This is going to be a lot shorter piece than yesterday’s Top 25, but I wanted to give special attention to a film genre I love, hoping there are at least a handful of our readers that give a damn about documentaries and their importance not only to movies, but also to our everyday lives.
I can’t say enough great things about the filmmakers who choose to go the documentary route and in fact, if I included docs in my main Top 25, it would probably take up almost half the Top 10. After all, my favorite movie at Sundance was a doc (West of Memphis), my favorite movie at Tribeca was a doc (Searching for Sugar Man) and my favorite movie at Toronto was a doc (The Central Park Five).
With that in mind, here are 15 must-see docs we saw this year. (An asterisk means that you can read a review by clicking on the movie title – note: we have more to say about some of these movies than others.)
*1. Searching for Sugar Man (Sony Pictures Classics) – As mentioned in my Top 25, this was easily one of the most entertaining films I’ve seen this year as director Malik Bendjelloul tried to find the mysterious ’70s folk singer Rodriguez, who had become a cult hero in Apartheid South Africa. This is a fascinating film, but especially you like music and a good comeback story as this is one of the best.
2. Sing Your Song (S2BN Films) – Susan Rostock’s doc, which opened Sundance 2011, was a fascinating portrait of singer and performer Harry Belafonte whose activism spanned decades from the Civil Rights movement through the protests against the war in Iraq. It’s an amazing film, especially if you’re not aware of everything Belafonte has done to get equal rights for everyone.
*3. The Central Park Five (Sundance Selects) – Ken Burns, his daughter Sarah Burns and her husband David McMahon investigated the 1987 incarceration of five Harlem teens for the rape and beating of a jogger in Central Park, a case that tore an already turbulent New York City in two. The filmmakers got all five of the accused to talk openly about the night of their arrest and when they found the real perpetrator and they were exonerated.
4. West of Memphis (Sony Pictures Classics) – In a similar bent, Amy Berg spent three years in Arkansas documenting the new evidence and talking to new witnesses in the West Memphis 3 case that had been documented in three previous “Paradise Lost” movies by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky. Produced by Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh, WM3’s Damien Echols and his wife Lorri Davis, it is one of the most comprehensive films about the case including never-before-seen evidence and testimonials that investigate who may have committed the murders. (Look for our interview with producers Peter Jackson and Damien Echols shortly.)
5. Defiant Requiem (Partisan Pictures) – One of two movies seen at this year’s DocuWeeks, Doug Schultz documents how a group of Jewish singers and musicians held in the concentration camp Terezin performed “Verdi’s Requiem” for the Nazi officers as an act of defiance and how conductor Murry Sidlin spent ten years trying to perform the Requiem in modern-day Terezin.
6. Undefeated (The Weinstein Company) – Dan Lindsy and TJ Martin’s Oscar-nominated film about the Manassas Tigers’ 2009 football season as the troubled school’s 17 players try to win their first playoff game in the high school’s 110-year history.
*7. Side by Side (Tribeca Film) – Chris Kenneally directs this movie in which Keanu Reeves interviews dozens of filmmakers, including Christopher Nolan, Martin Scorsese, David Fincher, Steven Soderbergh and more to talk about the changing technology in making movies, transitioning from film to digital, exploring the benefits of both and why some directors and cinematographers prefer one over the other.
*8. The Invisible War (Docurama Films) Kirby Dick’s heartbreaking exposé of women and men who had been sexually assaulted while serving in the military and how the military proceeded to cover up the incidents may have been one of the most shocking docs I saw this year.
*9. Marley (Magnolia) – Kevin Macdonald did an extremely thorough job exploring every aspect of the life and music of reggae legend Bob Marley whose career was cut short when he succumbed to cancer leaving behind a legacy.
*10. Under African Skies (A&E IndieFilms) – “Paradise Lost” co-director Joe Berlinger examined the 25th anniversary of Paul Simon’s trip to South Africa to record his “Graceland” album, a Grammy-winning record that caused controversy at the time due to Simon’s decision to break the embargo with the apartheid-ridden country.
*11. Beware of Mr. Baker (SnagFilms) – Jay Bulger’s attempt to make a documentary about legendary rock drummer Ginger Baker, whose cranky demeanor made it that more difficult, is a must-see for any fan of rock music, as it showed a lot of Baker’s post-Cream career that many may not be familiar with.
12. Ai WeiWei: Never Sorry (Sundance Selects) – Alison Klayman’s fascinating portrait of the Chinese politically-motivated artist who was put under house arrest by the government for using art to speak out against them was really intriguing, mainly because I’m not that in-tune with the art world.
*13. Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God (HBO Films) It’s somewhat surprising to only have one Alex Gibney movie this year, but his look at the sexual abuse of a group of deaf boys in the 50s by their Catholic priest continues where Amy Berg’s Deliver Us From Evil left off and it’s just as shocking.
14. Out of the Clear Blue Sky – Like with Defiant Requiem we saw Danielle Gardner’s doc about the recovery of Cantor Fitzgerald following the terrorist attacks of 9/11 at DocuWeeks and we were really impressed that a filmmaker could find another angle on the 9/11 attacks that we hadn’t seen before.
15. Booker’s Place (Tribeca Film) – Seen at the Tribeca Film Festival, Raymond De Felitta reexamines his father Frank De Felitta’s 1965 documentary about the changing times in the South and how an African-American waiter named Booker Wright gave out a heartfelt monologue about working at a “whites only” restaurant in Mississippi, a speech which caused controversy and got him fired. Thirty-five years later, De Felitta goes back to the delta to learn more about Booker with help from his granddaughter.
And we’ll give an “Honorable Mention” to Will Lovelace and Dylan Southern’s Shut Up and Play the Hits (Oscilloscope Labs) which followed LCD Soundsystem frontman James Murphy around for the last 48 hours of the popular electronic band surrounding their final show at Madison Square Garden. Fans of the band will find it to be the ultimate send-off with great footage of the concert and great insights into the mind of Murphy.
That’s all for now, but look for our annual Terrible 25 some time in the next couple of weeks.