I don't know if it's just because I specialize in documentary criticism, or that I attended more festivals than usual, but I saw A LOT of brilliant nonfiction films released this year. 2011 might even have been a better year for docs than 2010, though last year had more films that got moviegoers in general talking. How do I know this was a great year for the mode? Well, some of my favorites, including titles topping other critics' best of lists, didn't crack my top ten. So I extended the number this year for a year-end column that I hope isn't too exhausting.
I wanted to recognize all those titles I gave grades of 'A-' or higher to at Indiewire. Also, I wanted to celebrate the fact of there being so many terrific examples of documentary storytelling. Very few of the films on my best-of list are necessarily issue-based. Not that there weren't great cause-driven docs too. By the time I was at my honorable mentions, I couldn't believe how many excellent films were having to remain unnamed.
Still, I'm not one to love a doc just because it's a doc, and I also saw a bunch of nonfiction works that were terribly made, awfully motivated and/or astonishing failures. More and more terrific docs are being made each year but there's no question there are also just too many docs being produced. So this year I'm highlighting the worst docs of the year following a lengthy list of the best. After that is my usual selection of great docs I saw in 2011 that haven't yet been released. Hopefully all will open in 2012, and they alone would make a fine best of list for next year. I can't wait to see what might come along and top any of them.
Here's my picks for best and worst docs of the year. What are yours?
TOP 20 THEATRICALLY RELEASED DOCUMENTARIES OF 2011
1. Project Nim (James Marsh) – One film this year, doc or not, took me through the whole gamut of entertainment experiences -- I laughed; I cried; I was shocked; I was amazed; I pondered deep questions about life; I was ultimately overjoyed -- with flawless storytelling and filmmaking craft. Marsh (Man on Wire) puts a lot of work into his preproduction process and it really shows in this biographical portrait of a chimpanzee and the many owners and homes he’s been passed around to. Spinning through interviews filled with humor, heartbreak, history and honesty, the film is as much a startling exploration of human psychology as it is a tragic animal rights drama. After seeing the film back in January, I predicted this could end up in my top three of the year. Since then I’ve seen it a few more times, and it’s one of the few movies of 2011 I want to re-watch again and again. Not only the best documentary, for me this is the best film of the year. (Sundance Review)
2 – 3. Cave of Forgotten Dreams (Werner Herzog) and PINA (Wim Wenders) – Two of Germany’s greatest living filmmakers took to stereoscopic cameras and separately produced the two most important 3D movies made to date. Each presents a new way of looking at and preserving art. Herzog’s film takes us into an inaccessible museum of sorts, which holds the oldest known man-made art works in the world, the primitive paintings of Chauvet Cave. Wenders’ captures dance pieces performed by the company of a recently deceased legend of choreography, works that, like those cave paintings, may now be appreciated tens of thousands of years from now. The year’s other 3D masterpiece, Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, merely recognizes the need for preservation while these two films actually do the preserving, to a degree (and speaking of Hugo, in a year when celebrating early cinema is a trend, let’s not forget the proto-cinema of our most ancient ancestors).
Cave provides us with virtual moldings of the paintings, maintaining their depth and perspective better than any art history textbook could and PINA records weight and volume like no other document of performance before it. Herzog does also offer more non-visual substance, presenting as much philosophical depth as physical expanse, but Wenders gives us a more satisfying spectacle and crisper, lusher 3D cinematography. But is either still appreciable in 2D form? I don’t think it matters, because this is the new cinema and needs to be seen in the intended format. Hopefully museums if not movie theaters will regularly program them both for years and years. They're also collectively pushing me closer to buying a 3D TV. (PINA NYFF Review)
4. The Arbor (Clio Barnard) – The most clever and constructive use of cinema to tell a nonfiction story in years, this freshly conceived hybrid employs familiar yet uncommon documentary tools (and more common dramatic ones) in totally new ways. The result is a respectful and appropriate examination of the life and work of autobiographical playwright Andrea Dunbar, in which actors fill-in for and lip-synch to older audio interviews with the subject and her family. More than a specific portrayal, though, the film also presents an extremely depressing wider local drama of the life cycle of residents of the projects of Northern England. Honorable mention: a similar catastrophe of locality is depicted in Herzog’s Into the Abyss, a film just barely excluded from my list, but done more conventionally and less intently.
5 – 6. Armadillo (Janus Metz Pedersen) and Hell and Back Again (Danfung Dennis) – These two films involving the War in Afghanistan couldn’t be more different, even though they’re both hands-on documents of soldiers in battle and leisure time. Filling out an unofficial trilogy begun with last year’s Restrepo (my #2 of 2010), they’re even more exemplary of how documentary can mimic narrative storytelling in order to be just as accessible and riveting as any dramatic war film, only less appreciable in terms of entertainment. Extensively, intensely and beautifully shot, Armadillo doesn’t really feel like a documentary, while Hell obviously tries to feel like a narrative film, structuring the tale of a marine fighting in Afghanistan and then adjusting to civilian life so that the war stuff functions like flashbacks. Honorable mention: had Dennis not made his film, Heather Courtney’s Where Soldiers Come From might have been the final episode of the trilogy and definitely could have been more recognized as the Deer Hunter of Afghan war docs. But the far superior Hell takes both honors. (Hell and Back Again Review)
7. The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 (Goran Olsson) – Love it or hate it, but do so for the right reasons. By being totally upfront about its limitations and narrow scope, and by piling on layers of authority, voice and perspective, this film might just be the most respectable compilation documentary ever made. It can only be seen as what it actually is, a history of the U.S. black power movement through the eyes of the Swedish media and with hindsight commentary by African American celebrities today. Honorable mention: Alex Gibney and Alison Ellwood’s Magic Trip does some similar things with archive footage and multiple layers of looking back on that footage, though it doesn’t acknowledge its best attributes and considers too highly that crude illustrative material that isn’t really much fun to look at.
8 – 9. Into Eternity (Michael Madsen) and Nostalgia for the Light (Patricio Guzman) – Both of these stunning docs also fit nicely next to Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams. Individually, the films each offer a grander exploration and stimulate deeper contemplation of time and space and life and the universe and everything than Terence Malik’s overrated drama The Tree of Life. In somewhat Herzogian fashion, Madsen ponders what Earth will be like in 100,000 years, not just for speculative reasons but because today’s scientists must consider the possibilities while building storage tunnels for dangerous nuclear waste. Guzman contrastingly looks at the past, taking us to Chile’s Atacama Desert for mesmerizing views upward at the stars and devastating digs downward to uncover the remains of people “disappeared” by Augusto Pinochet’s junta regime. Into Eternity is the best sci-fi film in years while Nostalgia is the most fascinating doc involving a human rights issue I’ve ever seen. Also, it’s kind of meta thinking about how everything we see is in the past. It’s like the world around us is already just a fleeting documentary of life. See it on Blu-ray, if you missed it in theaters, for the clearest picture of its hypnotic telescope images. (Into Eternity Tribeca '10 Review)
10. We Were Here (David Weissman and Bill Weber) – If Cave of Forgotten Dreams and Nostalgia for the Light are the most cerebral documentaries ever to deal in history, We Were Here is probably the most emotional I’ve ever encountered. Primarily an oral account of the early years of AIDS in San Francisco, told by only five central characters, the film is remarkable for how well it uses interviews and the very basics of conventional documentary form to give us all we need to be informed, enlightened and bursting with tears. Honorable mention: Peter Richardson’s How to Die in Oregon is another doc just barely excluded from this list which also does incredibly adequate things with very simplistic methods. The film’s conclusion, meanwhile, would certainly make a top five best doc endings of the year.
11. The Interrupters (Steve James) – The most talked-about and discussion-arousing issue doc of the year is also hopefully the least debatable. I admittedly love the cause more than the film, as should everyone, even those naming it the best doc of the year. Of course, it is also a really terrific film to boot. (Sundance Review)
12. Bombay Beach (Alma Har’el) – An irresistibly imaginative hybrid of documentary and dreamily staged dance fantasy, this is a wonderfully awesome piece of cinema portraying the people of a surreal Salton Sea community. (Tribeca Capsule Review)
13. Kati with an I (Robert Greene) – I believe this verite coming-of-age doc about a teenage girl’s last days of childhood could be enjoyed by millions of YA fiction fans. Just pretend Kati’s boyfriend is a vampire? (Review)
14. Life in a Day (Kevin Macdonald) – The most shockingly brilliant doc of the year is this entrancing crowd-sourced film portraying a day-in-the-life of Earth, which compiles footage from around the world shot on the same day and stamped with a definite directorial (and certainly manipulative) viewpoint over the top. Macdonald is playing God after the fact, but I guess that’s what most nonfiction filmmakers do. (Sundance Review)
15. Senna (Asif Kapadia) – Another excellent compilation film, and probably the best-edited archive-based doc ever. If only it resonated more with someone who doesn’t care much about Formula One racing or the Brazilian driver of its focus.
16. Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest (Michael Rapaport) – The best music documentary of the year, this one does transcend its subject’s fanbase, and thanks to both a self-reflexive comment by Phife Dawg in the film and the Q-Tip controversy and band drama beyond what’s on screen, it presents a far more layered story than most films of its genre. (Sundance Review)
17. Dragonslayer (Tristan Patterson) – A simple, wandering film about an aimless young skate punk or a gorgeous cinematic album that, like Kati with an I, could very easily be a crossover hit with the right audience? It's both. (SXSW Capsule Review)
18. Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop (Rodman Flender) – The funniest movie of the year, doc or not, hands down, and it’s perhaps as much deserving of the “is it a doc?” question as The Arbor and Bombay Beach since it’s clearly filled with as much performance as truth. (SXSW Review)
19. Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles (Jon Foy) – While I have issues with its final act, this under-seen Sundance winner is proof that great documentary storytelling can make up for subject matter that turns out to be slighter than it could have been.
20. Justin Bieber: Never Say Never (Jon M. Chu) – Pretend for a moment you don’t hate the kid and just enjoy this seemingly conventional music bio for what it really is, a documentary on fame and youth in the Internet age, which becomes most poignant in the parts that subtly contrast the distinctly different backgrounds of Bieber and the born-famous Jaden Smith. Anyway, I love that a remake of the classic Paul Anka doc, Lonely Boy, would end up the top-grossing nonfiction film of the year. (Review)
More honorable mentions: If a Tree Falls: A Story from the Earth Liberation Front, Bill Cunningham New York, Circo, Superheroes, Jane’s Journey, JIG, Make Believe, Becoming Santa, Pearl Jam Twenty and The Woodmans.
10 WORST THEATRICALLY RELEASED DOCUMENTARIES OF 2011
1. One Lucky Elephant (Lisa Leeman) – It would be one thing for this to just be the worst looking doc of the year, but it’s also the most directorially confused, even once it just hypocritically becomes a PSA promoting a specific wildlife preserve. (Review)
2. POM Wonderful Presents the Greatest Movie Ever Sold (Morgan Spurlock) – The worst part might be that it deceptively has words like “wonderful” and “greatest” in the title. At least I’ve felt bad about initially giving it an ‘F’ grade. It’s more of a ‘C-‘. (Sundance Review)
3. Honest Man: The Life of R. Budd Dwyer (James Dirschberger) – Featuring some of the most atrocious cinematography I’ve ever seen in a doc, this profile of the famous suicide also fails to make much of a point, let alone an impact. (Review)
4-5. Magic Trip (Alex Gibney and Alison Ellwood) and Catching Hell (Alex Gibney) – I know, I gave Magic Trip an honorable mention, but mostly for something it doesn’t even recognize. It’s still a very ugly and unnecessary illustration of an over-nostalgicized time. Meanwhile, one of Gibney’s other three docs of the year is obnoxiously self-indulgent and terribly disrespectful of its subject, a certain disgraced baseball fan, who unsurprisingly wants no part in it. (Catching Hell Tribeca Review)
6. I Am (Tom Shadyac) – I appreciate the message behind Shadyac’s introspective attempt at documentary, but no nonfiction film should make me wish its filmmaker was still directing dreck like Patch Adams or that I was watching that movie instead of this one.
7. African Cats (Alastair Fothergill and Keith Scholey) – We really should already be rid of this kind of anthropomorphizing animal doc, as beautifully shot as they are. I already dread 2012’s Chimpanzee, which will sadly out-gross and probably outdo the whole significance of Project Nim. (Review)
8. Everyday Sunshine: The Story of Fishbone (Chris Metzler and Lev Anderson) – I’m not usually into behind-the-music type docs anyway, but usually I’ll enjoy one about a band I like. Somehow I almost couldn’t even get through this one despite being a fan of Fishbone. A shame, because I do really like Metzler's previous doc, Plagues and Pleasures on the Salton Sea.
9. KNUCKLE (Ian Palmer) – After documenting the Irish travellers for so long, I’d think Palmer would have done us a favor and gotten a better camera. I still might rather watch this than TLC’s reality series featuring traveller gypsies, but I wish I could have enjoyed it more. I hope the upcoming dramatic remake series based on KNUCKLE isn't even worse.
10. The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom (Lucy Walker) – Everything that was hard to swallow with Walker’s Oscar-nominated Waste Land is packed into this short film that is so dependent on disaster porn that it makes you wonder if Walker felt fortunate that such a cataclysmic event happened so she could make this gross document of hope in the wake of monumental tragedy. As if there was any other direction to go than up in this situation?
10 BEST DOCUMENTARIES OF 2011 TO WATCH FOR IN 2012
At the Edge of Russia (Michal Marczak) – A beautifully shot and mostly reenacted film about a novice soldier at a military outpost populated by old, macho Soviet-bred Russians. Kind of like Nanook of the North meets the routine parts of Restrepo. (Silverdocs Capsule Review)
Convento (Jarred Alterman) – If Terry Gilliam was to support another fantastical doc after the promotional quote he lent Bombay Beach, I’d expect this trippy portrait of a peculiar Dutch family living in an old Portuguese monastery to be it. For fans of Blade Runner, Herbie Hancock’s “Rockit” video and robots. (SXSW Capsule Review)
Crazy Horse (Frederick Wiseman) – Perhaps Wiseman’s most accessible doc, because of all the nudity, this look at a famous Paris cabaret is also very far from being one of my favorites of his. But a doc by Wiseman is never short of excellent. Opens in NYC January 18 with other cities to follow.
Family Instinct (Andris Guaja) – A disturbing yet fascinating look at a Latvian clan torn apart when the paterfamilias is sent to prison – not for incest, though he also is the brother of the family’s mother – for domestic abuse. The jury at Silverdocs reportedly recognized it as being “f-d up” when awarding it the fest’s top prize. (Silverdocs Capsule Review)
First Position (Bess Kargman) – Don’t worry if you’re not into ballet or if you’re sick of competition docs involving cute kids. This crowd favorite will amaze and entertain you regardless. IFC is releasing this via the Sundance Selects label sometime next year.
Girl Model (David Redmon and Ashley Sabin) – It’s hard to say which is the more incredible half of this Toronto hit, the part with the young naïve Russian girls being transplanted to Japan or the veteran model-turned-scout who has some surprises in her life.
Last Call at the Oasis (Jessica Yu) – It took an artistic filmmaker like Yu teaming up with cause-concentrated producers Participant Media to deliver one of the best issue-driven docs in years, and the fact that this extensive report on the world’s water crises (and pseudo sequel to Erin Brockovich) wasn’t rushed into theaters as some sort of imperative piece of propaganda makes me appreciate it more. It is a must see, though, when ATO Pictures puts it out next year. (Toronto Review)
Last Days Here (Don Argott and Demian Fenton) – So far my favorite music doc of 2012 is this profile of Pentagram singer Bobby Liebling, who we follow as he attempts to kick his crack addict and get back to performing for a new generation of fans. It’s like a more serious Anvil! and it’s the rare film about a screwed-up, relatively unknown music “legend” that kept me interested throughout. IFC will release through the Sundance Selects label March 2. (SXSW Capsule Review)
Paul Williams Still Alive (Stephen Kessler) – Another great music doc to look forward to, this first-person fan-driven doc about the songwriter behind such hits as “The Rainbow Connection” and “Evergreen (Love Theme From A Star is Born) and the star of Phantom of the Paradise had us all laughing and crying at Toronto. How this crowdpleasing film still has no distributor boggles my mind.
Scenes of a Crime (Grover Babcock and Blue Hadaegh) – Winner of the Gotham Award for Best Film Not Playing at a Theater Near You (a rarity for a doc), this is a powerful look at yet another probably innocent man who was coerced into confessing to murdering his infant child. It better play at a theater near you next year. (Full Frame Review)
I'll be back with another Doc Talk column in two weeks. Until then you can follow me on Twitter @thefilmcynic and at the DOC Channel Blog.