As is often the case, there are a number of high profile documentaries from this year that I didn’t have a chance to see. This year the list includes The House I Live In, The Central Park Five, The Gatekeepers, and West of Memphis among others. Still, I feel like I’ve seen a lot of great documentaries this year, so many that I almost wanted to extend the number of nominations so I could include such titles as Searching For Sugar Man, The Invisible War, The Queen of Versailles, Jiro Dreams of Sushi, and Mea Maxima Culpa.
- 5 Broken Cameras: When Israeli settlements threatened to overtake lands near the Palestinian city of Bil’in, the citizens launched a series of non-violent protests which were met by hostile Israeli soldiers who beat back the crowds with tear-gas and batons. Amateur journalist Emad Burnat was there to document it all on his own with consumer grade cameras which kept getting broken in the various scuffles. Most documentaries are made by seasoned professionals with large camera crews and full research staffs, but this documentary shows how much can be done by a lone man with a camera.
- Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry: One of the most used formats for documentaries these days is the “profile movie.” These documentaries follow a noteworthy person around for a few weeks and also delve into their pasts through stock footage. The best example of this in 2012 was probably Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, which looks at the life and work of the famous Chinese dissident artists and his various campaigns to bring change to his home country. The film serves as both an education about this interesting man and also gives its audience a good idea of what it’s like for someone like that in China.
- How to Survive a Plague: As someone who was very young and disengaged during the 90s, I never really understood the impact that the AIDS epidemic during its first years. This documentary does a good job of bringing the fear, desperation, and injustice of that era to life. The film only makes minimal use of talking heads and instead opts to use archive footage from the era in order to build a rather thrilling narrative about the way that grassroots activism was able to turn the tide on the then contentious issue.
- Indie Game: The Movie: I had assumed that this movie was mostly just getting attention because it was about video games, but when saw it I was actually very impressed by how well it was made. At it’s very core, this is mostly a talking head documentary, but it doesn’t feel that way because directors James Swirsky and Lisanne Pajot do a lot of interesting things to open the film up and turn it into a real narrative. Along the way you meet some interestingly eccentric people and get a sense of how much they’re putting into their work and how many challenges they face.
- The Impostor: You may have heard the story about the family that thought they were having their kidnapped son returned to them only to find out later that the person they welcomed into their house wasn’t kidnapped at all, but you probably haven’t heard it told quite like this. If nothing else, The Imposter is the most impeccably crafted of all the documentaries I’ve nominated this year. Taking a number of cues from Errol Morris, Bart Layton has managed to combine stark interviews with reenactments in order to bring a strange and almost unbelievable story to the screen in a highly cinematic fashion.