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Best Documentaries of 2011

2010 was arguably one of the greatest years for documentaries ever. 2011, while not quite as rich in nonfiction fare, was nevertheless a worthy year to follow it up. The most successful documentaries are those that illuminate as well as entertain. Here are the ten from 2011 that did so the best, in alphabetical order…

 - The Arbor

A creative, original portrait of British playwright Andrea Dunbar, The Arbor features actors lip-synching and acting out scenes from it’s subject’s life.

 - Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest

 Sometimes enlightening, sometimes heartbreaking, and always entertaining, Beats, Rhymes and Life is a fitting account and tribute to one of the best hip-hop groups of all-time, owing in part to the affableness of the artists themselves.

 - Bill Cunningham New York

A vibrant and colorful documentary, and one that does justice to its title protagonist, who is as fascinating as any character in any fiction film from this year.

 - The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975

There is a certain innocence that the Swedish filmmakers who shot the footage in The Black Power Mixtape brought to their coverage of the Black Power movement. Their outsiders’ perspective is surprisingly warm and accessible, as well as enlightening and elegant. Here is a fresh glimpse at one of the most intriguing periods in American history.

 - Cave of Forgotten Dreams

The cave paintings in Werner Herzog’s documentary are apparently the oldest in the world. Even so, they tell us as much about ourselves as we could ever hope to know.

 - Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop

Here is a film that does an excellent job of putting a very human and vulnerable face on the very public 2010 Tonight Show timeslot war. Plus, it’s funny as hell. I wish Conan were as forthright and wickedly funny on his TBS show as he is here.

 - The Greatest Movie Ever Sold

Sporting maybe the best title of any movie this year (full title: POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold), Morgan Spurlock’s latest tongue-in-cheek documentary is a rousing critique of the product placement and advertising that saturates film and, it seems, the world itself.

 - The Interrupters

A powerful and lucid film about a group of brave men and women who try to disrupt inner-city violence before it can begin, The Interrupters is a vital call to action for all those who see it.

 - Life In a Day

 A unique and surprising film, Life In a Day is a documentary for the Youtube generation; for the people, by the people.

 - Nostalgia For the Light

This meditative documentary from Chilean director Patricio Guzman chronicles the pursuit of astronomers in Chile’s Atacama Desert for clues as to the origins of the universe while a group of women nearby search for the remains of loved ones killed by Augusto Pinochet, former dictator of Chile. 


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