I don't typically see many documentaries every year, but since becoming a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association (BFCA) it has become far easier (and necessary) to see more of them over the last two years. One, I have to nominate and vote on the category for the Critics' Choice Awards and two, I get more screeners each year than I used to. This year I've watched 14 documentaries and have yet only seen seven of the 15 documentaries up for Best Documentary at the 2013 Oscars. Of those seven, only one makes my top five of 2012.
Outside of the five I list below, virtually all of the documentaries I watched this year were quite great, but seeing how I only saw 14, it didn't make sense to do a top ten. So if you're looking for some additional docs to watch other than my top five, also consider Bad 25 (which would have been #6, read my review here), The Gatekeepers, How To Survive a Plague, The Imposter, The Invisible War, Room 237, Searching for Sugar Man and West of Memphis.
All that said, here are my top five documentaries for 2012...
Side By Side
Side by Side was one of the three documentaries I actually reviewed this year (read that here) and it's one I'm not entirely surprised to see didn't make the Academy's shortlist, but considering it's about the evolution of film you'd think they may have a spot for it among the contenders.
Directed by Chris Kenneally and narrated by Keanu Reeves as he interviews a myriad of filmmakers and technicians about the rise in digital filmmaking. Those interviewed include directors such as James Cameron, David Fincher, Danny Boyle, George Lucas, David Lynch, Christopher Nolan, Martin Scorsese, Steven Soderbergh, Lars Von Trier and the Wachowskis along with cinematographers including Dion Beebe, Wally Pfister, Michael Chapman and Anthony Dod Mantle and editors including Walter Murch and Craig Wood.
It's an all-encompassing and easy-to-grasp look at where the future of filmmaking is headed and well worth the watch for any film fan.
The Central Park Five
The synopsis for this one sells the drama in this spectacularly thorough documentary:
In 1989, five black and Latino teenagers from Harlem were arrested and later convicted of raping a white woman in New York City's Central Park. They spent between six and 13 years in prison before a serial rapist confessed that he alone had committed the crime, resulting in their convictions being overturned.
The Central Park Five is exhaustive in its information and includes powerful imagery, which includes the taped confessions of the wrongly convicted young boys. How this film wasn't included in the Academy's list is beyond me, but its omission more-or-less further emphasizes the final fact the film hammers home, which is to note how enthusiastic the coverage of the boys' conviction was in comparison to the lack of attention given to the vacating of those convictions and the closer examination of prosecutor Linda Fairstein that remains necessary.
You, however, shouldn't be so quick to overlook what is a truly powerful and important documentary.