The Best Documentaries of 2011

For a long time I have loved the documentary style of filmmaking.  Few other kinds of cinema can change the world as quickly or be as entertaining.  Two of my highest loves are film and journalism, so logically adding the two together suits me greatly.  I had planned on possibly writing reviews on some of these films, yet I instead decided it would be more useful to aggregate them together to talk about the ones I planned and others that I think you should see as well.

Here are the best documentaries of 2011:

10. Revenge of the Electric Car

I remember a few years ago watching Chris Paine’s 2006 documentary Who Killed the Electric Car?  and being so involved in a story of greed and lost advancement.  Now in the sequel to that documentary, Paine does something that few environmental documentaries seem to do: give hope.  Many of them show us or tell us that the world is effectively going all to shit, partly true, but hopeless nonetheless.  Paine shows us four entrepreneurs who are focused on bringing the car back, that American’s, and more importantly America’s business sector, can care about improving our environmental situation.

9.  Beats, Rhymes, and Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest

I am not a fan of our current era’s rap music, at all. Although, some “classic” rap can still get my blood going.  No group does this more than a recent discovery of mine,   A Tribe Called Quest.  This documentary, directed by actor Michael Rappaport, shows us the history and journey of the group.  Several accusations have surfaced from group members as to the accuracy or portrayal of certain events, and I must admit I have not studied well enough into it.  All I do know is that their music is great, and that the documentary gives me further reason to hear it.

8.  The Swell Season

One of my favorite films of the previous decade was the semi-musical Once, which led to its two stars, Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, becoming two of my favorite musical artists (both solo, together, and with Hansard’s band The Frames).  Together, they formed a band named The Swell Season, and went on tour after the film received all the acclaim that it did.  The two stars formed a romance while touring, and this film showcases this story.  Almost meta –cinema in nature, it’s amazing to see actors in a romantic musical falling for each other in real life as they play music . . . just like in Once.  It does make once almost indifferent to know that they are now just “good friends” and not romantically involved, but the story is still there.

7.  Superheroes

Premiering at this year’s Slamdance film festival, Michael Barnett’s HBO bought doc is as exciting as it is disturbing.  Real life superheroes are among us, and there are a lot of them.  Focusing on several of these heroes, notably Mr. Xtreme, Zimmer, Life, and Apocalypse Meow (maybe the best name ever), the documentary unfolds not to make fun of these people’s choices to protect the cities they love, instead to simply show their stories.  We all want to be heroes, they just did it.  Feeding the homeless, stopping a groper, and Christmas drives are what real heroes do in this documentary, except with awesome costumes and cool names.

6.  Forks over Knives

I know, I know, another documentary about why food sucks.  True, but this is a little different.  Focusing much more on the medical side, this doc gives us the negatives of eating meat and the benefits of vegetarianism and veganism in ways that we can all appreciate.  I am not a vegetarian, but after this I plan to eat less meat.  Learning about some of these things in university classes just before seeing it also helped it to sink into my conscience, though I assure you, the film alone can do the same to you.  The most fascinating part of this study are the medical scientists who look into the effects on everyday health and the diseases that plague our population.

5.  Pom Wonderful Presents The Greatest Movie Ever Sold

Morgan Spurlock is seen as more of a “populist documentarian” , yet he doesn’t seem fazed by this, and he shouldn’t.  He makes films accessible to all people, something not to be taken negatively.  His latest film, after Super-Size Me, Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden, and a collaboration on Freakonomics, explores another socio-cultural issue, product placement.  Many of us know how rampant it is, yet others do not.  Even if we do, the film is funny enough and well enough directed to keep is into it right until the hilarious ending.  I look forward increasing to Spurlock’s next film, Comic Con Episode Four: A Fan’s Hope even more so with having seen this film.  He recently came to the UNCW campus, and gave a lecture even more exciting than this film, showing not only is he a good documentarian, but also a humble and agreeable man.

4.  Cave of Forgotten Dreams

Werner Herzog is a great cinematic mind moving between narrative film (Aguirre, the Wrath of God, Rescue Dawn) and documentary (Grizzly Man, Encounters at the End of the World).  He is probably my favorite documentarian, though that really isn’t much of a surprise (see below).  Often times, he will examine something that applies to the greater scope of human identity in our world, and this film is no different.  Examining the oldest discovered cave art, Herzog focuses his camera and story on the men who find it, and what it means to them.  It is, in a way, a juxtaposition of things then and now: ancient paintings have now become HD cameras.  Still though, the sense of discovery and creativity remains.  I did not see the film in its 3D shot format (as I boycott 3D), yet I heard it was useful and added to the films depth (pun intended).  Much like Avatar or this year’s Hugo, the film incorporates 3D into the story.  Herzog also stated he still believes that 3-D is not suited for general use in cinema, calling it “a gimmick of the commercial cinema”, which makes me like him even more.

3.  Page One: A Year Inside the New York Times

It should come as no surprise since I mentioned I love journalism that this documentary would rank so high among the list.  Andrew Rossi’s film gives light on the daily activities of the Times and the overall downfall of the print newspaper industry.  The New York Times is almost unanimously the biggest and most important newspaper in the world, and this documentary shows why and how it alone is poised to save itself and its industry.  Rossi shows us the Times reporting on some of the biggest stories of last year, from Wikileaks to the Comcast NBC merger.  The real meat of the story though is the personalities and dynamics of some of the outlets best reporters, notably David Carr and Brian Stelter, as they try to maneuver their way into the new era of media.  The final answer is not really known as to whether this new age of “instant media” is correct, right, trustworthy, or even ethical, yet the Times will survive they say, and in a way the very idea of journalism in this country depends on it.  The doc presents it, and keeps it interesting both for journalism nuts like me and people who read it casually when they find the times (pun intended).  It almost hurts to think I love print press, yet right know I’m writing and you’re reading this on an internet blog.

2.  PJ20: Pearl Jam Twenty

I love music (don’t we all?) and I also love Cameron Crowe (Almost Famous).  What I love even more than them is Pearl Jam, so this documentary, probably unintentionally, was made for me.  Showcasing one of the most fascinating bands of the 90s and 2000s, it is a lens into the entire music scene as a whole at that point.  Meandering from their love of concerts to their Ticketmaster boycott, Crowe does a great job of doing something music docs like Behind the Music don’t do to well: showcase the band personally.  Not obsessing over turmoil or emotional arguments, the band members tell who they are and what they are about: music.  The events that encircle their art are all just orbiting that main principle.  Eddie Vedder and the other members are each interviewed to shed light on the band’s most memorable music and darkest times, notably the overdose of Mother Love Bone (Pearl Jam pre-Vedder) frontman Andrew Wood to the suicide of fellow reluctant Seattle rock star Kurt Cobain.  Equally jam filled and emotionally packed, Crowe has made a fantastic documentary that could do something else music docs rarely do: appeal to those who don’t like the band in its subject.

1.  Into the Abyss

As I said before, Werner Herzog always does a great job of making a documentary about a larger picture or issue humanizing.  What possible issue could be more difficult to humanize than a death row inmate?  The film focuses on Michael Perry and Jason Burkett, two men convicted in a triple homicide; Perry received death and Burkett life, so the film tends to center more so on Perry.  More than this, the film shows those affected by the crime on all sides, including law enforcement officers and a woman who married Burkett after his incarceration.  Herzog lets you in on his philosophy early (he is against the death penalty), but does not attempt to prove either side.  The film is a study on a case, and a study of the effects of a death sentence.  Nor does the film try to search out the guilt or innocence of Perry, who claims he is ultimately innocent.  Herzog, rarely narrating and never appearing on screen, made a film that some have compared to the film equivalent of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, and I could not agree more.  It is a story that is as tragic as it is involving, about a man sentenced to death after an attempted theft of a car for a simple joy ride went horribly wrong, and Herzog spares nothing in pointing out the near ridiculousness of this rapid evolution of a worthless sin.

Special Notes on the List:

I have not yet seen the highly praised Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory, although I have seen the first two films in this true crime investigation trilogy, and I am positive the third is deserving of every acclaim it has received.  I also have not yet seen Project Nim, Hell and Back, or The Interrupters, yet I do plan to and will write reviews upon seeing them.  Just falling short of the list was the interesting Life in a Day from a great filmmaker Kevin Macdonald.

Written by Phillip Bryant

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Posted on December 29, 2011, in Films, Reviews. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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