Tuesday, January 15, 2013

2012 Year End: The Best Documentaries of 2012

Every year, I try to watch more documentaries than the year before – and yet it seems like every year, it gets harder and harder to keep up with them. Part of this is because while documentaries are more popular now than ever before, for the most part most docs only ever hit major cities and the decreasing number of independent theaters. So, as always, I missed some docs I wish I could have seen. I had the chance to see How to Survive a Plague and Chasing Ice and never got around to them. I never even had a chance to see: The Central Park Five, Ethel, The Gatekeepers (I'm hearing a March release date in Toronto for this), The House I Live In, Mea Maxima Culpa, The Waiting Room or West of Memphis (apparently this opens January 25th - so I'll see it then). I often say that I need a year, really, before I am truly comfortable with my top 10 list – after all the hype has died down. That’s doubly true for a list of the year’s best documentaries – since it takes you that long to have a chance to see them all.

Anyway, enough about the documentaries I didn’t see this year, and let’s move to the ones I did see. Like everything else, not all documentaries are good – if you read my post on the worst films of the year, you already know I hated 2016: Obama’s America, a ridiculous, dishonest film about President Obama that doesn’t take advantage of a real opportunity to make a reasoned case against the man. I didn’t hate The Ambassador, in fact I kind of admire director Mads Brugger’ tenacity in making his movie, but I cannot help but think that his motives were less pure than he makes them out to be. I was not much of a fan of the Oscar-nominated 5 Broken Cameras which told an undeniably interesting story, but it felt to me like they laid everything on a little too thick, trying to manipulate audience sympathy far more than was necessary.

There were a number of average, lightweight docs like Indie Game: The Movie about the world of independent game video game designers, Spike Lee’s Bad 25 an in-depth look at the making of and impact of Michael Jackson’s Bad album (I saw the TV version, and mildly enjoyed it, but don't think I'll see the whole thing when it's released for home viewing) and Morgan Spurlock’s Comicon Episode IV: A Fan’s Hope about how much fans love what they do. All were enjoyable. Similarly lightweight, but at least slightly better was Marley about Bob Marley – although I think another documentary is necessary to tell the whole story. Jiro Dreams of Sushi is an extremely entertaining documentary about a man who has dedicated his life to his craft – with a twinge of sadness to it as well. Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present was a fascinating look at the famed performance artist, especially her latest “exhibit” at MoMA – where she simply sat at a table staring at whoever sat across for her.

Then there were some average social issues docs – The Pruitt-Igoe Myth about the famed, failed housing project in St. Louis, We Are Legion about the so-called hacktivists who take on whatever pisses them off in the brave new world on the internet. The much talked about Bully shed light on an important issue, but I think there is more to this story that the documentary doesn’t get to in its rush to be an advocacy documentary.

A film that would have definitely been on my top 10 list of docs had it not been effectively a four part TV miniseries was Werner Herzog’s excellent On Death Row, four interviews with death row inmates that continues what Herzog did in Into the Abyss last year. Once again Herzog proves why he’s one of the best documentary filmmakers in the world. One of the very best documentaries I saw this year The Act of Killing was at TIFF, and I’m happy to say it has found distribution, and will be coming to theaters next year – when it will surely make this list.

Which brings us to the following - my 10 favorite documentaries of the year.

10. Detropia (Heidi Ewing & Rachel Grady)
With Jesus Camp and 12th and Delaware, Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady became one of my favorite documentary filmmaker duos out there right now. Their latest film, Detropia, is not quite as good as their earlier films, but is still a fascinating film. The film is about Detroit, and how since the closing of all the auto plants, it has essentially become an abandoned city. Half the city is now empty, the city is broke and cutting services they really shouldn’t, residents are unemployed or underemployed – and those who still work in the city do everything possible to move to the suburbs. And yet there are those who hang on, who try their best to make the city the love thrive. The title of the movie is stupid (get it? Detroit is a dystopia), but despite the film’s simple minded title, this is actually a fascinating documentary about one city that is a victim of modern capitalism – and a city that should serve as a lesson for the rest of America.

9. Dreams of a Life (Carol Morley)
You probably remember the story, even if you never knew the name Joyce Vincent. She was the sad, lonely woman who died in her apartment in 2003 and wasn’t discovered for more than three years. Perhaps the saddest part is when they finally did find her; she was surrounded by Christmas presents she was wrapping. Who were these presents for? Why did they not come check on her for three years? Why didn’t the government, who subsided her housing, come and check on her when she didn’t pay rent or utilities for years? And how does a person end up so isolated from the rest of the world that no one notices her gone for three years? Carol Morley’s documentary tries to answer these questions – but cannot. It finds many old friends, co-workers and boyfriends to talk to – and the Joyce Vincent they describe was beautiful, sexy and outgoing – if very private. We still don’t know what happened to Joyce Vincent, and that’s sad, and this daring, innovative documentary is not worse for not having the answer to the questions it raises – it just sad that Morley was the first one to ask the questions.

8. The Imposter (Bart Layton)
There are some stories just so bizarre that they have to be – because no one could possibly make them up. Such is the story that The Imposter tells. A young teenager disappeared from his Texas home in 1993 – and wasn’t heard from again for three years. Then someone claiming to be the missing boy is located in Spain, and tells a nearly impossible to imagine story of being kidnapped for a sex ring that he finally escaped from. But why does the boy look like he’s in his 20s, has different hair color, eye color and speaks with a French accent? Because, of course, he isn’t really the missing boy. Yet he fools everyone – even apparently the missing boys family, who brings him back to Texas, and lives with him for months – and even refuses to believe the authorities when they get suspicious and tell them there is no way this man could be their son? Why does the family so adamantly believe? Do they just want it to be true? Or is there something darker going on? The Imposter is a bizarre story that takes twists you will not see coming – and has access to pretty much all the players, including the imposter himself, and the boy’s family. Everyone except for the boy himself – who is still missing.

7. The Invisible War (Kirby Dick)
The Invisible War shines a light on one the American Military’s dirty little secrets – the near epidemic of rape and sexual assault that goes on within their ranks. The film documents the stories of many women who were raped while serving their country – which was bad enough – but perhaps even worse was the treatment they received afterwards. They were told to stop whining, not to report it at all because it would hurt their careers. In some cases, they were even charged with “adultery” under the military code, because they mean who raped them – their commanding officers – were married, even though they didn’t face any disciplinary actions. One woman was told she was asking for it because she was dressed provocatively in her official uniform skirt. This is an important issue, that the Military has known was a problem for decades – and until this movie was released, they did little to combat it. A powerful, important doc – that has already made a difference.

6. The Queen of Versailles (Lauren Greenfield)
Rich people live in their own world to a certain extent – unencumbered by the problems of normal people. When Lauren Greenfield started making The Queen of Versailles, she thought she was making a film about David Siegel, the owner of the largest time share company in the world, and his trophy wife Jackie, as they set about to build the largest private home in America. And then the market collapses, all that cheap money Siegel was using to fund his company went away and – shock – the bank wanted their money back. Not only that, but the suckers they duped into buying those time shares could no longer afford the payments and the company was in real danger. But of course, when you owe the bank hundreds of millions of dollars, instead of just a few thousand, you get breaks the rest of us don’t. The Queen of Versailles could have been a cruel film – a film that mocks this couple for their excesses – and yet while the movie does have some great moments showing Jackie’s cluelessness (asking the man at the Hertz Company the name of her driver for example), it is a strangely sympathetic film towards them. It is possible to hate what the Siegel’s stand for – David made it even easier this year, threatening to fire a bunch of people in Obama won re-election – and still see them as people. The Queen of Versailles manages that trick nicely.

5. Side by Side (Christopher Kenneally)
The biggest change in the movie world over the past decade and a half is the slow transition from film to digital. Casual viewers probably do not notice much of a difference, but there are people who are impassioned on both sides of the divide. It started innocently enough – with a little Danish film named The Celebration back in 1998 which was shot on a consumer grade camera, and while the visuals were grainy, it gave the filmmakers more flexibility in what they were shooting. American indie films followed suit shortly thereafter – and then George Lucas got involved with the Star Wars prequels, and everything changed forever. Christopher Kenneally’s documentary does a great job of interviewing a wide range of filmmakers – Lucas, James Cameron, the Wachowskis, Scorsese, Danny Boyle, Christopher Nolan – as well as various “below the line” talent like Directors of Photography and Editors (the interviews are actually conducted by Keanu Reeves, who is surprisingly knowledgeable about the subject). The result is a fascinating documentary – and a must for movie fans, who should care about what is happening, whether they are pro-film or pro-digital.

4. Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry (Alison Klayman)
China has gotten a lot of attention in recent years for becoming a more open society – and yet it still has a long way to go. Artist/activist Ai Weiwei has been a longtime critic of the Chinese regime, and does so at great risk to his own personal safety. He grew up the son of a man sent to a prison/re-education camp for his ideas, was educated in New York, and returned to China in the mid-1990s and has essentially been pestering the establishment ever since. In the wake of the devastating earthquake, that killed thousands of school children, Ai Weiwei set about on an ambitious mission of documenting every name of the children killed – something the government was unable to do. This documentary shows Ai Weiwei for what he is – a great artist and a vital activist, trying to push his country to be better than it currently is. He reminds us that while China has made progress, they are not there yet, and must keep pushing.

3. Searching for Sugar Man (Malik Bendjelloul)
One of the year’s great inspiration movies, about a talented singer-songwriter named Rodriguez who released two critically acclaimed albums in the early 1970s that no one ever bought or even heard of, and then disappeared from public view. Somehow he becomes a cult sensation in South Africa, inspiring many anti-Apartheid musicians and selling hundreds of thousands of albums in that country – similar numbers to acts like The Beatles or Elvis, even though no one in South Africa knows anything about him, despite their efforts to find out. In the late 1990s, they really try, and the result is astonishing. Most feel-good movies leave me feeling cold – the cynical bastard that I can be – but this one is truly inspiring and couldn’t help but bring a smile to my face. And the music in the film truly is brilliant.

2. This is Not a Film (Jafar Panahi & Mojtaba Mirtahmasb)
Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi was arrested, charged and convicted of propaganda against the regime, and given a six year prison sentence and a 20 year ban on making any films, leaving the country or giving media interviews. As he sits in his apartment awaiting the results of his appeal, he decides to film himself – on a cheap camera and his iPhone. While he is not allowed to direct a film, he thinks shooting himself talking on the phone or reading a screenplay isn’t the same thing. His friend and collaborator Mojtaba Mirtahmasb comes by to help him, and when Panahi gives the direction to cut at a certain point, Mirtahmasb refuses, correctly pointing out that if he did, that would mean Panahi was directing. We see other scenes in the film – Panahi talking to his pet lizard, and most touchingly, an extended sequence where Panahi talks to the young man who collects each apartment’s garbage – Panahi even leaves his apartment and follows him down the elevator, and the film ends with him going out into the night – looking up at the sky full of fireworks, even though the government has banned them. I’m not sure what This is Not a Film is – but it’s one of a kind. A bold act of defiance, which never directly criticizes the Iranian government, because it doesn’t have to – everything you need to know is right there on screen.

1. Stories We Tell (Sarah Polley)
With her first two feature films – Away from Her (2007) and Take This Waltz (2012), Sarah Polley established herself as one of Canada’s best filmmakers. Watching her first documentary, Stories We Tell, helps to explain why Polley is attracted to the stories she is. Both of her feature films deal with a marriage, somewhat falling apart. Stories We Tell is a movie about her mother – who died when Polley was young – and reveals her family secret – that her father isn’t her biological father. Sarah, who was the youngest child my quite a margin, was the product of an affair – and she didn’t find out about it until she was almost 30. Stories We Tell allows everyone to tell their version of the story – both of Polley’s fathers, all of her siblings, friends of her mothers. Everyone, that is, except for her mother, who remains an enigma, because whatever she felt, she took to her grave. Most documentaries tackle some important issue – either past or present – but Polley’s documentary is painfully personal. A small scale piece that reveals big truths. And my favorite documentary of the year.


  1. Arrgh! I don't like the change to italics for everything, Dave!

    good list, though! Lot of stuff to add to my Netflix quere

  2. I've been having some issues with blogger recently, but am working through them. Odd comment about italics though, as when I look at the post, nothing is in italics. I will look into though.

    Glad you liked the list!