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Top 10 documentary films of 2011

And before you know it another year has passed; you’re a year older, gained a couple of pounds, a few more wrinkles and watched loads of good documentaries while you’re suppose to be doing other things. Or maybe that’s just me… Anyhow, to stick with the more positive on that list, here an overview of DG’s favourite documentaries of 2011.

1. The Interrupters

Snubbed once again by the Academy, Hoop Dreams director Steve James created a strong, moving and fascinating narrative in his documentary The Interrupters. Following three former gang members who now trawl the violent streets of gang-ridden Chicago for the charity Cease Fire the film gives us an insight into what it takes to tackle violence. Beautifully shot, current and with access to scenes many a filmmaker could only dream of, James’ film gets a well deserved first place on our list.

2. Tabloid

In a hillariously funny, tat unsetteling and brilliantly edited way the documentary Tabloid presents us the story of Joyce McKinney who in 1977 flew over to England to kidnap her Mormon missionary boyfriend, handcuff him to a bed, and turn him into her personal sex toy. All true or just colourful fabrications of the infamous UK tabloids? Filmmaker Errol Morris let’s you decide for yourself.

3. Into the Abyss

Of course it remains virtually impossible that a topic as heavy as death row would not be in anyway a sad affair. However, Werner Herzog has given it his best try and has managed to create a powerful documentary about the subject without passing judgement on the practice still carried out in many US states. The objective investigation into life on death row also sees to it that the film is honest and unpredictable and covers more than what you would expect.

4. Dreams of a Life

This documentary already proved to be a big hit when it premiered at the London film festival in October and has managed to get instant distribution in December – well done director Carol Morley. Perhaps the Christmas period of togetherness and warmth was also a strategic choice based on the film’s subject; a young beautiful and intelligent woman who dies alone in her flat in London not to be found until three years later. Morley, fascinated by how this could happen, set out to find those who knew her and presents us with an unnerving but brilliant narrative.

5. Darwin – No services ahead

Although this documentary has not yet got an official cinema release it has been shown at numerous film festivals since February and we hope to see more of it soon. Filmmaker Nick Brandestini and his camera visited the ghost town Darwin, an isolated community of no more than 35 people at the end of a weathered road in Death Valley, California and present us with an eye-opening film which makes us reflect on our own instant stereotyping. Cut off from society by choice or by tragic turns, the inhabitants who often have nothing in common have found ways to accept each other and make life work independently of a government, a church, jobs, or even children.

6. Senna

Another documentary overseen by the Academy Senna takes us back to an era that feels positively innocent
with its lack of media trained sportsmen and overly protective PRs. Not to mention the inclusion of some unashamedly oversexed playboys. The beauty of this marvellous piece of filmmaking is that is draws you into this world and, even if you could not care less about watching cars go round and round (and round),
you can not help but be enthralled with this story of one of sports’ true originals.

7. Page One: Inside the New York Times

This documentary shows the daily goings at the biggest and most important institution in the media world; the New York Times. By following the media desk for a whole year, and especially on-screen hero David Carr, we get more than a glimpse of what life is like for a traditional newspaper in the new digital era. A very funny, poignant and interesting must-see documentary for all media savvy individuals.

8. Give Up Tomorrow

Simultaneously a murder-mystery and an exposé of endemic corruption in the Philippines today, Give Up Tomorrow looks intimately at the case of Paco Larrañaga, a student accused of murdering two sisters on the provincial island of Cebu. The film exposes a Kafkaesque world populated by flamboyantly crooked public officials, cops on the take, and a frenzied legal and media circus.

9. Black Power Mixtape

Footage for this archive- and music- driven documentary had been lying undiscovered in the cellar of a Swedish television station for the past 30 years before it was dug up by director Goran Olsson and turned into a great film which tells us the story of the African-American community in the US in the rough but marking years between 1967 and 1975.

10. Better This World

How can it be that two boys with a clean slate from a small town in Texas end up being imprisoned on terrorism charges at the 2008 Republican national convention? With incredible access filmmakers Katie Galloway and Kelly Duane de la Vega present the story of David McKay, Bradley Crowder and their respective families, in this powerful investigative piece of work that will make you seriously wonder about the ways the American justice system is being used by those who can.


Written by

Alexandra Zeevalkink is a Dutch-born journalist living in London who founded DocGeeks in August 2011 in order to have a legitimate excuse to watch every documentary under the sun. She freelances for various publications and writes mainly about documentaries and the film production industry. When she is not blogging or watching films, she enjoys theater, photography and reading loads of books. She is always on the look out for potential partnerships with other creative minds.

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