Once again, the documentary category will contain an embarrassment of riches. You might not be nearly as moved by many of the films in the narrative race for Best Picture as you will be by the real life issues explored in the documentary category.  As Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman reminded us in Ishtar, telling the truth can be dangerous business. Honest and popular don’t go hand in hand.  These movies tell the truth, or you could even say a truth if you’d like. They take a point of view and they sell it in a compelling way. It’s impossible to rank them, in fact. I’ve only ranked them here in order of how powerfully they hit me personally but everyone will have a different order and a different list depending on what they bring to their viewings of them. One think I can say with a fair amount of uncertainty, the ones I have chosen here are unforgettable.

1. The Central Park Five, Ken Burns, Sarah Burns and Kevin McMahon – I will never forget how badly we all dropped the ball during the Central Park Five’s hearings, how quickly we were as a society to pile on and condemn innocent teens. We were sold a lie by the media and government officials in New York City. Shame on them. Shame on us.  Ken Burns has been telling us American stories for decades.  You could almost say America is baseball, apple pie and Ken Burns. His latest, the Dust Bowl is about to hit PBS and the work he does is worth every dollar we invest in PBS, to name just one of its many treasures. But inspired by the passion and commitment of his daughter Sarah’s research into the Central Park Five case, Burns has delivered arguably his most controversial and political film to date, though he shares credit with Sarah Burns and David McMahon. Three of them together have made, what I think, is the best documentary of the year.

2. Queen of Versailles – Lauren Greenfield’s documentary about one of the richest families in America and what happened to them once the money started to run out  – the film exposes what many of us already know despite the temptation towards the contrary: money can’t buy happiness. You can build the biggest house in America and still feel lonely at night. You can have so much stuff it crowds out your already too-big house and you will still want and need more stuff. It is a dizzying, depressing look at the end result of presumed success if you measure that success by how much stuff you can buy. The house is in decay because it was never finished, the trophy wife is aging and fearing being replaced, the kids are getting older and starting to notice the artifice. through it all you can’t hate the Jackie Siegel, wife of Dave Siegel. Greenfield picked a great subject because she is so charismatic. Her humanity shines through, which makes it difficult to judge her. You can’t help but be charmed by her unpretentiousness. She really is just a small town girl who bought the false ideal of what money can and can’t buy. There are some films that stop you cold, depicting characters you will never forget because that might have been you.

3. West of Memphis – at first the film seems to be heading into familiar territory with a story that has been told and retold many times in the Paradise Lost movies by Joe Berlinger that documents the false imprisonment of three young men who supposedly committed satanic-like sexual and murderous acts upon three boys. As usual, the truth is far more horrific than any fantasy cooked up by a fearful mob.  Because the three teens Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley, Jr. and Jason Baldwin were “different” from the general population there in Arkansas it was easy to accuse them of the absolute worst. They were the “other.” They paid the price with their youths being sucked into the prison system, only to emerge 18 years later.  This and Central Park Five are films that serve as reminders that law enforcement can get things wrong. In both cases they were high profile, fear-induced acts where the public was willing to abandon facts because they were afraid. Fear can make anyone agree to anything. Who is responsible for the deaths of those three little boys? Anyone who looked the other way when Terry Hobbs was committing acts of child abuse towards his stepson.

4. Samsara – Ron Fricke’s gorgeous cinematography, mesmerizing images of human life all over the planet. Each aspect of our experienced is explored – food, sex, violence, trash, beauty, art – no one says a word and yet the movie tells us so much about who are as a species.  It took five years to film it in twenty-five countries on five continents but it give perhaps the most comprehensive look at the legacy humans have left this planet with so far. As wonderfully bright and magnificent as we are we have been incredibly destructive, not just to ourselves but to the entire world. The film is hypnotic –  prison dancing, baptisms, group prayer, sex dolls, fashion, weaponry – all played out in gorgeous 70mm.

5. The Invisible War – Director Kirby Dick’s look at the longstanding mistreatment of women in the military. Victims of rape, assault and varying sorts of abuse at the hands of male soldiers towards women, and sometimes men, that goes wholly overlooked by the upper command. There is an unspoken rule that if you’re a woman who chooses to enlist to serve your country you are essentially there for the taking. Making matters worse is that many sex offenders aren’t reported while in the military and once they’re out they continue to commit sexual assault.  It is the reality that many women have been scared off from serving and will continue to do so until something is done.  It doesn’t look very promising.  The faces of the women, their personal stories are so moving. It’s one of the better films this year.


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  • Joseph

    Would love if Samsara got an Oscar nod but probably not likely.

  • smoothcriminal

    Finally saw QOV this weekend, great, great doc! I loved watching Siegel slowly lose his confidence as his base slid out from underneath him, and seeing his slow realization that without money he didn’t have anything to offer. Truly a sad statement on what success means nowadays. Sadly he is now suing the director for libel as he claims that he was misinterpreted in the film. Although it’s important to note he only started caring once he got his money back and is rebuilding Versailles.

  • Yashar

    As a newbie to the documentary scene (started a couple of years ago with some of Oscar winning titles like The Inside Job as well as some unfairly overlooked ones like the Interrupters), this feature is insanely useful to me. Also kudos for mentioning Ishtar in a awards related documentary article 🙂

  • murtaza

    very informative, nice selection

  • murtaza

    would love to see IMPOSTER on list

  • Casey

    Desperately hoping Queen of Versailles gets a nomination! Truly wonderful doc! I left the theatre loving Jackie, which I wasn’t expecting

  • Radich

    I agree, Casey, about Queen of Versailles. What a great doc and Jackie is its pulsing heart.

    And you are right, Sasha, to see oneself in them is not that impossible. It is a very harsh and real mirror to look at.

  • Park

    I think Searching for Sugar Man is the best documentary so far.

  • Brad

    Does someone know when can I see this year’s documentary shortlist?

  • This is the most competitive category by far this year. In many ways all of the docs listed are better than any feature film released so far this year. How do you choose a winner? Although I’m leaning “The Central Park Five” which is just a wee bit more amazing than the rest.

  • Ryan, that’s the 2009 one. Is the 2012 shortlist out yet?

    I’m growing more fond of documentaries as the years roll on, maturity or something, but I’ve only seen Samsara from the docs Sasha lists here. While it has some of the best cinematography of the year, I still feel like it was a step down from Baraka, which had more interesting subjects and better music. Samsara is still a must.

    The Gatekeepers is a doc I saw at TIFF this year, about Israel’s counter-terrorist organization Shin Bet. Very powerful. I’d recommend it.

    But for my money, I don’t know if any doc will be able to top Leviathan – an audio-visual journey almost completely without dialogue that follows an industrial deep-sea fishing boat around. It’s one of the best films of the year, fiction or not, and has phenomenal camerawork. There’s nothing like it.

  • 2012 has been a stupendous year for documentaries. I’ve probably seen more documentaries this year than any year previous.

    And here’s a sampling of those that I really liked.

    Searching for Sugar Man
    The Imposter
    The Invisible War
    Brooklyn Castle
    Jiro Dreams of Sushi
    Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry
    The Other Dream Team
    Paul Williams Still Alive
    The Final Member
    Casting By
    Booker’s Place

  • JoeS

    Re: SAMSARA – “….all played out in gorgeous 70mm.”

    Correction. SAMSARA was FILMED in 70mm, but, the distributors (with the compliance of the filmmakers) only struck 35mm film prints to go along with the Digital ones.

    Shame on them for being so short-sighted and cheap.

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