Once considered by many as either high art, propaganda or educational videos, documentary film has developed into a popular and visible form of entertainment, sometimes breaking into the mainstream, and often having a greater effect on society. Every year it seems more and more docs are produced and thus not even our hard working staff can manage to get around to watching them all. But we try our best, and so every year we publish a list of the docs that received high praise from our team. This year, the films appearing range from poetic, semi-expository, strictly observational, participatory, reflexive and even groundbreaking. Here are the 20 best documentaries of 2012, list in alphabetical order, with one special mention. Enjoy!
5 Broken Cameras
Emad Burnat and Guy Davidi
5 Broken Cameras is a cinematic achievement, a homemade movie and an extraordinary work of political activism. Co-directed by Palestinian Emad Burnat and Israeli Guy Davidi, the film is a first-hand account of non-violent resistance in Bil’in, a West Bank village threatened by encroaching Israeli settlements. It follows one family’s evolution over five years of turmoil, and was shot almost entirely by the Palestinian farmer Burnat, who later gave the footage to Davidi to edit into a feature. 5 Broken Cameras presents a case of injustice on a massive scale and is a touching and telling piece of filmmaking. Regardless if it is one-sided, the film works as a fine example of how the camera has the power to become a weapon against oppression. As a result, the film works as a powerful personal testimony and direct experience of what it’s like to be on the receiving end of oppression. 5 Broken Cameras is a tough watch, but when the credits roll, the message felt is one of optimism.
~ Ricky D
Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry
Directed by Alison Klayman
Considering that this is Klayman’s first film, the pacing and structure of Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry is perhaps the movie’s strongest suit. The film is only 90 minutes long, but never once feels slack or unfocused. Having a figure as charismatic and intelligent as Ai Weiwei at the center helps, but Klayman has a sure hand behind the camera, and an impressive ability to build and maximize tension throughout. Because of his very public acts of defiance, Ai often runs afoul of the cops, such as when he’s physically attacked by one in the middle of the night in a hotel room. This incident dominates the whole film, leading to various suspenseful confrontations. There’s something telling about the fact that Ai’s run-ins are, as presented here, far more intense than anything in most mainstream thrillers. Frankly, the less you know about this film’s subject, the more these scenes will work; knowing that anything could happen raises the stakes immensely… (read the full review)
~ Josh Spiegel
The Act of Killing
Directed by Joshua Oppenheimer
As documentaries go, there’s hardly anything to compare The Act of Killing with. The film follows the attempts of Oppenheimer to expose mass genocide and the players involved, those who still haven’t been held accountable some 47 years later. When the government of Indonesia was overthrown by the military in 1965, Anwar Congo and his friends were promoted from low-level gangsters to bloodthirsty savages. Anwar would go on to kill more than 100 people just by himself, a number that pales in comparison to the 1 million alleged communists killed. Since ’65, Anwar and co. have been idolized as celebrities and have found themselves free of any moral accountability… (read the full review)
~ Ty Landis
Directed by Denis Côté
At a mere 72 minute runtime and shot on a high-end HD camera this is probably one of Côté’s most accessible films. The tableau he paints leaves a lot of room for interpretation, the way he portrays the interaction between people and animals, between animals and their environment is sure to spurn discussion. We observe the beasts and they observe us; we delve into their world and they, as Werner Herzog might put it, stare into our souls… (read the full review)
~ Alex Moffat
Between Two Rivers
Directed by Jacob Cartwright and Nick Jordan
Between Two Rivers is directed, edited and shot by artists Jacob Cartwright and Nick Jordan, making their feature-length debut with this documentary. Appropriately, given their background, the film succeeds well on an aesthetic level, with beautifully composed, self-shot visuals of the contemporary status of the town’s streets and buildings, as well as the floodwaters. Combined with the archive footage, the film has an appealing lyrical quality, one aided by the lack of a consistent narration driving particular points across. An original music score aside, the film’s soundtrack is composed of the interviews and the readings of numerous past writings regarding impressions of the town or its history, including an unimpressed reaction from one-time visitor Charles Dickens. With its strong, engrossing presentation, the documentary is a particularly poignant and fair portrayal of Cairo, with explorations that are especially potent in a current time of huge financial crisis and uprisings regarding social injustice… (read the full review)
~ Josh Slater-Williams
Directed by Lee Hirsch
Acclaimed documentary filmmaker Lee Hirsch, most well known for bringing audiences Amandla! A Revolution in Four Part Harmony, now returns to the fold with Bully, in which he shares the stories of five circles of people, among them kids and parents who have, or had, children who were psychologically, emotionally and physically abused at school by their classmates. The film’s principal focus is on a 12 year old boy named Alex, from Iowa. Alex is the recipient of horrific bullying, especially when riding the bus to and from school, an opportunity for the others around his age to taunt, push, stab and even gently choke him. His parents also feature largely throughout the movie. The other figures the film visits occasionally are Kelby, a 16 year old lesbian whose now ostracized family lives in Oklahoma, Ja’Meya, an African American 14 year old girl who was so fed up with the torment that she brought her mother’s gun on the school bus one day which promptly earned her a sentence in juvenile detention, and two sets of parents whose children took their own lives after excessive harassment. Hirsch’s camera enters their homes, the buses they ride and the hallways they roam at school… (read the full review)
~ Edgar Chaput
Camp 14 – Total Control Zone
Directed by Marc Wiese
Few serious cultural attempts have been made in the West to delve into North Korea—most recently and notably perhaps is the graphic novel Pyongyang. Marc Wiese has done what few dare to do. Camp 14 – Total Control Zone is one of the most relevant documentaries of our time. Across a DMZ that separates two countries who have been at war since 1950, a series of camps hold around 200,000 people prisoners, with additional people employed as part of a Kafkaesque security apparatus. It’s one thing to rehabilitate one ex-prisoner, to forgive—or, at least, tolerate—two ex-security officials. What happens when the deadly stalemate is finally resolved and the curtain is finally pulled away? What happens when an entire nation suffers psychological breakdown brought on by the most profound culture shock imaginable? What happens when North Koreans reach the state Oh-Young-Kim finds himself in today, asking “Why did I behave that way? We’re all equal human beings.” None of us have answers to those essential questions; Camp 14 – Total Control Zone demands we begin seeking them now… (read the full review)
~ Dave Robson
The Central Park Five
Directed by Ken Burns and Sarah Burns
The Central Park Jogger case involved the assault and rape of Trisha Meili, a female jogger in New York City’s Central Park, on April 19, 1989. Five juvenile males—four black and one Hispanic—were unjustly tried and convicted for the crime. Thirteen years later, they were set free when a convicted rapist and murderer serving a life sentence confessed to committing the crime they were accused of.
Now, ten years after their release, co-directors Ken Burns, his daughter Sarah Burns, and her husband David McMahon allow the accused to finally tell their stories. Central Park Five is a movie about justice violated and denied. This is a gripping investigative documentary that meticulously re-creates what happened on that night and details how it all went so terribly wrong.
~ Ricky D
Directed by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady
From the directors of the Oscar nominated Jesus Camp comes Detropia, a film about the deconstruction of a great American city, the collapse of the economy and the fading American dream. Detropia is poetically shot, juxtaposing beautiful images against urban decay. Filmmakers Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady desperately try to find signs of life as their cameras prowl the empty streets of Detroit Michigan, a city that overall resembles a post-apocalyptic nightmare. But putting aside the fine filmmaking, it is the men and women interviewed who bring the film to life. Detropia is a cautionary tell to the rest of the country and a warning that this is what the future may look like across the map. This surprisingly lyrical, sometimes horrifying and incredibly moving film is among the year’s best.
~ Ricky D
Directed by Arnon Goldfinger
Writer-director Arnon Goldfinger, at the beginning of The Flat, begins the process of cleaning out his recently deceased grandmother’s apartment in Palestine, a place she lived in with her husband, Goldfinger’s grandfather, for about 70 years. While doing this, he gets more compelled by what his grandparents did when they arrived in Palestine after emigrating during the rise of the Nazi party in Germany in the early 1930s. One thing leads to another, and he soon finds a strange connection his grandfather, Kurt Tuchler, appears to have had with a Nazi named Leopold von Mildenstein. Goldfinger can’t fathom why his Jewish grandparent would be, for example, shepherding von Mildenstein around the part of Palestine where Zionists wanted to set up what would eventually become Israel. Through dogged and persistent investigating, Goldfinger gets closer to the truth in ways he can’t believe or control… (read the full review)
~ Josh Spiegel
How to Survive a Plague
Directed by David France
How to Survive a Plague is a compelling look at LGBT protesters during the AIDS crisis in the 80′s and 90′s. The story follows two coalitions, ACT UP and TAG (Treatment Action Group), whose activism and research turned AIDS from a death sentence into a liveable condition. Plague isn’t about the history of the disease, instead about the history of a movement. Despite having no scientific training, these self-made activists provided a template of how grassroots activism can temper societal and governmental prejudice. In challenging the pharmaceutical industry, these men and women helped discover promising new drugs, while fighting to move them from experimental trials and directly to patients in record time. First time filmmaker David France transports viewers right in the moment of the height of the crisis by using everything in his reach: interviews, broadcasts, news reports, home videos and more. When it’s over, this documentary lingers as a testament of extraordinary determination and the will to survive. How To Survive A Plague is impressionistic in its scope, extremely moving, astonishing, important and downright inspiring.
~ Ricky D
10 Best Documentaries of 2011