Critics’ Choice Movie Awards Countdown: Best Documentary

The Critics’ Choice Movie Awards will air live on Thursday, January 12th on VH1. The show will be hosted by comedians Rob Huebel and Paul Scheer and will feature a special award for director Martin Scorsese. In the run-up to the awards I am profiling the nominees in the top categories.

Today—Best Documentary.


It was a rough year for documentary filmmaking, as this list attests, but thankfully there is Buck, a rugged, full blooded doc about a very original and compelling real life figure. Buck Brannaman was the man on whom Robert Redford based his character in the movie The Horse Whisperer. Today, Buck is still a horse whisperer and this exceptional documentary gives audiences a highly compelling glimpse of the backstory that gave Buck his deep, emotional connection with horses.

Cave of Forgotten Dreams

The ultimate chronicler of the strange and quietly fascinating, Werner Herzog was at it again in 2011 with the hypnotic documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams. In becoming the first filmmaker to ever capture images inside the legendary Chauvet Caves in France, Werner Herzog takes us through one of humanity’s final frontiers on earth and uncovers a fascinating history that he both chronicles and becomes a part of.

George Harrison: Living in the Material World

Those who allege that honoring Martin Scorsese with the Music and Movies Award on the same night Scorsese is nominated for a documentary he made about George Harrison is a little too ‘convenient’ likely haven’t seen George Harrison: Living in the Material World. This extensive documentary creates a portrait of ‘The Quiet One,’ as he was introduced to Beatles fans, like nothing you’ve ever seen before. Scorsese’s detailed history of George Harrison’s life is weaved together with the music of The Beatles as well as his solo work so well that the doc plays almost like a musical.

Page One: Inside the New York Times

One of the most talked about documentaries of the year is Page One: The New York Times. The fact that Page One is one of the most talked about docs of 2011 is indicative of what a weak year for docs this truly is. Don’t get me wrong; Page One has its merits but compared to the exceptional documentary crop of 2011 Page One is a forgettable, perfunctory piece of work that sheds light on a famous newspaper while aiming slightly to the side of the bigger story about the evolution of the newspaper business.

Project Nim

Project Nim is possibly the most controversial doc of 2011. Purists have taken issue with director James Marsh and his choice to use actors to recreate key moments in the lives of the people, and chimpanzee, he’s profiling; a charge also levied against Marsh’s Oscar winning doc Man On Wire.

Project Nim is a chronicle of a failed 1970’s experiment in raising a chimpanzee as a human being. The chimp, named Nim Chimpsky, is only partially raised as a human and the experiment winds up revealing little about its subject and a good deal more about the researchers who commit half-heartedly to their premise and are somehow surprised and saddened at their results.

The Undefeated

The one truly embarrassing nominee in the whole of the Critics’ Choice Movie Awards is The Undefeated; the mawkish, fraudulent documentary on the life of Sarah Palin.

There is simply no good explanation as to how this paean to the political life of Sarah Palin ended up being nominated ahead of far better docs such as Senna or The Interrupters. As a member of the Broadcast Film Critics I admit shame at seeing this poor excuse for a campaign commercial as a nominee.

The Critics’ Choice Movie Awards air on VH1 on Thursday, January 12th. Vote for your favorite documentary at

About the author


Sean Kernan

I have been a film critic online and on the radio for 12 year years. I am a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association as well as a member of the Broadcast Television Journalists Association.