My best films list will be finished early next week (still a few films to see!) but I’ll go ahead and list my picks for the five best documentaries of the year. Many of these are available on Netflix Instant, and I heartily recommend them to you.
5) Indie Game: The Movie (dir. Lisanne Pajot and James Swirsky): Anyone who says that videogames are not a valid artform needs to see this film, which follows a handful of independent videogame developers as they work to complete and release their games to the world. The characters in the film are gamer nerd hipsters and the games they create are as eccentric and edgy as they are. The film is concise, funny, endearing and informative — everything a good documentary should be.
4) Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry (dir. Alison Klayman): This portrait of Chinese contemporary artist and activist Ai Weiwei is absolutely fascinating. I love profiles of artists, because they are usually quite colorful and complex personalities. But Weiwei’s story is interesting not only for all the typical “artist” reasons, but because of the Chinese political/cultural context against which his art and persona are set. His activism (largely organized via social media) is given as much attention in the film as his art, but it all works together to paint a compelling picture of the paradoxes that characterize contemporary Chinese life.
3) The Queen of Versailles (dir. Lauren Greenfield): A fabulously wealthy owner of a vacation rental business and his large family are building a massive mansion in Orlando, Florida — it will be the largest single family home in America, in fact. Midway through construction, however, the 2008 financial crash happens and the bottom drops out of their real estate business. This film depicts the hilarious and sometimes sad adjustments the family must make when money suddenly becomes tight and life as “the 1%” falls apart as they know it.
2) Undefeated (dir. Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin): Essentially a documentary version of the latter seasons of Friday Night Lights, this Oscar-nominated film follows the 2009 football season of Manassas High School in North Memphis, a school more familiar with metal detectors and juvenile detention than with winning football games. The narratives of Coach Bill Courtney and a handful of players he shapes and mentors are utterly compelling and emotionally wrenching. It’s a hard film to watch with dry eyes. (my review)
1) The Imposter (dir. Bart Layton): A thirteen-year-old boy in Texas disappears in 1994. Three years later, in 1997, he apparently shows up in Spain. His family goes to meet him and bring him back to the states, convinced that he is indeed their long-lost son (even though he looks vastly different). But he isn’t. This unsettling documentary depicts a stranger-than-fiction story of identity theft, breached security, and (most disturbingly) one family’s willful self-deception. It’s a brilliant mystery story packed with excellent tension and intriguing characters.
Honorable Mention: The Invisible War, Head Games, 30 for 30: There’s No Place Like Home