The Documentary Blog’s Top 20 Films of 2011

Senna

Holy shit, the year is almost over! That means it’s time once again to look back at all of the great films of the past 12 months (or longer, depending on whether or not you caught a 2011 release at a festival in 2010) and rank them. It seems every year, right around summer time, people start complaining that it’s been a “bad year for film”. While it was starting to look like that might be the case, we’re now well beyond the uninspired rut of R rated comedies and comic book movies that made up the blockbuster season (it was definitely a bad year for good blockbusters) and things look much brighter. I think it’s been a great year for film.

I had trouble putting together a top 10 list of docs, so I decided to expand mine to 20 (the top ten films are accompanied by brief notes on why I enjoyed those films). I should note that there are a few releases that’ve been popping up on best of the year lists (particularly Tabloid and Cave of Forgotten Dreams) that aren’t on mine. These films were included on my 2010 list as I’d seen them that year at TIFF. I also have a few releases on my list that technically premiere last year, but didn’t receive a wide theatrical release (or other form of distribution) until this year. So be it. And of course, there are a ton of films I didn’t get to see and couldn’t consider. Finally, I’m happy that our good friend Charlotte Cook has taken some time to put together her list of favourite films as well, which you will find at the bottom of the post.

I generally find it pretty tough ordering films on these lists, so there are many spots that are probably interchangeable. Having said that, I think I’m pretty satisfied with what I’ve got here and I’m definitely looking forward to what 2012 has to offer. Please feel free to ream me out in the comments for missing that great underlooked film or for my list being too North American-centric. Seasons greetings and happy new year to you all!

20. Fake It So Real
Directed by Robert Greene

19. The Harvest
Directed by Gabriel Deloach

18. Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest
Directed by Michael Rapaport

17. Shut Up Little Man! An Audio Misadventure
Directed by Matthew Bate

16. The Real Rocky
Directed by Jeff Feuerzeig

15. Position Among the Stars
Directed by Leonard Retel Helmrich

14. Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop
Directed by Rodman Flender

13. Into the Abyss
Directed by Werner Herzog

12. Bill Cunningham New York
Directed by Richard Press

11. Bombay Beach
Directed by Alma Har’el

10. Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory
Directed by Joe Berlinger, Bruce Sinofsky

The only thing working against Paradise Lost 3 is the fact that the first third of the film has to take the time to recap the previous 2. For fans, this might feel strained, but ultimately seeing this film in theatres and getting back into the details of this case was exhilarating and infuriating all over again. It’s a great cap on an important series of documentary films. I’m excited to see the full version with the additional footage in January.

9. Undefeated
Directed by Daniel Lindsay, T.J. Martin

Undefeated isn’t necessarily groundbreaking, but it does a great job at playing in the sports drama universe and making good use of all of the tropes connected to these types of films. I’m not a sports guy, but I LOVE sports films and this one certainly delivered. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house during the final scene of this film.

8. Life in a Day
Directed by Kevin MacDonald

Life in a Day seemed like it could be a disaster but I was pretty blown away by the results of this simple concept. While most of the footage might not be mind blowing on its own, it’s weaved together in such a way that there’s a basic loose narrative that features a some humour, drama, horror, and every other possible result of a one day on earth around the world. The resulting footage is evidence of a universal language of cinema.

7. Convento
Directed by Jarred Alterman

Convento celebrates creativity and imagination both in its subject matter and the way in which director Jarred Alterman handles the material. It’s beautifully shot and a truly unusual viewing experience that showcases the creepy and fantastic artwork of its main character. Convento is a real life fantasy film that’s unlike any documentary film I’ve seen this year.

6. The Interrupters
Directed by Steve James

Steve James’ The Interrupters might be an issue film at heart, but it’s an awareness of the importance of great characters and dramatic storytelling that elevates it beyond your typical news magazine piece. It’s an epic drama that many have compared to HBO’s The Wire, which I think is a pretty fair assessment. It’s a powerful film that succeeds in large part due to some extremely skilled editing and James’ ability to gain incredible access to his subjects.

5. Abendland
Directed by Nikolaus Geyrhalter

Nikolaus Geyrhalter returns with his brand of austere observational filmmaking that seems to be inspired more by Stanley Kubrick than any of the cinema verite masters. In Abendland, he captures Europe at night, exploring both the familiar and the alien as he captures various aspects of Western life. I don’t think the film is for everyone, but the rapid changing settings (and the intentional structure of sequences) was a lot of fun to watch and beautifully realized on screen.

4. Buck
Directed by Cindy Meehl

I wasn’t sure what to expect with Buck and I sort of had my guard up assuming it might be a sappy, manipulative tear jerker. While it definitely is a tear jerker, it’s a truly wonderful film featuring a great character who’s complexity runs much deeper than ‘the real Horse Whisperer’. It looks pretty beautiful as well.

3. The Arbor
Directed by Clio Barnard

Not only is the family drama on display in The Arbor completely enthralling, the presentation is truly exciting and pushes the boundaries of non-fiction filmmaking. Using audio interviews with the real subjects lip synched by actors, director Clio Barnard manages to play with recreations and other storytelling techniques in a way that was completely new to me and truly inspiring.

2. Senna
Directed by Asif Kapadia

I went in to Senna knowing nothing about the man or the story, so it was a completely fresh experience for me. This was definitely a bonus as they story is rich in drama and even though the climax is telegraphed, it was a thrilling and suspenseful experience. Director Asif Kapadia masterfully constructs this story through stock footage to create an experience that feels immediate and visceral.

1. Project Nim
Directed by James Marsh

James Marsh has perfected his brand of retrospective documentary filmmaking, telling stories of the past in a way which makes them feel as though they’re unfolding in real time on-screen. He indulges in cinematic conventions, using reenactments to create an entertaining and emotional experience that celebrates both non-fiction storytelling and the craft of filmmaking. Project Nim (along with many other films on this list) defies the label ‘documentary film’ and succeeds on its own merits as pure cinema.

Honourable Mentions:

Liberia ’77, Fightville, Corman’s World, Rebirth, Page One: Inside the New York Times, Urbanized, Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Files, Whore’s Glory, Dragonslayer

Charlotte’s List:

“As per every year I have to be difficult and this list is in no order, I don’t like to put one film above or below the other. There are a huge amount I know I’m missing, but these are the films that really stuck with me. I would like to note that there are a lot of films towards the end of the year, those that played at TIFF especially, that I haven’t had a chance to see as I’ve been busy screening next year’s films. Nevertheless all of these films I adore, and would highly recommend checking out if you haven’t seen them yet.”

Convento
The Interrupters
Justin Bieber Never Say Never
Beats Rhymes and Life
This Is Not A Film
Hell and Back Again
Senna
Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975
Bombay Beach
We Were Here

Honourable Mentions: Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Files, Life in a Day, Becoming Chaz, Give Up Tomorrow, You’ve Been Trumped, Page One: Inside the New York Times, Sound It Out, Price of Sex, Bobby Fischer Against the World.

Others I consider last year, but would love to mention: Nostalgia for the Light, The Arbor.

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