The 20 Best Documentaries of 2011

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Last year we pondered whether 2010 might have been the greatest year ever for documentary films. 2011 has proven a worthy successor

5. Nostalgia For the Light
Director: Patricio Guzman
The largest dead space on earth is the Atacama desert in Chile, a place so desolate that not even insects or retiles live in the zero-humidity environment. Acclaimed Chilean documentarian Patricio Guzman returns there to examine the work of the astronomers in the observatory there (he was passionate about astronomy as a child), but ends up also exploring the work of the archaeologists who uncover evidence of ancient inhabitants of the desert, and of a group of people who search for dead bodies dumped there by the Pinochet regime. It’s thoughtful, heartfelt and gorgeous.

4. Project Nim
Director: James Marsh
In Man on Wire, director James Marsh recounted French tightrope walker Philippe Petit’s exploits, most notably his unauthorized 1974 walk between the Twin Towers that held most of the city of New York breathless for an entire morning. In Project Nim, a team of researchers (only one year earlier, in 1973) sets out to accomplish an even more audacious and thrilling goal—to teach a chimpanzee human sign language and initiate meaningful dialogue. Technically the film is flawless. But the really compelling angle for the film is the very idea of inter-species communication.

3. Senna
Director: Asif Kapadia
Kapadia was already a BAFTA-award-winning narrative director, but there are plenty of narrative directors who haven’t made the transition to documentaries effectively. He doubled the degree of difficulty by deciding to use all period footage of his subject, ’80s and ’90s Gran Prix legend Aryton Senna. He pulled it off in spades, and Senna is one of the greatest sports documentaries of all time, and one of the three best docs of the year.

2. General Orders No. 9
Director: Robert Persons
A deeply rich baritone with an accent dripping of old bourbon muses—intermittently—over footage of city and country, group and individual, as hypnotic music plays. It’s as if Terence Malick filmed a newly discovered William Faulkner memoir. A decade in the making, it’s the most wholly original vision in years.

1. The Interrupters
Director: Steve James
Steve James is justly deified for Hoop Dreams, which no less an authority than Roger Ebert declared the greatest documentary of all time. The Academy famously snubbed it, denying it even a nomination for Best Documentary of the year. The Interrupters is the first film since then in which James approached those heights, and inconceivably, the Academy has done it again, as the year’s best documentary didn’t even make the short list for a nomination. Pay them no attention. Don’t miss James’ majestic account of a group of former gang members who toil tirelessly on the streets of Chicago to prevent disputes from escalating into violence.

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