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DG presents the Top 20 documentaries of 2012

It might be a dull thing to say (let alone read) but nonetheless it’s true; the past year has brought us some amazing quality documentaries. We had a little tally here at the office and came up with a list of 20 documentaries that we thought you should see (if you haven’t already).

So this Christmas, when Nan falls asleep after having drunken too much eggnoch, dad is going over the 40-page long instructions that come with his new gadget gift and mum is doing the dishes, turn on your laptop or TV and start watching one of these great docs.

Top 20 documentaries in 2012

1. Searching for Sugar Man (Malik Bendjelloul)
Shortlisted for an Oscar, presented with the IDA award and the IDFA audience award; first-time director Malik Bendjelloul certainly struck gold when he pursued his investigation into the mysterious death of singer/songwriter Rodriguez, whose poetic songs became the voice of the anti-Apartheid movement in South Africa without him ever knowing they did. (More…)

2. The Queen of Versailles (Lauren Greenfield)
Nothing is as it seems in life, the same goes for this film and its subjects. From the onset this beautifully shot film is a pure riches to rags story which will ensure your jaw keeps dropping. Look a bit further, however, and you will discover much more than just a fantastic laugh about a flamboyant family. (More…)

3. We Went to War (Michael Grigsby)
In 1970 director Michael Grigsby made the acclaimed documentary I Was A Soldier, one of the first ever films about young men returning from the Vietnam War.  Forty years later he returned to Texas, with co-author Rebekah Tolley, to see how the intervening years have served these men. (More…)

4. The Island President (Jon Shenk)
A president who singlehandedly tries to save his nation, it sounds like a bad Hollywood film but nothing is further from the truth.  The Island President tells the story of former President Mohamed Nasheed of the Maldives, a man confronting a problem greater than any other world leader has ever faced—the literal survival of his country and everyone in it. (More…)

5. Chasing Ice (Jeff Orlowski)
Acclaimed photographer James Balog was once a sceptic about climate change. But through his Extreme Ice Survey, he discovered undeniable evidence of how quickly our planet was changing. For several years his quest for the truth was filmed by Jeff Orlowski, who ensured footage from the survey became Chasing Ice, a  jaw-dropping feature full of indescribably stunning footage. (More…)

6. Nostalgia for the Light (Patricio Guzmán)
Taking us back to his homeland Chile, Patricio Guzmán manages to encompass the personal, political and historical in one visually stunning film. Heart-breaking and poetical, Nostalgia for the Light explores both ancient and recent historical moments, and interweaving the most extraordinary stories ensures we will not forget the horrific past of this beautiful nation. (More…)

7. Ping Pong (Hugh Hartford)}
If you ever feel you’re getting too old to do something you like then watch this film and get your ass in gear! Ping Pong follows a group of  elderly from around the world while they compete in the Over 85s World Table Tennis Championships with fierce determination. Hartford’s film is funny (but certainly not full of cheap laughs) and shows off some of the director’s excellent documentary making skills. (More…)

8. Shut Up and Play The Hits (Will Lovelace, Dylan Southern)
Sundance’s director of programming, Trevor Groth, called it “by far the coolest film we’ve ever shown at Sundance.” And it’s true; Shut Up and Play the Hits, a documentary about the last days of LCD Soundsystem is far more than a concert registration of one of the greatest bands that was. It is a feast of music, visuals and the human side of fame. (More…)

9. Undefeated (Daniel Lindsay)
See how the determination of one volunteer coach influences a group of deprived young me who are fighting to get their football team in the state finals; a success that could change their lives forever. (More…)

10. Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry (Alison Klayman)
First-time director Alison Klayman’s film shows us the ins and outs of the man who will no doubt be written down in the history books as one of the world’s most important artists of the 21st century; Ai Weiwei – man who shows no fear (as to show fear is to give up) but that doesn’t mean he isn’t frightened. (More…)

11. The House I Live In (Eugene Jarecki)
Is the war on drugs really working? If so, why don’t we have less drugs trade, less drugs addicts and less related crimes? Also, what was the true motivation behind this “war” to start with, was it really stemming from a government’s concern about the welfare of its citizens? The House I Live In explores all these issues and much, much more.  (More…)

12. 5 Broken Cameras (Emad Burnat)
The award winning 5 Broken Cameras is the poignant tale of a small Palestinian village’s struggle for freedom when encroaching Israeli settlements threaten to engulf their land. Seen through the eyes of local farmer and director Emad Burnat, this doc gives an intimate and unique insight into the villagers’ on-going perseverance in their struggle for liberty against all odds. (More…)

13. The Invisible War (Kirby Dick)
This flawless investigation by Oscar and Emmy nominated director Kirby Dick reveals that some servicemen, who are working to prevent evil acts of terrorism from reaching American soil, are in fact themselves guilty of accomplishing acts that are equally as brutal, if not worse. (More…)

14. In The Shadow of the Sun (Harry Freeland)
The audience at IDFA rated it their second favourite out of a possible 300 films – and with just cause. Harry Freeland’s new documentary In The Shadow of the Sun is a phenomenal piece of filmmaking which doesn’t just tells us but also truly lets us feel the heart-breaking fear and pain that albinos in Tanzania experience on a daily basis. (More…)

15. Bombay Beach (Alma Har’el)
Against the backdrop of the man-made Salton Sea, a now deserted place once hailed as the perfect place to celebrate the long Californian summers, hides an extreme wealth of characters who each in their own way show us what life is like for them. Alma Har’el’s background of making music videos is clearly visible in this film which is a work of perfection, yet it has enough personality and original storyline to be rightly called a documentary. (More…)

16. The Imposter (Bart Layton)
1994, San Antonio, Texas, a 13-year old Nicholas Barclay disappears without a trace. His family is left distraught, broken and scared. Who has taken their beloved son, is he still alive? Then, just over three years later, miraculous news is delivered; their boy has been found – in Spain. But instead of the end of it, this is merely the beginning of a story so unbelievable that it can only be true. (More…)

17. Girl Model (David Redmon & Ashley Sabin)
Stuck in rural Siberia with no exciting future prospects and a family breathing in their neck, girls as young as 12 try to break through as models. In their minds life will be good for them and their families as long as they work hard and do as told. The reality however is very different. (More…)

18. Call me Kuchu (Katherine Fairfax, Malika Zouhali-Worrall)
Homosexuality is still taboo in many societies throughout the world. One such society is the East-African country of Uganda, which has become renowned for its hostile attitude towards LGBT communities following recent legislative attempts to make homosexual acts punishable by death. (More…)

19. Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present (Matthew Akers)
She is stunning, seductive, fun and very determined, and for her last ever performance sat down on a chair for three whole months in the MoMA, devoting all her attention to the person in the seat opposite her, without speaking. It sounds mad but then again, Marina Abramovic is the ultimate performance artist who has wowed the art scene for over 40 years. (More…)

20. Samsara (Ron Fricke)
Samsara is truly a sensory experience. Neither music doc nor travel doc it hovers in the middle of all things beautiful. We might not be able to touch, smell or feel through film but we can see and hear all the more. (More…)

So that’s it, our top 20 docs of 2012. We know that, as a reader of this blog, you probably have your own opinion of the matter but, before you place angry comments in the box below, you need to know that the selection we chose from included solely the films that were shown in the UK this year outside of the festival circuit (so either on TV or in the cinema). If you still disagree, or would like to share your thoughts with us, then we’d love to hear!


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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6 Responses to "DG presents the Top 20 documentaries of 2012"

  1. David says:

    In this case … I wonder .. how many documentaries have been shown in the UK outside of the festival circuit (in the cinema) ?

    1. Last year it was around 70 documentary films and I belief this year that figure increased. Not bad for an ‘underdog’ cinema category…

  2. ryan says:

    what about how to survive a plague?

    1. As far as we know it was only shown in London as part of the East End Film Festival. Very good doc though which deserves to be seen by more. Hopefully the Oscar longlisting will help with this.

  3. Emma says:

    A great list. Let’s hope 2013 has lots of equally brilliant docs for us!

  4. TDH says:

    Hard to disagree with any of the above, but a few that were unlucky:

    Kevin Macdonald’s “Marley”? A far more impressive piece of work than the LCD doc in my opinion (as much as I also enjoyed the latter).

    Big Easy Express & Indie Game: The Movie [both films that were available to stream in the UK in 2012, which I hope renders them eligible].

    Also thought Baxter’s “You’ve Been Trumped” was much under-rated.