The 20 Best Documentaries of 2011

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Last year we pondered whether 2010 might have been the greatest year ever for documentary films. 2011 has proven a worthy successor, spearheaded by the long-awaited return of the director of possibly the greatest documentary ever (Steve James), a crossover from a BAFTA-award winning director of narrative film (Asif Kapadia), and new works by some of the acknowledged masters of the form (Werner Herzog, Errol Morris, Martin Scorsese, James Marsh). There even emerged, seemingly out nowhere—but actually in the works for eight years—a new masterpiece by a previously completely unknown auteur (Robert Persons). Here’s our judgment on the very best documentary films of 2011.

20. The Black Power Mixtape

Director: Göran Olsson
The Black Power Mixtape offers a steady drumbeat for justice, but it’s more of an introduction than an analysis. The parts never quite coalesce into a complete picture. But this poignant, alternative history will spark a hunger for knowledge.—Craig Detweiler

19. Echotone

Director: Nathan Christ
Austin, Texas, shamelessly labels itself as the “Live Music Capital of the World,” a moniker validated by annual events like SXSW and the Austin City Limits Music Festival, and the seemingly limitless number of live music venues about town. But unbeknownst to most outsiders, Austin continuously wages wars within those city limits, with music as its battleground. Echotone beautifully examines those battles by neither condemning nor sensationalizing but by letting the city speak through its inhabitants.—Tim Basham

18. POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold

Director: Morgan Spurlock
Morgan Spurlock’s documentary about film financing through product placement, in which he documents himself financing the film through product placement, was too meta for some, but most, like us, were thrilled, entertained and educated.

17. Bombay Beach

Director: Alma Har’el
In a year dominated by narrative movies about the end of the world as we know it (Melancholia, Take Shelter, Another Earth, etc), Alma Har’el dared to show us a documentary that makes those anxieties real. It’s the story of the Salton Sea—the once-booming resort area, now spooky quasi-ghost town east of Orange County—but it’s also a meditation on humanity and nature, and on the transitory nature of glory.

16. Bill Cunningham New York

Director: Richard Press
Half of making a great documentary is finding a great subject, and Richard Press has absolutely done that in this affectionate treatment of the New York Times’ irresistibly charming octogenarian street fashion photographer.

Last year we pondered whether 2010 might have been the greatest year ever for documentary films. 2011 has proven a worthy successor

15. Page One: Inside the New York Times

Director: Andrew Rossi
The always entertaining Times reporter David Carr could easily have been the focus of the entire film but director Andrew Rossi smartly uses Carr as an appropriate voice of experience, albeit an unabashed defender of the paper. The grizzled, ex-drug addict journalist is a film editor’s dream as he speaks in sharp, insightful and seemingly effortless sound bites.—Tim Basham

14. Bobby Fischer Against the World

Director: Liz Garbus
One of the year’s most fascinating biodocs about one of the 20th Century’s most enigmatic figures. For those of us who primarily knew Fischer through the evening news, Liz Garbus gives us a far richer picture of the competitor and of the man.

13. Tabloid

Director: Errol Morris
Since his breakthrough feature, 1988’s The Thin Blue Line, every one of Errol Morris’ features has essentially been about searching for the truth. It’s been a wide-ranging exploration, one that’s been equally fruitful delving into the mysteries of the universe and displacing common beliefs about Vietnam. With Tabloid, Morris continues probing into this theme, but here he’s found a case in which everyone is lying and the truth itself may be unobtainable—which is likely why its story fascinated him so much.—Sean Gandert

12. Thunder Soul

Director: Mark Landsman
During the early ’70s, there was a group in Houston that was acclaimed by some as the greatest funk band in the world. Amazingly enough, it was made up of high-school students, the Kashmere High School Stage Band. After 35 years, alumni return to give legendary band director Conrad “Prof” Johnson one more concert as he nears the end of his life. Mr. Holland’s Opus meets The Commitments, but real.

11. Into the Abyss

Director: Werner Herzog
Like all Herzog’s work, the film looks far beyond a single idea and, despite a transparent agenda, never sermonizes. Herzog merely puts his belief that capital punishment is wrong to the test, examining it from several angles. In typical Herzog fashion, he explores his subject through conversations between the filmmaker, whom we of course never see, and a plethora of related interviewees. Because it avoids didactic narration and biased statistics, this approach feels honest and reliable and, thus, humanistic.—David Roark

Last year we pondered whether 2010 might have been the greatest year ever for documentary films. 2011 has proven a worthy successor

10. Semper Fi: Always Faithful

Directors: Rachel Libert, Tony Hardmon
Just what did they know? And when did they know it? These are two questions that dominate much of the documentary Semper Fi: Always Faithful. The “they” is the U.S. government and more specifically the officials who administered the Camp Lejeune Marine Corps base, located in North Carolina. The “what” is part of the mystery uncovered in this rich film likely to factor into the awards discussion as the year draws to a close.—Jonathan Hickman

9. Cave of Forgotten Dreams

Director: Werner Herzog
3-D skeptics might have to rethink their stance after witnessing Werner Herzog’s stunning tour of the oldest cave drawings ever found.—Josh Jackson

8. George Harrison: Living in the Material World

Director: Martin Scorsese
One of the most important things any documentary about someone can give us is a totally new and unique look at their life, especially in the case of someone as famous as George Harrison—someone whose every move and guitar lick have been picked apart and obsessed over since the Beatles hit the world stage in 1963. Living in the Material World is all that and more. It’s a beautiful story of a beautiful life.—Holly Cara Price

7. An African Election

Director: Jarreth Merz
In Merz’s deft hands, an account of an election in Africa plays as tightly as the best Clooney-Damon-Owen thriller. You won’t think about Africa the same way after leaving the theater.

6. Connected: An Autobiography About Love, Death & Technology

Director: Tiffany Shlain
Tiffany Shlain’s father was a renowned surgeon and best-selling author whose theories about mass societal shifts between left-brained and right-brained thinking, masculine and feminine energy, analytical and holistic worldviews challenged conventional orthodoxy. She continued her father’s iconoclastic ways, creating the Webby awards, creating great documentary films that made extensive and effective use of pastiche and collage, and becoming one of Newsweek’s “Women Shaping the 21st Century.” When she began designing a film that would be a collaboration, she had no idea that her father would become ill shortly after they began filming. The film changed, and quickly. What began as an academic exploration became the most personal of journeys for Shlain, and what would have been simply an intellectually stimulating film became a wonderfully moving one as well. Connected was one of the truly thrilling experiences of this year’s Sundance, and easily the best documentary in competition.

Last year we pondered whether 2010 might have been the greatest year ever for documentary films. 2011 has proven a worthy successor

5. Nostalgia For the Light

Director: Patricio Guzman
The largest dead space on earth is the Atacama desert in Chile, a place so desolate that not even insects or retiles live in the zero-humidity environment. Acclaimed Chilean documentarian Patricio Guzman returns there to examine the work of the astronomers in the observatory there (he was passionate about astronomy as a child), but ends up also exploring the work of the archaeologists who uncover evidence of ancient inhabitants of the desert, and of a group of people who search for dead bodies dumped there by the Pinochet regime. It’s thoughtful, heartfelt and gorgeous.

4. Project Nim

Director: James Marsh
In Man on Wire, director James Marsh recounted French tightrope walker Philippe Petit’s exploits, most notably his unauthorized 1974 walk between the Twin Towers that held most of the city of New York breathless for an entire morning. In Project Nim, a team of researchers (only one year earlier, in 1973) sets out to accomplish an even more audacious and thrilling goal—to teach a chimpanzee human sign language and initiate meaningful dialogue. Technically the film is flawless. But the really compelling angle for the film is the very idea of inter-species communication.

3. Senna

Director: Asif Kapadia
Kapadia was already a BAFTA-award-winning narrative director, but there are plenty of narrative directors who haven’t made the transition to documentaries effectively. He doubled the degree of difficulty by deciding to use all period footage of his subject, ’80s and ’90s Gran Prix legend Aryton Senna. He pulled it off in spades, and Senna is one of the greatest sports documentaries of all time, and one of the three best docs of the year.

2. General Orders No. 9

Director: Robert Persons
A deeply rich baritone with an accent dripping of old bourbon muses—intermittently—over footage of city and country, group and individual, as hypnotic music plays. It’s as if Terence Malick filmed a newly discovered William Faulkner memoir. A decade in the making, it’s the most wholly original vision in years.

1. The Interrupters

Director: Steve James
Steve James is justly deified for Hoop Dreams, which no less an authority than Roger Ebert declared the greatest documentary of all time. The Academy famously snubbed it, denying it even a nomination for Best Documentary of the year. The Interrupters is the first film since then in which James approached those heights, and inconceivably, the Academy has done it again, as the year’s best documentary didn’t even make the short list for a nomination. Pay them no attention. Don’t miss James’ majestic account of a group of former gang members who toil tirelessly on the streets of Chicago to prevent disputes from escalating into violence.

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