2012 Best Documentaries

The following list, selected and compiled by Video Librarian staff, honors the best new documentaries reviewed in the magazine and online during 2012. Unless otherwise noted, titles are available from most distributors.

Cover for "65_RedRoses"


(Virgil, 74 min., DVD: $19.99 [$295 w/PPR from Ro*co Films Educational, www.rocoeducational.com])

Aired on the Oprah Winfrey Network, this heartbreaking documentary from filmmakers Philip Lyall and Nimisha Mukerji focuses on twentysomething British Columbia cystic fibrosis patient Eva Markvoort’s awe-inspiring struggles to live life to the fullest. (VL-3/12)

Cover of "Better This World"

Better This World

(Passion River, 89 min., DVD: $24.95 [$295 w/PPR from Bullfrog Films, www.bullfrogfilms.com])

Directors Katie Galloway and Kelly Duane de la Vega’s documentary tells the story of two unfortunate young political activists—twentysomething Texans David McKay and Bradley Crowder—who were caught up in a plot to allegedly firebomb the Republican National Convention in 2008. (VL-5/12)

Cover of "Bobby Fisher Against the World"

Bobby Fischer Against the World

(Docurama, 93 min., DVD: $29.95)

Mercurial chess master Bobby Fischer (1943-2008)—who, at the age of 29, represented the USA in the World Chess Championship Match—is the subject of documentarian Liz Garbus’s absorbing biographical portrait, which includes observations from Henry Kissinger and Dick Cavett, among others. (VL-3/12)

Cover of "The City Dark"

The City Dark

(Wicked Delicate [www.amazon.com], 83 min., DVD: $20 [$295 w/PPR from Bullfrog Films, www.bullfrogfilms.com])

Aired on PBS’s acclaimed POV series, filmmaker and New York-based photographer Ian Cheney’s poetic documentary explores the history of urban nighttime illumination, while also raising questions about the possible consequences to spiritual and physical health. (VL-7/12)

Cover of "Crime After Crime"

Crime After Crime

(Virgil, 93 min., DVD: $19.99 [$295 w/PPR from Ro*co Films Educational, www.rocoeducational.com])

Alternately enraging and inspiring, director Yoav Potash’s documentary tells the story of Deborah Peagler—a battered woman and 25-plus-year California prison inmate—who is championed by a pair of attorneys working for her on a pro bono basis. (VL-5/12)

Cover of "The Dust Bowl"

The Dust Bowl

(PBS, 227 min., DVD: 2 discs, $24.99; Blu-ray: 2 discs, $29.99 [$54.95 w/PPR from PBS, www.teacher.shop.pbs.org])

Interweaving incredible archival photos and footage, excellent interviews of survivors, and insightful comments from authors and historians, documentary filmmaker Ken Burns’ latest visual opus examines the causes and effects of the greatest manmade environmental disaster in American history. (VL-11/12)

Cover of "Girl Model"

Girl Model

(First Run, 77 min., DVD: $27.95, avail. Feb. 12 [$250 w/PPR from Carnivalesque Films, www.carnivalesquefilms.com])

An American modeling scout travels to Siberia to secure models for the Japanese market in this revealing PBS-aired POV documentary from filmmakers David Redmon and Ashley Sabin that focuses on Nadya, a wide-eyed 13-year-old model from Russia. (VL-9/12)

Cover of "Hood to Coast"

Hood to Coast

(Film for Thought [www.hoodtocoastmovie.com], 102 min. DVD: 2 discs, $18.95; Blu-ray: $18.95)

Christoph Baaden’s inspiring and entertaining documentary relates the stories of participants in the Hood to Coast competition, a 24-hour team-relay marathon in which some 12,000 runners travel nearly 200 miles from Oregon’s Mount Hood to the beach in the town of Seaside. (VL Online-1/12)

Cover of "Hot Coffee"

Hot Coffee

(Docurama, 86 min., DVD: $29.95)

Director Susan Saladoff’s documentary uses the much-ballyhooed 1990s civil litigation case brought by a coffee-spilling grandma against fast-food giant McDonald’s as a lead-in to examine the ways in which America’s judicial system is becoming more anti-people and pro-big business. (VL-1/12)

Cover of "How to Die in Oregon"

How to Die in Oregon

(Docurama, 107 min., DVD: $29.95)

Winner of a Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival, director Peter D. Richardson’s HBO-aired documentary tells the heartbreaking but also inspiring stories of terminally-ill individuals who take advantage of Oregon’s status as the first state to legalize physician-assisted suicide. (VL-3/12)

Cover of "The Invisible War"

The Invisible War

(Docurama, 97 min., DVD: $29.95 [$295 w/PPR from Ro*co Films Educational, www.rocoeducational.com])

Filmmaker Kirby Dick shines a light on the disgraceful and often-hidden epidemic of rape within the U.S. military in this documentary that focuses on proud, brave, once-idealistic servicewomen who were betrayed by their comrades. (VL-11/12)

Cover of "Jiro Dreams of Sushi"

Jiro Dreams of Sushi

(Magnolia, 82 min., in Japanese w/English subtitles, DVD: $26.98, Blu-ray: $29.98)

Director David Gelb’s documentary offers an artistic portrait of world renowned 85-year-old sushi chef Jiro Ono—a culinary master who owns a small Michelin-rated Tokyo sushi bar—and his relationship with his middle-aged apprentice son. (VL Online-7/12)

Cover of "The Last Mountain"

The Last Mountain

(Docurama, 95 min., DVD: $29.95 [$250 w/PPR from Uncommon Productions, www.uncommonproductions.com])

Combining striking images and sobering facts, Bill Haney’s documentary aims to bring attention to the issue of mountaintop removal in America’s Appalachian heartland, focusing on a scrappy community fighting to protect an untainted mountain in West Virginia’s Coal River Valley. (VL-1/12)

Cover of "The Learning"

The Learning

(Women Make Movies [www.wmm.com], 98 min., in English & Filipino w/English subtitles, DVD: $29.95: individuals; $89: public libraries; $295: colleges & universities)

Filmed over the course of a school year, Ramona Diaz’s PBS-aired POV documentary offers an eye-opening portrait of four women from the Philippines who face major challenges when they are recruited to teach in Baltimore’s public school system. (VL-7/12)

Cover of "The Other F Word"

The Other F Word

(Oscilloscope, 99 min., DVD: $29.99)

Filmmaker Andrea Blaugrund Nevins’ documentary looks at what happens to rock musicians when they become parents in this “coming of middle age story” that features Punk Rock Dad author Jim Lindberg of Pennywise, Brett Gurewitz of Bad Religion, Black Flag’s Ron Reyes, and others. (VL-3/12)

Cover of "Pink Ribbons, Inc."

Pink Ribbons, Inc.

(First Run, 98 min., DVD: $27.95 [$295 w/PPR from First Run Features, www.firstrunfeatures.com])

Canadian filmmaker Léa Pool questions the corporate culture surrounding breast cancer research in this enlightening documentary inspired by Dr. Samantha King’s 2006 book, which takes a close critical look at the “pink ribbon industry.” (VL-11/12)

Cover of "Project Nim"

Project Nim

(Lionsgate, 93 min., DVD: $19.98)

Based on Elizabeth Hess’s 2008 book subtitled “The Chimp Who Would Be Human,” filmmaker James Marsh’s documentary tells the fascinating and heartbreaking story of simian Nim Chimpsky, which began in 1973 when Columbia University psychologist Herbert Terrace and student Stephanie LaFarge embarked on a project to teach American Sign Language to two-week-old Nim. (VL-1/12)

Cover of "The Pruitt-Igoe Myth"

The Pruitt-Igoe Myth

(First Run, 83 min., DVD: $27.95 [$295 w/PPR from First Run Features, www.firstrunfeatures.com])

Chad Freidrichs’ haunting documentary raises broad issues about U.S. public housing policy by focusing on the compelling history of St. Louis’s Pruitt-Igoe project, which was hailed as a sterling model in 1956 but less than two decades later had devolved into an eyesore plagued by crime and poverty. (VL-7/12)

Cover of "The Queen of Versailles"

The Queen of Versailles

(PBS, 96 min. DVD: $24.99, Blu-ray: $29.99 [$54.95 w/PPR from PBS, www.teacher.shop.pbs.org])

Originally aired on PBS, filmmaker Marshall Curry’s Tribeca Film Festival Jury Prize winning documentary presents a snapshot of a year in the life of three young drivers on the go-kart racing circuit. (VL-9/12)

Cover of "Raw Faith"

Raw Faith

(Kino Lorber, 92 min., DVD: $24.95 [$189 w/PPR from Kino Lorber Edu, www.kinolorberedu.com])

Illustrated with family stills and home movie footage, director Peter Wiedensmith’s touching portrait explores the life and work of Marilyn Sewell—chief minister at a Portland, OR, Unitarian church—as she interacts with appreciative congregants and struggles with personal doubts. (VL-1/12)

Cover of "Ready, Set, Bag!"

Ready, Set, Bag!

(Passion River, 80 min., DVD: $24.95)

Filmmakers Justine Jacob and Alex D. da Silva’s infectiously engaging documentary concentrates on several contestants—ranging from high school and college students to middle-aged men and women—participating in a national annual grocery bagging competition for the title of “Best Bagger” in America. (VL-3/12)

Cover of "Something from Nothing: The Art of Rap"

Something from Nothing: The Art of Rap

(Indomina, 111 min., DVD: $19.98)

Grammy-nominated rapper and actor Ice-T directs this engaging tribute documentary that explores the roots and evolution of rap and hip-hop music through interviews with a veritable who’s who of subjects, including Lord Jamar, Melle Mel, Big Daddy Kane, Afrika Bambaataa, Doug E. Fresh, Nas, and Eminem. (VL-11/12)

Cover of "We Were Here"

We Were Here

(Docurama, 90 min., DVD: $29.95)

Filmmakers David Weismann and Bill Weber’s powerful documentary centering on the emergence of the AIDS crisis is told from the heartrending vantage point of five individuals who witnessed the devastating onslaught of the “gay disease” in San Francisco’s homosexual mecca of Castro Street. (VL-7/12)

Cover of "The Weight of the Nation"

The Weight of the Nation

(HBO, 3 discs, 276 min., DVD: $19.98)

Made in conjunction with the Institute of Medicine, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the National Institutes of Health, this four-part HBO-aired series—combining interviews with experts and ordinary citizens—takes a powerful and timely look at the growing problem of obesity among Americans. (VL-11/12)

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