Considering the good-times vibe of the True/False Film Festival, which just concluded, it seems antithetical to pick out a best-of list. There are no competitions at the festival and the feeling there is thoroughly non-hierarchical. But I think it’s fair to say that most of us walk away with our own private lists of what we loved, so, heck, I’m going to share my favorite five.

The Act of Killing
What an extraordinary film this is; the retelling of the deeds of 1960s Indonesian death squads by having the killers themselves reenact their most awful acts. Director Joshua Oppenheimer has come up with a remarkable conceit, and he manages to follow through (with only a semblance of having manipulated his subjects). The characters are captivating, the cinematography is stunning, and the sense of breaking through a dark cloud to touch the still pulsating wound of a genocide is bone chilling. It’s the closest a documentary has come to capturing Joseph Conrad’s line, “The horror! The horror!”

Stories We Tell
Actor-director Sarah Polley follows a trend of filmmakers who tell the story of their parents through documentary form. The downside to this format is that we are watching someone else’s home videos and it veers toward narcissism, like the old cliché of being made to sit to watch someone’s vacation pictures projected on a wall. Ah, but Polley breaks the mold. Not only does she have better pictures and more engaging subjects, she also has an incredible story to tell (of her parentage, but I won’t spoil it for you). And, even more so, she tells it in a narrative arc that literally had me going, “whoa,” several times. It was like an onion being peeled. As soon as one peel falls to the floor, we get to another. This documentary transcends documentary and becomes filmmaking at its best.

These Birds Walk
Sometimes the smallest films hold the most impact. This seemingly simple verite depiction of boys in a Pakistani orphanage has a lyrical quality that shows the beauty and sadness of growing up poor in Pakistan. Directors Omar Mullick and Bassam Tariq capture these youth with a vivid power that immediately recalls Truffaut’s 400 Blows. There’s one scene, when a boy races through throngs of men at a holy shrine, that is particularly stunning. We don’t know where he’s headed, but we realize that the filmmakers have tethered our hearts to his fate.

Pandora’s Promise
I usually go for storytelling or aesthetics, but if a film really gets me to think, I’ve got to give it its due. Pandora’s Promise is well told, and the production values are all top-notch, but it stands out because of what it’s saying: that the environmental movement has totally missed the boat in not embracing nuclear power as the best way to combat climate change. The fact that the film was made by Robert Stone, not some right-winger nut job, but a respected filmmaker behind such films as Radio Bikini and Earth Days, and picked to show at True/False, should grab everyone’s attention. I’m not saying I’m totally convinced by the argument — any time someone says a system can’t fail, then you gotta’ take a step back — but it’s strong enough to make us all have long, hard think.

My Favorite Picture of You
I’d put the feature doc known as Secret Screening Green in this slot, but that film has to remain anonymous until it has its proper premiere, so I can’t go into detail about it. Instead, I’ll give it up to T.J. Martin and Dan Lindsay, who directed Oscar-winner Undefeated, for this poignant short film that features the grandparents of one of the directors. The film shows sweet still photos and film of their life when they were younger, while the audio plays an older man talking to a woman who is clearly mentally impaired, by age or Alzheimer’s. He prods her to remember those pictures and moments but she has difficulty. It’s a dramatic juxtaposition that highlights the cruel (or is it beautiful?) passage of time. It’s a tearjerker.

Official Website »

(Update: Martin emailed me after I posted this and informed me that the couple are indeed his grandparents, on his father’s side. His grandmother had brain cancer and passed away soon after he recorded the audio used in the film.)

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Tom Roston
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He is a former Premiere magazine senior editor, who graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom's freelance work has appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, The Hollywood Reporter and other publications. He has written several Kindle Singles, including the bestselling Kindle Singles Interview: Ken Burns. Tom's current list of favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi by Godfrey Reggio; 2. Hoop Dreams by Steve James; 3.Stories We Tell by Sarah Polley; 4.Crumb by Terry Zwigoff; 5. Montage of Heck by Brett Morgen