I love good documentaries–especially the ones that combine artistry and exposition without becoming preachy or didactic. My picks for the top 5 documentaries of the year include films about cowboys, fashion photographers, 9/11 survivors and two films by the venerable Werner Herzog. (Click here for my list of the best overall films of 2011.)
5) Buck (Cindy Meehl): The log line for Buck is simple: “The story of real-life horse whisperer, Buck Brannaman.” which would be fascinating enough to watch. But Buck is a story with unexpected depth because there is a lot more to Buck than meets the eye. How does our past, and the pain and ghosts therein, affect our path today? With Buck as its case study, this film explores that question somberly and gracefully, offering a vision for growth and redemption–both for wayward horses and for broken men.
4) Rebirth (James Whitaker): 10 years after 9/11, how are those who lost loved ones in the World Trade Center coping? This film follows the grief process of 5 people over the course of the last decade, featuring interviews with them once a year during that period. The film is fascinating in the way that it shows us the physical aging as well as the gradual emotional healing of these people, and–juxtaposed with beautiful time-lapse footage of the new Freedom Tower being erected at Ground Zero–offers very tangible examples of hope and renewal coming out of tragedy.
3) Bill Cunningham New York (Richard Press): There are so many fascinating things about this film, which is at once an inside look at the fashion world, at photography, at New York City, the nature of trends, high society, class, and more. But above all this is a character study of Bill Cunningham, a lovable veteran photographer for the NY Times who rides his bike around Manhattan, snapping photos of whatever street fashion catches his discerning eye. It’s a fascinating portrait of an elderly man who has never married, goes to church every Sunday, and is beloved by everyone who’s anyone in the world of fashion.
2) Into the Abyss (Werner Herzog): Ostensibly a look at the death penalty through the lens of one particularly heinous Texas murder case, Herzog’s 2nd masterful 2011 film, Into the Abyss, is really about so much more. Herzog is chiefly interested in life, not death, and especially the quirky messiness of “you cant write this stuff” real life people. There are plenty of fascinating, tragic characters in this film, and Herzog’s sensitive interviews with them bring out an array of insights about life, love, grief and evil.
1) Cave of Forgotten Dreams (Werner Herzog): Werner Herzog has such an ability to explore the curiosities of the natural and human worlds and make them seem even more magnificent and mysterious than we’ve ever considered; and Cave is Herzog at the top of his game. Far more than just a close up look at some of the worlds earliest known cave paintings, Herzog’s film probes the very essence of humanity, creativity, and the way that meaning is made and interpreted. It’s a vast, stirring, beautiful and incredibly thought provoking film.
Honorable Mention: Page One: Inside the New York Times; Transcendent Man; The Arbor; Prohibition; Life in a Day.