Tom RostonIndependent journalist Tom Roston checks in and writes about the world of documentaries in his column, Doc Soup.

You can follow Tom on Twitter @DocSoupMan.

Doc Soup: Docs of 2009: The Year in Review

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As another year comes to a close, we have another opportunity to look back at what was. It is also, of course, the end of a decade, which is even more tempting to reflect upon — but let’s keep our eye on the recent past for a moment here.

Michael Jackson: This Is ItJust take a look at the documentaries that were most watched in the theaters this year: it’s an interesting reflection of how diverse nonfiction filmmaking is these days. Does the number one nonfiction film of the year, Michael Jackson’s This Is It, have anything in common with the number four doc, Michael Moore‘s Capitalism: A Love Story? Not really, but MJ has company with the number three film, Jonas Brothers: The 3D. There were also a couple of sports films (X Games 3D: The Movie and More than a Game) and a big-budget nature doc (Earth) toward the top of the list.

And then there were the various docs that I think many here feel more interest in: the social issue and cultural narrative nonfiction films. It was a good year for fashionistas, with two really great films (The September Issue and Valentino: The Last Emperor) hitting it pretty big. But environmental-lifestyle issues seemed to be the hot subject this year, with Food, Inc., the number 5 film, being probably the most buzzed-about doc this year. There was also The Cove, the film about the dolphin slaughter in Japan.

No Impact ManAmong my circle of friends, I’d say No Impact Man was a close second to being the hottest-topic doc, just behind Food, Inc.. But Impact made very little impact at the box office, earning just $100,000 in theaters. I find this incredible, but also revealing: some docs don’t have to make boffo box office to actually make their message heard. There were so many articles and blog posts about the film, and it’s such a good conversation piece, that it got quite a bit of buzz even though people didn’t go out to buy tickets to see it. This may not be good news for the filmmakers’ bottom line, but it’s certainly encouraging for docs in general.

Looking at the box office list also revealed a film I heard nothing about: Yoo-hoo, Mrs. Goldberg, which is about Gertrude Berg, a woman who had a radio show that became the first TV sitcom. Not only did I know nothing about Berg, I’d never heard of the doc, nor had I seen any media about it. And I see that it’s only playing in theaters in places like Schenectady, New York, Worcester, Massachusetts, and various cities in Florida — yet it’s made just over a million dollars. How could this film have made it to number 13 doc in terms of box office? I may have to track down director Aviva Kempner (The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg) and see just how she managed to tap into the little old Jewish lady syndicate to create a doc hit. It appears there are always new markets for doc filmmakers, as Kempner’s film reveals.

As for the past decade of docs — yeesh, it seems too large a subject matter to sum up in this post. I’ll just say that it was, indeed, “The Decade of the Documentary,” when you consider the way documentary films and reality television continued to explode throughout the culture, time and again. There were so many great films, and so many great filmmakers who emerged; it seems worthy of a book.

And the future? As I noted recently, the upcoming documentary slate at Sundance suggests that things are not slowing down. I look forward to seeing what the next decade brings.

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Tom Roston
Tom Roston
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He comes to us as a ten-year veteran of Premiere magazine, where he was a Senior Editor, and where he wrote the column, Notes from the Dream Factory. Tom was born and raised in New York City. He graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom has also written for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, GQ, New York, Elle and other publications. Tom's favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi - Godfrey Reggio 2. Hoop Dreams - Steve James 3. The Up series - Michael Apted 4. Crumb - Terry Zwigoff 5. Capturing the Friedmans - Andrew Jarecki