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Top Ten Documentaries of 2003
by Holly E. Ordway

2003 saw an amazing number of documentaries come to DVD, but making the list of the top ten was surprisingly difficult. The first five spots on this list were easy to choose, as these were the true standouts of the year; after that, it was tough to pick five more choices from a variety of solid documentaries. This list ranges from ancient history to current events, and from the natural world to the world of computers; the one thing all ten titles have in common is that they're great DVDs.

1. The Life of Mammals
This jaw-droppingly beautiful and intelligent exploration of the world of mammals, written and hosted by David Attenborough, is the best of the best. Packed with insights and featuring extraordinary footage that uses the latest technology to peek inside the hidden worlds of mammals both great and small, The Life of Mammals is a ten-part paean to the fascination and wonder of the animal world. Not only that, the series is presented in a stunning anamorphic widescreen transfer with outstanding sound quality. If you buy only one documentary this year, it should be The Life of Mammals. (Review by Holly E. Ordway)

2. The 2003 Tour de France: Lance Armstrong Joins the Greats
The Tour de France is the world's largest single sporting event, and it's the culmination of a year's worth of preparation for many riders and teams... Lance Armstrong chief among them. This five-disc, twelve-hour epic presentation of the 2003 Tour deserves high marks on two counts: it's a nail-biting, edge-of-the-seat race, the most exciting edition in over a decade, and it's a phenomenal DVD package that covers all the action, both on the road and behind the scenes. There's also a four-hour condensed version for Tour "newbies," but for any fan of bicycle racing, the 12-hour Collector's Edition is the only way to go. (Review by Holly E. Ordway)

3. The Living Planet
2003 was graced with two David Attenborough releases this year: The Life of Mammals was the first, and The Living Planet was the second. This 1984 series finally makes it onto DVD, and it's worth the wait, as Attenborough takes us on a dazzling journey through the different ecosystems of the Earth, from the tropical jungle to the frozen north and everywhere in between. Visually it's not outstanding, but it's also twenty years old; what's more to the point is that its intelligence and capacity to inspire awe and wonder shine just as brightly as ever. (Review by Holly E. Ordway)

4. Egypt's Golden Empire
Ancient Egypt is an ever-popular topic for documentaries; Egypt's Golden Empire is one that takes a fresh look at the subject and gives us something fresh, engaging, focused, and very polished. Rather than skimming over the same old generalities, this documentary, part of PBS's Empires series, takes a close look at the "New Kingdom," a period more than a thousand years after the pyramids had been built, but still deep within the ancient past. We get to know the rise and fall of individual pharaohs, see how and why events turned out as they did, and see what life was like in 1500 BC. This is one documentary that sets a high standard for all historical programs. (Review by Holly E. Ordway)

5. The Hard Road
Ever wonder how riders like Lance Armstrong got started? It's a "hard road" indeed, as we see in the very personal and very powerful documentary about Net Zero, a small professional team struggling to get results and stay afloat in the U.S. domestic racing scene. A labor of love by Jamie Paolinetti, whom we also see in the film, as the team leader and veteran rider on team Net Zero, The Hard Road follows the riders through one full season, showing the ups and downs of life on the road racing circuit. It's of particular interest to anyone who's ever raced a bicycle or followed pro racing, but more than that, it's an insightful look at a group of people who are giving everything they have to follow their dreams. (Review by Holly E. Ordway)

6. The Century of Warfare
If you ever doubted that war has had a defining influence on modern human history, this epic documentary would soon convince you otherwise. Starting with the precursor events to World War I, and moving steadily onward to the present day, The Century of Warfare shows us what happened, how it happened, and most importantly, why it happened. Amazingly, we see everything first-hand: real archival footage is used throughout the entire program, from pre-1914 conflicts to events in the Middle East. This seven-volume set is quite a commitment to watch, but it's worth it. (Review by Holly E. Ordway)<

7. Jane Goodall's Wild Chimpanzees
This IMAX film takes you into the jungle world of renowned primatologist Jane Goodall, who has devoted her life to understanding chimpanzees and, sadly, defending them from the predations of humankind. Though it's only forty minutes long, this film is packed with fascinating information about chimpanzee life and culture, showing that there's no clear dividing line between "human" and "not human." Not only that, the DVD boasts a phenomenal DTS audio track that brings the jungle right into your living room, making this an even more immersive viewing experience. (Review by Holly E. Ordway)

8. Revolution OS
Yes, there's an alternative to the Microsoft monopoly on operating systems, and it's called Linux. Revolution OS is its story: from its origins in an MIT lab to the present day, the film traces the development of this revolutionary idea of free software shared among people who are motivated by making better programs, not more money. With its interviews of key figures like Richard Stallman and Linus Torvalds, Revolution OS is sure to appeal to engineers and computer geeks, but it also has a broader appeal, showing what the "hacker ethic" really means, and capturing the vision of Open Source and the Free Software Movements. (Review by Holly E. Ordway)

9. Walking with Cavemen
Following in the footsteps of Walking with Dinosaurs and Walking with Beasts, this BBC production takes us back to explore the lives of our earliest ancestors, from Australopithecus afarensis to Homo habilis and the Neanderthals. It's a nice finishing touch for the "Walking with..." series, showing clearly how humans have been shaped by the forces of evolution just as every other living creature on the planet has been. It's a thought-provoking program that explores how things that we take for granted, like the ability to speak, or a sense of curiosity, were evolutionary advantages that enabled our earliest ancestors to live and thrive in a variety of environments. (Review by James W. Powell)

10. Winged Migration: Special Edition
Finishing up this list is a documentary that's really a sensory experience: following birds in flight around the globe, showing us their lives on the wing. While it doesn't provide much by way of information about the birds (for that we'll turn to the earlier release of The Life of Birds), it's undoubtedly an intriguing and impressive experience. (Review by Aaron Beierle)

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