Oh, what a year it was! Here are my top ten films of 2012. In case you can’t guess, I didn’t quite see all of the documentaries that others are still buzzing about, but I caught enough to make me celebrate a great year in docs—which is something I’ll never get tired of saying.
10. Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry
This engaging film about a great artist and daring activist is more importantly a cleverly nuanced depiction of an incredible human being. The Chinese artist, Ai, is in such a far-off world, but director Alison Klayman manages to collapse the distance between cultures to render a portrait that leaves us with a few questions, but good ones, about ego, art, and the individual under a repressive regime.
9. Chasing Ice
I wasn’t in love with they way this film mimics The Cove by turning fighting global warming into a caper wrapped around an intrepid individual, but I was blown away by its cinematography and the breathtaking capturing of polar ice caps crashing down.
Sure, sure, the Disneyfication of nature is a terrible thing, but let’s look at this film in its most, hah, primal form: it beautifully connects us, and child audiences, to chimpanzees. Directors Alastair Fothergill and Mark Linfield, have captured the humor, tragedy and reality of these awesome creatures. And the images of fungi, trees and rain drops make us feel like we’re smack in the jungle. It is a magical world, after all.
Credit director Lee Hirsch for tackling a subject that’s right under our noses; the problem of kids harassing other kids. Is it an epidemic, as the film suggests? Maybe not; perhaps it’s the human condition. But that makes it all the more of an essential subject of a film. Hirsch creates an incredibly powerful and important portrait of the victims, but the moment that rests most vividly with me is when a school administrator so cluelessly handles one victim’s complaints. That’s when this film transcends itself to being a comprehensive social indictment.
6. How to Survive a Plague
There is something so refreshing in how basically a history lesson—an oral history of the AIDS crisis and the activists who combatted it—can become such an accomplished piece of filmmaking. It’s well told, with great archival footage, and moving talking head interviews. Sometimes simple treatments are best.
5. The Central Park Five
I’m still simmering over how this film didn’t even get to the short list for Oscars; it’s a clear-eyed advocacy film about a gross miscarriage of justice, the wrongful conviction of five kids accused of brutally beating and raping a woman in Central Park in 1989. I don’t know, maybe it’s because I grew up in an apartment that overlooks the crime scene, that this film feels so vital and important. History crackles with rage in this tight film.
4. Gypsy Davy
This film by Rachel Leah Jones, the daughter of a womanizing flamenco guitarist, David Jones, snuck up on me. We’ve all grown tired of such self-obsessed films that seem to be made as cathartic therapy for the director, but the beauty of the guitar, the sad resignation of the father, and the well-constructed narrative that jumps, with a wink, between the many women and children in Jones’ wake, made this an engrossing and touching experience. So, let the director work out her issues while we watch; she does it with panache.
3. Girl Model
I never exactly knew what Morrissey meant by “pretty girls make graves,” but this film echoes the same chilling sentiment: being a young and pretty girl in the former Soviet Union can be a curse. This 2013 POV film, directed by Ashley Sabin and David Redmon, hasn’t received the acclaim it deserves. It’s a five-year, insider’s chronicle of the life of a model in Russia, taking us behind an iron curtain that’s never lifted. The film goes places few have gone before—to modeling cattle calls in deep Siberia and to unseemly conversation with model handlers, revealing an exploitative system that’s going unchecked. There’s something about this subject that deflects attention so no wonder this film came and went with hardly a whisper.
2. The Imposter
The Imposter is far from a text book case of what makes a documentary great. It’s manipulative and smooth and sometimes plays like a cable TV crime special. But it’s also a remarkably thrilling story told to us as if we’re watching the crime in action. Questions of truth, identity and love’s limits fill our heads as we trace how this case of missing identity can be possible. Even if we’re manipulated, it’s a great ride.
1. Searching for Sugar Man
This doc has it all: original storytelling, a compelling central character, social relevance, artistry and a narrative yarn that kept me hungry for more. At its core, Sugar Man is about music and dreams. But it’s also about second chances. There’s an epic feel to the film as it travels in time and from South Africa to Los Angeles to Detroit. And it passed my ultimate test—it made me tear up—which earns it my top spot.
From Sundance to the Oscars — and every festival, critics list and industry awards show we can find in between — we’re continually updating our list of lists of the “best” documentaries of 2012.