Is This Real Life?

As usual, compelling documentary films abounded in 2011

Dec 28, 2011 at 8:50 am


t irks me to go into a video store that has separate sections for “dramas,” “comedies,” “action” and then, somewhere way in the back, “documentaries.” (Blockbuster calls them “special interest.”) A good documentary can have every bit the drama, comedy, action, romance, etc., of a fictional film. Often, more. 

And there is an abundance of good documentaries every year, because there are more ways than ever for them to get seen — theatrical release, film festivals, public television, cable channels, online, DVD release. So many, in fact, that it can be hard to keep up with them. 

Here, then, is this writer’s picks for 2011’s 10 best documentaries:

The Interrupters Chicago-based director Steve James (Hoop Dreams) and producer Alex Kotlowitz (author of There Are No Children Here) follow the brave, courageous members of Violence Interrupters, a group that tries to stop youths in the city’s black and Latino neighborhoods from becoming murderers and/or their victims. The drama and tension are riveting and the insights revelatory as the film goes deep inside the lives of people on the margins — and on the firing line. It’s essential viewing.

The Transcendent Man: The Life and Ideas of Ray Kurzweil

Barry Ptolemy follows this remarkable inventor/futurist as Kurzweil preaches and expounds on his ideas of lengthening human life by merging it with Artificial Intelligence. You also get to learn what makes Kurzweil tick — his dedication to honoring the memory of his father, who died young. Eventually, the film gets around to considering just what God will be in an era of expanding human knowledge.

The Arbor

Clio Barnard’s completely mesmerizing, original film stretches and reinvents the very concept of a documentary, theatrically using the relatives of late British playwright Andrea Dunbar — who chronicled her own tough working-class life in a Bradford housing project — to tell how they have struggled with her legacy. You won’t find a more haunting, soulful character in any 2011 film than Andrea’s oldest daughter, Lorraine.

Bill Cunningham New York

More than just a film about the remarkable octogenarian fashion/street photographer for The New York Times — he still rides his bike to work! — Richard Press’ movie is an essay on New York as a place where talented, unconventional outsiders like Cunningham not only can prosper, but also can come to define their culture.

Nostalgia for the Light

Director Patricio Guzman’s difficult but exquisitely poetic (and beautifully photographed and narrated) film equates the astronomical work at remote Chilean observatories with the search on the ground for remains of murder victims of the militaristic Pinochet regime. 


You don’t need to have a prior interest in auto sports to be drawn into this film about Brazilian Formula One racing hero Ayrton Senna, an inspiring idealist killed in a crash at age 34. Director Asif Kapadia also investigates whether Formula One’s business practices played a role in his death. 

George Harrison: Living in the Material World

Thanks to HBO for supporting Martin Scorsese’s footage- and music-rich documentary on the quietest and most introspective of The Beatles, who also made rich solo music but died too young.

Eames: The Architect and the Painter

As The New York Times review pointed out, the impact of Charles and Ray Eames (a married couple) on post-war Modernist product design (and architecture) was as profound as was Steve Jobs’ on our current era. Directors Jason Cohn and Bill Jersey examine just what the couple did and how they did it, and spend time examining the couple’s relationship. 


Buck Brannaman, a modern-day cowboy who travels the country holding horse-training clinics and who was the model for The Horse Whisperer, proves a rewarding subject for filmmaker Cindy Meehl. His folksy wisdom and gentle manner with horses hide tough memories of childhood abuse. The film also is a paean to America’s wide-open spaces. 

Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness

Director Joseph Dorman does some deft literary detective work to create this archive-rich documentary of the turn-of-the-20th-Century, Russian-born Yiddish writer whose fame coincided with the massive emigration of rural East European Jews to urban America. ©