My Favorite Documentaries of 2012 (And Where You Can See Them)
I don’t really like the idea of making number-ranked or limited-number lists of favorite or best films at the end of the year. Of course, it’s part of my job, and I’ve already done rankings for an Indiewire poll and a roundup at Film School Rejects and I’ve done a categorical list of the best documentaries of 2012 at Movies.com, which proved to be even more difficult and stressful than a numbered version would have been.
In spite of my disfavor, I do think that 2012 was a really incredible year as far as documentaries go, and I want to highlight those I loved at any outlet I can. Of course, there are still so many I haven’t caught up with (such as The Gatekeepers, Gerhard Richter Painting and Katy Perry: Part of Me), which is a major reason I hate listing the “best” of the year — it could always change once I’ve seen everything (not that I’ll ever be able to do that).
So, here’s just a long alphabetical list of those docs that I found really special this year (really special, I should stress, because initially I had picked out about 50 titles I like for one reason or another), either in proper release or at a festival. Each has a very short blurb pinpointing what I love about it as well as how you can see the film if that’s an option or of interest to you.
5 Broken Cameras (Emad Burnat and Guy Davidi) – Chronicle of many years of non-violent resistance to encroaching Israeli settlements in the West Bank through the many lenses of a local olive picker. One of many great political activism docs this year, it’s also a fascinating take on the home movie concept given that for Burnat’s life, filming the protests in his backyard isn’t any less of a personal matter than documenting his son’s birth and other family events. Currently available via Hulu Plus. Out on DVD January 15.
Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry (Alison Klayman) – Profile of Chinese activist-artist Ai Weiwei. There are a lot of great things about the film itself, which follows the dissident subject for many years and shows us the power of 21st century self-documentation, but it’s mostly lovable because Ai Weiwei is so captivating. He’s funny, wise, powerful — in short the most enjoyable and possibly most important doc subjects of the year. Review. Interview with Klayman. Available via iTunes, Netflix Watch Instantly, Amazon Instant Video, Sundance Now, Google Play, On Demand and on DVD.
Camp 14: Total Control Zone (Marc Wiese) – Profile of Shin Dong-Huyk, who escaped from the North Korean prison camp he was born into. The most unbelievable story of the year, and the film is astonishing for also featuring testimonials from remorseless prison guards. Toronto Review. Interview with Wiese. Available via Netflix Watch Instantly.
Convento (Jared Alterman) – Virtual trip to visit an eccentric Dutch family of artists who reside in a Portuguese monastery and to watch their strange creations in action. It had me at the mechanized taxidermy set to Blade Runner music, but the knight vs. robot battle is a cherry on top. SXSW Review. Available via iTunes, Amazon Instant Video and VUDU.
Detropia (Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady) – The current and possible future state of Detroit. Wonderfully captures the essence of a place like few films do; I’ve labeled it a city operetta (a city symphony film plus some dramatic narratives), but it’s a hard film to describe adequately. It simply felt great in the end. Interview with Ewing. Out on DVD January 15.
The Dust Bowl (Ken Burns) – History of the decade-long disaster of drought and dust storms that afflicted the American Midwest during the Great Depression. This two-part miniseries is my preferred choice of the two works directed by 2012′s Documentarian of the Year (title given by me), and I think his greatest historical documentary yet due to how relevant it is to the ecological and economic problems of today. Review. Available via iTunes and on DVD and Blu-ray.
The House I Live In (Eugene Jarecki) – An investigative expose of the systemic problems of the War on Drugs and the U.S. prison industry — from the director of Reagan. Jarecki has not only produced a thoroughly brilliant work comparable to his earlier film Why We Fight, but he incorporates a personal approach this time that surprisingly enhances the reporting and doesn’t diminish the objectivity of the big picture. Review. Interview with Jarecki. Currently in theaters. Premieres on PBS on April 8.
How to Survive a Plague (David France) – Chronicle of the efforts of activist groups ACT UP and TAG to build awareness of the AIDS epidemic and search for treatment. Brilliantly edited from an astounding amount of video coverage shot over nearly a decade and maybe the greatest combination of devastating tragedy and uplifting triumph ever put into a film. I’ve cry every time I watch it, for the bad and the good. True/False review. Interview with France and producer Howard Gertler. Available via iTunes, Netflix Watch Instantly, Amazon Instant Video and Google Play. Out on DVD February 26.
The Imposter (Bart Layton) – A French man convinces the FBI and a Texas family that he’s a boy who went missing years earlier. Plays with perspective and unreliable narrators and includes clever dramatic illustration in ways that make it the best Rashomon-esque nonfiction film since The Thin Blue Line. Review. Interview with Layton. Currently in theaters and available via iTunes, VUDU, Amazon Instant Video and Google Play. Out on DVD January 22.
Last Call at the Oasis (Jessica Yu) – Exhaustive look at the many issues that combine to make up the global water crisis — from the director of Protagonist. It’s gorgeously shot and slickly produced and never overly daunting. At times it’s even funny. Very surprised this didn’t make the Oscar shortlist. Toronto Review. Interview with Yu. Interview with Yu and Erin Brockovich. Available via iTunes, VUDU, Amazon Instant Video, Google Play and on DVD
Only the Young (Elizabeth Mims and Jason Tippet) – Teenage friends come of age in suburban Southern California. I love everything from the sweetly honest subjects to the soulful soundtrack to the cinematography to the avoidance of making a big issue out of the economic troubles, evangelical faith, skateboarding interests or anything else pertaining to the lives of the characters. It really is the best teen movie in decades. True/False Review. Interview with Mims and Tippet. Currently in theaters.
Paul Williams Still Alive (Stephen Kessler) – Profile of songwriter and actor Paul Williams — from the director of Vegas Vacation. The film itself is rather sloppy and only really works because Williams steers it together, but Williams is a national treasure and as watchable as he was at the peak of his TV personality phase 35 years ago. Toronto review. Interview with Kessler and Williams. Available via iTunes, VUDU, Amazon Instant Video and Google Play. Out on DVD February 5.
Photographic Memory (Ross McElwee) – The latest of McElwee’s personal essay films (his most famous is Sherman’s March), this one focused on both his relationship with his grown son and a romantic relationship from his past. Always poetic and insightful and delightfully entertaining, a memoir film from McElwee is one of my favorite treats from the documentary world. This didn’t disappoint at all. Interview with McElwee Part 1. Interview with McElwee Part 2. Out on DVD February 12.
Planet of Snail (Yi Seung-jun) – Love story about a deaf and blind writer and his diminutive wife. A beautifully lyrical and sweet and romantic film that never bogs down in sentimentality or the issue about how different the couple is from the world or each other. Interview with Seung-jun. Out on DVD February 12.
The Queen of Versailles (Lauren Greenfield) – Profile on a wealthy couple who set out to build the largest home in the U.S. before the financial crisis put a damper on their luxurious lives — from the director of Thin. While I am amused in a flabbergasted way at times during the film, I mostly appreciate it as an extreme look at the American Dream and the effects the current recession has had on the country. It might be mostly accidentally brilliant, but it’s still brilliant. True/False review. Interview with Greenfield. Available via iTunes, Netflix Watch Instantly, VUDU, Amazon Instant Video, Google Play, On Demand and on DVD and Blu-ray.
Samsara (Ron Fricke) – Non-narrative film comprised of scenes shot around the word dealing with the circle of life — from the director of Baraka. Photographed entirely in 70mm, the spectacularly epic imagery makes this the most theatrically necessary of the year. Review. Interview with Fricke and producer Mark Magidson. Currently in theaters. Out on DVD and Blu-ray January 8.
Scenes of a Crime (Grover Babcock and Blue Hadaegh) – Spotlight on a case in which a man is wrongfully on trial for killing his own baby due to a forced confession. I found the narrative riveting as laid out by Babcock and Hadaegh and certainly the case itself is as fascinating as it is frustrating. Review. Available via iTunes and Distrify (and on DVD for educational/library use only).
The Sheik and I (Caveh Zahedi) – Personal essay film about Zahedi’s experience trying to make a commissioned work for the Sharjah Biennial in the United Arab Emirates. What can I say more than I love anything this reflexive and this provocative? SXSW Review. Interview with Zahedi Part 1. Interview with Zahedi Part 2. Available via iTunes, VUDU, Amazon Instant Video, Fandor and On Demand.
Tchoupitoulas (Turner Ross and Bill Ross) – Three brothers navigate the sights and sounds of the French Quarter over the course of one night stranded in New Orleans — from the directors of 45365. The film transports you not only to the places seen on screen but also into the youthful mind and perspective of the youngest of the kids for an unforgettable, immersing adventure. Interview with Bill Ross. Currently in theaters.
This Is Not a Film (Jafar Panahi and Mojtaba Mirtahmasb) – A day in the life of Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi, who is under house arrest and banned from making movies. This personal piece of protest art is much more entertaining than you’d expect from what’s essentially a single-setting video diary. It’s also the sort of work that needs to be seen, because just watching it is to be a part of the protest and political statement against censorship. Review. Currently in theaters. Out on DVD February 26.
Under African Skies (Joe Berlinger) – A look back at the production of Paul Simon’s album Graceland for its 25th anniversary as well as a reunion between Simon and the South African musicians who appear on the record — from the director of Metallica: Some Kind of Monster. It would be one of my favorites simply for tackling one of my favorite albums of all time, but I also love the cultural and political history that shaped and/or went up against its production and the insightful comments that Peter Gabriel and David Byrne have to say about it. Review. Available via iTunes and Hulu and on DVD and Blu-ray.
¡Vivan las Antipodas! (Victor Kossakovsky) – Non-narrative film that highlights and contrasts antipodal (opposite) sides of the world, such as rural Argentina pit against urban Shanghai. Features some of the most stunning visuals seen on the big screen all year, it’s another theatrically necessary spectacular. True/False review. Out on DVD April 30.
We Are Legion: The Story of the Hacktivists (Brian Knappenberger) – The story of Anonymous, the unnamed masses of jokester hacker activists on the Internet. Hilarious, because its subject matter is hilarious, but also a very well-told history tracing the modern revolutions back to the same goofballs that fill the web with memes and other anarchic nonsense. SXSW Review. Available via iTunes, VUDU, Amazon Instant Video, Google Play and on DVD and Blu-ray.