8 Documentaries From 2012 Worth Checking Out

Side by Side1 8 Documentaries From 2012 Worth Checking Out

There were so many unbelievably, mind-blowingly good documentaries from 2012 that I haven’t even seen all the titles that critics have been raving about from this past year. I’ve seen a lot though, and the fact that I haven’t even seen a good number that have been receiving award press reinforces to me that this was a big year for the documentary in particular as well as for movies in general.

It’s a genre of film that will never get as much attention as the fictional blockbuster, but all the same, these are titles that, when they connect, they really connect and stay with you for years. There’s also a status that non-fiction films enjoy that remains elusive for fictional films, and that is they can have real-world effects, such as An Inconvenient Truth’s impact on awareness about the effects of climate change, or famously, The Thin Blue Line’s effect on an actual police investigation, in which a convicted man’s verdict was re-examined by investigators because of evidence presented on film. That’s an effect that has already occurred because of at least one documentary this year.

Mostly, documentaries have a way of making truths more immediate to us, because we see them in action in the real world, or the version of the real world that we’re able to witness in movies. The idea of a “true story” is one people are drawn to in fictional films, but with a documentary, the veracity of a story is precisely what makes it so compelling. The whole notion of truth being stranger than fiction certainly applies.

Here’s 8 titles from the past year that you may not have put high on your list of must-sees, but are worth checking out.

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1: Searching for Sugar Man

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This might be the most enjoyable time I’ve had watching a movie this year, aside from midnight screenings of The Room, and much of it can be attributed to the amazing story and the terrific storytelling found in Searching for Sugar Man. I knew very little about this movie before seeing it, and it’s a story that’s virtually unknown to most of the country, so I’ll try to preserve that lack of context for the purposes of this list.

One of my favorite movies of all time is the 1996 documentary When We Were Kings, because when I watched it I had no idea whether Ali won the epic match that serves as the film’s climax, so the finish was exhilarating. Searching for Sugar Man made for a similar experience; the story takes all sorts of unexpected twists and turns which makes for an ending both surprising and satisfying.

It’s a credit to director Malik Bendjelloul’s handling of the story of this musician identified only as Rodriguez that gives the doc an air of fascinating mystery and captures the joy of the pursuit of his true identity, undertaken by journalists and music enthusiasts represented in the film. It begins slowly but gains momentum before long. Every new development feels like it could be the big reveal, which makes for a kind of snowball effect of joyous revelation. It’s a tremendous movie worth checking out, especially since it’s a favorite to win the Best Documentary Oscar next month.

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2: Stories We Tell

Stories We Tell 8 Documentaries From 2012 Worth Checking Out

Sarah Polley is Canada’s greatest secret. She has long been celebrated for her acting from childhood to adulthood, and her 2007 directorial debut feature Away from Her was well received. This past year saw the release of two more efforts she directed, Take this Waltz, an underrated treasure that subtly builds on themes she introduced in her first film, and then Stories We Tell, which is one of the best movies I saw all year, of any genre, from any country. It is soon to be released in US theaters, but has been playing in select theatres in Canada since September, and I haven’t felt this way about a documentary since Banksy’s Exit Through the Gift Shop.

While Banksy’s focus was on the reception and credibility of art in general, Polley is more interested in storytelling, specifically the concept of storytelling on film, visual storytelling. This is another one of those documentaries whose effectiveness doesn’t depend on but is certainly augmented by an element of surprise so I’ll remain coy for the moment. Suffice it to say she is chronicling the history of her family in a way, revealing its non-traditional makeup and fairly unique dynamic that has resulted from some unusual revelations. In telling this story, she brilliant dismantles the idea that there can ever be one definitive “story” about an event, person, or family—that any attempt at one cohesive account relies on an editorial process of assimilating numerous separate accounts. Seriously, it’s masterfully done, with one big reveal in particular that is mind-blowing in terms of what we thought we knew about this story and how easily the presentation of a story can manipulate us. I hope Polley soon enjoys the status of a David Cronenberg or Atom Egoyan when it comes to celebrated Canadian auteurs. She’s the real deal.

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3: The Invisible War

The Invisible War 8 Documentaries From 2012 Worth Checking Out

Documentarian Kirby Dick has no fear when it comes to investigating and exposing horrible practices by shady institutions. One of is previous films was This Film is Not Yet Rated, which blew the doors off the Motion Picture Association of America and its farcical movie rating system, turning the tables on the association by outing its secret membership list. It was a bold move for someone within the movie industry, and a demonstration of the freedom some independent documentaries can utilize, though not without a cost.

In The Invisible War, Dick brings to light another taboo topic for American audiences: systemic sexual assault in the American military. It’s one of those movies that is incredibly hard to watch at times, but the things that make it difficult to stomach are precisely the things that make it so vitally important for people to know about.

One of doc’s great strengths is that while it induces the appropriate levels of horror and rage at the incidents chronicled by the subjects interviewed, it also features expert opinion from officials and advocates to improve the conditions for women (and men) seeking to serve their country without having to fear their colleagues in addition to the forces they’re trying to protect other folks against. Because of this, the film has actually had an influence on changes to the way sexual assault is handled in the Armed Forces, which is a hugely positive thing.

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4: Jiro Dreams of Sushi

Jiro Dreams of Sushi 8 Documentaries From 2012 Worth Checking Out

So, I love sushi. Because of this, I’m willing to grant that not everyone would give a rat’s behind about a documentary on a famous sushi chef. Much of the film’s appeal, for me, is how beautifully it captures the subtlety and splendor of a single piece of sushi, and the skill and care required to make such a thing truly excellent. At the same time, many of these themes can easily be applied more generally; sushi may be the example, but the pressures on a son to follow in his father’s footsteps while wishing to escape his father’s shadow, adapting to changing markets and a receding economy, these are universal concepts that most anyone could relate to.

Again, it may just be that the sushi looked amazing, but this was possibly the best looking documentary I saw all year. Quentin Tarantino likes to talk about how he presents food in his movies, that Inglourious Basterds should make the viewer crave strudel, that Jackie Brown should make them want to drink one of those screwdrivers. He says he feels like he’s done his job when, to paraphrase, he’s presented this stuff sensually enough to make you want to be in that space, and consume these pastries, beverages, or whatever. Jiro Dreams of Sushi certainly wanted me to visit the dude’s restaurant in Japan. But I think it does so in a way more akin to Tarantino’s work than to an infomercial.

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5: Knuckleball!

Knuckleball 8 Documentaries From 2012 Worth Checking Out

I like the idea of baseball more than baseball itself, I’d say. That is, I rarely watch baseball on TV because I find it mind-numbingly dull, but I love Ken Burns’ documentary series about it. I like baseball ok in a live ballpark environment, but on film I find it completely captivating and terrific. So I’m sure if I watched R.A. Dickey pitch in an actual baseball game I’d probably be disinterested. In Knuckleball! though, I can’t get enough of it. Like Jiro, this is a movie whose ideas and images extend beyond the world of professional baseball.

I doubt there has ever been a better visual demonstration and, by extension, tangible explanation of how the knuckleball works or what it looks like than the footage in this film. You may have heard about what throwing the ball in this way does to it, but seeing it slowed down here is kind of amazing. But the stuff I liked most were the scenes showcasing the small community of major league pitchers who threw this unique pitch. It’s unlikely there is a more exclusive, specialized club of individuals than the four featured in Knuckleball. So it’s cute when they get together to talk about their craft together, but also a bit fascinating to see basically the only people in the world who are able to perform this action at a high level in the same room together.

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6: Side by Side

Side by Side 8 Documentaries From 2012 Worth Checking Out

What if I told you Keanu Reeves not only is a notoriously good person in real life, but also kind of a deep thinker? He appears front and center in Side by Side, questioning filmmakers (among others) on the decision-making process regarding whether to record their movies using film or digital recording devices. This is something I’m acutely interested in, but instead of reading some dry prose by some boring-ass book nerd who spends all his time in a library, this documentary lets us hear directly why guys like Martin Scorsese and James Cameron decide to make movies the way they do.

There’s so much being written right now about the disappearance of film from the movie industry and the futuristic horror scenarios being presented by those opposed to the new normal that is digital cinema projection and filmmaking. But the opinions I’m most interested in are not those of stuffy film critics whose lives depend little on whether the movie they’re seeing has deep enough blacks or not. I would much rather hear the thoughts of those actually making the decisions, who are just as thoughtful about it, and learn what perspectives actually go into those decisions. And having Neo asking them all about it just makes it infinitely more enjoyable.

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7: The Last Gladiators

The Last Gladiators 8 Documentaries From 2012 Worth Checking Out

Anything Alex Gibney has done so far with documentaries has been outstanding, and while at this point it almost seems like he’s producing an impossible quantity of content, the quality hasn’t suffered one bit. I was able to catch a screening of The Last Gladiators at a special event put on by a sports radio, which meant it was packed with dudes in hockey jerseys looking to get an autograph from Chris Neil, the former NHLer and primary subject of the doc, who was in attendance to answer questions from the audience following the screening. Of course, this would have been awkward if any of them had grasped the sadness of the situation NHL enforcers tend to find themselves in once their short careers inevitably come to an end.

The documentary does a nice job avoiding added emphasis on the health problems athletes and hockey players in particular endure in retirement. It does so in subtle ways such as focusing on Neil’s hands from the opening moments, but doesn’t dwell on this, which feels appropriate. Maybe this makes Gibney a hypocrite since he criticized Kathryn Bigelow for remaining neutral about torture, but I found Gibney’s neutrality (and possible hypocrisy) in this doc an admirable way of handling a sensitive issue involving real human stories and situations.

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8: The Queen of Versailles

The Queen of Versailles 8 Documentaries From 2012 Worth Checking Out

This documentary directed by Lauren Greenfield does a pretty remarkable thing. It induces feelings of outright schadenfreude and compassionate sadness nearly simultaneously. In depicting the story of David Siegel and his family, who own the mammoth Westgate Resorts, there’s a temptation to find only delight in their fall from upper class nobility to coupon cutters, but his wife Jackie and their children end up being sympathetic in a way, perhaps with a heavy emphasis on the pathetic.

All the elements of The Queen of Versailles are kind of expertly handled without making you realize what it’s doing. It’s holding up this family as a kind of symbol or stand-in for the country as a whole, perhaps, showing the longer-term effects of America’s epidemic emphasis on the financial short term. At times it plays like one of those TLC shows detailing the glamorous lives of the rich and famous but then pulls the rug out from beneath the starring cast. If you find it impossible to feel sympathy for this family, at the very least you’ll feel for their poor pets. They did nothing to deserve their fate except belong to a family that couldn’t handle crisis. In fact, that aspect could also have a kind of sad symbolic meaning.

This list is just the tip of the iceberg. What were your favorite documentaries from 2012? If you have more recommendations or objections to anything listed here, please share your thoughts in the comment section below. There’s bound to be some omissions in a year this rich on a list this short.

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