As box-office analysts contemplate 2004’s numbers and trends, one thing will be apparent: It was another good year for documentaries.

The genre really picked up box-office steam in 2002, when Michael Moore’s “Bowling for Columbine”—about violence in America—earned more than $21 million. Prior to that, the biggest documentary moneymaker had been “Hoop Dreams,” a 1994 film that followed two high-school basketball players and their big-time aspirations. It earned almost $8 million.

But Moore, who made a name for himself with 1989’s “Roger & Me,” is really the guy who’s put documentary on the commercial map. It’s not that there were no good documentaries before Moore; it’s just that his style has given them more notice in the marketplace.

Thus, as a USA Today article noted back in July, six of the 10 biggest documentary moneymakers have been released in the last two years.

The granddaddy, of course, is Moore’s lightning rod “Fahrenheit 9/11,” which took the Bush administration to task and spawned a host of counter-documentaries and even a conservative film festival. “Fahrenheit,” which opened in June, earned close to $120 million in theaters and sold 2 million DVD and VHS units on its first day of release, Oct. 5.

But 2004 has seen other critical and even commercial documentary successes. “Super Size Me,” about a guy who ate nothing but McDonald’s for 30 days, earned more than $10 million theatrically. “Touching the Void,” about a terrifying mountain-climbing episode, earned more than $4 million.

Other projects, like “Born Into Brothels,” “Paper Clips” and “Metallica: Some Kind of Monster” have garnered critical praise and proven to be much more entertaining and significant than the latest over-budgeted, over-marketed, over-hyped “blockbuster” that the studios greenlit.

Reasons for the genre’s recent commercial success are varied. They include: a public that wants a meatier narrative than what Hollywood has been offering; a public that is more comfortable with earthier production values; and distribution companies that are giving documentaries the time of day.

Nielsen EDI—a box-office tracking firm—has tallied 77 documentaries in theatrical release this year. That’s up from 55 in 2003.

So if you haven’t seen a documentary recently, check one out at the theater or rental store. Chances are good it’ll be just as meaningful as the movie advertised on your fast-food cup.

Cliff Vaughn is culture editor for

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