By Don Simpson | December 21, 2011
Thanks in no small part to the True/False Film Festival, I saw more documentaries in 2011 than ever before; and, as it turns out, 2011 was quite the year for me to delve so deeply into non-fiction cinema. So, due to the sheer quantity and quality of the documentaries that I saw this past year, I figured that I should just go ahead and dedicate an entire post to my 12 favorite documentary films of 2011. Besides, I have always hated ranking non-fiction and fiction films together in one year-end list…
1) The Arbor
With a unique merging of fact and fiction, The Arbor is able to reconstruct the pain and struggle within [Andrea] Dunbar’s work as well as reveal the dour consequences her life choices had on her family. [Clio] Barnard’s stylistic choice of having her actors confide in the camera (therefore the audience) is a purposeful cinematic devise to add more hyper to the hyper-reality by bringing more self-consciousness into the mix.
In constructing their narrative, [Kelly Duane] de la Vega and [Katie] Galloway must first re-create for the audience what happened prior to the commencement of their production, so they rely on archival footage and talking head interviews recollecting the events. De la Vega and Galloway allow everyone, including the FBI, to tell their version of the story and surprisingly enough, they all seem to be on the same page (or at least the same chapter), except for the actions of the FBI informant. The unfolding of the events is spine-tingling (at least for someone of my political persuasion). Better This World represents how conservative America’s post-9/11 War on Terror went terribly awry, ripping away the civil liberties of American citizens and instantly squashing any form of political dissent.
Despite the obvious temptation of bombarding the audience with additional footage of the war-torn soldiers and their families railing against U.S. economic, military, and foreign policies, [Heather] Courtney refrains from turning Where Soldiers Come From into a heavy-handed political diatribe; instead, the resulting film is a deeply humanistic tale of five young men yearning to earn some basic financial stability in their futures. This, however, does not mean that the audience will refrain from bringing politics into their viewing experience, because there are a lot of political issues at the heart of Where Soldiers Come From.
4) We Were Here
By focusing on such an unprecedented calamity, We Were Here develops into a universal story about dealing with the sudden illness and death of loved ones, as well as the strength that people find in each other when faced with incredible odds. That generation of San Franciscans experienced something so terribly traumatic, their lives were forever changed…but not damaged beyond repair. The five interview subjects of We Were Here are able to find a bright and optimistic side of it all. Sure, We Were Here is sad, but not because it is depressing; in fact, it is quite hopeful.
[Tristan] Patterson’s documentary makes no attempt to cast any judgments about Sandoval; he merely provides us with a countdown of events for the audience to make their own determinations. This is (dare I say) the genius of Patterson’s film: Sure his directorial perspective has chosen ten distinct moments in Sandoval’s life, but the images remain uncannily free of directorial opinions. Sandoval’s lifestyle is never glorified by Patterson, but is not necessarily condemned either… Photographed by Eric Koretz and Sandoval (who was provided with a Flip camera to capture footage while the director and his crew were not present), DRAGONSLAYER is one of the most beautifully shot and edited films about skateboarding culture that I have ever seen.
How To Die In Oregon — winner of the best documentary award at Sundance 2011 — is like an emotional sledgehammer to the gut, that strikes over and over and over again. That said — I do not see how anyone else could ever make a documentary on this subject that is more engaging and powerful. It is a magnificent film that I hope everyone, no matter what their political beliefs, will watch once. I say once because, to be perfectly honest, I refuse to watch How To Die In Oregon ever again; but I will never need to, because its effect on me will never fade.
7) Project Nim
I enjoyed Man on Wire, but Project Nim is a significantly more advanced documentary production. The pacing and structure of Project Nim are practically flawless, and Marsh’s propensity for sprinkling humor throughout this seemingly serious documentary is right on par with Errol Morris (The Fog of War, Fast, Cheap & Out of Control). I have a sneaky suspicion that the masses will go ape shit (sorry, I just had to!) for Project Nim and this will be a serious contender for the best documentary of 2011.
Donor Unknown is a profound exploration of genetics as a possible foundation for the 21st century family, and this coming at a time that the United States government is having a ridiculously difficult time defining marriage. More importantly, will the bible-thumpers in the U.S. Senate and House ever be successful in criminalizing artificial insemination? When it comes down to it, [Jeffrey] Harrison would probably be considered the anti-Christ to many of the Christian right, and Donor Unknown might just add more fuel to their tales of fire and brimstone.
What Incendiary: The Willingham Case does, and extremely well, is tell this story in a compelling, relatively unbiased manner. While the majority of screen time is given to those who feel the case was mishandled, a range of people involved in the case are interviewed and express varying views. David Martin, the original defense attorney, speaks in depth about his passionate belief that Willingham was guilty. Footage is included of a press conference by Willingham’s ex-wife where she claims that he confessed to her that he was guilty shortly before his execution. In fact, I came away from the documentary extremely disturbed by the state’s actions without being necessarily convinced that Willingham was innocent. It’s possible that he did commit the crime but without a doubt there’s not sufficient evidence to prove it.
Not only does Queen of the Sun: What Are the Bees Telling Us? provide us with profound and colorful discussions on beekeeping and colony collapse disorder, Taggart Siegel’s masterful cinematography is also raw and unfiltered eye candy (sweetened by honey, of course). How Siegel captured such magnificent images is almost as mindboggling as how some beekeepers are able to have their bodies completely blanketed by bees without a single flinch.
Cancerpants provides viewers with very unique and intimate insights into the cancer experience that will hopefully provide motivation and strength for those affected by and fearful of breast cancer — and cancer in general. If only mainstream (conservative) audiences will open themselves to accept Ro’s lifestyle. That said — I think Ro’s warm and glowing personality will win even the most conservative viewers over. I mean…how could it not?
Göran Hugo Olsson’s The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 views the Black Power movement via the kino eye of Swedish filmmakers — outsiders philosophizing about the state de la démocratie en Amérique. One would assume that these white as driven snow foreign journalists probably had a difficult time immersing themselves into the black as midnight as a moonless night sub-culture, but the resulting footage reveals a deeply entrenched kinship and trust between the filmmakers and their subjects. The outsider perspective lends a very unique advantage to the footage; though we can all but prove the journalists’ allegiance to the Black Power movement, the footage is still significantly less culturally biased than film shot by a member of the Black Power movement.