Questioning ‘Best Of’ Lists

Yet another “best of” list of documentaries made the rounds this week. This one appeared on Vulture and in New York Magazine, and it was titled, “The 20 Essential Documentaries of the Century.” Never mind that the century is less than 13 years in, but hey, why not go for the grand title, right?

The list should not surprise anyone familiar with documentary. The titles are exclusively ones that got some mainstream attention, and the list overall is very male in directors and subjects. It is also heavy with American titles. For example, An Inconvenient Truth, The Fog of War, Super Size Me, and Fahrenheit 9/11 are on the list.

These lists seem more about their writers and their publications. Out of curiosity, I checked out the media kit for Vulture. According to its mission statement,

Vulture is the go-to site for everyone who lives, breathes, and consumes entertainment. […] And Vulture is enthusiastic about the highbrow and the lowbrow, because you never know where brilliance will come from next.

With that entertainment focus, it almost becomes no surprise that the list contains what it does. What did come as a surprise: no sports docs. Nothing from 30 for 30. Not even Murderball, which is, well, entertaining.

I have to agree with Roger Ebert (R.I.P.) on these lists. I know they draw in readers and get people to leave comments (credit to the article’s authors for responding to the comments), but the discussion around documentary doesn’t really get too far.

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