There were so many excellent documentaries released during 2012 that it's hard to select and rank the ten best. So, I'm allowing myself a baker's dozen.
That said, this year's best list of thirteen doesn't really include all of the 2012 documentaries that have had an impact on my life and my understanding of the world around me. That's the problem with lists of bests: they're always incomplete, always developing. And, I will keep track of mine and update it if my preferences change. So, standby for possible revisions.
The titles on my list are presented in alphabetical order, with notes for each and links to my full reviews.
Selected for the artistry and skill with which they're made and the relevance of their subjects, these are all outstanding must see movies. Yes, you must muster to see these must see documentaries of 2012!
is a documentary about the current economic woes of the iconic American heartland city of Detroit, once the prosperous capital of America's industrial prowess and headquarters for the nation's prosperous auto makers. The city is now in deep financial decline, suffering physical decay and experiencing widespread civic crisis. Filmmakers Heidi Ewing (who hails from Detroit) and Rachel Grady follow several Detroit citizens -- a young waitress, a union leader, several street performers, a group of pilferers who strip abandoned buildings of their copper pipes and other salvageables, and a contract worker who's job is to tear down thousands of abandoned residences -- who are struggling to survive in a city that's struggling to survive. Their stories are heartbreaking and terrifying. This could be any city in the US, including your own. With keen observation and a lyrical style, Ewing and Grady treat their subjects with compassion and respect. Read my full review.
Sony Pictures Classics
Israeli filmmaker Dror Moreh got unprecedented access to six former chiefs of his country's anti-terrorism agency, Shin Bet, to interview them about the top secret agency's policies and practices regarding Palestinians and other non-Jews residing in Israeli-occupied and administrated territories. The chiefs are chillingly candid in their comments, and what they report about their missions and techniques is shockingly dark. The background they provide sheds light on the ongoing challenges of negotiating peace between Jews and Palestinians. Read my full review
Nancy Fishman Film Releasing
Filmmaker David France's How to Survive a Plague
tracks the history-making, policy-changing activism that moved the U.S. government and health care system to focus on the HIV AIDS epidemic as their priority, find viable treatments and treat infected patients humanely. Lead by members of the GLBT community, the activists included women and men, gay and straight, who organized massive demonstrations. created campaigns to raise public awareness about the disease and gain support for the cause, did the research to help develop new treatments and then test them, negotiated with powerful government agencies to change laws -- all of which eventually brought great results, greatly reducing the number of HIV-related fatalities and preventing the spread of the disease that had been devastating the GLBT community for a decade. Lest we forget, this film chronicles the activism and pays tribute to the activists. Read my full review
Cinedign Entertainment Group
Filmmaker Kirby Dick's outstanding investigative documentary about the frequent incidents of rape of men and women -- but mostly of women -- soldiers, in the U.S. military, exposes the systematic cover-up of reported incidents and the ongoing victim persecution by U. S. military authorities, who declaim a zero-tolerance policy, but fail to enforce it. Dick interviews rape victims whose harrowing experiences of assault and resulting disabilities exemplify what others -- some 20 percent of enlistees, as reported, though the actual number is suspected to be almost double that -- have suffered. The situation is intolerable, and the public, made aware of it, must demand that the military establishment protect those who serve in the armed forces from sexual abuse by punishing perpetrators who are often superior officers. Read my full review
British documentary filmmaker Grant Gee, an admirer of popular author W.G. Sebald, sets out to capture the essence of the writer's sensibility as expressed in The Rings of Saturn
. In the book, Sebald's protagonist is a character who's given his whose own name -- W.G. Sebald -- and goes on a walking tour of Suffolk, a county situated on the eastern coast of England. The journey is one of self discovery and introspection as much as it is study of the beautiful countryside and its landmarks. The film captures the book's spirit, becoming a sort of travelogue that's filled with personal observations and notes about the actual places that are visited, along with philosophical musings about history, culture and ambiance, and with introspective statements recounting personal memories and impressions past and present. It's fascinating. Mystical. Beautiful. Read my full review.
In Player Hating: A Love Story
, filmmaker Maggie Hadleigh-West chronicles the world of Jasun Wardlaw, the talented hip hop recording artist known as Half-a-Mill, as he and his crew of 'thugs' set about recording and releasing their first big record album. Half-a-Mill hopes the album will catapult him out of the crime-riddled Brooklyn housing project where he grew up. Wardlaw, who prefers to be called half, opens his heart and soul to Hadleigh-West, giving real insight into the hard realities behind tough rap lyrics that flow from the projects and the hood. Half is a compelling character with a gripping story, and Hadleigh-West tells it with soul. Read my full review.
The Punk Syndrome
Mouka Filmi Oy
Finnish filmmakers Jukka Kärkkäinen and Jani-Petteri Passi are touring their wonderful film around Europe and it has been screened in Toronto at Hot Docs
but, unfortunately, it has yet to be seen in the United States. It is a superb music documentary. One of the best. It follows the day to day doings and performances of Finnish punk rockers Pertti Kurikka, Kari Aalto, Sami Helle and Toni Välitalo -- four talented guys who are mentally challenged, live in a group home and sing about things that matter to them -- such as hateful pedicures and great coffee. They are, each in his own way, savvy, funny and impressively aware of their situation. They come from the birthplace of punk, and understand their roots. The film is candid and compassionate, and it's a great lesson about punkdom and humanity. My full review is soon to come...hopefully to be followed by a round of screenings in the United States.
'Searching for Sugar Man' is the stranger than fiction true story of Rodriguez, an obscure Detroit singer and songwriter whose two albums, Cold Fact (1970) and Coming From Reality (1971), were all but unknown in the U.S., but topped the charts in South Africa, where he -- unbeknownst to himself -- became a super star. For his devoted South African fans, Rodriguez's personal identity and life were shrouded in mystery, but included a legendarily dramatic and gruesome onstage suicide by self-immolation. Several fans decided it was time to set out to find out the truth about their music idol, and this film document's their search. In his wonderful compilation of interviews, archival footage and animation, director Malik Bendjelloul creates a delightfully entertaining musical biodoc -- with a really happy ending, to boot. Read my full review
First Run Features
is a fascinating and very well constructed thesis documentary that leads us to consider the contrary notion that progress may, indeed, be anything but. That is to say it may actually lead -- gradually or with alarming speed -- to the demise of humankind. Based on Ronald Wright's insightful nonfiction book, A Short History of Progress
, the documentary presents convincing arguments that technology if not used appropriately and in moderation can lead to adverse conditions, the collapse of civilization and end of Earth's habitability. In this age of unbridled technological advances, the discussion about what constitutes progress is quite timely. In fact, it is a vital necessity. Read more about the film's thesis and the examples set forth in my full review
, filmmaking brothers Bill Ross and Turner Ross follow three young African-American siblings -- the Zanders brothers -- as they leave their home in a low income suburb of New Orleans, board a ferry and head for the Crescent City's French Quarter for their first-ever night out on the town. It's a big adventure, filled with thrilling sights, sounds and experiences. With wide-eyed wonder, the boys watch glittering parades, wander through streets populated by musicians and clowns, drift into nightclubs and strip joints, and poke around dark alleys and deserted docks. The brothers Ross carefully chronicle the brothers Zanders' experiences. In capturing all the wonder of their subjects' discoveries, the filmmakers create sensitive, insightful, lyrical profiles of the boys, and of the vibrant, celebratory city of New Orleans. Read my full review