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The 20 Best Documentaries of 2012

December 17, 2012  |  9:51am
The 20 Best Documentaries of 2012
10. Undefeated
Director: Dan Lindsay and T.J. Martin
In introducing us to Coach Bill Courtney, Undefeated finds its voice. The Memphis family man and owner of a lumber business isn’t just the team’s coach; he’s a father figure, mentor and therapist to its troubled players. O.C., Chavis and “Money” are, for all their pluck, still teenagers from broken homes—making them especially difficult and moody. It’s a marvel how tirelessly Courtney works to instill character, discipline and selflessness into each of them—to mold these boys into sound human beings. Watching Undefeated, one realizes that it’s on the backs of individuals like Courtney that entire communities find their soul, their humanity.—Jay Antani

9. Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry
Director: Alison Klayman
Alison Klayman’s loving portrait of China’s dissident artist Ai Weiwei may strike some as hagiographic, but how can it not be? This is a man who would be a major artist no matter what his national origin. Yet both his art and his story are made infinitely more fascinating by the incredible courage and steadfastness he shows in openly defying and mocking one of the most evil regimes on Earth. He’s smarter than them, he’s more talented than them, and he’s more charismatic and popular than them. Of course, they have the guns. That the fight seems evenly matched may be the greatest tribute of all.—Michael Dunaway

8. Gregory Crewdson: Brief Encounters
Director: Ben Shapiro
Many photographers work meticulously for ever-more-true depictions of physical reality. Not Gregory Crewdson. His delberatley conceived, meticulously constructed, artificfially lit scenes are more like paintings; they just happen to be captured with a camera. Ben Shapiro’s documentary isn’t a particularly deep dig into Crewdson’s background or psychology, nor is it a linear story with conflict and climax. It’s really just an exploration of the work itself, as we look over Crewdson’s shoulder while he prepares, shoots and opens his monumental “Beneath the Roses” show. It’s a fascinating, unforgettable ride. —Michael Dunaway

7. Marley
Director: Kevin Macdonald
It’s not entirely clear why director Kevin Macdonald decided to make a documentary about the musician Bob Marley, a cultural icon whose life has been recounted countless times through a variety of mediums. Macdonald claims it’s because he wants to understand why Marley continues to speak to legions of fans around the world. Whatever his reasons, he’s clearly up to the task. Marley offers an expansive and at times fascinating perspective on the man through interviews with his fellow former Wailers, family, and childhood friends. The film is fairly detailed concerning Marley’s songwriting and musicianship from his early ska days up through the release of Catch a Fire. After this, however, it skips through his catalogue, choosing to focus more on his personal life, conversion to Rastafarianism, the tumultuous state of Jamaican politics, and his prolific womanizing—all of which are important elements of the artist’s character.—Jonah Flicker

6. West of Memphis
Director: Amy Berg
The buzziest documentary of the Sundance Film Festival was also one of the very best. The involvement of Peter Jackson (one of the film’s producers), Eddie Vedder, Henry Rollins, and others, as well as the very recent dramatic developments in the case, ensured that. The film itself is enormously moving. Any investigative documentary, especially dealing with the wrongly accused, walks in the gargantuan footsteps of Errol Morris and his seminal The Thin Blue Line. Director Amy Berg received an Academy Award nomination for her Deliver Us From Evil, but the fact that she lives up to the legacy of Morris’ film may be an even greater accomplishment. In addition to chronicling justice, West of Memphis actually helps enact it. What higher calling can there be?—Michael Dunaway

5. Searching for Sugar Man
Director: Malik Bendjelloul
“The Story of the Forgotten Genius” is such a well-worn formula for music documentaries that it was already being parodied more than three decades ago in This is Spinal Tap. In Searching for Sugar Man, as Swedish director Malik Bendjelloul begins to tell the story of Rodriguez—the Dylanesque folk rocker who released two apparently brilliant albums in the early 1970s, then disappeared—it appears he’s traveling a familiar road. But that road takes a sharp left turn when we learn that bootleg recordings catapulted Rodriguez to stratospheric heights of fame in apartheid-era South Africa. (When a record-store owner is asked if Rodriguez was as big as the Rolling Stones, he matter-of-factly replies “Oh, much bigger than that.”). In fact, his uncensored depictions of sex and drugs were so thrilling to South African musicians that he became the patron saint of the Afrikaner punk movement, which in turn laid the groundwork for the organized anti-apartheid movement that eventually brought the regime down. It’s just a shame that Rodriguez never lived to see it—he burned himself to death onstage in the middle of a show. Or overdosed in prison. Or shot himself alone in his apartment. Or… could he still be alive? Bendjelloul’s film manages to create an aura of mystery and suspense around a search that actually unfolded 14 years ago—a “detective documentary” set in the very recent past.—Michael Dunaway

4. This Is Not a Film
Directors: Jafar Panahi and Mojtaba Mirtahmasb
In December 2010, renowned Iranian director Jafar Panahi (Offside) was sentenced to six years in prison and banned from making films for 20 years. His crime? Supporting the opposition party during Iran’s highly charged 2009 election. Three months later on the eve of the Iranian New Year, while his wife and children are away delivering gifts, Panahi is home alone in his apartment. He turns on a camera. What follows is a document of the day-to-day life of a man under house arrest: He spreads jam on bread. He brews tea. He feeds his daughter’s pet iguana. He calls his family. He checks in with his lawyer. But it also evolves into a provocative meditation on the nature of filmmaking itself: Although he has been barred from directing films, writing screenplays, leaving the country and conducting interviews, Panahi’s sentence says nothing about reading or acting, so this is what he does, explaining what his most recent film would have been about had he been allowed to make it. Like René Magritte’s The Treachery of Images, in which the artist scrawls the words “This is not a pipe” under a painting of just such a smoking device, this is not a film but a representation of one.—Annlee Ellingson

3. Jiro Dreams of Sushi
Director: David Gelb
Jiro Dreams of Sushi is a documentary about one of the greatest masters of the culinary world, one whom casual foodies have never even heard of. Although Jiro’s work is ostensibly the focus of the documentary, the film is really propelled by the story of his relationship with his two sons; the youngest of whom has started his own restaurant, and the oldest of whom, at the age of 50, continues to work with his father, training to one day take over his restaurant. Devoid of the typical familial jealousy you may expect, Jiro Dreams of Sushi is instead a beautifully filmed documentary about a father and his sons who have devoted their lives to the pursuit of the perfect piece of sushi. —Emily Kirkpatrick

2. The Imposter
Director: Bart Layton
It’s obvious The Imposter is going to be a thriller, and a thriller it is, and then some. Three years after the disappearance of their 13-year-old son, a Texas family receive word he’s been found in Spain. When they go to pick him up, they’re so desperate to believe he’s alive that they don’t even notice that the “boy” is actually a French man in his mid-twenties. Is it a monumental case of grief and hope blinding sense, or is there a darker explanation? Director Bart Layton mixes elements of documentary and narrative filmmaking seamlessly in ways I’ve never seen done before. And every character he uncovers in the drama is more of a treasure trove than the last. It’s one of the most compelling films you’ll see all year, in any genre.—Michael Dunaway

1. Low and Clear
Directors: Kahlil Hudson and Tyler Hughen
Reading the description of Kahlil Hudson and Tyler Hughen’s remarkable film—two friends who are world-class fishermen, half a country apart, take a trip to British Columbia to fly fish and reconnect—you’ll think that you’re in for a slow, meditative, deeply felt journey with lots of beautiful scenery. And it is meditative and deeply felt and beautiful, but it’s anything but slow. Having two fascinating, outspoken, and often at-odds subjects helps, as does the deft and slightly mischievous touch of editor Alex Jablonski. But most of all, Hudson and Hughen seem determined not to settle for a tone poem and tell a real story here. And it’s mesmerizing.—Michael Dunaway

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