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  • Don’s Favorite Documentary Films of 2012

    By | December 24, 2012


    Thanks (again) in no small part to the impeccable programming at the True/False Film Festival (as well as strong documentary programs at Tribeca and SXSW), I saw more documentaries in 2012 than ever before (even more than 2011!); and, as it turns out, 2012 was quite the year for me to delve even deeper into the world of non-fiction cinema. So, continuing a tradition that I started in 2011, I figured that I should just go ahead and dedicate an entire post to my favorite documentary films of 2012 mainly because I have always hated ranking non-fiction and fiction films together in one year-end list… This list does not differentiate between what was theatrically released versus unreleased in 2012. Any of the 50 or so new documentary films that I saw in 2012 were considered for this list. Some of these films were distributed in 2012, some have signed distribution deals for 2013, and others remain undistributed. Also, please note that Tchoupitoulas and Only the Young will appear on my Favorite Narrative Films of 2012 list because of their strong narrative threads and blurred line between fiction and non-fiction elements.


    15) 5 Broken Cameras


    5 Broken Cameras is an extremely powerful weapon against the atrocities that Israel commits on a daily basis in Palestine. We can only hope that Burnat’s five cameras will be mightier than all of the weaponry of the Israeli army and that 5 Broken Cameras can promote a much more civil and humane relationship between Israelis and Palestinians. At the very least, maybe 5 Broken Cameras will open the eyes of the U.S. Government and make them realize that Israel is not nearly as angelic as we are led to believe.


    14) Leviathan


    Miniature GoPro cameras are attached to members of the crew, as well as parts of the ship itself, documenting everything from a bird’s — and sometimes, a dead fish’s — eye view. The kinetic pacing lends Leviathan the air of a sea-faring action flick, while the off-kilter perspective of the low resolution cinematography turns the film into an experimental art piece; regardless, this film is one hell of an experience, hell being the operative word.


    13) Herman’s House


    Herman’s House revels in Sumell’s tenacity and Wallace’s sage-like presence. Bhalla portrays Wallace as a kind and thoughtful soul who has learned to continue living his life within the confines of his mind (since he spends 23 hours a day alone in his cramped cell). Sumell uses what she knows best — art — to free Wallace; the freedom might be metaphoric, but at least its something. And like the “The House That Herman Built” exhibition, Bhalla’s film also functions as an intelligent and thoughtful condemnation of the U.S. penal system.


    12) How To Survive a Plague


    Director David France provides a concise overview of this heroic saga with a strong narrative arc and tons of naturally ingrained conflict. Via a rich tapestry of archival videotape (narrated by those involved), How To Survive a Plague follows Act-Up as a whole but focuses on a few integral members.


    11) Me @ the Zoo


    Directors Chris Moukarbel and Valerie Veatch rely heavily upon Crocker’s own video footage to tell his story. Occasionally Moukarbel and Veatch interview Crocker, as well as his mother and grandmother, but a majority of Me @ the Zoo feels like a first person autobiographical documentary, which is certainly a fitting approach to the subject. Me @ the Zoo functions as a shot across the bow for the Internet generation, begging them to think before they post. This documentary also is a plea for Google and advertisers to reevaluate the ways in which they reward their YouTube contributors.


    10) High Tech, Low Life


    High Tech, Low Life reveals the life-changing possibilities of the Internet and social networking. As it turns out, Twitter is not just a tool for you to give your followers minute-by-minute updates on your routine; it can be used to spread important information, even in the most restrictive environments.


    9) These Birds Walk


    For me, These Birds Walk serves as a warning siren for the United States. As right-wing politicians selfishly fight to irradiate social services from the government’s budget, These Birds Walk reveals the exact reason I feel we can’t rely upon private enterprise and civilians to pick up the slack. There are some kind souls out there, like EDHI, but it certainly is not a solution.


    8) Off Label


    Off Label is frustrating to blood curdling levels. If you do not already detest the big pharma industrial complex, you certainly will after watching Michael Palmieri and Donal Mosher’s documentary. The inherent greed of capitalism is at the root of all the evil. Free enterprise my ass! People’s lives are at stake, so is the future of the human race; yet all big pharma cares about is money.


    7) Ballroom Dancer


    Vyacheslav “Slavik” Kryklyvyy is an award-winning ballroom dancer who comes out of a long retirement to compete alongside Ania Melnikova, a much younger female partner with whom he is also in a relationship. Ballroom Dancer discusses the tug of war between age and competitiveness, when one’s body can no longer keep up with the lofty ego of one’s self. Kryklyvyy may prance around like a peacock, but in actuality he is no longer in control of his own destiny.


    6) The Revisionaries


    What is the role of religion and politics in education? What ever happened to the separation of church and state? What ever happened to religious freedom? Should a group of narrow minded nincompoops be able to force their warped ideologies upon our youth? Who the hell voted for these people? Do they really represent the majority? Are these really the most qualified people to be making decisions about education standards and curriculum? Shouldn’t these decisions be made by experts in these fields, not by people with an overt religious agenda?


    5) America’s Parking Lot


    As far as documentaries are concerned, America’s Parking Lot is damn near perfect. Mars’ astute understanding of narrative arc and development of conflict astounds me. His confidence in being able to convey such a strong and entertaining story in a purely observational format without directorial manipulation is quite commendable. Most directors would have tried to insert their own persona or voice into the narrative, to steer it or enhance the humor; but Mars opts for a vérité approach, keeping the camera far away from his subjects as to not disturb or intimidate them, capturing something very close to the truth of Cy and Tiger’s natural behaviors.


    4) The Island President


    The Island President focuses on Nasheed’s first year in office, concluding with his desperate trip to the Copenhagen Climate Summit in 2009. Shenk is given what appears to be an all-access pass, allowing us to witness Nasheed and his cabinet’s approach to this life or death situation. Nasheed utilizes his underdog status to harness the global influence of the media; he also rallies other developing nations to take a stand with him. Nasheed’s immensely powerful speech at the Climate Summit is reason enough to watch The Island President. Those few minutes catapult Nasheed to become one of the leading international voices for urgent action on climate change; and throughout The Island President we also witness Nasheed’s unwavering commitment to transparent governance, multi-party democracy, and the struggle for human rights.


    3) Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry


    Like an exceptional cat that has learned to open doors, director Alison Klayman gains incredible access to document Ai’s life, allowing us to observe as he transforms from a cult celebrity of the art world into an international figurehead for the pro-democracy movement in China. It is clear that Ai, by agreeing to allow Klayman to record his every move, intends to shape Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry into a piece of political theater. The resulting Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry is not a biography of the conceptual artist, it is a diatribe about one man’s battle against the censorship and repression of an authoritative regime.


    2) Girl Model


    Shot in an uncompromising cinéma vérité style, Girl Model does not rely upon any of the falsifying flourishes that so many modern documentaries utilize. With no on-camera presence, voiceover narration, graphics or reenactments to increase the “entertainment value,” Redmon and Sabin’s directorial influence barely registers on our radar.


    1) The Queen of Versailles


    Director Lauren Greenfield cleverly models The Queen of Versailles on reality television and utilizes the tried and true tropes of that genre to tug at our emotions. That said — I harbor an unfathomable amount of disdain for most reality television programs, but found The Queen of Versailles to be light-years more intelligent and intoxicating. If The Queen of Versailles does crossover into the reality television audience, I can only hope that it helps elevate the standards of the genre.


    Honorable Mentions:

    Walk Away Renée

    As much as I love Walk Away Renée, I have no doubts that some will interpret this film as being exploitative of Renée. Exploitation is a fine line. Caouette’s film informs us on multiple occasions that Renée is a performer. The question is whether or not Renée knows that she is performing for the camera when she is in a severe state of psychosis. Personally, I think these scenes are necessary for two reasons: to reveal Renée’s true lunacy and as a loving gesture by Caouette to make his ailing mother into a star of the silver screen. I suspect there will be many viewers who have drastically different opinions.


    The Imposter

    Layton’s documentary borrows heavily from Errol Morris’ truth-is-stranger-than-fiction filmmaking style and this true crime documentary has more unsuspecting twists and turns than most Hollywood thrillers. If The Imposter was categorized as a fiction film, no one would believe that it was based on facts. There is no denying that the story is extremely entertaining and incredibly weird.


    The Ambassador

    The Ambassador relishes in Michael Moore by way of Sacha Baron Cohen entertainment value, erring on the side of entertaining non-fiction. The Ambassador may not be the full-immersion investigative journalism piece that it purports to be, but it is damn funny…and really disturbing.

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