If you watch a lot of documentaries, you begin to admire the craft and diligence that goes into a great non-fiction film. There's just as much skill required as making a narrative film, sometimes more if you're dealing with complicated or dense material.
When I started thinking about my favorite documentaries from 2012, I noticed how much my feelings about certain films at the end of the year differed from my feelings after the initial viewing. I still liked the films I liked, obviously, but certain movies really lingered and got better in my mind with time. Something similar happened toward the end of 2011, when I realized one of my three favorite movies that year was Richard Press's documentary Bill Cunningham New York.
Before getting to the list, I should admit that this feels like a work in progress. There are a couple acclaimed documentaries I wasn't able to catch last year that might have made it into this top 10, like How to Survive a Plague, The Central Park Five, The Ambassador, The Gatekeepers, and Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God. I hope to check those films out soon.
That said, head after the cut for my 10 favorite docs of 2012.
10. The Revisionaries
There's something about a good culture war documentary that really gets to me, and The Revisionaries made my blood boil while watching it. The film looks at decisions made by the Texas Board of Education that altered the standards of science and history textbooks, potentially changing the science and history curriculum nationwide. At the center of the film is Don McLeroy, the anti-intellectual creationist numbskull who was elected (elected!) as head of the Board. Director Scott Thurman remains relatively evenhanded throughout the film, allowing the actual culture war debate to occur between the film's subjects. And yet every time McLeroy or Cynthia Dunbar (another creationist chowderhead) appeared on screen, I felt myself squirm with righteous anger.
I remember someone writing or saying that Bob Marley was a great musician whose misfortune was having such an insufferable fanbase. I kind of agree -- only kind of, I mean obviously not all Marley fans are annoying -- and that kept me at arm's length from his life story and his legacy. That may be one reason why I found Kevin MacDonald's documentary on Bob Marley so engrossing. Everything about Marley's life was new to me and extraordinary, from his mixed-race background to his attempt at political intervention in Jamaica. Even if you're not a fan of reggae or Marley's music, there's something undeniably compelling about how MacDonald unpacks the man's life over the course of two and a half hours.
I think philosopher Slavoj Žižek and director Sophie Fiennes have tapped into my love of giddy Rube Goldberg machine intellectualism with The Pervert's Guide to Ideology, much like the duo did with their previous effort, The Pervert's Guide to Cinema. In Ideology, Žižek is given room to riff (often in recreations of film sets), seeing how disparate ideas about film wind up communicating a culture's ideological trappings. It goes beyond film, however, and touches on Coke, Starbucks, the Arab Spring, and the Occupy movement. The Pervert's Guide to Ideology is a strange essay of a movie from one of the most popular public intellectuals alive, and while the film arrives at conclusions that are more observational than prescriptive, I don't think that diminishes the peculiar joys of Žižek's ideas. Since no trailer for the film is available, the clip above is Žižek explaining ideology in terms of toilets.
Read our review of The Pervert's Guide to Ideologyhere.
7. Beware of Mr. Baker
Beware of Mr. Baker is a film where hagiography is impossible. Ginger Baker, the subject of the film, was a great drummer but a wretched human being, which is the gist of the first few minutes of the documentary. Musicians and friends sing his praises when it comes to music but roundly agree the man was just a schmuck. Then we see an elderly Ginger Baker break director Jay Bulger's nose with a cane. And it's so much fun. Bulger treats the movie as a polyrhythmic portrait of an artist as a goddamn son of a bitch, and even if you don't like Ginger Baker, you have to admire his pursuit of syncopated perfection. In a way, Beware of Mr. Baker is like the Bizarro World cousin to my favorite documentary of 2012.
In any book or movie about people perfecting their craft, the thing the person is good at is really just a manifestation of their worldview. At one point of Jiro Dreams of Sushi, someone even says that to eat sushi at Jiro's restaurant is to eat the man's philosophy. This philosophy happens to be one of simplicity toward purity. As a foodie film, Jiro Dreams of Sushi provides the requisite amounts of delicious food porn, but winds up being more about the joys of finding your calling and what it means to focus on what you're good at. Director David Gelb builds out from there to look at ideas of legacy and apprenticeship, and even the poetry and music of action. Somehow there's a lesson on how to live just from hearing the story of a man struggling to make good egg sushi.
Rene Magritte did a playful bit of inversion and phenomenology when beneath an image of a pipe he wrote "Ceci n'est pas un pipe" ("This is not a pipe"). With This is Not a Film, the name made me think that Mojtaba Mirtahmasb and Jafar Panahi's documentary was more than just a collection of images. This is not just a film: it's a political statement, it's a sketch of a screenplay, it's a slice of life, it's a testament to artistic freedom, it's a document of oppression in Iran, it's a punk rock act of "fuck you," and it's a game that blends fiction and non-fiction. This is Not a Film centers on Panahi, an Iranian filmmaker under house arrest who may be sentenced to six years in prison and banned from making movies, conducting interviews, and leaving the country for the next two decades. The resulting video essay was smuggled out of Iran in a flash drive hidden inside of a birthday cake. Whether it's a film or not, it's something vital and worth watching.
4. The List
Beth Murphy's The List is one of those films that works on a powerful moral imperative. The documentary focuses on Kirk Johnson, something of a modern day Oskar Schindler. Thousands of Iraqi civilians assisted US forces during Operation Iraqi Freedom as interpreters and liaisons, often under threat of death from fellow Iraqis and members of terrorist organizations. Despite the help these civilians provided, the US government did nothing to protect these allies from harm, even as forces pulled out of the country. Johnson started The List Project in order to resettle these endangered allies in the United States. Already, more than 1,000 lives have been saved. Murphy shows Johnson at work without hagiography. Instead we see a man tirelessly doing what he thinks is right because thousands of lives may depend on his unflagging concern.
There's a Jorge Luis Borges story from his first book called "The Improbable Imposter Tom Castro," a fictionalized retelling of an actual event. Bart Layton's The Imposter is almost like an update and adaptation of the Borges story; both are equally improbable and yet strangely real. The film opens with the sad tale of Nicholas Barclay, a 13-year-old San Antonio boy who went missing in 1994. Three years later, Nicholas's family was told that he'd been found alive in Spain. If you couldn't guess from the title, something just isn't right about the situation -- there's nothing right about it at all. Through interviews and event recreations, Layton looks at the lies people tell to get what they want, and also the lies people tell themselves that make them believe anything. The Imposter is an engrossing documentary that plays more like a crime thriller than mere reportage.
Kevin Schreck's Persistence of Vision is a heartbreaking making-of documentary that caught me by surprise. For three decades, animator Richard Williams (best know for his work on Who Framed Roger Rabbit?) struggled to make his magnum opus: The Thief and the Cobbler. Things didn't work out well in the end. That's a bit of an understatement once you learn about the final fate of The Thief and the Cobbler, actually. It's just flat out demoralizing given the painstaking craft and beauty that Williams and his team put into the film. And yet there's something inspiring about Persistence of Vision even if it is about artistic failure. The Thief and the Cobbler was a project so ambitious that it may never have been finished in a way that matched Williams's vision. But maybe that's the point. We get a glimpse into a person's capacity to dream, to dream big, and to dream beautiful, impossible things. A few of these dazzling impossibilities are realized, and that should give us all some hope.
I liked Searching for Sugar Man a lot when I first saw it at the Tribeca Film Festival, but over the last few months, it's become one of my favorite films of the year. It's an inspiring, feel-good movie that doesn't feel forced, and I think it has a lot to do with the film's subject: Sixto Rodriguez. Here was a man who was doing music that was part Bob Dylan, part Cat Stevens, and all Detroit, but no one cared much for his two albums, 1970's Cold Fact and 1971's Coming From Reality. He faded into obscurity in the United States but inexplicably became a musical hero in South Africa, as ubiquitous in hip-to-it Afrikaner homes as The Beatles and Simon & Garfunkel. Director Malik Bendjelloul finds out whatever happened to Rodriguez after he failed as a musician. It wasn't suicide like the rumors said, and it wasn't depression and heartbreak either. Searching for Sugar Man is one of those docs that makes you marvel at how odd the world is and how great some of its people can be.