2012’s best documentaries understand people. It’s as simple as that. They include beautiful character portraits, from group pictures like Indie Game: The Movie and El Gusto to individual pieces like Jiro Dreams of Sushi and Marley. Even the most issue-oriented films achieved their strength through keeping things personal, building powerful political and social arguments through the lives of their subjects. They chronicle the lives of victims who are also heroes, filmmakers who are also subjects, and unique characters who end up representing us all.
12. Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God
We all think we know plenty about the crisis of abuse in the Catholic Church. It’s been in the news for years now, ever more so as the scandal moves from the United States to Europe. Yet it isn’t easy to grasp the full breadth of the story. Alex Gibney brings a great deal of valuable context to the issue in Mea Maxima Culpa¸ bringing years of evidence and a wide variety of experts into the discussion. Never has the problem felt more personal, and never more international.
11. Indie Game: The Movie
Indie Game: The Movie is the most entertaining documentary I’ve watched in ages, and that isn’t just because of a growing crush on one of the game designers. Canadian filmmakers James Swirsky and Lisanne Pajot preserve the sense of fun that makes their subject so popular in the first place, bouncing among their group of eccentric developers with the ease of “Super Meat Boy” hopping from wall to wall.
10. Only the Young
A little bit of character can go a long way. Only the Young has no grand ambitions, no messages regarding the state of America’s youth. Rather, it is a work of restrained portraiture, interested in showing three California teens as they really are. There is no judgment of their deep religious beliefs or their fluctuating relationships. Instead, directors Elizabeth Mims and Jason Tippet remind us of the simple magic of young love and adolescent dreams. Their empathy allows us to see ourselves in these kids, and remember the universality of youthful innocence.
9. The House I Live In
We don’t make political films in this country anymore, or at least not every often. That makes Eugene Jarecki’s new documentary all the more potent, a thoroughly courageous piece of journalism with a real sense of purpose. The House I Live In drives right into the heart of the War on Drugs without for a second losing its sense of humanity, zooming in on the faces and lives of those victimized by a calamitous political project that so depends upon their remaining faceless. Jarecki’s scope is vast yet never too much to process, leaving his audience informed, angry and hopeful.