I'm composing my ballot for the Muriels right now, so I thought I'd use the blog to think out loud about the process. I'm starting with documentaries because I just watched a couple of them over the last two days and I only need to list five of them for the ballot. So, the best documentaries I watched from 2011:
1. Leh Wi Tok (directed by John Lavall). This is an example of how to go from the specific to the universal. It's ostensibly a portrait community radio in Sierra Leone through the eyes of DJ Andrew Kromah, but radio or any kind of media in Africa touches on so much else. You get a portrait of Africa from the point of view of Africans rather than through a white/colonialist lens, and that's invaluable. Kromah's radio station has been the target of strongman dictators and other factions in Sierra Leone's civil war. It has been burned to the ground twice. Cromah keeps plugging away, though. The filmmakers specifically watch him as he attempts to bring to light the causes for a landslide that claimed several homes and lives. In the process, you get a portrait of corruption, of powerful interests keeping the poor and disadvantaged in their place, and of the ultimate value of journalism as it speaks truth to power. This was the best film I saw when I was a film festival screener last year. This is still making the festival rounds. I hope it makes it into distribution. Here's the film's official site.
2: The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 (directed by Göran Olsson), which is an assembly of footage shot by Swedish television during one of the most turbulent periods of American history. Some background: I was a lower middle class white kid, so even though I lived through this (the film picks up the year after I was born), I don't know anything about what this movie depicts. I know the names of some of the players, but that's it. So this was eye-opening. Given that there's currently a movement in conservative statehouses to stamp out any American history that alludes to oppression and racism in the nation's schools, this sort of documentary becomes even more valuable. Race and oppression are still the fundamental problem of the American experience, and this film is just as relevant to current politics as it is to the politics of the late sixties. If this story is forgotten, it will only happen again.
3. Bill Cunningham in New York (directed by Richard Press) follows the titular New York Times fashion photographer around the city and beyond. The 90 year old Cunningham has been photographing the fashions of New York for decades, watching fashion take to the streets rather than walk the runway. Cunningham is a spry, charming old man who lives for his work. He doesn't appear to have much of a personal life, but, you know? It's fun watching someone who loves their work so much that it becomes a lifestyle. You also get a catalog of idiosyncratic fashionistas and a philosophy of fashion reporting. At one point, Cunningham says of Catherine Deneuve (who is arriving on the red carpet at Paris Fashion Week): "Why would I shoot that? Boring!" This is a man with a point of view and the movie makes that point of view infectious.
4. Cave of Forgotten Dreams (directed by Werner Herzog) finds the director exploring Chauvet Cave in France where the oldest cave paintings ever discovered decorate the walls. This was originally shown in 3-D, and watching it, I can see why it might have worked that way. I saw it on video, so I didn't benefit from this. It doesn't matter. Herzog's camera moves through the caves as if it was moving back through time. The paintings themselves are astonishing, showing in no uncertain terms that the human need for the aesthetic experience and our capacity to fulfill that need were fully formed 32,000 years ago. There's too much of Herzog himself in this film--a common failing among the director's documentaries--but the images he puts on the screen have a raw power that transcends the film's own limitations.
5. Tabloid (directed by Errol Morris). I'm a sucker for Errol Morris and his Interrotron. I mean, you would think that I would be over his technique after all this time, but I still find the stories he chooses to tell to be fascinating. In this case, we have a particularly lurid story (note the title, after all), in which the filmmaker recounts the case of Joyce McKinney, a Wyoming beauty queen who, in 1977, allegedly followed a Mormon missionary to Engand, kidnapped him, and held him as a sex slave. The film becomes an examination of the nature of truth, between what McKinney has to say for herself and her motives and what other people believe to have happened. For that matter, the truth of what happened is actually kind of beside the point. Morris, as he so often is, is interested more in the personality of the person in front of his camera than in what they may or may not have done.
Unfortunately, I missed some key docs this year, including The Interrupters, Into the Abyss, and a few others. I'm going to be blogging the True/False film festival in March, so hopefully, next year I won't be thrashing about to come up with five good entries. Also, it was all I could do to keep from listing Troll Hunter in this list.
Needless to say, this list is entirely fungible. The order has more to do with what I've seen recently and the freshness of what I've seen in my mind than it does with any qualitative differences between the films. Plus, I have my prejudices just as anyone does. So take all of this with a grain of salt. The mission of lists like this is not to enforce a standard of taste--at least it bloody well shouldn't be--but is rather a means of championing good films. The only utility found in this list for anyone who reads it is to point them at a film they may not have considered or heard of before.