There's been a recent revival of, if not documentary filmmaking, at least film writing about documentaries. Before leaving the A.V. Club, critic Scott Tobias made the (righteous) argument that documentaries have to be just as formally sharp as the most skilled narratives to merit serious discussion rather than getting rubber-stamped approval simply by offering up informative talking points. That premise differed markedly from two triumphal pieces on the allegedly rising commercial and critical status of the documentary. First, David Edelstein enthused that the form had become "incredibly sexy"; following his lead, Tom Shone said that "the recent renaissance of documentary film-making is a direct antibody response to the superhero steroids being pumped through multiplexes every weekend."
You might remember a similar wave of trend pieces about ten years ago. Then, the success of seven titles — 2002's "Bowling For Columbine," 2003's "Spellbound" and "Winged Migration," 2004's "Super Size Me" and "Fahrenheit 9/11," 2005's "March of the Penguins" and "Mad Hot Ballroom" — had entertainment writers cranking out pieces on how the documentary, after years of critical/commercial marginalization, was here to stay and take its rightful place alongside narrative films on the box-office charts. That optimism was a short-lived reiteration of equally gung-ho sentiments from the mid-'90s, when there was another much-noted (albeit lower-grossing) wave of documentaries, led by "Crumb," "When We Were Kings" and the perpetually-revered "Hoop Dreams."
The arguments made by Shone and Edelstein go back even further in time. Intentionally or not, both directly echo Pauline Kael, who concluded her 1969 essay "Trash, Art, And the Movies" by saying that "now, for example, I really want documentaries. [...] I am desperate to know something, desperate for facts, for information, for faces of non-actors and for knowledge of how people live—for revelations, not for the little bits of show-business detail worked up for us by show-business minds who got them from the same movies we’re tired of." Kael's "I" is Shone's public, but the idea in both cases is effectively the same: reality (however tenuously defined) is craved when Hollywood's fantasies seem increasingly threadbare and unrewarding. Likewise, when Edelstein says the word "documentary" "carries an implicit threat: 'Time for class, children,'" he's following Kael's lead when she observed that as kids, "there are categories of films we don't like — documentaries generally (they're too much like education)."
I'd argue (politely!) that both Shone and Edelstein are wrong about the documentary's rising status and what the public generally wants from them, and that the reasons they're wrong are germane to why mainstream discussion about the "documentary" form is wrong and unhelpful. The term "documentary" is increasingly untenable, seeing as it's come to have connotations untampered reality: "non-fiction film" is more to the mark, implying a basis in at least some degree of unconstructed/unmediated footage without firm quotas on the ratio of truth to fiction. That said, Edelstein's article includes a plausible breakdown of the documentary into 17 different sub-genres. Some seem unquestionable ("Ken Burns [...] Photos, archival footage, talking heads"), others tenuous ("Arty/Collage"?), but it's a reasonably thorough stab at current taxonomy, with room for hybrids and undefinable outliers.
Now let's take a look at the movies dating back over the last decade that could (charitably) be called "non-fiction" which actually cracked the domestic top 100 for each year:
2012: "2016: Obama's America" (#95 — one slot below "Monster's Inc. 3D")
2011: "Justin Bieber: Never Say Never" (#50)
2010: "Jackass 3-D" (#23); "Hubble 3D" (#82)
2009: "Michael Jackson's This Is It" (#46); "Bruno" (#55); "Earth" (#88); "Under The Sea 3D" (#92)
2008: "Hannah Montana/Miley Cyrus: Best of Both Worlds Concert Tour" (#48)
2007: "Sea Monsters: A Prehistoric Adventure (IMAX)" (#100)
2006: "Borat" (#16); "Jackass: Number Two" (#33);
2005: "March Of The Penguins" (#27)
2004: "Fahrenheit 9/11" (#17)
2003: none (!)
2002: "Space Station 3D (IMAX)" (#30); "The Crocodile Hunter: Collision Course" (#92)
None of these have very much to do with "reality" in the sense of "look, learn and challenge your reality." "Borat" and the "Jackass" films are borderline "documentaries" (they record basically unfaked realities provoked into existence, so I'm including them), while "Fahrenheit 9/11" and 2016: "Obama's America" are political polemics with built-in, pre-ordained audiences. That leaves us with IMAX spectacles, cute animals/kids, political self-righteousness, and close-ups of celebrities and musicians on stage and "behind the scenes." These movies are hardly representatives of tough, unvarnished reality, and their narrative approaches are likewise comfortingly familiar.
Box Office Mojo's list of the highest-grossing documentaries since 1980 excludes IMAX, concert movies and reality TV shows (though it oddly includes "hybrids" like Bieber's "Never Say Never"), an indication of the term's connotational slipperiness. Examining the top 20, most entries are political preaching to the choir, concert movies that snuck in anyway (Bieber, "Katy Perry: Pieces Of Me" and "Madonna: Truth Or Dare") or nature docs. Those aside, we're left with "Super Size Me" (which managed to jump-start a public health trend rather than latching onto a built-in, food-worried audience) and "Hoop Dreams," the only classical verite doc in the upper commercial bracket. Things get more interesting as you travel down the list, but the overall balance is clearly in favor of basic pleasures and low on "reality."
One reason historical or issues docs might be excluded here as a popular genre (except, again, for those with a built-in political audience) is that didactic streak Kael and Edelstein cite, which prompts the recollection of stultifying classroom hours staring at indifferently paced assemblages of still photos and droning voice-overs. For many casual viewers, this'll be their only association with the genre. Such films are overtly intended to inform, insisting their content precludes any jazziness in approach; their virtue is, precisely, their truth-value, and nothing else. It's clear viewers don't feel tugged towards these titles when they exit the classroom and acquire box office purchasing power.
That brings us back to Tobias' piece. Sticking to movies that actually got American distribution, however token, I can list quite a few as beautifully made as they were commercially marginal: e.g. "Only The Young," a deceptively blissed-out look at Christian Cali skater teens and "Whores' Glory," a horrific/gorgeously shot triptych on prostitution around the world. Both were scantily reviewed, and both sound quite awful in synoptic form; visual surprises lurk in every shot, but not in outline. Neither critics nor the public are used to talking about documentaries as beautiful/hypnotic/etc., leaving such titles in an awkward lurch. It's foolish optimism to think hyper-formalist documentaries (where is where really interesting things are occurring now) will have any more commercial success than their strictly fictional components any time soon; right now they don't even get that. Positing that information and reality are the documentary's biggest selling points isn't an argument for the genre: it's an evaluative checklist ignoring developments in the field, doing both the genre and box-office prognostication an equally big disservice.