There are so many documentaries of such high caliber being made these days — and so many of them so similarly — I can’t help but suspect that all critics’ best doc lists are simply confessions of which social/political issues matter most to them. I certainly won’t pretend that I’m immune from my biases, which is why I’m calling this list my five favorite documentaries of 2012, rather than “best” or even “top.”
1. The Invisible War – I named The Invisible War, along with The Queen of Versailles (also below), one of my top ten films of the year. It’s a true must-see, especially because its topic — the institutional failure to prevent or punish rape in the armed forces — is so difficult to face. Veteran doc director Kirby Dick (Derrida, Twist of Faith, This Film Is Not Yet Rated) has about a dozen women and one man tell the stories of their sexual assaults and the apathy, skepticism, or cover-ups they encountered from their higher-ups afterward. Just as enraging are the policies set in place to discourage military brass from pursuing action against wrongdoers — and a court’s dismissal of a lawsuit filed on behalf of veteran rape survivors on the basis that rape is an “occupational hazard” in the armed forces.
2. The Queen of Versailles - Almost everything about this film is ridiculous, from its subjects, a billionaire couple who attempt to build the largest house in America during the Great Recession, to the drama surrounding it, like the defamation lawsuit the couple has filed against the director Lauren Greenfield). The strained marriage between 77-year-old David Siegel and his 46-year-old trophy wife Jackie, the would-be queen of “Versailles,” their $30 million white elephant, is everything you’d expect, including Siegel joking/”joking” about his trading his fortysomething wife in for two twenty-year-olds. And yet their obscene, grotesque wealth — built on cheap credit and highly borrowed – is surprisingly relatable, and Greenfield is ever compassionate toward her two jerkwad subjects.
3. Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present - Named after a 2010 retrospective/90-day performance at MoMA, The Artist Is Present provides an overview of Abramovic’s life and fearless, sometimes frightening performance art. The NYTimes was unimpressed, calling the doc “more celebratory than analytical, a kind of slick, extended promotional video for its subject.” That certainly is the case, and yet Abramovic is so articulate and charming, while her work so frequently viscerally repellent (and designed to be that way), that the contradiction makes for a more complicated and interesting film than perhaps originally intended.
4. How to Survive a Plague - The tragic, painful, rousing, inspiring, and altogether necessary history of 80s AIDS activism is vibrantly and emotionally told in journalist-turned-filmmaker David France’s debut. Through mostly archival footage, France skillfully pieces together the incremental gains of ACT UP, a small group of gay activists in New York who crusaded against governmental indifference, religious hatred, and scientific inaction to fight for their lives, and ended up transforming American society.
5. Paul Williams: Still Alive - This sometimes goofy, often touching first-person doc certainly doesn’t belong on any list of notable cinematic achivement. In fact, it’s a film that works in spite of its filmmaker, on account of its intelligent and charismatic subject, composer and 70s TV personality Paul Williams (The Carpenters’ “We’ve Only Just Begun,” The Muppet Movie‘s “Rainbow Connection”). But it’s stayed with me, partly because Williams has dealt with his post-fame life so enviously, and partly because the interplay between a happy “has-been” and his biggest fan is just as fun and awkward to watch as it sounds. (Read my review here.)