Last year we pondered whether 2010 might have been the greatest year ever for documentary films. 2011 has proven a worthy successor, spearheaded by the long-awaited return of the director of possibly the greatest documentary ever (Steve James), a crossover from a BAFTA-award winning director of narrative film (Asif Kapadia), and new works by some of the acknowledged masters of the form (Werner Herzog, Errol Morris, Martin Scorsese, James Marsh). There even emerged, seemingly out nowhere—but actually in the works for eight years—a new masterpiece by a previously completely unknown auteur (Robert Persons). Here’s our judgment on the very best documentary films of 2011.
20. The Black Power Mixtape
Director: Göran Olsson
The Black Power Mixtape offers a steady drumbeat for justice, but it’s more of an introduction than an analysis. The parts never quite coalesce into a complete picture. But this poignant, alternative history will spark a hunger for knowledge.—Craig Detweiler
Director: Nathan Christ
Austin, Texas, shamelessly labels itself as the “Live Music Capital of the World,” a moniker validated by annual events like SXSW and the Austin City Limits Music Festival, and the seemingly limitless number of live music venues about town. But unbeknownst to most outsiders, Austin continuously wages wars within those city limits, with music as its battleground. Echotone beautifully examines those battles by neither condemning nor sensationalizing but by letting the city speak through its inhabitants.—Tim Basham
18. POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold
Morgan Spurlock’s documentary about film financing through product placement, in which he documents himself financing the film through product placement, was too meta for some, but most, like us, were thrilled, entertained and educated.
17. Bombay Beach
Director: Alma Har’el
In a year dominated by narrative movies about the end of the world as we know it (Melancholia, Take Shelter, Another Earth, etc), Alma Har’el dared to show us a documentary that makes those anxieties real. It’s the story of the Salton Sea—the once-booming resort area, now spooky quasi-ghost town east of Orange County—but it’s also a meditation on humanity and nature, and on the transitory nature of glory.
16. Bill Cunningham New York
Director: Richard Press
Half of making a great documentary is finding a great subject, and Richard Press has absolutely done that in this affectionate treatment of the New York Times’ irresistibly charming octogenarian street fashion photographer.