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Doc Talk: 10 Documentaries People Will Be Talking About at Sundance 2012

As I look back on my “Sundance Documentaries People Will Be Talking About” column from last January, I realize this is my equivalent to other bloggers’ annual “Most Anticipated Movies of [the Coming Year]” list. Partly because to preview the docs playing at Sundance is usually to preview the docs we’ll be seeing in theaters in the next twelve months, as well as to spot some of what will contend for the Oscar in the following year. And partly because in retrospect I similarly had high hopes for films that didn’t really meet expectations.

However, those disappointments aren’t so much of a critical nature, the way Green Lantern and The Hangover Part II might look in hindsight with a glance at movie previews from a year ago. They’re films that either were great but unfortunately weren’t talked about enough (How to Die in Oregon; Resurrect Dead; If a Tree Falls) or weren’t as popular at the box office as I envisioned (Project Nim; The Bengali Detective; Life in a Day). Also, like other bloggers comparing their year-end “Best of” list with their year-start anticipated list, I see a few titles I didn’t include in my 2011 Sundance preview that took me by surprise (Senna; We Were Here; Hell and Back Again) and even ended up on my own “Best of” list — in fact nine Sundance ‘11 titles made my list of Top 20 docs of the year.

What will be this year’s big doc sensations? I can’t be sure, especially since we’re still more than a week away from Opening Night and I’ve only heard minimal buzz on some titles and haven’t yet seen a single one. So far I can only recommend one doc playing Park City this month, the Slamdance dairy farm doc The First Season, but while this terrific verite exploration of generation and restoration among a family and its cows is worth seeing, it isn’t really fodder for huge discussions. More provocative Slamdance offerings should be the child boxing film Buffalo Girls, the transgender teen prostitute film Kelly, the amateur porn doc Danland, the ALS grafitti artist profile Getting Up: The TEMPT ONE Story and the Anonymous profile We Are Legion: The Story of the Hactivists. Watch a trailer for that last one here:

As for Sundance, it’s easy to assume the films tackling heavy issues will spawn interesting conversation during post-screening Q&As, at the very least. Among this year’s 37 nonfiction titles are docs about nuclear power (The Atomic States of America), health care (Escape From Fire: The Fight to Rescue American Healthcare), AIDS (How to Survive a Plague), the War on Drugs (The House I Live In) and a number of films related to the recession, poverty and possibly the Occupy movement, including docs on the economic gap (We’re Not Broke), lost fortunes (The Queen of Versailles *) and the American hunger crisis (Finding North).

I’ll be honest and say the Documentary Premieres section this year looks particularly underwhelming. There’s a seemingly unnecessary doc covering Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory territory (the Peter Jackson-produced West of Memphis), another skateboarding film from Stacy Peralta (Bones Brigade: An Autobiography), the directorial debut of Ice-T (Something From Nothing: The Art of Rap), a film by the son of Sundance founder Robert Redford, about his own son (The D Word: Understanding Dyslexia), and a film by the daughter of Robert Kennedy, about her mother (Ethel) — and while admittedly Rory Kennedy is a great filmmaker, I just can’t help having low expectations after her brother’s disappointing vehicle from last year’s fest, The Last Mountain. Of course, any of these may surprise me. I hope at least one does.

Below is a list of ten titles that I think will generate discussion and/or buzz this year. Because I haven’t yet seen any of them, I don’t promise they’ll actually be worthwhile let alone the hits of the festival. It’s more like a list of docs I’m highly anticipating based on synopses, filmmaker credentials, insider and industry chatter and intuition. In order from intense curiosity to definite must-see, here are the films of Sundance 2012 I can’t wait to see:

10. Room 237 (Rodney Ascher, New Frontier) – Because this film is programmed in the New Frontier section it might not be on most documentary fans’ radar. And even if it is, many may not consider it anyway. If it’s anything like Ascher’s bizarre 2010 short The S from Hell (watch it here), which brilliantly obsesses over the old Screen Gems logo, it will be a surreal treat for movie geeks yet frustrating for the more orthodox nonfiction aficionados. This time Ascher focuses on Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, specifically on wild conspiracy theories and analyses pertaining to the film’s true meaning. Is it a veiled confession by Kubrick of the truth about the moon landing? Does it concern Native American slaughter? The Holocaust? Even if you don’t buy any of the interpretations they’re sure to be very interesting.

9. 5 Broken Cameras (Emad Burnat and Guy Davidi, World Doc Competition) – Coming off its double honor at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam, where it won the Audience Award and a Special Jury Prize, this film combines the personal and the activist genres. Begun as a home video about the birth of Burnat’s son, it turns into a subjective view on a larger story about his village as the Palestinian community protests and resists Israel’s seizure of its farmland. The title refers to the filmmaker-protagonist’s own cameras broken through the years of documenting this fight, each one of them as much evidence and as filled with history as the footage it captured. Watch the trailer:

8. Under African Skies (Joe Berlinger, Doc Premieres) – Just as Berlinger’s latest Paradise Lost installment (with co-director Bruce Sinofsky) hits HBO and possibly an Oscar nomination (not to mention the special Hell Yeah Award presented tonight at the Cinema Eye Honors), the prolific and versatile documentarian will arrive in Park City with another new film, ironically in the same program as Peter Jackson’s rival West Memphis Three doc. This anniversary/reunion themed profile of Paul Simon’s Graceland album seems a lot less crucial, but anyone who has seen Berlinger and Sinofsky’s Metallica: Some Kind of Monster knows he doesn’t make mediocre music docs. And even if this isn’t similarly one of the greatest music docs ever made, I’ll at least still find enjoyment in it. Graceland was one of my first and will always be one of my favorite records.  

7. China Heavyweight (Yung Chang, World Doc Competition) – Since a lot of people were into last year’s Sundance boxing doc, Knuckle, I think this could be another very popular film due to its action-heavy story. And given that this one is from the director of Up the Yangtze and shot by one of the cameramen for Last Train Home (Shaoguang Sun), it’s sure to be a lot better looking. I don’t normally care much for sport docs, which are often as generic as their fiction equivalents, but I’m quite intrigued by the foreign perspectives of this and U.S. Doc Competition selection The Other Dream Team, which I give an honorable mention to below. Watch the trailer:

6. Payback (Jennifer Baichwal, World Doc Competition) – Based on Margaret Atwood’s nonfiction book Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth, the film explores the wide topic of debt, not just in financial terms but also pertaining to societal, theological and ecological types of debts man has carried throughout history. Directed by Jennifer Baichwal, best known for the highly acclaimed Manufactured Landscapes but now coming off extremely divided reviews for Act of God, here’s hoping this is another winner. It has already just been picked up for distribution by Zeitgeist Films, though this isn’t too surprisings since they also handled her last two docs. Watch the trailer:

5. Chasing Ice (Jeff Orlowski, U.S. Doc Competition) – Sure to be one of the great visual treats among the documentary offerings this year, the film spotlights climate change-focused time-lapse footage captured by National Geographic photographer James Balog, whose Extreme Ice Survey (EIS) is presenting evidence of melting glaciers around the world. Also, it’s written by the great Mark Monroe (The Cove; The Tillman Story; Once in a Lifetime) and features a score by the likely (hopefully) Oscar nominee J. Ralph (Hell and Back Again). And for the kids out there, it shares a producer with some of the Harry Potter movies (Paula DuPre Pesmen). The premise and purpose of Chasing Ice reminds me of Sebastian Copeland’s underseen 2010 doc Into the Cold (which is disappointingly not available through Netflix), another film intending to show us the fading beauty of polar and glacial environments so that we’ll want to save them. I also recommend visiting and walking upon a glacier if you ever have opportunity for the life-changing experience. If not, maybe Orlowski’s film will be a virtual alternative. Check out a promo for the EIS that may give an idea of what to expect in the film:

4. Searching for Sugar Man (Malik Bendjelloul, World Doc Competition) – As a huge fan of James Marsh, the director of my favorite doc of the 2000s (Man on Wire) and my favorite doc of 2011 (Project Nim), I’ll see anything claiming to be influenced by or compared to his work. Bendjelloul has done just that in an Indiewire profile, in which he claims Man on Wire inspired him to take a responsibility that I very much support, “to make a film that was as good as the story.” It also helps that this music doc, about obscure 1970s rocker Rodriguez, is produced by Marsh’s co-Oscar-winner, Simon Chinn. Let’s hope they don’t disappoint. But regardless at least there’s also a new Marsh film at Sundance this year, even if it is a narrative feature (Shadow Dancer).

3. The Ambassador (Mads Brugger, World Doc Competition) – One of the most challenging docs for me, ever, is Brugger’s Sundance-winning The Red Chapel, which is as ethically complicated as it is hilarious. Now he’s back with another controversial film (produced by Lars von Trier’s company) that appears even more akin to Sacha Baron Cohen territory, in which the filmmaker heads to Africa under the guise of a rich white diplomat looking to exploit the area’s people and resources. Actually, from the trailer it seems to be unbearably cocky and manipulative but also potentially even funnier and more revealing than his prior film. Even if I hate it more than I love it, I know this will be a provocative film that can’t be missed, and I hear from people who’ve seen it that I won’t regret seeing it. Watch the trailer:

2. The Invisible War (Kirby Dick, U.S. Doc Competition) – I’m already seeing the conversation building on this film and it hasn’t even premiered yet. It’s the kind of important issue film that exposes something few of us think or know about, and so the passion from people associated with the doc and people awaiting its release is very strong. Dick, who you know from This Film is Not Yet Rated, tackles the disturbing truth about women (and some men) in the military being raped and/or sexually assaulted by fellow soldiers, a fate reportedly more probable than being killed in combat. A similar story was exposed in last year’s Sundance hit Hot Coffee, but this film is expectantly more powerful and should provide greater awareness. I haven’t seen it yet, but the trailer alone has already made me very sad and angry. Watch it here:

1. The Imposter  (Bart Layton, World Doc Competition) – Another film from Simon Chinn and executive producer John Battsek, whose name has been attached to many exceptional works like Man on Wire, Restrepo and We Live in Public, I’m hearing incredible buzz on this one. It follows the story of a European boy who apparently pretended to be a missing kid from Texas, and with a reenactment-heavy style the doc is said to play like a film noir or narrative thriller (see the production still at the top of this post). The primary subject was also written about in a lengthy New Yorker article from 2008, but I haven’t read it because I’m fearing it will spoil the movie. I also fear that I’m getting a tad too excited about this film and like Resurrect Dead last year it may not live up to my expectations. I’m sure that like Resurrect Dead, though, it will still be a fascinating work and a great conversation starter.

Honorable mentions for films I expect to be (and in some instances have heard are) very good if not groundbreaking: Putin’s Kiss; How to Survive a Plague; Indie Game: The Movie; Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s Detropia; Don Argott and Sheena Joyce’s The Atomic States of America; The Queen of Versailles; Love Free or Die; The Other Dream Team; Sam Pollard’s Slavery By Another Name and of course Participant Media’s latest, Finding North

*UPDATE: One film is already spawning potential discussion via legal controversy. One of the subjects of The Queen of Versailles is suing the filmmakers and the Sundance Institute for defamation. I guess my “fortunes lost” description might not hold up after all.