Film Feature: The 10 Best Documentaries of 2012

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CHICAGO – Call me a critical cheater but I separated out documentary films from my traditional Best of 2012 but I don’t want to let the strong year for non-fiction film go un-recapped. The broad variety of documentary work in 2012 was incredibly notable from true crime stories to historical documents to stories of cities in crisis. Let’s hope 2013 is just as strong for the form.

10. “The Flat”

The Flat
The Flat
Photo credit: IFC

Arnon Goldfinger’s personal examination of his own family tree and how branches spread into Nazi history asks some questions that don’t have simple answers. When Goldfinger started to dig into his family past, he learned that his Jewish grandparents were incredibly close to a family who later became part of the Third Reich’s most important decision makers. And then they rekindled their friendship after the war. Were both side of this unique family friendship purely in denial? What about their children? How many generations does it take to find the truth? Can we ever?

9. “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry”

Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry
Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry
Photo credit: IFC

Arguably the most important subject matter of the year is only not higher on the list because I question a bit how much actual filmmaking was done here as opposed to purely documenting an international activist icon. Ai Weiwei is a courageous, fascinating man who holds the camera as well as any subject this year and everyone should learn about his defiance in the face of potential incarceration and death at the hands of his own government. Did I really learn about what makes Ai Weiwei tick in this doc? Not really but I found myself wanting to know more, to do more research, and to see more of his work. Not all documentaries need to be the final statements on their subject matter. This one is more of a fascinating introduction.

8. “The Queen of Versailles”

The Queen of Versailles
The Queen of Versailles
Photo credit: Magnolia

Speaking of introductions, people who see Lauren Greenfield’s hilarious and poignant doc are unlikely to ever forget the time they met David & Jackie Siegel, perfect symbols of the excess that defined an era when the crystal chandeliers came crashing to the ground. What elevates “Queen” above the “Real Housewife of Time Shares” that it could have become is a true sense of care for the Siegels and their unique worldview. In particular, Jackie is a fascinating woman, one who it can be quick to define as spoiled and egocentric but who seems to be genuinely kind and warm-hearted. Not everyone behind those mansion gates are the deplorable misers or vapid trophy wives that you may believe. A very well-balanced and entertaining piece of work.

7. “How to Survive a Plague”

How to Survive a Plague
How to Survive a Plague
Photo credit: Sundance Selects

One of the best AIDS documentaries of the last few years is so because of the way it focuses almost entirely on archival footage, putting the viewer right at the center of some of the most important meetings in the history of gay rights. Rarely has the story of how activists pushed for drug tests to be sped up to stop the spread of the virus been more deftly conveyed. The answer to the question posed by the title is that one has to fight and in “Plague” we’re introduced to people who were fighting not just for their own lives but that of their entire community. It’s an emotional, powerful piece and the fact that it’s not higher on this list just indicates the strength of the genre as a whole.

6. “The Imposter”

The Imposter
The Imposter
Photo credit: Indomina

Perhaps the most fascinating central character of the year in any documentary is the man at the core of Bart Layton’s examination of identity, greed, fear, and a true mystery. With elements that approach Errol Morris in the way one of the best documentarians of all time finds a way to make real people seem extraordinary, Layton turns Fredric Bourdin into one of the most memorable people of 2012. What makes a man pretend to be a missing child? What makes a family believe the lie? The best parts of Layton’s film play like a great Hollywood thriller although most tinseltown screenwriters would be laughed out of the city for coming up with something so unbelievable.

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