The Year in Movies: 7 docs that were better than anything Hollywood came up with in 2012

A still from "The Imposter" - one of 2012's best docs

…except for Joyful Noise . I really wanted to try to build my themed list around my love for the uber-cheesy, so-terrible-it’s-wonderful musical starring Dolly Parton, Queen Latifah and zombie Kris Kristofferson, but aside from that and my other favourite movie of the year,   Moonrise Kingdom , there weren’t any fiction-based films that elicited much more than a “that was was pretty good” from me as I was walking out of the theatre. Looking back, it seems as though 2012 was the year of the documentary for me because as much as I liked The Avengers or Cabin in the Woods or even Brave , none of them came close to being as thoughtful, inspiring and, in a couple cases, mind-blowing as these 7 documentaries.

Ethel

Ethel

Directed and narrated by Rory Kennedy, this film offers a unique perspective on the life of Robert Kennedy (Rory’s father, who was assassinated just months before she was born) and Ethel Kennedy, the woman behind the scenes who raised 11 children and was seen as an important force in the political campaigns of both Bobby and JFK. Replete with enough archival footage to make history buffs drool and insider accounts of historical moments in the lives of the Kennedy clan, it’s difficult not to be riveted by stories about garden parties that end with all of JFK’s Cabinet members getting pushed into the pool or a birthday party that featured Gene Kelly wrapped up as a gift for Ethel. Sure there’s no discussion about Bobby’s much gossiped about extramarital affairs, but who cares? This film is a well edited, thorough timeline of an influential family’s life as well as a child’s love letter to her force of nature mother and the father she never knew.

 

Troubadours

Troubadours

This film was technically released in 2011, but since I watched it this year, I’m deeming it admissible. I have a real love for films that talk about the LA music scene in the late ’60s/early ’70s and I struck gold when I picked this up from the library one rainy afternoon. Chronicling the rise of the singer/songwriter thanks to the famed Troubadour club in Hollywood, this film focuses how the club’s eccentric owner, Doug Weston, leveraged his open mic nights to mine raw talent, changing the landscape of the music industry and launching the careers of everyone from Carole King and Joni Mitchell to James Taylor and Jackson Browne to Elton John and The Eagles (hell, even Steve Martin and Cheech and Chong got their start on his stage). This is one of those films that so thoroughly captures the time and place that you almost feel as though you’re sitting there in that smoky club listening to King pound through her yet-to-be-released Tapestry album on the piano. It also helps that Director Morgan Neville was able to talk to just about every key player from back in the day and they’re only too happy to both offer insight into their craft   and dish the dirt on all the sex, drugs and…really great folk music that was going on in the club’s dark corners.

 

Hit So Hard

Hit So Hard

This choice came from a purely nostalgic place for me because I was a teenager in the early half of the nineties and I completely embraced the whole grunge movement. As such, I loved Nirvana and Hole’s Live Through This was pretty much my audio bible during my last couple years of high school. I loved this doc because it offered a behind-the-scenes look at two of my favourite bands via Hole’s drummer  Patty Schemel who was a good friend of Kurt Cobain’s before being tapped to join Courtney Love’s troubled band. Schemel’s story is as heartbreaking as it is inspiring – she lost two close friends to drugs within a year of each other and developed a nasty drug habit herself before pulling herself out of the dark void she was falling into and turning her life around. Also, Courtney Love is always a bizarrely fascinating interview – she does not disappoint here.

 

Waiting for something to happen in "Chasing Ice"

Chasing Ice

I’m also a big fan of environmental docs and the last few years have provided a lot of films that have caused me to seriously consider building myself a tricked-out raft in preparation for the day when the Kevin Costner opus Waterworld becomes a true thing. Chasing Ice is by far the most frightening (along with beautiful and just plain well-shot) doc to predict the end of life as we know it that I’ve cowered through since An Inconvenient Truth . Following the work of former National Geographic photographer James Balog as he plants cameras to take photos of quickly receding glaciers all over the world, this film provides visual proof that global warming is a thing we all need to take much more seriously. Don’t be surprised if this one makes some noise come Oscar time (I’m keeping my fingers crossed anyway).

 

An Affair of the Heart

An Affair of the Heart

This super fun film documents the lives of Rick Springfield megafans as they spend scads of money following him all over the world, seeing his concerts, attending various fan events and even cruises that provide them with an opportunity to get up close and personal with their idol. I liked this doc because it’s not often that we get to see depictions of obsessive fans who aren’t comic book nerds or dressed up as superheroes at a convention. In reality, uber-fans exist in all forms of entertainment and Director Sylvia Caminer takes a sincere and thoughtful look at what it is that drives these people to continue loving a man who hasn’t been popular since the ’80s. Springfield also plays a big part in the film, offering his own perspective on the fandom and coming across as a really cool (and patient) dude who’s genuinely thankful to have these devoted people in his life – especially since he readily admits to spending the early (drug-addled) part of his career being openly disdainful of his fans and their blind worship.

 

Ballerina hopeful Rebecca Houseknecht waits backstage in "First Position"

First Position

So much more than just a “kids go to a competition” doc, First Position takes an in-depth look at what it takes to be a professional ballerina, from torturous foot stretchers to practicing until your feet bleed into your pointe shoes. I’m admittedly a dance movie junkie so I especially appreciated hearing insider info from dance companies about what makes a dancer special enough for them to acquire, and from the young dancers themselves, about just what it is that drives them to sacrifice a normal childhood in favour of hours upon hours of rehearsal. It’s also pretty exciting because a few of the kids featured in the film are supremely talented – seeing them perform at that level at such young ages is pretty darned awe-inspiring.

 

The Imposter

The Imposter

The less you know about this film the better, but let’s suffice it to say that when I use the world mind-blowing to describe it, I’m not being hyperbolic. This is one of those instances that embodies the phrase “truth is stranger than fiction” and as this film’s story unfolds, you’ll scarcely believe your eyes or ears – nor will you be able to predict what’s going to happen next. Director Bart Layton hit the jackpot with this story and thankfully does it justice with a smartly plotted, artfully shot film that will seriously (seriously!) break. your. brain.

Toronto Film Scene’s “Best of 2012” series continues throughout December.

 


Kristal Cooper has been a film buff since the age of two when her parents began sneaking her into the drive-in every weekend. Since then, she's pursued that passion by working for the Toronto International Film Festival and the Canadian Film Centre as well as spending many a happy hour inside Toronto's wonderful theatres (she still mourns the loss of The Uptown). She is a freelance writer specializing in pop culture and feminist issues, and continues to slog away at her day job as a small cog in the giant machinery of the Toronto film community.

1 Comment

  • Reply December 27, 2012

    Danita

    Great list. This year has been super awesome for docs! I would add Searching for Sugar Man and Jiro Dreams of Sushi too. This list has made me excited for Hot Docs in the spring!

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