Doc Talk is a biweekly column devoted to documentary cinema, typically featuring an essay concentrated on a currently relevant topic for discussion followed by critic picks for new theatrical and home video releases. This week we review the year in documentary to find the best nonfiction films.
It's common for critics to split up their end of year lists so they don't have to compare fiction and nonfiction films. But even within the category of documentary it's difficult to pit titles against one another. There are too many genres and too many styles, and you just shouldn't rank movies as diverse as, say, This Is Not a Film, The Imposter, Only the Young, The House I Live In and Samsara, all of which I've previously numbered in that order as my top five of 2012 -- and since then, I've swapped in and out and moved some around and may continue doing so once I've seen every single doc to come out in the past year.
The fact of the matter is, 2012 was an exceptional year for documentary, and a top 10 list or even a top 25 list doesn't seem to allow for all the objectively great works or my favorites (depending on how you see such lists). So, I thought I'd try something different this year with categorical recognition of certain nonfiction films. It's probably no better an idea. For example, even among dance films it's not fair comparing such different docs as Crazy Horse, First Position and Never Stand Still. The first is the most masterfully shot and edited, the second is the most entertaining and the third is the most informative. Whichever fits your preference for a doc may be the best to you.
In any event, here are a whole bunch of documentaries that are the best and/or my favorites of 2012:
Best Music Doc: I'm starting with music, since I've already named my picks in the annual poll of documentarians and experts at MusicFilmWeb. With full disclosure that a poll like that reminds me of how few titles I've seen this year in a specific genre, my choice is Under African Skies. Joe Berlinger takes what could have been a simple profile of an album upon its 25th anniversary and delivers a brimming mix of background and present-day material for a doc that looks at the artistic process and cultural context of Paul Simon's Graceland, sufficiently exploring how and why it was and is such a significant work. Honorable mentions include Beward of Mr. Baker, Last Days Here and How to Grow a Band.
Best Sports Doc: This year's pick is not focused on a specific sport let alone a particular player or game. Steve James, best known for Hoop Dreams, directed yet another notable work with Head Games, which looks at the issue of concussions in sports, from football to girls' soccer. There's a fairly standard framework to it, but it's a very important topic at the moment and the film does a great job at presenting the clash of science and culture that is keeping this from being a straightforward matter. Honorable mentions go to the boxing training film China Heavyweight, the indie wrestling doc Fake It So Real and the Olympic basketball doc The Other Dream Team.
Best Foodie Doc: Obviously it's Jiro Dreams of Sushi, a portrait of a culinary artist that transcends the genre's usual fans. For the true foodies, though, there's also the honorable mention of Step Up to the Plate, a verite view into the world of the Bras family, a clan of restauranteurs that also deals with the elder master chef's retirement.
Best Nature Film: In spite of the editorial manipulations and forced narrative (and awful narration), Disneynature's Chimpanzee, directed by Mark Linfield and Alastair Fothergill, is the best film of nature this year. Never mind the chimp stuff, though, because the doc mainly has this honor for its trippy time-lapse footage of mushrooms as well as all the other environmental shots of the jungle, some of the most stunning cinematography of the year.
Most Cinematic Doc: While other films this year were best seen on the big screen, nothing was so theatrically necessary as Rob Fricke's latest nonnarrative spectacular, Samsara. If you missed it at the cinema, you better have the largest TV possible if you want to view it right. The only thing close is Victor Kossakovsky Vivan Las Antipodas!, which hasn't officially hit theaters yet.
Best Political Doc: The greatest political films of 2012 had nothing to do with U.S. figures or elections, which is rare for a year when we had a presidential race. Instead, they were foreign docs that went up against their own nations of origin. Above them all is Jafar Panahi and Mojtaba Mirtahmasb's This Is Not a Film, which itself is the very political statement it documents. Otherwise, the content isn't too mired in politics, as we follow Panahi around his apartment building while he's under house arrest and technically barred from filmmaking. It's additionally the most surprisingly entertaining docs of the year. Honorable mentions include Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, 5 Broken Cameras and The Law in These Parts.
Best Issue Film: The greatest issue film of the year probably should be the one that results the most in getting stuff done for its cause, in which case there is nothing better than The Invisible War. Kirby Dick's look at the problem of rape and sexual assault in the U.S. Armed Forces is devastating stuff, but it's very necessary and gripping and most importantly effective, as it's already influenced some policy changes in the Pentagon regarding the way such cases are dealt with. As for the slickest, most entertaining and most thorough issue film, which hasn't been seen nearly enough to make enough of a difference, an honorable mention goes to Jessica Yu's Last Call at the Oasis.
Best Climate-Change Doc: An issue film subgenre, this category would normally be called "best environmentalism doc," but those tend to mostly be focused on global warming these days. The best of these this year is The Island President, Jon Shenk's profile on then-president of the Maldives Mohamed Nasheed. Much of the doc also counts in the political subgenre and is particularly significant now becasue Nasheed was forced out of office directly after the film's events. As leader of the multi-island country, though, he was very involved in climate change awareness and cessation due to the fact that rising oceans means the Maldives would become entirely submerged. Honorable mention goes to Chasing Ice, which director Jeff Orlowski says isn't so much a documentary about climate change as a documentary about a man documenting climate change.
Best True-Crime Film: Possibly the greatest true crime film since The Thin Blue Line (if we exclude a series like The Staircase), Bart Layton's The Imposter lays out an unbelievable story of a missing boy, his family, a con artist who went too far and (implicitly) the awfully incompetent national security of the pre-9/11 era. Like the Errol Morris classic, this incorporates "reenactments" that illustrate points of perspective more than truth and therefore deserves its "Rashomon-like" badge more than most docs described as such. Honorable mention goes to West of Memphis for adding some incredible material to the case begun with the Paradise Lost trilogy.
Best Legal Doc: The nonfiction equivalent to the courtroom drama has become more of a subgenre of the issue film, now devoted more to problems with the U.S. judicial system than the drama of a particular trial. Docs about wrongfully convicted are very popular, at least for filmmakers looking to help those imprisoned individuals (as we've at least seen work with the Paradise Lost trilogy). This year's best of the kind is Grover Babcock and Blue Hadaegh's Scenes of a Crime, a reflexive and haunting look at the issue of coerced statements via a man who was undoubtedly forced to confess to killing his infant. Honorable mention goes to The Central Park Five, the doc by Ken Burns, Sarah Burns and David McMahon that is more interesting for its address of media and society faults than those of the courts.
Best History Film: It's hard to ever top Ken Burns, who I recently named as Documentarian of the Year, when it comes to historical works. The Dust Bowl, which chronicles a decade of disastrous droughts and dust storms in the U.S. during the Depression, is remarkably engaging for being four hours (in the form of a two-part miniseries) of fairly repetitive and very miserable stories of "black bizzards" and children dying. And it implicitly says a lot about modern issues like climate change and the economy, making it the most currently relevant histories of the year. Honorable mention: We Are Legion: The Story of the Hacktivists gives an enlightening and hysterical rundown on the history of Anonymous and how major events like Arab Spring and the Occupy movement evolved from funny Internet memes and viral videos.
Best Film History: I'm not yet done watching all 15 episodes of Mark Cousins's The Story of Film: An Odyssey, but already I can say it's a triumphant work, in spite of at least one gaffe I've noted (he says Nanook of the North is set in Alaska). I'm impressed and suprised at how much the series is teaching me, given I have two rather prestigious cinema-studies degrees. Part of the professor/filmmaker's aim, though, seems to be to shed light on a number of foreign directors and national cinemas that aren't taught enough today. Honorable mention goes to Chris Kenneally's Side by Side, the surprisingly terrific Keanu Reeves-hosted doc about the debate over celluloid vs. digitial cinema, which provides an in-depth history of the latter amidst its illuminating conversations with major film directors, cinematographers and other pertinent craftsmen.
Best Compilation Film: This category can also be called "archive-dependent doc," as it applies to films with all or almost all preexisting footage. The one film that rises high above all others as an extraordinary achievement in chronicling a story (a history really) with old material is How to Survive a Plague, which is compiled from multiple videographers who were fortunately at the time documenting the movement of activists centered on AIDS awareness and treatment. It's a remarkable work for both how much coverage was found and how well it was pieced together. Honorable mention goes to the civil rights doc The Loving Story, which is mostly worth seeing for the never-seen verite documentary footage of the landmark case that legalized interracial marriage nationwide.
Best City Film: I'm going with a tie for this category, as I keep going back and forth between Tchoupitoulas and Detropia. With the former, Turner and Bill Ross completely immerse us in the sights and sounds of New Orleans -- especially the French Quarter -- while following a nocturnal adventure of a trio of young brothers. The latter is Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady's atmospherically operatic portrait of Detroit, which literally covers a lot of ground, giving us not just a feel of the urban space but a sense of what's going on there, by way of an array of characters who support the main character of the city. Honorable mention to The Pruitt-Igoe Myth, which is actually more of a biography of the specific housing projects of the title than a look at all of St. Louis.
Best Observational/Verite Doc: If any film immerses its viewer into a place better than those two city portraits, it's Stefano Savona's Tahrir: Liberation Square, which only shows us rather than telling us about what it was like to be among the protestors in Egypt in the beginning of 2011. Honorable mention goes to Crazy Horse, by observational documentary master Frederick Wiseman, who does a nice job in spite of choosing a place that's frankly not as enticing to non-French viewers as you'd expect a film about naked women to be.
Best Personal Investigation Film: If I allow for all first-person docs, I probably have to again honor This Is Not a Film, in spite of its having a codirector. Narrowing down to those in which the filmmaker heads up an investigation of some kind, there's still another tie. First there's Photographic Memory, the latest from the autobiographically minded Ross McElwee, who this time explores his relationship to his son and also an early romantic affair of his own experienced when he was his son's age. Then there's The House I Live in, a brilliant address of the systemic issues behind the war on drugs, in which director Eugene Jarecki joins the action on-screen once realizing how the issue has personally affected his life and those close to him.
Most Romantic Doc: Another tie, for it's pretty impossible to compare Elizabeth Mims and Jason Tippet's wonderful nonfiction teen movie Only the Young and Seung-jun Yi's poetic look at an extraordinary marriage, Planet of Snail. In addition to them both having the sweetest romantic stories of the year, they are also similarly notable for how they push heavier subject matter like the economy, religion and physical handicaps to the background of their characters.
Best Competition Doc: Another tie, and I couldn't even divide the two films through specified type of competition doc since they're both of the kid-competition variety. Katie Dellamaggiore's Brooklyn Castle isn't so much about a competition, however, as it is about competitive chess players whose real opponents are their own personal obstacles and the financial setbacks of the public school system. Bess Kargman's First Position is a bit more conventional and expectantly uplifting, but it also addresses some serious issues while showcasing some of the finest young ballet talents in the world.
And finally, here are some the best docs as far as entertainment goes, which I think makes them at least the most widely accessible for readers of this site:
Most Amazing Documentary Story: While The Imposter is certainly a wild and unbelievable tale, there is one story that I found even more intriguing and astounding, which is that of Camp 14: Total Control Zone. Marc Wiese's documentary presents Shin Dong-Huyk, a young man who escaped from the North Korean prison camp he was born into. And it's not just Shin's account of life in Camp 14 that is shocking and hard to understand from a Western perspective, but the film also features interviews with prison guards who show little to no remorse about horrible things they've done and can easily discuss on camera. Honorable mention goes to Dreams of a Life, Carol Morley's underseen film about a woman who died alone and whose body went unfound for three years. These are as good proof as you need to confirm that truth is stranger than fiction.
Most Captivating Documentary Character: If anybody was made into a movie star this year via a documentary, it's Ai Weiwei, subject of Alison Klayman's Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry. The Chinese dissident and artist was already an internationally known figure beforehand, but this portrait of his life and works (both artistic and political, which usually are the same anyway) reveal him to be the most magnetic screen personality of the year, real-life or fiction (see my column on why Never Sorry is the best superhero movie of the year). Honorable mention goes to Jaqueline Siegel, the eponymous figure of Lauren Greenfield's The Queen of Versailles, who definitely plays to the camera as if she's on a reality TV show and whose character is all the more complex for the fact that this isn't "Real Housewives of Orlando."