Written by Kirk BairdBy mid-2012 it was looking like this was to be at best a so-so year for documentaries. Other than the beautiful and thoughtful Jiro Dreams of Sushi, there simply wasn’t much in the way of documentaries to elicit excitement.
But that’s often the case with Hollywood films in general through much of the year. The studios save most of their prestige titles for the big holiday sprint at the end of the years so that these films remain fresh in the minds of awards voters.
Documentaries, though, are typically on a different roll-out schedule, which is to say the films don’t really have one. They first appear at Sundance and other buzz-worthy festivals, and gradually play to word-of-mouth and limited release dates, hoping to build enough notice that mainstream audiences will seek them out once they’re on DVD.
And so it went with the documentaries this year, and what appeared to be a rather unremarkable year for these films proved to be anything but.
Here’s a list of the best of the crop I’ve seen so far this year. Many of these are not yet out on DVD, but should be available soon.
Jiro Dreams of Sushi: A fascinating and occasionally moving documentary of the life of 85-year-old sushi master Jiro Ono, this rather quiet film explores Ono’s near lifelong dedication to his culinary craft, and the impact he’s had on those around him — especially his two sons, who followed the same career path, but in different directions. Director David Gelb’s first documentary is wisely understated in its unbiased dissection of Japanese culture and traditions — particularly with Jiro and his family — while offering a feast for the eyes in its celebration of the beauty of this world-class cuisine. Jiro Dreams of Sushi lingers in the mind long after the movie has ended.
Searching for Sugar Man: Rodriguez was a promising folk singer in the late 1960s and early ’70s, with a knack for channeling the dark side of urban life into his music. He was supposed to be Detroit’s answer to Bob Dylan, but after two records failed to generate audience support, Rodriguez was quickly and quietly dropped by his label and instead became yet another voice of a generation cast aside and forgotten. At least, that’s the way it was in the United States. In South Africa, though, Rodriguez became a musical phenomenon in the 1970s, a superstar bigger than Elvis, Dylan, and the Rolling Stones. Naturally, there were questions about Rodriguez from his biggest fans in South Africa, who had long exchanged rumors of the singer’s suicide on stage. And by the mid-1990s, two of Rodriguez’s fans decided to learn the truth. And that is only part of this amazing story as captured by director Malik Bendjelloul. And the less you know about his film going in, the better.
The House I Live In: Filmmaker Eugene Jarecki (Why We Fight) offers a searing rebuke of the war on the drugs, and how the U.S. government’s decades-long battle created a cottage industry of businesses and individuals dependent on this costly fight, from the construction crews needed to build new prisons to those employees needed to run them. Even more sobering, though, is the decimating impact this war has had on young black males, who are being imprisoned at an alarmingly higher rate compared to whites and Latinos. Jarecki offers up the opinions of many caught up in this never-ending war — cops, federal judges, wardens and prison guards, inmates, journalists, a Lincoln historian, and even David Simon, a former newspaper crime reporter who later created HBO’s acclaimed The Wire. And they all point to a system made not to succeed, but to control.
The Imposter: If Bart Layton’s documentary were a fictional movie, it would be laughed at as ridiculous — even by Hollywood’s standards. His film is about the incredible deception pulled off by a Frenchmen named Frederic Bourdin who fools a grieving Texas mother and her family that he’s her missing teenage son. But one FBI agent and later a private detective are not convinced, and their doubts and investigations lead to several dramatic twists and revelations. Layton keeps the film moving at an effective pace and audiences continually guessing what will happen next. He blends the dramatic reenactments surprisingly well with the rather candid interviews he had with the real-life subjects. The Imposter is a well-crafted and engaging documentary that, even if you remember this true story from the late 1990s, proves you don’t know the full story.
The Queen of Versailles: The Great Recession hasn’t only affected the poor and the middle class. Billionaires have also been hit hard by the crippled economy, especially David Siegel, founder of the world’s largest time-share company, Westgate Resorts. Siegel and his third wife, Jacqueline Siegel, a former Miss Florida, had it all, including eight children and a 26,000 square-foot mansion. But they wanted more, and set out to build the largest home in the United States, Versailles, an Orlando mansion modeled after the French palace. And that’s the documentary Lauren Greenfield set out to make — until the real estate bubble burst, and the bank’s cheap money that drove Siegel’s business was cut off. As the family’s financial empire begins to crumble, Versailles sits unfinished, abandoned, and for sale, and the once-happy Siegel marriage begins to wither under stress, Greenfield wisely turns her focus from a Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous film to an economically cautionary and relatable tale of a family in crisis.
Room 237: Some filmmakers simply lend themselves to grand interpretation more than others, but few, if any, more so than the secretive and brilliant writer-director Stanley Kubrick. Room 237 takes that theme to crazy new and unexpected places as a funny, quirky, and utterly fascinating look at a handful of Kubrick fans who say there’s some serious subtext and hidden messages — from the Native American genocide to the Holocaust — lurking in his 1980 horror masterpiece The Shining. Room 237, incidentally, is the hotel’s haunted room. Whether Kubrick intended any of these meanings — or none of them — doesn’t matter; Rodney Ascher, in his first full-length documentary, offers plenty of ideas to ponder and more than a few moments in which you’ll want to pause and rewind the film. At the very least, when you’re finished with Room 237, you’ll want to reach for Kubrick’s The Shining and judge for yourself.
Two other documentaries I haven’t seen, but which have received significant notice, are director Dror Moreh’s The Gatekeepers, an exploration of intelligence operations by Israel’s Sin Bet security agency, and director Jeff Orlowski’s Chasing Ice, a chronicle of National Geographic photographer James Balong’s attempts to capture the shrinking Arctic glaciers through the years.