Monday, January 2, 2012

2011: The Year in Documentary Films

Documentary has always been my favorite category of film. Truth is not only stranger than fiction, it's funnier, sadder, richer. The year 2011 in documentaries began with the release of a beautiful restoration of Lionel Rogosin's "On the Bowery," which has just a wisp of plot to connect loosely the stories of the alcoholic bowerymen it follows. Their faces - faces of resignation, of death in life - remain indelibly imprinted.

A majority of the year's documentaries failed to earn recommendations. Too many documentaries today consist of, in the words of Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, "a topic and no documentary." (He cited in particular "Forks Over Knives," which he named the worst film of 2011.) Among the worst were the Werner Herzog atrocity "Into the Abyss," which played like an episode of the Maury Povich show about capital punishment, the Yves Saint Laurent puff piece "L'Amour Fou," the unenlightening "The Man Nobody Knew: In Search of My Father, CIA Spymaster William Colby," as ponderous and deadly dull as its unwieldy title, and "Nuremburg: Its Lesson For Today," which consisted in significant part of verbatim readings of the least interesting charges brought against the most minor figures in the Nuremburg trials. But the worst documentary of the year was the shockingly ill-made "Chasing Madoff," a meandering, visually flat film, devoid of scholarship, that allowed its inherently interesting story to be hijacked by the paranoid delusions of one man.

On the plus side, I saw a total of ten documentaries worth seeing. Among the best were "Blank City," which captured the resourceful, endearingly transgressive esprit of New York City's late 70s/early 80s "No Wave" cinema movement, HBO Films' definitive biography "Bobby Fischer Against the World," and the mean-streets-of-Chicago film "The Interrupters," from one of the directors of "Hoop Dreams," about Ameena Matthews and a host of other heroic ex-gangbangers who try to intervene in confrontations before they erupt into violence. The best documentary of the year is the captivating "Project Nim," by "Man on Wire" director James Marsh, about a 1970s experiment in which a family raised and communicated with a chimpanzee alongside their other children. The story of Nim's life is compelling - wondrous, yet heartbreaking - as told by the powerfully eloquent humans with whom Nim interacted. Like the best documentaries, "Project Nim" raises profound questions. It's for another field of human endeavour to find the answers.

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