Tuesday, 25 December 2012



By Greg Klymkiw
I've seen over 100 feature documentaries this year. The best documentary of all of them is - BAR-NONE - Sarah Polley's astonishing STORIES WE TELL. It's a genuine, bonafide modern masterpiece and will live for many decades to come. Polley's picture is the best of the best and this in a year where documentary as a genre sang louder than ever. Without further ado (and now that we've got the declaration that Polley's film sets the bar very high), herewith are the best docs I've seen. There were quite a few others that were just fine, but simply didn't quite make this list. The titles cited here were those most memorable to me in terms of both subject matter and execution. Do whatever you can do see all of them. You won't regret a single second.
In ALPHABETICAL order, the Greg Klymkiw TOP DOCS of 2012 are:.

BEAUTY IS EMBARRASSING dir. dir. Neil Berkeley
It's astounding to think that in the same year, this portrait of American artist Wayne White is unleashed upon the world along with the Norwegian Pushwagner - two films that are so geographically and culturally apart and yet, successfully deliver experiences that have the same goal - to joyously and delightfully celebrate art. Beauty is Embarrassing is one of the most entertaining and inspirational documentary portraits of an artist's process I've ever seen. So is Pushwagner. At some point, a double bill of these extraordinary works seems to be in order. A great deal of the credit for Beauty is Embarrassing's success must go to the extraordinary life, career and personality of its subject, Wayne White, a country boy raised in the great state of Tennessee who made the decision to take his talents to New York and then Los Angeles. White always looked back for inspiration and it's this strong sense of place, of memory, of reverence for who he is and where he's from which makes his work and subsequently this film so rich.

BIG BOYS GONE BANANAS*! dir. Frederik Gertten
The feelings engendered by the great paranoid thrillers of 70s American Cinema are alive and well again - crackling with the same terror, dread and mounting odds against one man or a handful of individuals who are fighting oppressive, almost dystopian, virtually Orwellian dark forces. The difference, though, is that our central figure is NOT Warren Beatty's reporter stumbling on political assassination conspiracies in The Parallax View, nor is he Donald Sutherland's Department of Health bureaucrat battling the ultimate scourge upon the human race in the 70s remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers and among many others in this tradition, it's certainly not Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman cracking Watergate in All The President's Men. What unfolds is a true story about Gertten himself - a documentary filmmaker embroiled in the dark, nasty manipulations of an evil corporate entity. In 2009, Gertten made Bananas*!, a shocking and moving film about the Dole corporation's irresponsibility to its own workers and how, in the name of profits, the company knowingly used pesticides that caused horrendous medical conditions upon fruit pickers. Gertten was sued by Dole and faced a barrage of Dole-influenced negative publicity that questioned his integrity as a filmmaker. He didn't give up and began documenting his nightmare which became this film. Like a Kafka nightmare through a David Lynchian dreamscape of terror, this great movie depicts an artist going through the legal torture inflicted upon him by a multinational corporation (and everyone on their payroll). It's stomach-turning.

DETROPIA dir. Rachel Grady, Heidi Ewing
This harrowing exploration of Detroit's decline is not only a fascinating portrait of urban blight, but amidst the crime, poverty and decay, there's still a pulse and heartbeat of something very cool. Ghosts. It's a city full of ectoplasmic activity of days gone by and amidst its crumbling ruins, this is almost less a story of Detroit, but that of a great nation descending to levels of a Third World Country and a New World Order intent upon keeping it that way - to widen the gap between rich and poor even further in order to maintain power and wealth. Focusing on both sides of the wealth persuasion in Detroit (as nothing seems to genuinely exist in the middle) we follow a number of stories: from a young artist who enters long-abandoned, crumbling buildings to experience, photograph and capture what was once great within the crumbling ruins, to a woman who refuses to accept welfare handouts but because of recent cuts to bus services, she has no adequate way to get to her job and finally, an auto show where American dealers welcome a time when their own country will be operating similar to China in order to exploit the workers further and generate greater profit margins. When a city like Detroit goes down, America is not far behind.

dir. Lena Müller, Dragan von Petrovic, Vuk Maksimovic
"I said to the guy: 'Pay 99 euros and fuck all day! If you have no teeth, just lick her pussy.'" - Dragan Wende, brothel doorman, pimp and dealer in the all-new, reunified Berlin. This line from the subject of this documentary pretty much says it all. a strange and dazzling display of direct cinema that bounces between a cinéma vérité approach to the squalid reality of Dragan Wende's contemporary life, punctuated by garish 70s archival footage assembled like a weird combination of straight-up TV documentary of the period and the 30s/40s-styled Warner Brothers montages (often fashioned by the likes of Slavko Vorkapich and Robert Wise). Most of all, though, it is a documentary that feels very close to the world etched by John Cassavetes in his stunning crime drama The Killing of a Chinese Bookie or, for that matter, in Peter Bogdanovich's magnificent adaptation of Paul Theroux's Saint Jack - but here, Dragan is a real-life version of the characters played by Ben Gazzara in both films - sleazy, charming, corrupt, living on past glories and yet, so very, very cool.

THE END OF TIME dir. Peter Mettler
Nobody makes movies like Peter Mettler, so it stands to reason that when Peter Mettler makes documentaries, you're in for an experience like no other you've ever seen before. This hypnotic, riveting, provocative and profoundly moving exploration of time is one of the most original films of the new decade. And yes, time! TIME, for Christ's sake! Of all the journeys a filmmaker could take us on, only Mettler would have the almost-gentle Canadian audacity to explore the notion of time. And damned if Mettler doesn't plunge you into an experiential mind-fuck that both informs and dazzles. Lava flows both scarily and beautifully in Hawaii, Switzerland's particle accelerator seeks answers to the questions of creation, the place of Buddha's enlightenment reveals that the end of time, might just well be the beginning - all this and more are all under the scrutiny of Mettler's exquisite kino-eye (one of the best in the world, I might add). Mettler always journeys far and wide to seek answers, enlightenment and maybe, just maybe, both terrible and beautiful truths. And he lets us all come along for the ride.

FINDING NORTH dir. Kristi Jacobson, Lori Silverbush
49 million American citizens have, at any given moment, no idea where their next meal is coming from. Many of those affected by hunger are children. The rates of unemployment and poverty are skyrocketing. So too is obesity and Type 2 diabetes - especially amongst children. In this important feature documentary by Kristi Jacobson and Lori Silverbush, the reality of poverty slams you in the gut - time and time again. The cinematic litany of wrenching emotion from the poor and starving is evocatively rendered and delivers maximum impact where it counts - firstly on an emotional level and then as a call to action. the cameras do not lie. I watched, enraged, as one well-meaning politician after another delivers words of agreement and encouragement, their faces revealing only resulting ineffectuality, their words, seemingly truthful, but ultimately hollow and their subsequent actions even more useless and infuriating. Impassioned lobbying on behalf of regular folk inspires the government to rob Peter to pay Paul. Or rather, they steal from the poor to give to the poor.

FORTUNATE SON dir. Tony Asimakopoulos
This stunning personal documentary is a perfect companion piece to Sarah Polley's Stories We Tell. Telling a brave and identifiable story about love, loyalty and family that extraordinarily mirrors the lives of all who watch it, the picture demonstrates the inescapable truth that love is not easy. For love to BE love, for love to really count, it takes work, courage and fortitude. It means giving up ephemeral happiness for the happiness of endurance, of perseverance, of never giving up - the happiness and fulfillment that really counts. Tony Asimakopoulos is one of Canadian cinema's great unsung talents. His work has been charged with a unique underground flavour - a kind of Greek-Scorsese "boys in the 'hood" quality of obsession, dapplings of George Kuchar melodrama and lurid high contrast visuals. And Fortunate Son is, quite simply, a genuinely great film.

GIRL MODEL dir. David Redmon, Ashley Sabin
The exploitation of Russian girls as young as age 13 in Japan is examined in a chilling portrait of shattered hopes and dreams within a modelling industry that values youth, beauty and the sexualization of pre-pubescence. Japan, it seems, always needs meat - fresh, tender, young meat. In the Land of Nippon, the vast publishing industry can never get enough young models to feed the bottomless pit of periodicals that place emphasis upon extolling the virtues of creamy, white, wide-eyed, innocent and highly sexualized female flesh. And as this chilling documentary points out - the younger the better. The harrowing film focuses upon a 13-year-old girl flung into the nightmare of exploitation in Japan and a former child model who acknowledges the horror and pain she went through, yet continues to procure young Russian girls to satisfy the perverse lust of Japanese men. This is an important film. See it with your daughters.

THE GUANTANAMO TRAP dir. Thomas Sellim Wallner
This eminently fascinating and moving film was inspired when the filmmaker was placed on America's terror watch list for five years when he refused to take part in a retinal scan. His shock and anger was so considerable that the impetus was initially vengeance. As he proceeded, he realized he needed to strip away his voice as much as he could in order to present the effects of war upon humanity. Focusing on the illegal kidnapping of several innocent people, their subsequent incarceration on Guantanamo and being held without formal charges, hearings or trials for years and being tortured in order to spill their guts about spurious accusations of terrorist activities, Wallner's film is a stunning examination of an America that operates as one of the most corrupt oligarchies in the world. Insanely going to war to enhance the economic power of the rich, America has duped millions upon millions of its own citizens and both foreign and domestic lenders out of billions of dollars - sending the world into a major economic crisis. The America that now exists has reduced the majority of its populace to an existence of poverty and near-Third World conditions while spending billions on a false war on terrorism. In spite of it all, Wallner keeps his cool, focusing on those betrayed by America and in so doing, delivers a picture that stands powerfully on its own two feet as one of the great humanist documentaries of the new millennium.

HERMAN'S HOUSE dir. Angad Bhalla
This is an extraordinary film about extraordinary people in a country that has sadly learned nothing since 1776 but the right of might, the power of the dollar and the exploitation of the poor - a country that purports to be the most powerful democracy in the world, but is little more than a backwards Totalitarian State - run by a greedy, mean-spirited, prejudiced Old Boys Club. To paraphrase Michael Corleone in Godfather II: They're all a part of the same hypocrisy. The people, the Real People, are the victims. Surprisingly they persevere. The tale told is that of a passionate young artist who attempts to give hope to Herman Wallace, a man incarcerated within the American prison system - tortured for over 40 years due to the inhuman experience of spending all that time in solitary confinement. The "real people" shed their victimhood by fighting back - not with fists, but with the weaponry of activism, the fighting spirit of the soul. This is a movie that will anger, frustrate and yet finally, move you to tears as it explores real compassion and understanding amongst those with the only power they have - their hearts, their minds and most of all, imagination.

America loves rape. It's used as a weapon to both violate and steal. When America goes to war, its boys need to fulfill their manly desires for power, violence and subjugation in order to properly serve their country (and their own sick desires), so they happily rape whomever they like amongst civilian populations or partake in various exploitative offshoots akin to rape when civilian women of all ages are sold into sexual slavery. Perhaps the most appalling and shocking of all rape cases can be found in the hundreds of thousands of sexual assaults perpetrated by American soldiers upon American soldiers. This is not a typographical error. Kirby Dick's film presents a shocking portrait of rape within America's own armed forces and the general acceptance and covering up of these actions. The film focuses on several women and men who all suffered rape at the hands of their fellow soldiers and in many cases, their superior officers. Dick's approach is simple - he lets the victims speak for themselves, buttressing their horrendous experiences with a few salient facts, along with interviews from those trying to fight this injustice and those who remain blind to it, and as such, are complicit in these heinous crimes. The victims seek compensation, acknowledgment, justice, sweeping change and/or medical support. We follow their attempt to mount a class-action suit that results in a ludicrous Supreme Court decision that when one decides to serve in the military, rape is, quite simply, an "occupational hazard".

PEACE OUT dir. Charles Wilkinson
This a powerful, persuasive and important film that focuses upon the environmental decimation of Canada's northwest. It's about energy and the horrible price we all pay for our hog-at-the-trough need for Hydro. The picture takes you by surprise and leaves you breathless. Diving into this vital film, we're witness to activist cinema of the highest order. Clever, subtle juxtapositions, smooth transitions between the beauty of nature, the destruction of the environment, the fluorescent-lit government and/or corporate offices, the dark, almost Gordon Willis styled shots of energy executives and in one case, an utterly heartbreaking montage of energy waste set to Erik Satie's Gymnopedie #1 - all of these exquisitely wrought moments and more, inspire sadness, anger and hopefully enough of these emotions will translate into inspiring action - even, as a Greenpeace interview subject suggests - civil disobedience.

THE PUNK SYNDROME dir. Jukka Kärkkäinen & J-P Passi
"Pertti Kurikka’s Name Day" is, without question, one of the greatest punk bands of all time. They are the unforgettable subjects of this breathtaking feature documentary that declares: "I demand your immediate attention or you die, motherfucker!" The film entertainingly, provocatively and powerfully focuses on this quartet of hard-core, kick-ass, take-no-fucking-prisoners mean-machine who pull no musical punches as they slam you in the face with repeated roundhouses - turning your flesh into pulpy, coarsely-ground hamburger meat. In true punk spirit, they crap on hypocrisy, celebrate a shackle-free life and dare your pulse not to pound with maniacal abandon. Their songs - many of them ripped straight from band leader Kurikka's diaries - take aim at government corruption, mindless bureaucracy and pedicures. Yes, pedicures! This is a band that writes and performs songs from the pits of their respective guts, from experience - their unique experience in the world as mentally disabled men. Brave, passionate and talented men. And yes, mentally disabled. And they are so cool. How cool? They record their first single on vinyl. That's how cool! Just like this movie!

PUSHWAGNER (2012) dir. August B. Hanssen, Even Benestad
Pushwagner rocks! It rocks hard! This has easily got to be one of the best documentaries I've ever seen about a contemporary living artist. And WHAT an artist! What a movie! On the surface, we learn very little about Norway's septuagenarian bad boy beat-punk maniac artist and yet we learn EVERYTHING we need to know. What's fabulous about the picture - among so many things - is that it never slips into the horrid doc-cliches of so many biographical portraits. We meet who we need to meet. We hear who we need to hear from. We learn what we need to know. No endless parade of ex-friends-lovers-family-pundits. No endless, boring details about his life (just the good stuff, thanks). No annoying insert shots. No twee solo guitar strumming or piano tinkles in the background (just a stunning, vibrant musical score from composer Gisle Martens Meyer). Even the central conflict of the film, the title subject's court battle to regain control of all his artwork that he mistakenly signed over to a former associate, is handled in a compact manner evocative of the artist himself. Mostly, all we need to know is what we get in spades - Pushwagner is clearly some kind of genius, an astounding artist and totally fucking cooler than cool!

ROOM 237 dir. Rodney Ascher Blending cine-mania with conspiracy theory, this clever & funny documentary opens your eyes wide shut to new insights on Kubrick's hiorror masterpiece The Shining - things that you never knew, and perhaps, were even too afraid to ask. Using a treasure trove of clips and stills from Kubrick's canon, director Ascher interviews five people who have spent an unhealthy number of their waking hours (over an ever MORE unhealthy number of years) studying and dissecting the hidden meanings they purport are found buried within The Shining. Ascher's picture is not a traditional making-of documentary or even a critical appreciation in the usual sense. Instead, we examine each one of the subjects' theories. All of them believe Kubrick used subliminal messages in the film and generated a high-profile horror movie to act as a mere foreground mask for its real meaning(s).

SEARCHING FOR SUGAR MAN dir. Malik Bendjelloul
For over 50 years the virulently racist National Party policy of Apartheid in South Africa subjected its indigenous peoples to forced segregation. The resulting horrors must never be forgotten; nor should the struggle of the colonized nation's Black majority to free themselves from the brutal and degrading lifestyle imposed by the minority White rulers. In the 70s and 80s, there existed an unlikely (and unwitting) hero of the anti-Apartheid movement - a man of almost insurmountable artistic gifts who came to represent a ray of hope and inspiration - an American singer whose albums in South Africa yielded a superstar bigger than the Beatles, Bob Dylan and remarkably, Elvis Presley. It is the backdrop of Apartheid that Malik Bendjelloul's glorious feature documentary presents a biographical portrait of the film's primary subject. Bendjelloul, a storyteller par excellence, structures the remarkable movie as a mystery and blends a variety of tools including animation, news reel footage and a multitude of gorgeously lit and composed interview segments to investigate one of the great show business head-scratchers. The story of a musician who nobody had heard of outside South Africa and who disappeared as mysteriously as he came.

Polley Delivers Best Documentary of the Year

STORIES WE TELL dir. Sarah Polley
Sarah Polley’s latest work as a director, a bonafide masterpiece, is first and foremost a story of family – not just a family, or for that matter any family, but rather a mad, warm, brilliant passionate family who expose their lives in the kind of raw no-guts-no-glory manner that only film can allow. Most importantly, the lives exposed are as individual as they are universal and ultimately it’s a film about all of us. Love permeates the entire film – the kind of consuming love that offers (as does the film itself) a restorative power of infinitesimal proportions. Sarah Polley is often referred to as Canada's “national treasure”. She’s far more than that. She’s a treasure to the world – period. And so, finally, is her film.

dir. Xun Yu
Grandma Jiang is dying. Wracked with pain after suffering a massive stroke, she lies in her bed, physically unable to assume her usual perch in front of the family home on her beloved West Street (where she's lived for over 50 years). Xun Yu's beautiful, elegiac and sometimes heart-breaking film is a testament to Grandma Jiang and all those who lived their lives as she did. Though it's about death, this great documentary is also a celebration of life. Through the changing of the seasons, the increasing metamorphoses of West Street and the diminishing health of Grandma Jiang, Yu trains his eye upon the passage of existence. Simple, often beautifully composed shots in very long takes create a rhythm that is hypnotic and compelling. This is a document in its purest and most poetic form. Yu allows his camera to capture all the pleasures, sorrows and intricacies of lives that are well, and in some cases, not-so-well lived. Through his caring and carefully placed lens we come to know and care for Grandma Jiang and those around her as if we were there ourselves.

VITO dir. Jeffrey Schwarz
Growing up in New Jersey during the 1950s, young Vito Russo knew early on that he wasn't like the other boys. Though warm and quick-witted, he was smack in the middle of post-war Italian Catholic machismo and always felt out of place amidst the rough, and tumble posturing of his peers. Vito knew he was gay and that discrimination, disdain and outright hatred ran rampant. This, decided young Vito Russo, was wrong. And he was going to do something about it. Vito Russo fought for Gay rights, but in so doing, he fought for all of those who felt marginalized, disenfranchised, ignored, bullied and condemned. As a lover of movies, he also became the leading expert on gay images in cinema. Jeffrey Schwarz's superbly crafted feature documentary is dazzling! With peerlessly selected and edited archival footage, blended with new interview material, Schwarz delivers a movie that's as entertaining as it’s incendiary, as soaringly joyful as it is profoundly moving. See it, embrace it and demand that your Board of Education include it in their media libraries and demand that it be used in the social studies syllabi of all schools. It's one hell of a picture, but it also has the power to effect change for the better.

THE WORLD BEFORE HER dir. Nisha Pahuja
What is the future for the young women of modern India? Is it adherence to thousands of years of subservient tradition or finding success through beauty? Is it deepening their love for the Hindu religion through rigorous paramilitary training or maintaining their ties to religion and culture while engaging in the exploitation of their sexuality? The chasm between these two polar opposites couldn't be wider and yet, as we discover in Nisha Pahuja's extraordinary and compelling documentary feature The World Before Her, the differences are often skin deep as parallel lines clearly exist beneath the surface. All of this makes for one lollapalooza of a movie! Vibrant, incisive, penetrating and supremely entertaining, director Pahuja and her crackerjack team deliver one terrific picture - a genuine corker!
Here are a few fine documentaries (in alphabetical order, of course) that made my Close-But-No-Cigar Sweepstakes:
An Affair of the Heart by Sylvia Caminer
Legend of a Warrior by Corey Lee
Neil Young Journey by Jonathan Demme
Paul Williams Still Alive by Stephen Kessler
Queen of Versailles by Lauren Greenfield