2012 Best in Cinema: The Documentary

A personal favorite of mine in the art of film-making, are the true to life narratives examined in feature length documentaries. It’s a mosaic of genuine consciousness and authentic storytelling while exploring real people and learning about a world outside our own everyday experiences that make this such a powerful genre. I had the pleasure of spending some time with many of these types of films in 2012.

Here the top 10 documentaries I watched this past year that enlightened, entertained, and even at times enraged me about the world around me (in alphabetical order):

Bad 25 – BY FAR, this was the was most entertaining feature length documentary I saw last year. A great subject matter and a behind the scenes look at the development of one of the most celebrated albums of all time make this film an undeniable accomplishment. Hardcore Michael Jackson fans or mere on-lookers cannot help but tap their feet and bounce in their seat to the beat of this fascinating look marking the 25th anniversary of the Bad album. Accompanied by personal reflections from those who worked closely with Jackson to those who openly pay homage to the man who inspired their now famous careers, Bad 25 is nothing short of a party. You can read more about this music-filled night here.

The Central Park Five – In terms of storytelling and bringing to light one of the most unjust cases of the past 20 years, The Central Park Five brilliantly delves into how 5 unknowing and unrelated minorities became public enemy number one in 1989 over the brutal rape and near murder of a Caucasian woman taking her nightly New York jog. This was a maddening film to sit through last year as a viewer. The treatment of these young boys by the N.Y.P.D. and the prosecution’s blatant disregard of key evidence and points in this case is astounding. The film not only exposes the corrupt nature of our judicial system, but how some 2 decades later, these 5 men have forever been shaped by this experience in ways that are inexplicable. They’ve each lost years of their youth, without so much as an apology from any of the players who wrongly accused them. This is unforgivable and the type of narrative that documentaries were made for.

First Position – This film takes us into the intriguing, competitive, and disciplined sphere of ballet dancing. It captures a moment in time of young dreams in a field that rewards very few. What a treat to see these dreamers maneuver through their everyday world dedicated to their passion, while following their successes and failures, and its effects on their young lives. What most impressed me about this film was how interesting and diverse all the subjects are. You couldn’t have picked a better group of dancers to follow to get a sense of the commitment and attitude it takes to make it. You rooted for each and every one of them.

Hell and Back Again – This film was released in the U.S. in October 2011, but I saw it in February of 2012 (so it counts!) as the film vied for best documentary feature at last year’s Academy Awards ceremony.  The story follows Nathan Harris when he returns home from war scarred physically and emotionally. I was completely engrossed in how intimately we were allowed into his life. The film takes us both on his expeditions while in actual battle and shifts to his struggles to survive back at home with his very supportive wife, Ashley. This movie challenges the viewer to see what it’s really like to be a war hero beyond the accolades, but to see that if you do survive war, you never really leave the battlefield.

The House I Live In – Of all the documentary films I’d seen in 2012, The House I Live In educated me in the most in your face way possible, from the use of personal anecdotes to the rawest video footage. I learned about the complicated and oftentimes screwy nature of our judicial system when it comes to narcotics cases in this country. This film does an excellent job at explaining how the American criminal justice system is dedicated more to making money off our inmates than rehabilitating them, and how the War on Drugs was never about solving public health issues nor helping those who have fallen into the depths of addiction and trafficking, but to punish them to the fullest extent of the law while never addressing or taking a serious look at the underlying causes for these problems. The takeaway? We must get to the cause before we can ever address the problem.

How to Survive a Plague – Structurally, this film did something special. We spend most of the film engaged in the battle against HIV and AIDS through the use of archived footage of old TAG and ACT UP activism meetings and protests against the American government and healthcare system’s’ lack of action towards this growing epidemic. We get close to our protagonists, leaders within the revolution struggling with the disease, fighting the big fight. Since we all knew the devastating numbers from the epidemic that eventually killed millions, we knew not all of our protagonists would make it through. In an inspiring manner, revealed with minutes to spare toward the end of the film, we learn of those who survived the HIV/AIDS plague and lived to tell their story. Please see my full review here.

The Imposter – The tagline: “There are two sides to every lie.” The Imposter was the most stylized, unique, and alluring piece of non-fiction I’d seen this past year. The situation alone is extremely unfathomable. A grown Frenchman assumes the identity of a missing teenager and subsequently moves in and lives with his family for some time before his true identity is revealed. The beauty of this film is that it’s so objective in its approach that you don’t know and will NEVER know who to believe. Recreations of events are often cheesy and weaken the effectiveness in trying to relive aspects of a story for weighted emphasis, but this was done so impeccably it added to the bizarreness of the circumstances.  I’m not a fan of re-watching or owning many documentaries, but this was so well executed that I might reconsider. An excellent use of the genre and taking the viewer into the depths of a very complicated world.

The Invisible War – Easily one of the most infuriating documentaries of 2012, yet one of the most persuasive in bringing about change. We have a war going on in this country and it’s within our own military system. Women are being attacked, raped, beaten and outright mistreated by the same male soldiers who have taken the oath to protect ALL American citizens against terrorist threats. What’s worse is that it’s being done with little to no consequences for the accused. The hypocrisy of this film is upsetting, yet the silver lining is that because of this film and its recent screenings to officials high up in the military system and the U.S. government, action is seemingly being taken to better protect our female soldiers.

The Queen of Versailles – a fascinating look at how the other side lives. When the very wealthy Siegel family have to cut back on their extravagant lifestyle due to the economic climate – it’s pretty absorbing how even the richest of people have a hard time with the adjustment and how they choose to deal with it. Furthermore, this film brings to the forefront the issue of American capitalism and consumption. Basically, when is enough, ENOUGH? What more can you possibly need when you’re already a billionaire? An entertaining, insightful, and engaging study of the lifestyles of the rich and not so famous. You can read my full take on the Siegel family here.

Side by Side – Keanu Reeves and the Hollywood film-making elite take us on a journey and a debate about the state of how to tell stories. Should we progress with the ease and forward moving nature of shooting cinematic narratives digitally, or stick with the tried and true method of honoring how this art form was born on a physical reel of film?  An interesting exploration of how today’s masters feel about this ever-growing battle to get their stories told. Please see my full review here.