Eleven Great Documentaries from 2011

After 2010 was such a great year for documentaries we really didn’t expect to have such a great list to put together this year, but documentary filmmakers have really upped their game, yet again.  We recommend checking out all of these, and at least a dozen more this year.

1.  Bill Cunningham New York, directed by Richard Press.

If you’ve spent any time in midtown Manhattan you’ve probably walked by a modest man with white hair in a blue jacket on a bicycle.  You may not have noticed him or the camera around his neck, but he’s as much of a fixture of midtown Manhattan as the skating rink at Rockefeller Plaza.  And he’s as much a part of New York fashion as any designer.  This portrait of Bill Cunningham highlights his unique place in fashion, his singular dedication to his work, and more.  A standout in a year of great documentaries.


2.  The Interrupters directed by Steven James.

A tremendous movie about three “violence interrupters” determined to make a difference in violent neighborhoods of Chicago, one person at a time.  Project Cease Fire  is an unusual approach to dealing with the problems, and has had great successes.  A must see both for the story and the way it’s told.

3.  Senna directed by Asif Kapadia.

Americans know as much about Formula One racing as they do about soccer so it’s not surprising that you haven’t heard of race car driver Ayerton Senna but he was a hero in his home country of Brazil and a legend around the world.  This moving story told primarily through archival footage is as compelling as anything you’ve ever seen, and a great introduction into the world of Formula One.  One of our favorites this year.

4.  Beats Rhymes & Life:  The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest directed by Michael Rapaport.

An amazing look at the band, the tumultuous relationship between its members, and the city of New York in the 80s.  Personal differences, unresolved conflicts and amazing interviews throughout.  Rapaport’s personal love for the music shines through making his directorial debut one of this year’s must see documentaries.

5.  On the Shoulders of Giants directed by Deborah Morales.

The feature-length documentary honors a group of pioneers who have been all but forgotten to time, and it celebrates the legacy of a magical game – and the shoulders that today’s players stand on.  The story of the Harlem Rens, who played in Harlem before the NBA was integrated, were some of the all time greats who helped basketball to become integrated, in part, by drawing larger crowds than league games.  In the background of this incredible story is the beauty and rich culture of Harlem in the 1930’s.  It’s one of the lesser discussed documentaries of the year, but don’t leave it off your list.  Written, narrated and produced by Kareem Abdul Jabbar with music by Wynton Marsalis, Herbie Hancock, Chuck D and Johnny Juice.


6.  Page One:  Inside the New York Times directed by Andrew Rossi.

This unprecedented look at the inner workings of our nation’s most respected journalistic institution is an unexpected surprise this year. The film comes during a time of transition and uncertainty for the print news business as the internet takes its place more and more as America’s number one news source.  The struggle to maintain journalistic standards, while remaining competitive with other more instantaneous forms of journalism are captured in this documentary worthy of  the name New York Times.


7.  Tabloid, Directed by Errol Morris.

Errol Morris looks at the institutions of tabloid journalism through one of the strangest stories to grace the pages of the British tabloids.  Follow the story of Joyce McKinney, told in her own voice.  Back in the 70’s she was accused of kidnapping and raping (yes, raping) her Mormon boyfriend.  She claims she was rescuing him, but very little of what she claimed back then turned out to be true.  Her train wreck of a story is still riveting, almost 30 years later and filled with madness, lies, sex, and more.


8.  Black Power Mixtape, 1967 to 1975 directed by Goran Olsson.

The story of the Black Panthers seen through the eyes of Swedish filmmakers, narrated by Danny Glover.   Looking at the movement through the eyes of those outside of the country show that it wasn’t as violent as our media and government made it out to be.

9.  Project Nim directed by James Marsh.

It’s a strange story to be sure.  The story of a supposedly scientific experiment to see what would happen if you raised a baby chimp in the same manner as you would a human child.  The complete lack of professionalism of the experiment starts early on, when we find out one of Nim’s caretakers has been breastfeeding Nim.  We follow Nim’s life from there on, through a series of homes and experiences, loving behavior and terrible mistakes as he grows up a hybrid of a wild animal and a member of a human family.  A wealth of archival footage tells this unbelievable story.

10.  Into the Abyss directed by Werner Herzog.

Herzog meets with death row inmate Michael Perry only eight days before his execution to examine the ethical issues surrounding capital punishment in the United States.  We hear all sides of this terrible story, as we re-traces the crime, hear from family members of everyone involved, and listen to law enforcement officers all  in a quest to understand and evaluate America’s death penalty.  Although an opponent of the death penalty himself,  Herzog does not shy away from the horrifying details of this senseless crime, allowing you to evaluate your thoughts on capital punishment itself.

11.  American Juggalo by Sean Dunne.

This documentary short is available exclusively online, and exclusively for free, but you won’t feel like you’re watching an internet video as Dunne draws you into his story of the lives and feelings of the Juggalos– a frequently maligned group of fans who follow the band The Insane Clown Posse.

American Juggalo from Sean Dunne on Vimeo.