The 20 Best Documentaries of 2012

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Paste’s Best of 2012 series continues through Dec. 31.

It was quite the unusual year for documentaries. One director made our list twice, with a movie about pop music and a movie about child murder. Possibly reflecting an emerging trend, five of our top 20 docs were made by co-directing teams. Last year’s Academy Award winner Undefeated and nominee Paradise Lost 3 saw mainstream release in 2012. Former Academy Award winners and nominees brought us strong, solid offerings—Amy Berg’s West of Memphis, Kevin Macdonald’s Marley, Alex Gibney’s Mea Maxima Culpa—but still didn’t top our list. That’s because, most unusually (and excitingly) of all, our top three docs of the year were made by new feature filmmakers. And our favorite documentary this year will likely be unfamiliar to most of our readers, but is an absolute must-see. Here are the 20 Best Documentaries of 2012.

20. Under African Skies

Director: Joe Berlinger
Joe Berlinger’s fascinating, immersive documentary Under African Skies celebrates the 25th anniversary of Paul Simon’s landmark Graceland album and examines the firestorm of controversy that it ignited.The narrative core of the film is Simon’s 2011 return to South Africa to stage a reunion concert and, most poignantly, a conversation between him and Dali Tambo about their opposing stances 25 years ago and where they find themselves today. To his credit, Berlinger presents all arguments impartially and leaves the viewer to come to his or her own terms with Simon’s motives and actions.—Clay Steakley

19. The Queen of Versailles

Director: Lauren Greenfield
Lauren Greenfield only meant to take a few pictures of a very wealthy family in the midst of all their opulence. Her subjects were the Siegels—the self-made billionaire, the trophy wife, the eight not-as-maladjusted-as-you-might-think children, the monochromatic menagerie of animals. But once the family began opening up about their lives, the woman behind the camera decided to stick around a little while longer, positing that there might be more to this story than just infinity symbols for account balances. Her perseverance resulted in an alternately hilarious and heart-wrenching cautionary tale about the excesses of the American dream.—Tyler Chase

18. Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory

Director: Joe Berlinger
In 1993, the bodies of three eight-year-old boys were discovered in a creek in West Memphis, Ark. They were naked and hogtied, and had possibly been sexually mutilated before being murdered. It’s hard to believe that a situation could get any worse from there, but it did. Three teenage boys were put on trial for the crime. None of them had anything to do with it. They might have been victims of the system, had their case not caught the attention of documentary filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky. Given that all three of these documentaries draw attention to the institutional problems of our legal system, it only makes sense that the long-awaited outcome would still be frustrating. As much as we would like to hope otherwise, there was never any Hollywood-style perfect happy ending to this case in the picture. This is what Echols, Baldwin, and Misskelly had to settle for: the good enough. There’s a valuable lesson right there.—Dan Schindel

17. Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God

Director: Alex Gibney
Alex Gibney’s latest film delves into the history of sexual molestation in the Catholic Church as cases began to emerge in the late ’50s. Even though it can be incredibly sad and frustrating, the documentary is able to go beyond the tragedy of these boys’ lost childhoods, using empathy to incite anger, impatience and action in its audience. The lack of answers or rectification for the victims and the church’s attitude of omnipotence and turning a blind eye is enough to move even the most passive viewer to want to do something. And it’s that persuasive power that makes Mea Maxima Culpa a great documentary. The film is able to tell these traumatic stories without limiting them to just the impotence of sadness and lack of resolution; it encourages its viewers through history and facts to participate in the same sense of rage and injustice underscored with retributive justice that this group of deaf men so eloquently embody in their stories and interviews.—Emily Kirkpatrick

16. Shut Up and Play the Hits

Directors: Will Lovelace and Dylan Southern
A year ago, hundreds of friends and thousands of fans converged on Madison Square Garden for LCD Soundsystem’s farewell performance. All the while, the cameras were rolling, resulting in Shut Up And Play the Hits, a documentary that follows James Murphy and the band in the days leading up to, during and after the tumultuous four-hour farewell. Directors Will Lovelace and Dylan Southern use a staggering number of cameras and crosscut liberally to provide an experience that’s arguably even better than seeing the band live (okay, maybe not quite that good but…). And the scenes outside the concert footage are equally compelling. —Michael Dunaway/Bo Moore

15. The Waiting Room

Director: Peter Nicks
A heart-wrenching wake-up call about the complex problems with our healthcare system in America. Director Peter Nicks chronicles patients who are waiting for treatment in a saftey-net hospital in Oakland, Calif. People living without health insurance talk about their hardships and struggles as they to find relief for their illnesses. A real eye-opener, The Waiting Room beautifully pieces together disparate stories that make us question our current healthcare system, and point us to reform. —Danielle Radin

14. Brooklyn Castle

Director: Katie Dellamaggiore
The subject of Brooklyn Castle sounds like the premise for a soppy, Oscar-baiting drama. At I.S. 138 in Brooklyn, New York, a competitive chess program has helped an extraordinary number of lower-income inner city students improve their standings in life. But this documentary is all real, which makes the triumphs and failures of these kids all the more affecting. Featuring a delightful roster of vibrant young people and a timely exploration of how budget cuts are harming extracurricular programs, it may be the best school doc since Resolved.—Dan Schindel

13. Tchoupitoulas

Directors: Bill Ross and Turner Ross
Named for the New Orleans street that traces the Mississippi River from the southern edge of the French Quarter through Uptown, Tchoupitoulas is a lyrical nighttime exploration of the city from the point of view of three brothers who embark on a secret, illicit adventure in the Big Easy. On the heels of Bryan, Kentrell and especially little William Zanders, filmmakers Bill and Turner Ross (who are brothers themselves) dip into the flow of Crescent City nightlife—the revelers, the hustlers, the street preachers and especially the musicians—with a vérité camera, watching and listening, without motive or commentary. The result is less documentary than experience, an immersion in a neighborhood infused with culture and soul.—Annlee Ellingson

12. How To Survive a Plague

Director: David France
A New York journalist who has covered the AIDS epidemic for 30 years, first-time filmmaker David France has assembled a superb record of the decade-long fight for a viable treatment protocol and an intimate portrait of the personalities leading the charge. How to Survive is indeed a tale of survival, but the AIDS community didn’t get there without a fight—and a steep personal toll. —Annlee Ellingson

11. Bully

Director: Lee Hirsch
According to the Department of Education, 13 million children will be bullied this year. Bully profiles five of these victims, including Alex, a 12-year-old seventh grader at East Middle School in Sioux City, Iowa. Alex’s victimization, as well as the well-meaning yet highly ineffectual efforts of school administrators and even his parents to deal with what they don’t fully understand, is caught on tape. Alex is subjected to the foulest of threats and name-calling by his peers. He’s also hit, pushed, poked and stabbed—all on film. Hirsch was able to capture such shocking behavior by blending into the fabric of the school while shooting over the course of the 2009-2010 academic year. He also wielded a Canon 5D Mark II, which looks like a regular still camera, an equipment choice that also yielded footage that struggles to stay in focus. Still, the camera yields exquisite imagery with the intimate feel of home video, especially in Hirsch’s moving interviews with the parents of Tyler and Ty.—Annlee Ellingson

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