It’s been another stellar year for documentaries, with thoughtful films tackling such topics as bullying, bloated wealth, female body image, speaking out when it’s dangerous, saving a city from burning, and becoming a musical superstar. Let’s take a look at the documentaries that made our Best of 2012 list.
1. Bully. The Department of Education estimates that 13 million kids will be bullied this year, and this documentary centers on five of these victims, including Alex, a 12-year-old seventh grader at East Middle School in Sioux City, Iowa. Everything from the bullying to the ineffectual efforts of school administrators to his parents’s frustration is caught on tape. Alex is threatened, called names, hit, pushed, poked and stabbed — all on film.
Director Lee Hirsch was able to capture such shocking behavior by blending into the daily life of the school and even the school bus while shooting over the course of the 2009-2010 academic year. Everyone should see this movie, whether you’re a kid, a parent, a grandparent, a teacher, a bus driver, or anyone else with the power to stop bullying. Reel Life With Jane review.
Buy It: Bully [Blu-ray]
2. 5 Broken Cameras. Six years ago in the Palestinian farming community of Bil’in, Emad Burnat purchased a video camera to record the birth of his son Jibreel. This joyous moment for his family, however, coincided with the invasion of Israeli bulldozers set to make way for Jewish colonists.
Burnat joined in with his town’s peaceful resistance against the advancing settlers, documenting his involvement with the five titular cameras that became casualties of the ongoing border conflict, smashed or shot over the course of five years of harrowing demonstrations.
The resulting footage, which Burnat reconstructed collaboratively with Israeli filmmaker Guy Davidi, presents a microcosm of an international tragedy reframed through the lenses of one family’s experience. Both brilliant and devastating, 5 Broken Cameras sheds personal light on the Israel/Palestine issue. In Hebrew and Arabic with English subtitles.
Buy It: 5 Broken Cameras
3. Ai Weiwi: Never Sorry. Subversive artist, political activist and social media pioneer Ai Weiwei has been making global headlines ever since his controversial art installation shed light on the Chinese government’s cover-up of the death of over 5,000 elementary students in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake.
His art crosses media boundaries, ranging from millions of ceramic sunflower seeds to discarded backpacks to Twitter posts. He’s not only captured the attention of the international art community, but also the Chinese authorities, who’ve censored his blog, beat him up, detained him and bulldozed his studio.
Filmmaker Alison Klayman has created a thoughtful portrait of this rock star of the art world, following a man whose work in the face of oppressive government censorship blurs the line between art and politics. In English and Mandarin with English subtitles.
Buy It: Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry [Blu-ray]
4. Searching for Sugar Man. In this stranger than fiction doc, Swedish director Malik Bendjelloul tells the tale of Rodriguez, a Dylanesque folk rocker who released two apparently brilliant albums in the early 1970s, then vanished from public view. People assumed he’d died, possibly on stage in a dramatic suicide.
Then we learn that bootleg recordings of his in apartheid-era South Africa have launched the star into the stratosphere. His uncensored depictions of sex and drugs were so thrilling to South African musicians that he became the patron saint of the Afrikaner punk movement, which in turn laid the groundwork for the organized anti-apartheid movement that eventually brought the regime down. Not bad for a guy who’s dead, right?
Except he’s not dead. He’s alive and well and living in Detroit, working as a humble blue-collar worker who does the jobs that no one else wants to do. Bendjelloul’s film reminds us that the guy working next to you or standing in front of you in the post office might be a global superstar.
5. We Are Wisconsin. After Republican Governor Scott Walker cut benefits and collective bargaining rights for most public workers, the outcry turned into a transformative movement that successfully placed a gubernatorial recall on the ballot for only the third time in U.S. history.
This brave documentary from director Amie Williams follows a social worker, a high school teacher, a college student, a retired nurse, an electrician and a police officer as they fight to maintain their livelihoods. The historic 18 days of protests on the steps of Wisconsin’s State Capital served as a rallying cry to people the world over to join together and let their voices be heard.
Buy it on the film’s official Web site.
6. The Reluctant Revolutionary. This doc follows the revolution in Yemen from its early days through the eyes of filmmaker Sean McAllister and his likeable Yemeni companion Kais. Initially hired as McAllister’s tour guide, Kais transforms from a man just trying to do right by his family to a protestor swept up in the righteous battle for social change.
Leading up to the fateful events of the “Friday of Dignity,” when 52 people were killed at a peaceful protest, Kais undergoes a profound personal change as he comes to realize just how much is at stake. In English and Arabic with English subtitles.
Buy it on the film’s official Web site.
7. Burn: One Year on the Front Lines of the Battle to Save Detroit. On the front lines with firefighters combating blazes in the city with the highest rate of arson in the nation, this eye-opening doc offers a close-up look at the people tasked with the thankless job of rescuing a city others have written off.
Once a flourishing beacon of industry, Detroit is now seen by many as vast wasteland of abandoned buildings and lost dreams. But hope rises from the ashes in the form of the resolute spirit of the brave few who refuse to give up on the city they call home.
From executive producer Dennis Leary and directors Tom Putnam and Brenna Sanchez, this riveting documentary spends a year in one of the nation’s busiest and worst-funded firehouses. Each of the firefighters has a story to tell, which blends into the larger picture of the flaws in the bureaucracy. Expert review from public safety consultant Gary Oldham.
8. Detropia. Once a thriving metropolis of nearly two million inhabitants and a pillar of American industry, Detroit has faced a downward spiral that foreshadowed the economic recession in the rest of the nation.
In post-industrial America, Detroit has become a shadow of its past self. In the words of one union leader, “the failure of the Great American Experiment.”
Oscar-nominated filmmakers Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady craft a haunting look at the once great city, seen through the eyes of Motor City natives, including artists, business owners, laid off auto workers, and some who see hopeful opportunity in the midst of devastation.
Buy It: Detropia
9. Don’t Stop Believin’: Everyman’s Journey. From the you-can’t-make-this-stuff-up files, this inspiring doc chronicles the meteoric rise to fame of Filipino singer Arnel Pineda, who went from homeless fanboy to frontman for the legendary rock band Journey in the course of a few short years.
After a friend uploaded videos of Pineda covering classic Journey songs to YouTube, he was discovered by Journey guitarist Neal Schon, who plucked Pineda out of obscurity in Manilla and recruited him to go on tour as their new lead singer.
Director Ramona Diaz delves into Pineda’s backstory and struggle to cope with his newfound fame, while capturing plenty of concert footage to satisfy diehard Journey fans. In English and Tagalog with English subtitles.
10. The Flat (Hadira). When filmmaker Arnon Goldfinger’s grandmother passed away at age 98, he was tasked with clearing out the flat in Tel Aviv in which she had lived for over 75 years. As a documentarian, he decided to film the process.
What he discovered was a rich collection of family history amassed since his grandparents immigrated from Nazi Germany in the 1930s. Sifting through the ancient letters and documents, Goldfinger began to uncover the clues to shocking secrets from his family’s past during the years before World War II.
This emotional documentary offers a fascinating look at the ways different generations deal with the memory of the Holocaust. In English, Hebrew and German with English subtitles.
Buy It: The Flat
11. Jiro Dreams of Sushi. A great tribute to those among us who view their life’s work as important and meaningful, this doc follows the life of humble sushi maker Jiro Ono, who runs a seeming hole-in-the-wall sushi bar located in a Tokyo subway station.
The 85-year-old master, considered by many to be the greatest sushi chef alive, has built a tiny, but at the same time monumental, business that’s the first of its kind to receive three Michelin stars.
The 10-seat restaurant serves sushi connoisseurs and food critics from around the world, 10 at a time, for upwards of $350 a meal. David Gelb’s documentary gives viewers the vision and sense of purpose driving their creator. It’s truly a feast for the eyes. In Japanese with English subtitles.
Buy It: Jiro Dreams of Sushi [Blu-ray]
12. The Queen of Versailles. These are tough economic times, not only for the regular people among us, but also the wealthiest. The downfall of the American Dream is captured in this comically tragic, rags-from-riches story of billionaire timeshare mogul David Siegel and his wife Jackie, the former Mrs. Florida 1993.
The film begins with their quest to build one of the largest single-family homes in America, a sprawling, 90,000-square-foot palace complete with its own 20-car garage and two-lane bowling alley. The tiles alone are worth millions of dollars.
But as the economic crisis hits, the couple is forced to make adjustments, like most Americans, only on a much grander scale.
With acclaimed photographer Lauren Greenfield at the helm, this insightful film taps into the zeitgeist of the recession and offers an engrossing character study of a couple whose seemingly magical existence is not so magical after all.
Buy It: Queen of Versailles [Blu-ray]
13. Louder Than Love: The Grande Ballroom Story. In the 1960s, no city rocked harder than Detroit. And during its brief six-year existence, the Grande Ballroom was at the center of it all, launching acts like MC5, Ted Nugent and Iggy & the Stooges.
This documentary tells the story of the hallowed halls that shaped the gritty rock scene in Detroit and features interviews with musicians from the Grande’s heyday, including B.B. King, Alice Cooper and Roger Daltrey; rare archival photos; and never-before-seen footage of major acts like The Who.
Director and Detroit native Tony D’Annunzio has crafted a wonderful tribute to a place that embodied the raw energy of the Motor City in the 1960s.
14. Sexy Baby. Parents of teenage girls — this may be the scariest film you’ll ever see. Filmmakers Jill Bauer and Ronna Gradus follow the lives of three characters to shed a light on the toll that our hypersexualized culture has taken on our nation’s women.
Former adult film star Nikita Kash now makes a living teaching women to pole dance; 22-year-old elementary teacher Laura, spurred on by her porn-loving boyfriend, opts for expensive labiaplasty surgery; and 12-year-old Winnifred grows up much faster than her parents can handle.
This eye-opening film examines the seismic shift in our society in an age where courtship has been replaced by sexting and kids have access to online porn before sex ed. Note that some scenes are graphic and tough to take.
Watch Instantly: Sexy Baby
15. West of Memphis. In 1994, the West Memphis Three — Damian Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelly — were tried and wrongfully found guilty of the gruesome murders of three eight-year-old boys. Their case has absorbed the nation for nearly two decades, as media attention (including the Paradise Lost documentary trilogy) led to an overwhelming amount of support from those who saw the trial as a gross miscarriage of justice.
Produced by Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson (a longstanding advocate for the Three) and directed by Oscar-nominated director Amy Berg, this documentary offers a fresh and comprehensive examination of the trial and its aftermath, giving a platform for the victims’ families and drawing shocking new conclusions that could shape future investigations into the true identity of the murderer.
16. How to Survive a Plague. Using rare archival footage, this film pays tribute to the civil rights movement forged in the bleakest days of the AIDS epidemic. The death toll of AIDS in the United States during the ’80s and early ’90s surpassed that of the Vietnam War by a factor of five, and indifference to the demands of the gay community for more rigorous medical research revealed deep-seated prejudices in Washington and the medical establishment.
Comprised mainly of HIV-positive men and women with no medical training, two coalitions — ACT UP and TAG — were formed with the goal of expediting the efforts of the slow-moving pharmaceutical industry to make AIDS a manageable condition.
This story is an unrelenting account of a community’s will to survive, a blueprint for a successful grassroots campaign, and a testament to the strength at the heart of the gay rights movement.
Buy It: How to Survive a Plague
17. Scenes of a Crime. Think you could never be talked into confessing to a crime you didn’t commit? Consider this a wake-up call. In September 2008, Adrian Thomas’ 4-month-old son Matthew was pronounced dead at a hospital in upstate New York, with brain trauma that was quickly (and erroneously) attributed to abuse.
The police on the case, already convinced that Adrian was guilty of murdering his own son, interrogated him over the course of 10 hours with the intent of extracting a confession at all costs. Using chilling footage from the interrogation and interviews with key players in the case, filmmakers Grover Babcock and Blue Hadaegh craft an eye-opening critique of the sophisticated psychological manipulation employed in modern police interrogation to elicit confessions.
18. The Story of Film: An Odyssey. Even if you don’t have 15 hours to watch this entire film, it’s worth seeing a couple hours here and there. Critic Mark Cousins takes you on a journey through film history from its silent past through its changing digital future.
From Lumière and Edison to Scorsese and Spielberg, Cousins’ love letter to the film industry is filled with clips and interviews that bring alive the magic of the movies. Ambitious in scope and poetic in execution, this 15-hour odyssey is something no self-respecting cinephile will want to miss.
Buy It: The Story of Film: An Odyssey
19. The Zen of Bennett. With remarkable access to one of America’s legendary musicians, Danny Bennett’s tribute to his 85-year-old father gives an up-close look behind the scenes as Tony Bennett records duets with artists Lady Gaga, Willie Nelson, Amy Winehouse, Norah Jones and others.
This doc follows the famous singer as he jets to Italy to perform a duet with opera star Andrea Bocelli, draws the people and things he sees, and negotiates with band leaders about tempo. Amazing and charming, the musician whose work spans six decades never waivers in his devotion to artistic excellence.
Buy It: The Zen Of Bennett [Blu-ray]
20. The Central Park Five. This riveting doc chronicles one of New York City’s most notorious crimes. On April 20, 1989, the body of a woman was discovered in Central Park, her skull so badly smashed that nearly 80 percent of her blood has spilled onto the ground.
Within days, five black and Latino teenagers confess to her rape and beating. In a city where urban crime is at a high and violence is frequent, the ensuing media frenzy and hysterical public reaction is extraordinary. The young men are tried as adults and convicted of rape, despite the fact that the teens quickly recant their inconsistent and inaccurate confessions, and that no DNA tests or eyewitness accounts tie any of them to the victim. They serve their complete sentences before another man, serial rapist Matias Reyes, confesses to the crime and is connected to it by DNA testing.
Intertwining the stories of these five young men, the police officers, the district attorneys, the victim, and Matias Reyes, filmmaker Sarah Burns unravels the forces that made both the crime and its prosecution possible. Most dramatically, she gives us a portrait of a city already beset by violence and deepening rifts between races and classes, whose law enforcement, government, social institutions, and media were undermining the very rights of the individuals they were designed to safeguard and protect.