The 10 Best Documentaries of 2011
9. The Arbor -- (Available on Netflix Instant) (Excerpted from Erik Kohn's great review at Indiewire)Documentaries often toy with the conventions of non-fiction storytelling to the detriment of their content, but Clio Barnard's innovative "The Arbor" provides a welcome exception to the norm. Tracking the experiences of British playwright Andrea Dunbar and her children, Barnard uses actors to lip-sync the words of their real life counterparts, creating an unexpectedly engaging narrative device. Dunbar, whose fleeting existence ended in 1990 at the age of 29, lived in the gritty Manchester neighborhood that provides both the movie and her first play with their titles. She spent her days surrounded by misery: Drugs, drunkenness and teen pregnancy defined her world, as evidenced by her dreary oeuvre. Rather than merely relying on the memories of the late Dunbar's acquaintances or trying to recreate the period, Barnard succeeds at doing both.
8. Being Elmo -- Being Elmo introduces us to Kevin Clash, the man responsible for Elmo. Being Elmo is a feel-good film. You may not love Elmo, himself, but who doesn't love muppets? It's not an earth shattering documentary that causes you to think or furthers some debate but, like Clash himself, it's just a warm and lovely little film, with levity and heart. And god damn it, sometimes it's nice to see a documentary that just lets you walk out of the theater with a smile. -- Seth Freilich
7. Buck (Available on Netflix Instant) -- The documentary ultimately deals with responsibility and second chances. Many of the animals Buck deals with are wilder than their owners would like, but Buck's the first to remind people that they can't hold it against the horse for what the animal has gone through. He later says it would never even occur to him to be angry with a horse, even when he's trying to reform it. It's easy to see that Buck wants to give these animals the break he never got, but Meehl never forces that issue or comes across as falsely manipulative. Like Buck, she just wants to speak honestly. The result is a warm, winning film that uses animals to tell a fully human story. -- Daniel Carlson (Link goes to The Houston Press)
6. Tabloid -- (Excerpted from the exceptional William Goss' review over on Film.com) When we're first introduced to Joyce McKinney, she's greeting the camera with an excerpt from her memoir in the making, A Very Special Love Story. What follows is a very special love story indeed, as Errol Morris' documentary, Tabloid, proceeds to explore the peculiar circumstances behind the former beauty queen's notoriety in the late '70s and how that period spent in the public eye has defined her life ever since.
5. POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold -- Morgan Spurlock's The Greatest Movie Ever Sold is one of the most fantastically meta films I have ever seen, drawing a perfect recursive picture that contains itself. Spurlock sets out to show how product placement and advertising dominate the film industry. There's a straight-forward way of going about this: just conduct the usual interviews with talking heads, interspersed by voice overs and a camera moving slowly over still frames. Spurlock does some of that, it is a documentary after all, but the bulk of the film is devoted to the film's central gimmick of financing the entire documentary itself through product placement and advertising. -- Steven Wilson
4. The Other F Word -- Most rock-centric documentaries fall into one of two camps: the hagiographical tributes to artists that frame and justify a performer's failings within the larger picture of his battles for success, and the warts-and-all examinations that tend to use the excesses of said performers as evidence of the inherent vapidity in the field. A good example of the former is pretty much any episode you ever saw of VH1's "Behind the Music," which today airs sporadic episodes profiling chart-toppers like 50 Cent but between 1997 and 2006 would spend 44 minutes running every conceivable artist through the same template of success-excess-redemption. For the producers of the series, drug abuse and infighting were an end in themselves. On the other side of the spectrum, you've got fascinating documentaries like Dig!, a riveting look at the egotistical brawling between the members of The Brian Jonestown Massacre and The Dandy Warhols. The film is utterly engrossing, but the focus is less on the characters as people and more on them as players in a purportedly inevitable drama, as if no two men who pick up a guitar to try and become pop stars could or should ever get along. -- DC
3. Make Believe -- The magical magic documentary, Make Believe, follows six mostly awkward teenagers as they compete to be crowned Teen World Champion at the World Magic Seminar in Las Vegas. And in Make Believe, director J. Clay Tweel does for magic what Jeffrey Blitz did for spelling bees in Spellbound: He humanizes these teenage outcasts, gives their devotion to dorkiness the the sheen of cool, and finds the sweetness in their awkward struggles to find themselves within their magic and use the art to help find a connection with other people. Along the way, they also perform a few exceptional, crowd-pleasing magic tricks. -- DR
2. American: The Bill Hicks Story (Available on Netflix Instant) -- American: The Bill Hicks Story is little more, really, than a lot of Bill Hicks's best routines interspersed with the story of his life. His material was much more interesting than his short existence on Earth (he passed away from cancer at the young age of 32). He had an average middle-class upbringing; he started stand-up young (he was on stage by the time he was 15); he severely abused drugs and alcohol for a number of years; he cleaned up; and he never got the mainstream acceptance that he deserved. It's not exactly surprising, really, since his material often alienated that very mainstream America he was trying to win over. He was uncompromising. He was an asshole. He was incredibly prescient. He was angry, self-righteous, smug, and loathed anti-intellectualism. But he got inside your head, and he rattled around in there, and he made you think. Sometimes, he even made you laugh. And if he hadn't died when he did, he'd have probably keeled over when George W. Bush was elected. -- DR
1. Senna (Available on Netflix Instant) -- The reason I -- and probably most of you -- have never heard of Ayrton Senna is because he was a Brazilian Formula One race car driver. Senna is a great story that just happens to be about a race car driver, about the career of Ayrton Senna, who began in 1978 as a professional go-cart driver before rising to the level of a three-time World Champion and the man many consider the greatest Formula One driver of all time ... I still wouldn't consider Formula One racing an interesting sport, but by focusing on the real-life drama, the intense rivalry, the backroom politics, the life-and-death stakes of those races, and the effect they had on the people of Brazil, Kapadia manages to relate the themes and ideas to anyone that has an interest in compelling stories about remarkable people. Not that Senna was a particularly compelling person in the humanitarian sense, but he is a fascinating person for how he approached racing. He was an aggressive driver, a man who often put winning ahead of his own safety and that of the other drivers, so sure of himself that his ability and his religion would save him from disaster. He took losses hard, and even when he was winning, he rarely looked exuberant. There was something sad and foreboding about Senna, and even if you aren't familiar with the story of his life, you'll feel an ominous sense of what is coming. Even still, when it happens, it doesn't make that ache in the pit of your stomach any less gnawing. -- DR