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Year in Review: The 12 Best Documentaries of 2012

By  · Published on December 30th, 2012

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.

8. Bestiaire

At first, this seems like the simplest of documentaries. Québécois director Denis Côté went to a zoological park and filmed its diverse and exotic collection of animals, both in the frozen winter and in the busy summer, when the gates are opened to tourists. Yet this minimalist approach leads to some of the most complex images and sounds of the year in cinema. Long, quiet takes that attune our senses to the subtlest of animal motions are countered with quick stampedes through cages and the almost violent interruption of boisterous human visitors, come the warmer months.

7. The Flat

The Flat is the most personal story on this list, a genealogical investigation with heavy historical and ethical implications for the director and his family. Director Arnon Goldfinger’s grandparents, Jews who came to Israel from Germany before the outbreak of World War Two, maintained a friendship with a high ranking Nazi official and his wife for years after the war. How? Why? The Flat desperately searches for a way out of this conundrum, retracing the steps of history and crossing borders both physical and emotional. Yet in the end, the tangled ambivalence of the 20th century lingers like morning dew in a tranquil Jewish cemetery.

6. The Invisible War

In many ways, this is the most heartbreaking documentary of the year. We put an extraordinary amount of faith in our military and to see it so willfully betray its own members, systematically and heartlessly, is emotionally devastating. Yet rather than list grievances and rail against the foundations of American militarism, The Invisible War focuses on telling the untold stories of the men and women who have been put through hell with a great deal of compassion. It is a film that makes you angry, but it is not an angry film.

5. How to Survive a Plague

This has been a year full of films about “Great American Heroes,” from Lincoln to the twin CIA teams of Zero Dark Thirty and Argo. Yet, frankly, no fictionalized tale of courage is as inspiring as David France’s paean to the activists who led an embattled community through its darkest days. Structured to be both informative and deeply emotional, How to Survive a Plague is more than a simple chronicle. It that reminds us that no matter how rosy the aftermath of victory may seem, it is important that we never forget the struggle. These are our heroes.

4. The Imposter

No 2012 documentary dives quite as deeply into the darker corners of identity as The Imposter. The unsettling brilliance of Frédéric Bourdin, a charismatic and troubled teenager, drives an entire community into a confused frenzy. Director Bart Layton attempts to understand how this all happened, but in the end cannot find all of the answers. The strength of the film is in this ambiguity, an understanding that no matter how certain we might be, no one is quite who they seem.

3. Planet of Snail

The strength of Planet of Snail is not in its compassion for its subjects, but rather in the humility of its perspective. Director Seung-Jun Yi never feels the need to pity the unique young couple at the center of his narrative, showing them as simply and directly as possible. Young-Chan is blind and deaf and Soon-Ho has a severe spinal condition. Yet this is not a film about any struggle they may have in living their lives. This is about the beauty of their love and the symbiosis of their relationship. They come off as heroes rather than victims, a quiet inspiration for all of us.

2. The Queen of Versailles

The Queen of Versailles, while occasionally hilarious in the manner of an exploitative reality show, is so much more. Jackie Siegel and her time-share kingpin husband David are at the cusp of our society, Americans who got too rich for their own good before the Recession and then came tumbling down. We want to laugh at them, and we do, but in the end we also find sympathy for this family and its troubles. This is because we know, deep down, that their extravagant naïveté is true of the nation at large, a metaphor for how we’ve behaved for the last 30 years. We are all Jackie Siegel.

1. Tchoupitoulas

Tchoupitoulas is an ode to New Orleans that belongs right next to the great city symphony films of the 1920s. It is at times feverish, tossed from red-lit burlesque theaters to the fire-and-brimstone preachers railing about sin on the street. Yet it also weaves its way through haunting, abandoned buildings and lonely ferry stations. With a style that evokes the best of both Federico Fellini and Dziga Vertov and a natural quality that makes Beasts of the Southern Wild seem little more than kitsch, Tchoupitoulas is something else entirely.