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Top docs of 2012 prove that truth can be as dramatic as fiction

Dennis King Published: January 4, 2013

BY DENNIS KING

NEW YORK – The Oklahoman’s fine staff of critics has now had its say about 2012’s best films, and the Oklahoma Film Critics Circle has revealed its worthy roster of the year’s top 10 movies. So instead of duplicating those lists, we thought this year we’d turn our year-end tallying efforts to non-fiction cinema.

The range of documentary films that stream through New York’s specialized venues is staggering (along with numerous doc festivals, New York even has a great  documentary-only theater in Harlem’s The Maysles Cinema and a non-profit Downtown Community Television Center, devoted to documentary film education, will begin construction in March). So just a tip-of-the-iceberg survey of top docs available this year yields a pretty impressive list.

Here are our 10 favorites (some of which screened in Oklahoma during 2012 and some that are available on DVD or through video-on-demand sources):

“Low & Clear”- By our admittedly partisan reckoning this lusciously photographed, compellingly dramatic documentary is the best of the year. Telling the tale of lifelong but estranged buddies – laid-back J.T. Van Zandt (son of Texas music legend Townes Van Zandt) and wild man Alex “Xenie” Hall – as they reunite for a trip to the roiling rivers of British Columbia to catch fish and rekindle their friendship, the movie follows in the tradition of that greatest of all fly fishing movies, “A River Runs Through It.” Beneath its surface it’s about so much more than fly fishing.

“Searching for Sugar Man” – In “Stone Reader,” Mark Moskowitz’s fascinating 2002 documentary, the filmmaker spun a literary detective story that eventually led to the rediscovery of forgotten Iowa novelist Dow Mossman and the republishing of his long out-of-print  masterwork “The Stones of Summer.” That inspiring documentary quest now has an equally fascinating and uplifting musical counterpart in Swedish director Malik Bendjelloul’s splendid investigation into the life and times of a mysterious Detroit singer/songwriter named Rodriguez, whose amazing story of fame, obscurity and resurrection is the stuff of a folk-rock fairy tale.

“Bully” – Director Lee Hirsch’s humane and heart-breaking documentary looks at the terrible face of bullying in America by following five kids and families over the course of a school year. The episodes include two families who have lost children to suicide and a mother awaiting the fate of her 14-year-old daughter who was jailed after bringing a gun on her school bus. By taking cameras into homes, classrooms, cafeterias and principals’ offices to expose these people’s wrenching dramas, the film provides profound insight into the damaged lives of bullied children.

“The Queen of Versailles” – If there’s a queasy, outrageous caricature to be had of America’s pampered and greedy one per-centers, it’s surely in the breathtaking portrait painted of the Siegels – 73-year-old time-share billionaire David and his balloon-chested 43-year-old blonde trophy wife Jackie – in director Lauren Greenfield’s lurid, funny yet oddly poignant contemplation on corrosive wealth and materialism run amok.

“Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present” – In the spring of 2010, 63-year-old Yugoslavian performance artist Marina Abramovic sat upright in a chair in New York’s Museum of Modern Art – six days a week, 7 1/2 hours a day for 90 days, without eating, drinking or moving – while some 750,000 patrons queued up to sit opposite her and gaze into her serene face. The occasion – documented for HBO – was a groundbreaking retrospective of the artist’s work which showcased Abramovic in a grueling installation and looked back on more than 40 years of odd and confrontational exhibitions that have earned this striking Serbian woman the title “grandmother of performance art.”

“Jiro Dreams of Sushi”- Foodies will find a Zen-like sense of bliss in this story of 85-year-old sushi master Jiro Ono, whose tiny, exclusive restaurant in the basement of a Tokyo office building is legend. Director David Gelb’s serene and wonderful documentary looks at the artful dedication of this humble, bespectacled man as he shepherds his sons into the rarefied restaurant world and follows his lifelong quest to create the perfect piece of sushi.

“Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry” – The Chinese art star, trouble-maker and activist of the title is a freewheeling dissident who, as we see in Alison Klayman’s thrilling and thoughtful documentary, employs his rumpled charisma and wily way with social media to confound and infuriate the repressive, authoritarian bureaucrats of China’s all-powerful Communist Party.

“The Central Park Five” – In 1989, five black and Latino teenagers were arrested and charged with the brutal attack and rape of a female jogger in Central Park. In the wake of the highly publicized trial, the young men were sent to prison for a crime they didn’t commit. This painstaking, riveting documentary by Ken Burns, David McMahon, and Sarah Burns recounts the story of justice denied (a serial rapist eventually confessed) with incisive interviews, reams of archival footage that allows the falsely accused to tell their own story. It’s a fantastic and thoughtful film that documents a travesty of justice that remains a blot on New York’s even a decade after the convictions were vacated.

“Chasing Ice” – For all the heated public debate over global warming, it often takes frontline images from environmental artists to hammer home the point. Such is the case with this strikingly beautiful and harrowing film by director Jeff Orlowski that offers an up-close look at the damage

that climate change is visiting on the Arctic landscape. Following the courageous and risky work of National Geographic photographer James Balog and his team, the film treks across the Arctic and charts Balog’s deployment of time-lapse cameras to capture a multi-year record of the Earth’s dangerously changing glaciers.

“Brooklyn Castle” – Katie Dellamaggiore’s inspiring documentary covers two years in the history of the chess team at a profoundly troubled Brooklyn middle school. A moving testament to the power of intelligence to change lives and conquer adversity, the film shows the transformative powers of a discipline such as chess at a school where most of the pupils live below the poverty line. One of those students, Rochelle Ballantyn, discovers a virtuoso talent that fuels her dream of becoming the first female African-American grandmaster in U.S. chess history.