The year of the eclectic male, the understated woman and dynamic film. But 2012 was also the year of the thrilling documentary. Some of the docs below shocked me, others moved, all have remained in my mind as great works of nonfiction cinema. Please note that this list is not comprehensive. I saw a lot of great documentaries last year, but I certainly didn’t see all of them. I still have yet to see the latest from three of my favorite documentarians (Alex Gibney’s Mea Maxima Culpa, Amy Berg’s West of Memphis, Steve James’ Head Games) so please, tell me what I’ve missed in the comments.
The narrative is simple: rapper-turned pretty decent actor (and now director) Ice-T travels to some of America’s biggest cities to trace the history of rap music. He interviews legends (Doug E. Fresh, Big Daddy Kane, KRS-One, Chuck D.) and contemporaries (Eminem, Snoop Dogg, Nas, Kanye West) alike. The result: a wildly entertaining exposé about the most misunderstood genre of music. At the end of his interviews, Ice-T encourages each of his subjects to stare into the camera and spit one verse (any verse) of rap. It’s pure gold, everytime.
9. Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry – dir. by Alison Klayman
Following one of the world’s most famed and controversial artists should be cause enough for an engaging documentary. But director Alison Klayman got lucky. Ai Weiwei was suddenly and inexplicably detained by Chinese authorities for several weeks, which sparked outrage from admirers around the world. Sure, Ai Weiwei’s misery was Klayman’s fortune, but damn if it doesn’t make for compelling cinema.
8. Side by Side – dir. by Christopher Kenneally
The biggest criticism of Side by Side is that it may only be of interest to die hard cinephiles. Well, here I am, and consider me interested. The film follows its producer, Keanu Reeves, as he asks a simple question of some of our most brilliant cinematic minds: digital or film? Some, like Christopher Nolan and Wally Pfister, lament that film is film, and should be shot and viewed as such. Others, like Steven Soderbergh, admit that his career exists because of digital filmmaking. While vets like Martin Scorsese and David Lynch say they are slowly making the digital conversion. For or against, celluloid or memory card, Side by Side is a fascinating examination into the stylized evolution of film.
7. This is Not a Film – dir. by Mojtaba Mirtahmasb & Jafar Panahi
While awaiting the verdict of his appeal against a prison sentence and a ban on filmmaking, Iranian director Jafar Panahi sits aimlessly in his home under strict house arrest. After a while, he calls his filmmaking buddy Mirtahmasb, and the two document a mundane day in the life of a filmmaker stripped of his resources. Panahi grumbles, he worries, he watches his own films, and in the documentary’s most heartbreaking sequence, animatedly finishes a screenplay by fleshing out its scenes in his small living room with the use of masking tape. Don’t be fooled, mundane though it may be, This is Not a Film is indeed just that: a film. One of subtle devastation and impossible concern.
6. The Invisible War – dir. by Kirby Dick
Kirby Dicks aims to shock. His game is to cook up controversy, whether it’s from the absurdly restrictive MPAA (This Film Is Not Yet Rated), closeted gay republicans (Outrage), or a sexually abusive Catholic Church (Twist of Faith), Dick thrives on causing a stir. His latest documents a criminally ignored epidemic of rape within the American military system. Countless women (and a few men) share their stories with Dick, holding nothing back, and demanding justice. Individually, they’ve received none, but collectively, Dick’s film has proved to cause just the right amount of trouble. After seeing this film, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta (who James Gandolfini played in Zero Dark Thirty) ordered that all military sexual assault cases are to be handled by people who rank colonel and higher. That’s a small step in the right direction, but a step nonetheless.
5. How to Survive a Plague – dir. by David France
David France’s searing film tracks the suspicion, rise, and ultimate outbreak of AIDS in America. How to Survive a Plague enlists the narratives of people living with the disease, scientists who have studied it, politicians who have ignored it – all of who comment about the frustration, fear and panic of a disease that took many American citizens anonymously and remorselessly. Using a great amount of archival footage to reveal the political inaction and public stigmatization of AIDS, How to Survive a Plague proves to be an unsettling, wholly effective documentary about the power of the fight. As of now, my money’s on this to win the Oscar.
4. Searching for Sugar Man – dir. by Malik Bendjelloul
A well-made documentary about a search for one man can, in the right hands, prove to be the best, most effective kind of documentary available. Malik Bendjelloul is equipped with such a set of hands, as his Searching for Sugar Man turns into so much more than two fans trying to discover if a once-famed musician is still even alive. Many said Rodriguez was better than Bob Dylan and more resonate than The Rolling Stones. Although his music never reached mass acclaim in the States, his singing was (and is) idolized in South Africa. As two Cape Town fans get closer to discovering the whereabouts of Rodriguez, we’re privy to investigative cinema at its finest. Will they track the insanely modest musician down? I’ll never tell. See and marvel for yourself.
3. The Imposter – dir. by Bart Layton
There’s something so refreshing about listening to a real person openly admit all of the pointless, violentless, crimes they committed. Such as Frédéric Bourdin, who shortly into Bart Layton’s fascinating film, freely confesses that, in order to avoid capture, he impersonated Nicholas Barclay, a young Texan who disappeared at age 13. That’s enough to make The Imposter electrifying, but then something happens. Once the dust settles on Bourdin and his shenanigans, Layton and many of his subjects finally wonder what the hell did actually happen to the real Nicholas Barclay? Nicholas’ family doesn’t anticipate the question, but that certainly doesn’t stop Layton from asking. A seriously chilling work of art.
2. The House I Live In – dir. by Eugene Jarecki
The American War on Drugs has been in effect since Nixon, and, by all accounts, not a damn thing has changed in the years since. America has spent upwards of a trillion dollars to combat drug usage in this country, and with usage continually on the rise, imprison rates consistently increasing, more crime, purer drugs, and on and on, it’s fair to ask: What exactly is all that money going toward? Well, that’s just one question Jarecki attempts to shed light on, and believe me, there are many.
The House I Live In forces people of persuasion to atone for what’s happening in America. Like the candid Judge who admits that pre-determined sentences for crack offenders are completely unfair. Or the New Mexico Sherriff who says that part of being a cop today is to racially profile. “Every police officer does it,” he says. And then there’s David Simon, the creator of The Wire, a monumental television series that examined this war unflinchingly. Simon is a flawless talking head, consistently making solid points while letting just the right amount of frustration push through. He’s one aspect that makes The House I Live In essential viewing for all Americans. A note to our foreign friends: yep, this is a large part about who we are. Sad, but undeniably true.
1. The Central Park Five – dir. by Ken Burns, Sarah Burns & David McMahon
In April of 1989, a white woman was discovered in Central Park, beaten to a pulp and savagely raped. Within mere hours, the police had a handful of young boys in custody (young, black boys) and a few hours later, four of them had signed confessions that they had indeed senselessly beaten and raped investment banker Trisha Meili in the park. Months later, the four boys (and another one of their suspected cohorts) were all sentenced to years in prison.
Open and shut. Done and done.
Ken Burns and his daughter Sarah, along with David McMahon, decided to look closer. Well, technically, their film is a document of the few brave souls who looked closer. The people who found the individual confessions of the Central Park Five to be wildly inconsistent. The people who put the NYPD’s interrogation practices under a microscope to discover abuse and unlawful intimidation. The people who exposed racial discrimination within the judicial system. The people who demanded to know what Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana, Kharey Wise and Yusef Salaam knew already: that they had nothing whatsoever to do with what happened to Meili, and were coerced into admitting they did.
I have no interest in disclosing how these revelations came to be. You’re far better off discovering that for yourself. But I do want to make specific note of the fact that I have seen many films about prison life, and the after effects that life can have. But never, in all my years of film viewing, have I heard the true hell of coming home from prison better than it is articulated here. The Central Park Five were children when they went to prison, and they came out scared shitless grown men. This is a haunting film about the damage that is caused when the system fails.
2012 in Review