It was pretty apparent for me early on that 2012 was a banner year for documentaries. At one point eight of my ten personal favorites were documentaries, though that number finally settled at five. I realize that says as much about me as it does about the films of 2012, but isn’t that always the case with such lists? The year gone by was a rich one for films, and I could easily have gone another ten films deep with admirable, enjoyable films that may even have been safer choices (Lincoln, Zero Dark Thirty, Holy Motors), I have always treated this list as equal parts “personal favorite” and “critical judgment.” That can and does give my lists an admittedly esoteric feeling, one that has struck some of my colleagues as deliberately contrarian. I’ve never quite understood such criticisms, though. Whose list should it be? What better place to be esoteric? As for contrarian, well…I’m not saying that any film that is not on this list is bad; I’m just saying these were the films I liked better.
10) Head Games — Steve James
Eighteen years after Hoop Dreams, Steve James once again explores our obsession with sports, producing a complex narrative that makes us question not just why its protagonists do what they do but why we continue to cheer them on while they are doing it. Loosely structured around former athlete Chris Nowinski, whose own concussion spurred him to begin the long and arduous task of documenting the long term effects of head trauma in various sports, Head Games is at its level best when it shows athletes (young and old) wrestling with their inability to reconcile what they are told with what they want–what they need–to be true. Although Nowinski is presented in a favorable light, James avoids painting the athletes or fans as stupid or evil, opting for a more neutral tone. That works well since most viewers are themselves either fans of some sport (who isn’t?) or close to a participant. As a film that must slowly, deftly, move viewers from thinking about someone else’s guilt or innocence towards contemplating their own complicity, the film has to be patient and persistent, avoiding the sorts of partisan framing and easy scapegoating that would allow viewers to dismiss it as a partisan screed. It’s hard for a documentary (outside of the Up series) to be longitudinal, but Head Games comes close, artfully juxtaposing father and son, coach and player, the assumed invulnerability of the young and the battle scars of the experienced.
9) Seeking a Friend for the End of the World — Lorene Scafaria
I would probably have still enjoyed Seeking a Friend regardless, but I wonder if I would have appreciated it in the same way if I hadn’t disliked Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia as much as I did. In film as in life, there are things we can hear from certain people that we can’t hear from others. Timing is important too. The comic vision of what makes relationships fall apart and what keeps them together is everything the more highly touted (and highly disappointing) This is 40 was not: painful, poignant, and (I will insist), in its own way, profound. At the age of 47, I’ve entered the stage of life where death is no longer always and only the sudden and unexpected tragedy that it is in youth, and one of the things that even my own rudimentary witnessing has helped me conclude is that knowing you are to be hung in a fortnight doesn’t always provide the moral, emotional, or spiritual clarity that Samuel Johnson claimed it did. One thing I found both painful and true about Seeking a Friend is that when the world is made new it is too often made as an exact replica of the world that preceded it. How we anticipate the end of life has a greater affect on how we live it on a day to day level than we might think. There are plenty of films I admire that puzzle my friends, which is a nice way of saying there are plenty of films whose lack of admiration among my friends puzzles me.
8) The Central Park Five — Ken Burns, Sarah Burns, and David McMahon
Central Park Five was the one film on this list that I didn’t necessarily think would be a finalist immediately after watching, and yet it grows and has stuck with me, in large part due to the the directors’ decision to focus as much as possible on the voices and faces of the young men who were bullied into “confessions” and spent years in prison for a crime they did not commit. The most haunting aspect of the film, that which I was least prepared for, was how melancholy it was. Did I expect there to be more anger because I have been weaned all my life on the stereotype of the angry minority or because my own personality tends towards that response when I am treated unjustly? This is not a film about readjudicating guilt or innocence. The last word is in on that, and while there is enough summation here to allow those unfamiliar with the case to be (re)assured that the five really were not guilty, the film is more interested in showing how the experiences affected them and asking us to ponder why such a thing could happen so very, very easily and with such little protest than it is in allowing us to feel better about ourselves by believing this injustice was exceptional in any other way than that it was eventually acknowledged. There has been a lot of talk in the United States since the election of Barack Obama in 2008 of whether we are in (or moving towards) a “post-racial” culture — or what that phrase even means. One surprise for white viewers here might be how readily the minorities (the teens and their families) were to trust that the police were only screwing them a little (in order to make a case against someone else). Like the predicate crime that catalyzed the need for scapegoats, some human actions are so unfathomable, even in retrospect, that no matter how drearily familiar a pattern they follow, we can’t believe that they are actually happening when they do.
7) Looper — Rian Johnson
In a podcast at The Thin Place, I said that Looper was one of those rare films where, as the ending quickly approached, I was unsure about what was going to happen, and one of the even rarer films where I was unsure what I wanted to happen. That’s the mark of some good writing, and while Looper may not be as innovative as its fiercest fans want to claim, neither is it as derivative as the inevitable comparisons to Terminator might suggest. Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis play younger and older versions of a mafia hit man named Joe whose victims are sent to him from the future. “Closing the loop” is when the mob finally sends the hit man’s future self to be killed by his younger incarnation. When old Joe escapes and decides to kill them (a long time) before they will try to kill him and his loved ones all sorts of time-travel conundrums are raised. It is the moral conundrums, though, that elevate Looper above its source material. The actions themselves are fairly conventional but they are invested with moral implications that touch on everything from addiction to predestination. One of the things that I greatly admired about Looper (and one thing that makes it a nice companion to another film on this list) is that it wrestles with the question of whether or not violence can ever solve problems or whether it only compounds them while creating new ones.
6) Django Unchained — Quentin Tarantino
There are few critical aphorisms that set my teeth on edge more than “Did we watch the same movie?” Disagreement is fine, but that comment always carries with it the air of superiority, the assumption that the dissenter is so superior in skill and discernment that the content of the disagreement doesn’t even mater. It also (usually) begs the question. Yet there is a sense in which such a phrase can be born out of genuine befuddlement. I certainly get how anyone could not like Quentin Tarantino in general or Django specifically, but some of the criticisms of his latest have me scratching my head. There are laughs in Django, I suppose, but they are more often than not the nervous, uncomfortable laughs at something that hits too close to home than the free, joyous laughter at something that is genuinely funny. And while the racists are sometimes presented as cartoon idiots (most noticeably in a dud of a scene where Klan members debate whether or not they can see out of hoods), the conditions of slavery are hellish, and we are never invited to laugh at the slaves, not even when Samuel L. Jackson’s villainous house steward does his most servile Stephen (Fetchitt) routine. Yes (as I mentioned in my review at Christianity Today) the ending is a problem, but it is not the celebration of violence and vengeance that the film’s detractors claim. Stephen is not wrong in his claim that Django’s position at the end of the film, however emotionally satisfying it might be for him (and the audience), is unsustainable in the long run. The film’s end plays more triumphant than ambiguous in the short term, but is it a certainty that this violent triumphalism is meant to be the last word? Tarantino is a better writer than editor/cinematographer in my opinion, and his script has already laid out several ways in which freedom means more than having papers. Past decisions, individual and corporate, are forms of entanglements, and while the film subtly suggests that “good luck” plays a key part in saving Django at one point, being lucky is not a long term success strategy either. It would probably be foolish of me to ruminate too loudly or too publicly about Django’s own moral condition, though I would argue that the film is rightfully more interested in that question than it is getting credit for. And for once the violence, the degree and intensity of violence, in a Tarantino movie seems necessary. It is easy enough for the white viewer to look back on slavery and naively think, “I wouldn’t have done that” but Django Unchained confronts us with the pervasiveness and relentlessness of an evil that would not be satisfied with being left alone to perpetuate itself but must consume everything in its path. Is there a greater indictment of human nature than the fact that the (white) person who professes to hate slavery the most in the abstract, finds it easy enough to compromise that conviction when he finds it “convenient”?
5) Under African Skies — Joe Berlinger
One of the investment web pages I read from time to time is fond of talking about “disruptive” businesses — products and plans that end up defeating larger, seemingly entrenched ways of doing things by acting in a different way. The reason some businesses (and ways of thinking) look and feel so unassailable is in part because their very dominance makes competition seem unimaginable. And as any artist will tell you, imagination may well have toppled more prejudices and preconceived notions than brute force. Paul Simon is an artist, and this is his story. That he is an artist with mad skills is evident in the fact that Under African Skies would be a satisfying documentary even without the political backdrop, even if it were simply the man reminiscing about the making of a classic album. There are arguments to be made in favor of cultural embargoes, and it is evidence of how deep is the divide between the way the artist sees the world and the way the political activist sees the world that some still, twenty-plus years later, want to rehearse those arguments. Simon appears to be doing his level best to hear and try to understand them, making him a more gracious person than I and Under African Skies a more thoughtful documentary than it might have been if this were only a snapshot of a victory tour. Perhaps the most telling part of the film comes early on as Simon recalls the genesis of his trip to South Africa to record what would become Graceland. It started with a cassette of music that he listened to, that he kept coming back to, and that made him want to share with and learn from the musicians making it. There is a long history of musicians making political statements and people trying to use musicians for their own end. Goodness knows there is a long history of white culture appropriating Black art without sharing in any of the benefits of that appropriation. There are lots of arguments for why he shouldn’t have thought about doing what he did, but artists make art. That’s what they do. That’s how they think. The art that he made and the testimonies of the people he made it with seem a more powerful and persuasive argument than any provided by those who say the cause of equality would have been better served by some other method than treating fellow musicians as equals.
4) Great Expectations — Mike Newell
I suppose the running theme of this year’s list is films I esteemed more highly than most everyone else. I confess I met Mike Newell’s adaptation of Dickens’s novel with the same apathetic, “is this really necessary?,” shrug that most everyone else had. Yes it was Charles Dickens’s bicentennial, but, given the fact that there was already a serviceable adaptation (directed by David Lean) and already a disastrous attempt to update it (with Ethan Hawke and Gwynth Paltrow), it was hard to anticipate that the film could feel as fresh and as relevant as it did. Neither was there much in Newell’s filmography to lead me to expect great things. In retrospect, I expect his work on Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire was helpful at inculcating the skill of boiling down long, complicated plots, and the best parts of Great Expectations stem from the most basic parts of the story. Much could be made out of Newell’s assessment that Pip is an unsympathetic protagonist (okay, he used the term “little shit”), but the director gets that Dickens was himself intimately familiar with how large social forces could come to bear on individual human beings, stripping them of all pretensions and any claims to goodness that weren’t based on something more than the veneer of gentility. I’ve written a full review here, and done a podcast from Toronto with Andrew Johnson. When Pip sees Miss Havisham for the last time and he and we are confronted with the conflict between his instinctual drive towards decency and his embittered drive towards rage, it is hard to think of a more emblematic example of just how difficult forgiveness really is for for fallen human beings to grant one another.
3) Wreck-It Ralph — Rich Moore
I respect Toy Story, but you can keep it. I’ll take Ralph and his video game compadres over Woody and Buzz every day of the week and twice on Sunday. That the most emotionally complex, the most human, relationship this year should be between two animated characters is a testament to just how much more Wreck-It Ralph has going for it than a cute idea and some retro nostalgia for the gone but not forgotten days of my arcade youth. I have some friends who measure a film’s success by how anxious they are to see it again, but for me the mark is how much I want to share it with others, how much I want them to have the same experience I did, and how much I pity them rather than disagree with them if they don’t. Here’s something else about Wreck-It Ralph: Vanellope is my favorite Disney heroine since…well, ever. Wreck-It Ralph is a kind of love story, though I mean that in the philia rather than eros kind of way, and I appreciated so much that Ralph’s transformation comes from growth rather than punishment (see Brave) and self-acceptance rather than vindication. When one is pushing buttons this primal — the ostracized outsider who just wants to fit in — it is easy to be lazy in the writing, snobbish in its depiction of everyone who is not the protagonist. Wreck-It Ralph takes its sweet time, letting its characters falter and fail on the road to eventual success and letting them realize that true happiness sometimes comes not from getting what you want but from being worthy of it. It was a delight on every level. I laughed, I cheered, some tears were shed.
2) Miss Representation — Jennifer Siebel Newsom
I’ve always considered myself more or less a feminist, by which term I mean someone who believes that women should be thought of and treated as equals. That this is even a debatable proposition is a stronger argument for why we need feminism now as much as ever. Just as some try to sweep racism under the rug by claiming without much foundation (or through strictly anecdotal terms) that we live in a post-racial society, so too many try to deny misogyny and gender oppression by claiming that demands for rights-not-privileges are examples of misanthropy and entitlement thinking. I appreciated how the documentary, which deals with the way women are portrayed in contemporary media and argues that such depictions have real-world consequences, side-steps the political polarization of America by including voices from the right (Condoleeza Rice) as well as the left (Nancy Pelosi). The film’s ethos is helped by the balanced participation of people from varied walks of life, including men of power who add their voice in testimony to the things their female compatriots have experienced. The film’s logos is aided by the voices of academics who are able to analyze and summarize history, psychology, politics, and economics. And, of course, the film’s pathos is strong based on the participation of women old and young whose own burdens and pains lend the lie to claims that cultural pollution doesn’t hurt one unless one participates in the manufacture of it. One of the film’s many seminal moments for me came when actress Geena Davis discussed how pervasive–and unfounded–were the assumptions that things are gradually getting better for women in the media. Miss Representation argues, somewhat persuasively, that the proliferation of content avenues (cable, satellite, Internet) in conjunction with less regulation of that content has led to more (and more extreme) images of sex and violence. Given the film’s many montages of images, any one of which would be shocking out of context but which all seem dully familiar within our conditioned oh-that’s-just-television minds, it’s hard to disagree. Flannery O’ Connor said that to the hard of hearing you sometimes have to shout. In matters of gender equality, in matters of gender decency, I fear too many American men have stopped fighting, stopped caring, and allowed ourselves to become deaf to the cries of our daughters, sisters, mothers, wives, friends, and colleagues who desperately need us to stand by them and with them.
1) The Queen of Versailles — Lauren Greenfield
As polished and nuanced a piece of documentary film making as you are likely to see in this or any other year, Lauren Greenfield’s The Queen of Versailles takes what could have been a puff piece in lesser hands and what would have been a hatchet job in almost any other hands and turns it into something so much more. What is stunning and exciting about the documentary is not just the access Greenfield received nor even the skill with which she edited it together to tell a nuanced and complex story. It is the insight she has into the people, the vision she is able to impose on it and extract from it. There are a lot of films on this year’s list about freedom in different manifestations. Few tenets are held to more vociferously, are challenged at one’s own peril more riskily, than the modern notion that the freedom to do whatever one wants is the highest good and that money is the most likely avenue to that freedom. As I stated in my initial review, few of us ever challenge that notion because few of us ever experience the sort of financial insulation from consequences that most of us unthinkingly equate with freedom. The brilliance of The Queen of Versailles is that it presents its material as a horror story rather than a comedy. It forestalls the resentment we might feel towards its uber-rich protagonists by salting the early parts with with minor inconveniences and actually invites empathy by the end with the realization that we might not be as different from them as we thought. Truman Capote once famously wrote that more tears were shed over answered prayers than unanswered ones. How many of us have prayed for wealth, I wonder, for the ability to build castles on land as well as in the air? How many of us realize what our lives might be if we got everything we wanted before we learned how to examine those desires to see if they were really worth having?