Monday, December 31, 2012

2012: The Year in Documentaries

Documentary lovers were treated to a feast of superior films this year. All of the following titles are well worth seeking out (and would make great gifts for the documentary lover in your life).

First, my honorable mentions:

which captured the real-time, moment-to-moment uncertainty and tension of the Chinese artist, an outspoken critic of his government and a man with a voracious appetite for life;

which (to my great surprise) made MMA exciting by showing, through several articulate practitioners, the intensity and devotion it requires at the highest level, and the regretful scars it leaves on those passed by; 

the thrilling and touching story of the Lithuanian men’s basketball team at the Barcelona Summer Olympics, playing for their country in a way the rest of the world could not have understood;

a staggering Korean love story between Cho Young-Chan, a deaf-blind skyscraper of a man, and his wife Soon-Ho, a tiny little thing with a heart full of love who looks at Young-Chan and sees only accomplishment and possibility; and

the heartbreaking, hopeful and humorous stories of four exceptional young women, each born in China and adopted by an American family, who share with us their wise-beyond-their-years insights into culture and identity, abandonment and belonging.

Also worthy of note were three of last year’s Oscar nominees for documentary feature, which first screened in Los Angeles during 2012: 

about the effects – on their bodies, their relationships, their finances – of those who serve our country in the Middle East and return home worse for wear; 

the capstone of the momentum-building “Paradise Lost” series of documentaries on the West Memphis Three; and 

the stand-up-and-cheer ode to Bill Courtney, a North Memphis business owner turned high school football coach who loves coaching his inner-city boys more than life itself. It had an audience full of jaded Westsiders living and dying with every play of a Tennessee high school football season.

Now, my top ten documentaries of 2012 (in alphabetical order):

the uplifting, inspiring and completely winning story of the (mostly white) teachers and (mostly black) kids of the chess team at I.S. 318, a national junior-high chess juggernaut and a wonderful place where nobody cares about the color of your skin, only the quality of your moves; 

 the raucously funny biography of the larger-than-life D.V., a true innovator in fashion and culture and a degenerate storyteller who, when finally asked by her son whether a particular anecdote from his childhood was fact or fiction, instantly replied, “Faction”;

 the draining but ultimately triumphant tale of the early-years heroes of the war on AIDS, a film that makes your blood boil in one scene and leaves a lump in your throat in the next;

which shed much-needed light on the horrific epidemic of sexual abuse of women in the U.S. military, and has the power to effect real change; 

featuring then-President of the Maldives Mohamed Nasheed, a man with a Mandela-esque political biography, whose country faces literal submersion as the Indian Ocean rises, and who shows us how politics as President of the Maldives is done, from attention-grabbing P.R. stunts to behind-closed-doors machinations (armed with only the power of persuasion) at the Association of Small Island States and later the milestone U.N. climate change conference in Copenhagen;

which offered not only mouthwatering food porn but a compelling and relatable story of what it means for two different sons of a Michelin-starred Tokyo sushi master to follow (or not follow) in their father’s footsteps;

a marvelous introduction to the power and possibility of performance art through a grueling season-long MOMA installation by perhaps its best-known modern practitioner; 

an enraging yet highly informative documentary showing in awful, social-scientific detail how it can be that an innocent man confesses to a heinous crime; 

about the lost folk rocker Rodriguez, which perhaps more than any other film this year brimmed with the thrill of discovery, a story that takes you completely by surprise, and then takes you completely by surprise a second time; and

the best of several movies this year on the subject (to a greater or lesser extent) of house arrest. “Unraveled” spends the last few months with disgraced former attorney Marc Dreier before his sentencing on financial fraud charges, and shows us a trapped rat of a man whose world has caved in on him. It’s an unforgettable portrait of the heavy weight of time and of harrowing, unthinkable conversations about what will fill the remainder of Dreier’s days and nights.

Finally, the worst documentary of the year, a tie between the water doc “Last Call at the Oasis” and the Doomsday doc “Surviving Progress,” two egregious and incoherent examples of dime-store eschatology proving yet again that documentary filmmaking involves more than simply picking a topic.

Below, my star ratings for the 44 documentaries I saw in Los Angeles theaters in 2012:

Total: 121 stars

Average: 2.75 stars

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