In recent years, I've noticed a curious algorithm regarding pop culture oddsmaking: In any given week of DVD releases, the most interesting title hitting shelves is almost always an independent documentary. I have a theory as to why documentaries hold such an appeal these days: Because docs are about real places and real people, they provide a sense of wonder that we don't experience too much at the multiplex anymore. I love it when I go to the movies and a story blows me away. But when a true story blows me away, I get really interested.
Scary documentaries, in particular, can be much more frightening than the most explicit horror films. Take, for instance, two very different docs that were featured earlier this year at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival in Durham. Both have since gone on to great success, and considered together, they're even scarier than the sum of their parts.
The Queen of Versailles features some of the most hallucinatory sequences of the year. The film chronicles a year or so in the life of billionaire couple David and Jackie Siegel, as their time-share real estate empire collapses around them. The Siegels, wrapped for so long in their delusional world of extreme wealth, have no idea how to tighten the household budget. Jackie takes the family stretch limo to the McDonald's drive-through. David sells all the furniture but insists on preserving the commissioned oil paintings of himself (mounted shirtless on horseback). It's raw footage of One Percenters in psychosis, and it would be funny if it weren't so terrifying.
The fest's other scary movie was Detropia, which concerns the devastating economic collapse of the city of Detroit and was recently shortlisted for this year's documentary Oscar. The film is similarly packed with surreal images—blocks of derelict houses, packs of feral dogs, avant garde artists wandering the ruins in spaceman suits. Several experts in the film speculate darkly that Detroit is the canary in the coal mine, and what's happened here will happen in the rest of America. As a member of the vast Detroit diaspora, the film depressed me mightily. Taken together, these two films were like watching the American Dream get crushed from above and below.
Happily, documentaries can cut the other way too. Three of my favorite documentaries of 2012 simply observed artists at work, and I found a brighter sort of wonder at play in these stories. Jiro Dreams of Sushi profiles Japan's most famous sushi chef, his family and his exacting culinary art. The 85-year-old Jiro has spent a lifetime perfecting the preparation and presentation of sushi by reducing it to its deceptively simple components: Rice. Fish. Plate. Chopsticks. Sometimes wasabi. Like a sculptor, he achieves perfection by whittling away all the things that aren't the perfect plate of sushi.
The rollicking doc Beauty Is Embarrassing, meanwhile, chronicles the life and work of American pop artist Wayne White—the sculptor, painter and visual architect of the groundbreaking kids' show Pee-wee's Playhouse. The film is ultimately a celebration of the artistic impulse. It reveals that White's commercial success has been essentially a side effect of his relentless compulsion to create.
My favorite documentary of the year was Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, which follows China's most famous dissident artist over the course of about three years. First-time director Alison Klayman guides us through Weiwei's strange and dangerous world as he deploys joyous, defiant art to counter the oppressive policies of his own government. I had a conviction, after watching this film, that artists like Weiwei are the ones we'll really need to get us through the dark days ahead.
Independently produced documentaries are labors of love. These filmmakers aren't looking to please a broad audience or deliver a blockbuster, and they're usually tackling a subject they feel personally passionate about. Lord knows they're not in it for the money. —Glenn McDonald