Image: "Cane Toads: The Conquest"
Forget the boring documentaries that you suffered through in school -- today's filmmakers use everything from 3D technology and IMAX lenses to custom-designed equipment and pop soundtracks to draw attention to their causes.
Covering topics ranging from an ousted family of lions searching for a home to a steady invasion of toads on an unsuspecting town to the mysterious disappearance of bees, these films are worth seeing above and beyond their environmental messages.
1. "Cane Toads: The Conquest"
The trailer for "Cane Toads: The Conquest" seems like a lighthearted take on classic horror films -- but the move is anything but.
Sure, northern Australia wasn't attacked by the Blob or the 50-Foot Woman, but for residents, the cane toads have been just as life-changing.
Director Mark Lewis follows the toads as they make their way across the country, using 3D film technology and custom equipment to put together a comic -- and powerful -- look at the problems of invasive species. The 2010 film was an award nominee at Sundance, the Los Angeles Film Festival, and Seattle International Film Festival.
2. "Queen of the Sun"Video: YouTube
"If we didn't have bees to pollinate our crops we'd have to eat just bread and oatmeal all the time," says one expert in the trailer for "Queen of the Sun", a documentary (and 2010 nominee at the Seattle International Film Festival) about the staggering impact of colony collapse disorder on human civilization.
From the first use of pesticides and sprays to modern-day beekeepers and conservation efforts, see how altering the secret lives of bees could end up stinging us all.
3. "Memoirs of a Plague"Video: YouTube
The plague of grasshoppers that infested Australia in September 2010 was the most massive in that country's history -- and filmmaker Robert Nugent was there, turning his camera on the farmers, residents, and crops affected by the insects.
While desperate towns tried to combat the grasshoppers, Nugent used it as an opportunity to frame the story in a more expansive context; the finished product, the 2011 "Memoirs of a Plague," is about "the tension between ecology, fate, civilization, and science." The film was nominated for the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam's Green Screen category.
4. "The Last Lions"Video: YouTube
As the mother and her cubs travel across Africa looking for a new life, they're threatened by animal enemies -- and by human activity. With lion populations dropping dramatically every year, this documentary offers up a look at the dangers faced by the world's most majestic predator.
Says Washington Post film critic Stephanie Merry: "While jaw-dropping footage of the animals of the African bush is a remarkable aspect of "The Last Lions," more impressive still is the strong narrative thread that runs through the nature documentary."
5. "The Last Mountain"Video: YouTube
In a small town in the West Virginia Appalachians, Massey Energy mining company is about to reduce the last remaining peak -- Coal River Mountain -- to a pile of ash.
But in the 2011 "The Last Mountain", the residents of the town are ready to fight back, and with Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. (this time, apparently, a mountain advocate instead of a river advocate) lending his support, they're standing up for their land, their children's future, and their health. Nominated for the Sundance Film Festival, the film will be released June 3.
6. "Carbon Nation"Video: YouTube
Released February 11, "Carbon Nation" bills itself as "a climate change solutions movie that doesn't even care if you believe in climate change" -- which makes it the kind of film that even your climate-change denier friends can get behind on movie night.
The movie makes a very simple point: You don't have to believe in global warming to want clean air and water, more jobs, a sturdier economy, and cheaper energy. And if your skeptical friends still aren't on board, then there may not be a movie in the world that can change their minds.
According to The Village Voice, "Alternative energy sources-algae, wind, and geothermal-are showcased, but "Carbon Nation" is most persuasive when it focuses on the individuals utilizing those supplies in their communities."