Top Five Documentaries of 2012

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.

The only doc I didn't particularly care for was Bully (read my review here), and yet it was one of the 15 included for Academy consideration, while four of my top five aren't. What can you do?

All that said, here are my top five documentaries for 2012...

Side By Side

Side by Side
Photo: Tribeca Film

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

Central Park Five
Photo: Sundance Selects

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.

  • SmartFilm

    Pretty surprised to see Bad 25 didn't even make the cut considering it's one of two A+'s you've given this year. I know you've kind of redacted that grade but still...

    • Brad Brevet

      Yeah, it just didn't hit me as hard watching it again. Probably would have bumped Side by Side had I not watched it a second time. Still a great doc though.

  • Alex Thomas

    Great, I haven't seen any of these!!! Haha nice list Brad. Samsara is getting a release in Oz on the 26th, I wasn't going to see it but will make the effort now. Also trying to seek out Side by Side. Will check out your top two!

    It's been a great year, I really loved Undefeated (I know it won last year, but I only just got a chance to see it finally) as well as The Imposter, Searching for Sugar Man and Bully.

  • Aleonardis

    I've only seen Queen and Side by Side. I'm probably going to do a doc double feature and see The Central Park Five and Chasing Ice.

  • maja

    I've only seen three 2012 documentaries - Side by Side, Bad 25 and The Imposter.
    I have to say that they were all excellent. My favorite of the three was The Imposter.

    • maja

      Actually I missed one out - I also watched Indie Game: The Movie which was also fantastic and is sure to be in my top 10 movies of the year list.

  • Andrew J.S.

    Samsara is one my favorites of the year. Although I did see it in the theater, it was on a fairly small screen so I would have loved so see it on a huge screen. It was a memorable experience nonetheless though.

  • Susan

    Nice list. Did you by chance to How to Survive a Plague? Probably my favorite doc of the year, though I missed Chasing Ice the one week it was showing here.

    • Brad Brevet

      Yup, it's good, just didn't scratch that top five for me.

      • Lewis

        An excellent doc that seemed missing is The Invisible War. Powerful and thought provoking. That one made the Oscar shortlist, and I think it will get nominated.

        • Brad Brevet

          I saw it too, both of those are in the second paragraph. Definitely a solid movie and one that helped change policy.

  • Criterion10

    Side by Side is excellent, happy to see it here. When is The Central Park Five coming out on Blu-Ray? Really want to see that one...

  • AS

    Side by Side was a bit tedious for me. The highlights were the Fincher snippets.

  • Lewis

    Shouldn't you consider including Documentaries in your regular Top 10 for the year? Why single them out as a special category? Films are films...

    • Brad Brevet

      Not sure there are any rules for this, I just decided to single them out and give them greater attention than they otherwise would have.

      • Lewis

        I can see the reasoning behind that. In a strong year for Docs, maybe that is the best thing to do, so that the deserving ones get the recognition instead of being drowned out by all the narrative features...


    I was truly blown away by The Queen of Versailles. It is easily the most shocking documentary I have ever seen since Super Size Me. Disappointed that it didn't make the Oscar short list.

  • Chris138

    I really want to see Samsara. It was playing around me a few months back but I wasn't able to go, unfortunately. The first time I saw Baraka was on Blu-ray at home and I was blown away, so I'm sure it'll be the same with Samsara.

    • Chris138

      In case anyone is wondering, has Samsara listed for release on January 8, 2013.

  • Bren

    Just watched The Imposter, Side by Side, and Queen of Versailles yesterday. Loved Side by Side. I thought it touched on a lot of interesting subjects and asked a lot of interesting questions. The Imposter was pretty meh. I just didn't like the way it was told but the story was somewhat interesting. Queen was entertaining. I felt nothing for these people because they were so ridiculously extravagant. I don't think the old guy loved his wife at all. The way he leered at the Miss America girls said it all. Hoping to see a few more before the year is out so I can better judge the category.

  • Gautam

    Ya, I too liked Queen of Versailles a lot. The best documentary that I have seen since Senna. This has been exceptional year for documentaries and and there are still a lot which I am eagerly waiting to watch esp. Gatekeepers and The Imposter.

  • Adriano

    Brad, you forgot to list Room 237 on the list of the documentaries you saw this year.

    • Brad Brevet

      You are absolutely right... added.

  • bill

    Yes on Versaille, I want to see side by side, have you seen Jiro Dreams of Sushi, its great.

  • Casey

    A very good list - I will have to check out side by side which I didn't know much about.

    My top 5 would be:

    5. The Central Park 5
    4. Samsara
    3. Mea Maxima Culpa
    2. The Central Park Five
    1. The Queen of Versailles

  • MajorFilmFan

    I'm seeing 'Searching for Sugar Man' over Christmas, making it the first documentary I'll have seen all year. The theaters around me don't show too many documentaries, so I can't see as many. I want to see 'Central Park 5' and 'Queen of Versailles'. Both sound so shocking to me. May have to search out 'Samsara'

  • Nostra

    Nice list and a couple of documentaries I hadn't heard of before. Will be sure to check them out!