Although few documentaries broke out at the box office in 2012, the year confirmed the strength of the nonfiction form, with a litany of excellent and diverse films that tackled everything from climate change and social injustice to zoo animals. At the year’s midpoint, I wrote about how docs have been, hands-down, the best-reviewed movies in theaters this year. And the last few months have only continued the stellar trend—with the recent releases of The Central Park Five, Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence In The House Of God, Chasing Ice and Brooklyn Castle.
Writing this column has given me the opportunity to give documentaries the attention they deserve. At festivals, where most critics are frequently pressured to see the latest star-studded indie or Oscar bait, the choice for me has always been easy: Go with nonfiction. At certain festivals, such as Sundance and Tribeca, that decision has paid off in spades: many of my favorites of the year were viewed at those festivals.
Here, in alphabetical order, are the 10 best documentaries I saw this year (some of which will be released formally in 2013). A common thread through many of this year’s strongest films is an invitation for viewers to thoroughly enter the minds of others, and thus experience something affecting and illuminating, whether via the exploits of a Palestinian farmer, a South Korean blind man, or a group of killers atoning for their sins.
In this chilling portrait of a group of men who were responsible for the mass killings of alleged Communists in Indonesia 50 years ago, something revelatory occurs during the last few minutes—a kind of literal cleansing of a man’s soul. It takes a while to arrive at this conclusion, and the route is an unconventional one: filmmakers Joshua Oppenheimer and Christine Cynn help these elderly killers restage their past violent escapades for a big-screen movie epic. While watching the sequences that the Indonesian gangsters decide to produce—from surreal nightmares to noir-ish interrogation scenes—it’s hard to take them seriously. But through this process of prodding and reevaluation, a death squad leader goes from a happy dancing man, who has managed to forget his atrocities with the help of drugs and alcohol, to a person who can no longer repress the demons he has long buried inside.
If China is the world’s new superpower, Chinese art-star Ai Weiwei shows there are plenty of cracks in its supremacy. In Alyson Klayman’s documentary profile, Ai emerges as a stirring symbol of antiauthoritarianism, the kind of magnetic, irreverent prankster you’d want to dine with, not to mention follow on Twitter. Following two years during which the art-provocateur infuriates police and posts constant social media jeremiads, Klayman uncovers the serious underpinnings of a man’s art and activism. At one point, the camera clandestinely captures an exchange between the artist and his mother, who confesses, “I’m worried that Mommy won’t see you again.” Ai dismisses her concerns, but Never Sorry hinges on a final twist that proves that even famous men aren’t immune from tyranny.
In this beautiful meditation on memory and identity, Alan Berliner focuses on the fading brain of a distant relative, the distinguished poet and professor Edwin Honig, who is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. Throughout the film, Berliner employs a wide range of evocative shots that evoke the toil of recalling the distant past, from slow motion roller coaster rides and rotating gears to decaying celluloid and swimming schools of fish in the murky ocean. In the film’s most exquisite sequence, Berliner finds an elegant metaphor for this process in the changing leaves outside of Honig’s window. The moment is stunning not only for its beautifully delicate nature cinematography, but also for the way in which it reflects Honig’s curious lucidity. Even though he’s beset by memory loss, he frequently speaks with the kind of obscure language of poetry that he spent his life writing. As he says of the leaves, “They change without you wanting them to change.”
This portrait of a Palestinian farmer, and the nonviolent resistance movement in which he participates in the West Bank town of Bil’in, only gets more timely and heartbreaking with every passing day. As Emad Burnat and his fellow citizens face off against Israel soldiers firing machine guns and tossing tear-gas grenades, viewers get a glimpse of what it must feel like to live in the Occupied Territories. The endless cycle of clashes is harrowing, infuriating, absurd, and sometimes all three at once. And what gives these scenes extra force is that they’re all seen through Burnat’s subjective, and multiple, camera lenses. When Burnat gets threatened (“If he films, I’ll break his bones!,” cries one bullying Israeli settler) or when his camera get knocked around, obstructed, and even shot, we experience the brunt of the trauma as if we were there—like in a first-person shooter videogame, except instead of firing weapons back, we’re just receiving blows. Few documentaries can claim to so effectively place the audience in the position of a specific group of people that have heretofore been so misunderstood, misrepresented or ignored by the Western media.
Like a time-travel machine, David France’s epic documentary places the viewer smack dab in the middle of the 1980s AIDS crisis. Using archival footage culled from some 700 hours of video, the film presents an urgent, you-are-there account of those who worked within the advocacy group ACT UP to combat the spread of the virus. The whole documentary zips along like a fast-breaking news story (this despite spanning some 10 years of material), making distant events tangible and the frustrations and fury of the people palpable. When, for example, in a period of internal division within ACT UP, Kramer delivers a rousing and angry speech—”Plague!” he yells, “we are in the middle of a plague; 40 million infected people is a plague”—it’s difficult not to feel right at the center of that conflict. These activists are literally fighting for their lives, and to watch them in the midst of that fight makes for compelling viewing.
Praise, if you like, the glossy noir-ish reenactments or the mystery-like narrative about a European child imposter who lands in Texas, but it isn’t until the film’s final excruciating moment that The Imposter shows itself for what it is: an acutely cynical and profoundly sad meditation on mendacity and manipulation. When we see the imposter Frédéric Bourdin, a.k.a. “The Chameleon,” in white prison garb dancing furiously and manically in an empty gym, grabbing his crotch in a brash, Michael Jackson-like performance, it’s both a fuck-you to those he’s continually wronged and a bare and revealing depiction of an uncaring psychopath. “I washed her brain,” Bourdin says in the film, baring a toothy smile that is as disturbing as Hollywood’s worst villains.
Ra’anan Alexandrowicz’s landmark film examines the ground rules that are set for oppression. With the Geneva Convention merely an obstacle to wiggle around, and human rights a luxury they cannot afford, the modern Israeli state stands as a shining achievement of legalized injustice. What’s remarkable about the film is that it displays this process with as dispassionate and clinical a posture as the Israeli military justices and prosecutors that are interviewed in the film. Some do show a tinge of regret for introducing systems designed to keep the Palestinian people down, but they also acknowledge they have no other options. When it comes to Israel, as one of them says, “Order and justice don’t always go hand in hand.”
South Korean director Yi Seung-Jun’s poetic Planet of Snail follows the relationship between a young svelte man who is deaf and blind, and his wife, Soon-Ho, who is nearly half his size as a result of a spinal disability. While ostensibly a portrait of an odd couple’s quotidian existence, as its strange title suggests, the film transcends its surface subject matter, taking viewers deep into the otherworldly space of these two people’s lives with remarkable affection and intimacy. This isn’t a story about disabilities; this is a story about companionship and mutual need. When Soon-Ho communicates with her husband by tapping on the tops of his hands, as if on a typewriter, it’s a beautifully visual evocation of their relationship. Dare I say it: it’s the love story of the year!
A terrific mystery and a moving story about political resistance and the power of music, Searching for Sugar Man chronicles a 1970s Latino folk singer named Rodriguez who was ignored in America, but, unbeknownst to him, became a popular icon during South Africa’s Apartheid years. In the cruelest of ironies, songs such as “Establishment Blues” became protest anthems for South Africa’s white counterculture while he toiled away as a construction worker in a crumbling Detroit, completely unaware of his role in changing that society. First-time feature director Malik Bendjelloul tells an ultimately uplifting story full of suspenseful twists and surprising turns. By film’s end, it’s hard not to be giddy in the wake of Rodriguez’s resurrection.
Swiss filmmaker Fernand Melgar’s profoundly affecting film follows a group of close-knit illegal immigrants awaiting deportation in a Switzerland detention center. The movie presents a deeply humanistic portrait both of the men who’ve traveled from the likes of Kosovo and Kinshasa, as well as of their kind domestic caretakers. But the genteel surroundings and tender treatment belie the painful hypocrisies of their situation. The Swiss system might have a pretense of civility, but as the increasingly disgruntled detainees eventually discover, they’re screwed from the start. One inmate says it best: “We get overfed, but we’re deprived of our freedom.”
There are many worthy films that I have missed and hope to catch in the coming weeks and months, such as The Gatekeepers and Room 237, but here are some honorable mentions: Bestiaire, The Central Park Five, Downeast, The Island President, Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence In The House Of God, Scenes of a Crime, This Is Not a Film, The Waiting Room.
Anthony Kaufman has written about films and the film industry for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Chicago Tribune, The Village Voice, and Slate. He is currently a regular contributor to Variety, The Wall Street Journal Online, Filmmaker Magazine, The Utne Reader, and writes the ReelPolitik blog for Indiewire.com.