Video Librarian 2011 Best Documentaries

The following list, selected and compiled by Video Librarian staff, honors the best new documentaries reviewed in the magazine and online during 2011. Unless otherwise noted, titles are available from most distributors.

Cover for "9000 Needles"
9000 Needles

(Bigfoot Ascendant [www.bigfootascendant.com], 83 min., DVD: $16.99)

After filmmaker Doug Dearth’s brother Devin—a champion bodybuilder—suffered a stroke, his physical therapy was cut short by his insurance company. Disillusioned, Dearth’s family made arrangements to take Devin to China for a relatively low-cost alternative treatment involving acupuncture and herbal remedies. This powerful, uplifting documentary captures Devin’s emotionally moving experience. (VL-7/11)

Cover for "The Battle for Marjah"
The Battle for Marjah

(Athena, 84 min., Blu-ray/DVD Combo: $34.99)

With the U.S. military invasion of Afghanistan passing a 10th anniversary, this HBO-aired documentary—from embedded British journalist filmmaker Ben Anderson—illustrates why a clear-cut victory remains elusive, focusing on the Marines’ efforts to win the titular Taliban-held town. (VL-11/11)

Buck

(MPI, 89 min., DVD: $24.98)

Winner of an Audience Award at Sundance, director Cindy Meehl’s documentary serves up an amiable profile of charismatic cowboy Buck Brannaman, the real-life “horse whisperer” who inspired Nicholas Evans’s 1995 novel. (VL Online-9/11)

Cover for "Catfish"
Catfish

(Universal, 88 min., DVD: $19.98, Blu-ray: $26.98)

Exploring a bizarre Facebook encounter, directors Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost’s controversial documentary tells a tangled tale involving Schulman’s younger brother Nev, a New York City photographer contacted by an 8-year-old Michigan artistic prodigy who supposedly created a remarkable oil painting inspired by one of Nev’s striking photos. (VL Online-1/11)

Circus

(PBS, 3 discs, 360 min., DVD: $34.99, Blu-ray: $39.99 ($44.95 w/PPR from www.pbs.org)

Aired on PBS, director Maro Chermayeff’s excellent behind-the-scenes documentary series explores the fascinating characters working for the Big Apple Circus, a traditional one-ring revue that performs for several months in Manhattan. (VL-3/11)

Cover for "Dad’s in Heaven with Nixon"
Dad’s in Heaven with Nixon

(Two Sons Productions [www.amazon.com], 86 min., DVD: $19.99 [$179.95 w/PPR from Films Media Group, www.films.com])

Filmmaker Tom Murray’s poignant documentary details his family’s up-and-down history as descendants of prolific inventor T.E. Murray, ultimately focusing on his autistic brother Chris, who might have languished in institutions but instead became a critical and financial success as an artist known for his colorful Manhattan landscapes. (VL-9/11)

Cover for "Dive!"
Dive!

(First Run, 53 min., DVD: $24.95)

Examining the urban phenomenon of dumpster diving outside grocery stores in order to retrieve perfectly edible food, director Jeremy Seifert’s documentary follows the filmmaker and his friends on several midnight raids in Los Angeles, while also reflecting on broader issues related to waste amidst growing poverty. (VL-9/11)

Family Affair

(C-Line Films [www.c-linefilms.com], 82 min., DVD: $20: individuals; $295 (w/PPR): institutions)

Filmed over five years, director Chico Colvard’s dysfunctional family portrait grips the viewer at the outset by recounting a childhood day in Kentucky in 1978 when Chico accidentally shot and badly wounded his sister Paula with an automatic rifle owned by his Vietnam-vet father, Elijah—an event that would lead to the exposure of Elijah’s incestuous abuse of his three daughters. Colvard visits his sisters—now adults—who break bread with their father during Thanksgiving but are estranged from their mother. (VL-3/11)

Cover for "Forbidden Lie$"
Forbidden Lie$

(IndiePix, 104 min., DVD: $24.95)

Anna Broinowski’s controversial and fascinating documentary follows Norma Khouri, a Jordanian-born writer whose 2003 bestseller Forbidden Love—detailing a tragic honor killing in her native country—was later declared to be a literary fraud. (VL-1/11)

Cover for "Forks Over Knives"
Forks Over Knives

(Virgil, 96 min., DVD: $24.99, Blu-ray: $29.99)

Lee Fulkerson’s illuminating documentary takes a critical look at the consequences of Western dietary habits, offering compelling evidence supporting the benefits of a plant-based diet (VL-9/11)

Cover for "Gasland"
Gasland

(Docurama, 106 min., DVD: $29.95)

Josh Fox’s fascinating and frightening Oscar-nominated documentary questions the claim that natural gas is the answer to America’s energy crisis, examining the controversial extraction process called hydraulic fracturing—or “fracking”—which involves pumping toxic chemicals into wells to release the gas. Fox discovers that major sources of drinking water are being contaminated (some folks can even use a lighter to set their tap water on fire), and that the air around well sites is becoming polluted. (VL-11/11)

Cover for "Hey, Boo: Harper Lee & To Kill a Mockingbird"
Hey, Boo: Harper Lee & To Kill a Mockingbird

(First Run, 82 min., DVD: $24.95)

Mary McDonagh Murphy’s touching documentary looks at the stunning success of Harper Lee’s semiautobiographical Pulitzer Prize-winning 1960 novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, and discusses the life of the reclusive Alabama writer who would never pen another book. (VL-9/11)

Cover for "If God Is Willing and Da Creek Don’t Rise"
If God Is Willing and Da Creek Don’t Rise

(HBO, 2 discs, 240 min., DVD: $24.98)

Spike Lee’s HBO-aired two-part documentary sequel revisits the city of New Orleans five years after his 2006 When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts, which explored the human impact of the devastating Hurricane Katrina. (VL-5/11)

Cover for "Inside Job"
Inside Job

(Sony, 108 min., DVD: $28.95, Blu-ray: $34.95)

Narrated by Matt Damon, filmmaker Charles Ferguson’s Oscar-winning documentary offers a penetrating look at the financial industry’s culpability in setting off the 2008 global economic crisis, featuring interviews with authors, bank managers, and government ministers. (VL-3/11)

Lucky

(Docurama, 82 min., DVD: $29.95)

Director Jeffrey Blitz’s insightful documentary looks at how the lottery changes people’s lives in unexpected ways, examining the various consequences—good and bad—on winners, ranging from a carnival-ride operator whose $16 million jackpot almost got him killed (by his own greedy family members) to a Vietnamese-American man who was able to provide luxury living quarters for relatives in his native homeland. (VL-7/11)

Cover for "Marwencol"
Marwencol

(Cinema Guild, 84 min., DVD: $29.95, Blu-ray: $34.95)

Director Jeff Malmberg’s engaging documentary explores the life of eccentric protagonist Mark Hogancamp, whose severe beating outside a bar in 2000 left him brain-damaged and comatose. Recuperating, Hogancamp would create the titular multifaceted WWII Belgian model village with plastic dolls, and take photographs that would eventually attract the notice of the art world. (VL-3/11)

Cover for "Orgasm Inc."
Orgasm Inc.

(First Run, 80 min., DVD: $27.95)

Director Liz Canner’s funny and provocative documentary looks at the search for a cure for Female Sexual Dysfunction, a nebulous condition dismissed as an excuse for drug profiteering by some experts, including New York University psychiatry professor Dr. Leonore Tiefer and British Medical Journal editor Ray Moynihan. (VL-9/11)

Cover for "Page One: Inside the New York Times"
Page One: Inside the New York Times

(Magnolia, 92 min., DVD: $26.98, Blu-ray: $29.98)

Andrew Rossi’s insightful documentary selectively covers 12 months in the life of the nation’s newspaper of record, focusing on stories at the New York Times’ media desk, while also examining broader difficulties facing all traditional print media from online competition. (VL Online-10/11)

The Parking Lot Movie

(Passion River, 71 min., DVD: $19.99 [$129 w/PPR from www.passionriver.com])

Aired on Independent Lens, Meghan Eckman’s documentary explores 21st-century class-war through the microcosm of a pay parking lot in Charlottesville, VA—chronicling the daily trials and triumphs of overeducated part-timers working as car-park attendants. (VL-9/11)

Cover for "Public Speaking"
Public Speaking

(HBO, 82 min., DVD: $19.98)

Railing against contemporary celebrity culture, Jewish lesbian author Fran Lebowitz is the subject of Martin Scorsese’s wonderfully entertaining documentary, in which the outspoken author sits down in a booth at NYC’s Waverly Inn and riffs on a wide variety of subjects. (VL-7/11)

Cover for "Stonewall Uprising"
Stonewall Uprising

(PBS, 90 min., DVD: $24.99 [$49.99 w/PPR from www.pbs.org])

Originally broadcast on PBS’s American Experience series, this powerful documentary by Kate Davis and David Heilbroner—based on David Carter’s book Stonewall—offers an extraordinary in-depth history of the events that led to the Stonewall riots in 1969, which marked the beginning of the gay rights movement. (VL-7/11)

Tabloid

(MPI, 88 min., DVD: $24.98)

Famed documentarian Errol Morris returns to the lighter side with this documentary on media sensationalism, focusing on Joyce McKinney, who became a celebrity in the British press in 1977 when she pursued a Salt Lake City man to England and either kidnapped or rescued him from Mormon missionary duty—an odd-enough event that still turned out to be only the beginning of her life in the tabloids. (VL-11/11)

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Tibet in Song

(New Yorker, 86 min., in Tibetan & English w/English subtitles, DVD: $29.95)

Part autobiographical essay, part history lesson, this thought-provoking documentary by Ngawang Choephel—who escaped Tibet as a child but returned to film native folk-singing, and was jailed—celebrates traditional Tibetan culture while also voicing protest over its suppression by the Chinese government. (VL-11/11)

Cover for "Waiting for Superman"
Waiting for Superman

(Paramount, 111 min., DVD: $29.99, Blu-ray: $39.99)

Filmmaker Davis Guggenheim’s documentary offers an eye-opening overview of America’s ailing educational system, serving up portraits of five children attending schools in D.C., the Bronx, East Los Angeles, and Silicon Valley that are uniformly inadequate to their needs. (VL-3/11)

Cover for "Waking Sleeping Beauty"
Waking Sleeping Beauty

(Buena Vista, 86 min., DVD: $19.99)

Don Hahn’s documentary chronicles the amazing transition in Disney animation from a low point in the mid-1980s through the following decade, when a near-miraculous burst of corporate leadership and artistic genius spawned The Little Mermaid and other classics. (VL-3/11)