only moves you, but has the power to change the way you think.
Review by Randy Miller III
There were tons of other great documentaries this year, so here's a complete list of 2004's most highly recommended releases. A special honorable mention goes out to the excellent Radio Bikini: this eye-opening look at atomic bomb testing was gunning for top honors, but it was unfortunately released a bit too early...December 30, 2003! Review by Randy Miller III
- Randy Miller III