The Best Documentaries of 2011

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Note: This chart was updated in February 2012. View the updated post »

What was the best documentary of 2011? That depends on who you ask, of course. If you go by the top documentary festivals, critics’ circles, vote aggregators and other awards-giving organizations, you could have named any one of 68 67 documentaries — from An African Election to Zeitgeist: Moving Forward — and still had at least some support for your decision.

The chart below aggregates these lists of top docs, and sorts them based on the number of wins, nominations and list appearances, with the better known awards and festivals getting more weight.

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The Best Documentaries of 2011

The Best Documentaries of 2011. Click to view larger.
Black represent “winners.” Gray represent nominations or list appearances.

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Assign as much meaning as you’d like to this list, but here are the documentaries that rose to the top of our list of lists (links will take you to interviews we’ve done here at POV’s blog):

Poster of the documentary The Interrupters

Steve James’ The Interrupters topped this
year-end survey of 2011′s top documentaries.

  1. The Interrupters
  2. Nostalgia de la Luz (Nostalgia for the Light)
  3. Project Nim
  4. Cave of Forgotten Dreams
  5. The Arbor
  6. Bill Cunningham New York
  7. Dragonslayer
  8. Senna
  9. Buck
  10. Hell and Back Again

You can dig into the graphic to see more trends:

  • Project Nim had the most appearances in the lists (10), with The Interrupters close behind (9), followed by Nostalgia for the Light (8) and Cave of Forgotten Dreams (7).
  • Festivals tended away from the mainstream (see the picks from Hot Docs, Full Frame or SXSW), while the grouping of indieWIRE’s contributors showed more of a populist take on the year’s best docs.
  • A number of winners appear on the chart only once (Planet of Snail, Everyday Sunshine: The Story of Fishbone, Scenes of a Crime, Our School, Family Instinct). Boost your indie cred by seeking them out!

Here’s the full list for easy scanning (with the number of list appearances in brackets):

1. The Interrupters (9)
Steve James

24. Semper Fi: Always Faithful (2)
Tony Hardmon, Rachel Libert

47. Gun Fight (1)
Barbara Kopple

2. Nostalgia de la luz (Nostalgia for the Light) (8)
Patricio Guzmán

25. Undefeated (2)
Daniel Lindsay, T.J. Martin

48. The Ambassador (1)
Mads Brügger

3. Project Nim (10)
James Marsh

26. An African Election (2)
Jarreth J. Merz, Kevin Merz

49. Bad Weather (1)
Giovanni Giommi

4. Cave of Forgotten Dreams (7)
Werner Herzog

27. Bombay Beach (2)
Alma Har’el

50. Garbo: The Spy (1)
Edmon Roch

5. The Arbor (4)
Clio Barnard

28. Everyday Sunshine: The Story of Fishbone (1)
Lev Anderson, Chris Metzler

51. Granito: How To Nail A Dictator (1)
Pamela Yates

6. Bill Cunningham New York (6)
Richard Press

29. Scenes of a Crime (1)
Grover Babcock, Blue Hadaegh

52. John Muir in the New World (1)
Catherine Tatge

7. Dragonslayer (2)
Tristan Patterson

30. You’ve Been Trumped (1)
Anthony Baxter

53. Where Soldiers Come From (1)
Heather Courtney

8. Senna (6)
Asif Kapadia

31. Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey (2)
Constance Marks, Philip Shane

54. Louder Than A Bomb (1)
Greg Jacobs, Jon Siskel

9. Buck (4)
Cindy Meehl

32. Our School (1)
Mona Nicoara, Miruna Coca-Cozma

55. Phil Ochs: There But For Fortune (1)
Kenneth Bowser

10. Hell and Back Again (4)
Danfung Dennis

33. Family Instinct (1)
Andris Gauja

56. Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness (1)
Joseph Dorman

11. We Were Here (4)
David Weissman, Bill Weber

34. El lugar mas pequeño (The Tiniest Place) (2)
Tatiana Huezo

57. The Art of Flight (1)
Curt Morgan

12. Planet of Snail (1)
Seung-Jun Yi

35. The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu (2)
Andrei Ujica

58. Foo Fighters: Back and Forth (1)
James Moll

13. George Harrison: Living in the Material World (5)
Martin Scorsese

36. Born to be Wild (2)
David Lickley

59. TT3D: Closer to the Edge (1)
Richard De Aragues

14. Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory (2)
Joe Berlinger, Bruce Sinofsky

37. Page One: Inside the New York Times (2)
Andrew Rossi

60. Zeitgeist: Moving Forward (1)
Peter Joseph

15. Tabloid (3)
Errol Morris

38. Battle for Brooklyn (1)
Michael Galinsky, Suki Hawley

61. The Woodmans (1)
Scott Willis

16. Pina (3)
Wim Wenders

39. Jane’s Journey (1)
Lorenz Knauer

62. The Bully Project (1)
Lee Hirsch

17. Position Among the Stars (3)
Leonard Retel Helmrich

40. Long Way Home: The Loving Story (1)
Nancy Buirski

63. When the Drum is Beating (1)
Whitney Dow

18. The Redemption of General Butt Naked (2)
Eric Strauss, Daniele Anastasion

41. Sing Your Song (1)
Susanne Rostock

64. Cuchillo de Palo / 108 (1)
Renate Costa

19. Into the Abyss (4)
Werner Herzog

42. Under Fire: Journalists in Combat (1)
Martyn Burke

65. El Ambulante (The Peddler) (1)
Eduardo de la Serna, Lucas Marcheggiano

20. Thunder Soul (3)
Mark Landsman

43. Marathon Boy (1)
Gemma Atwal

66. El Velador (The Night Watchman) (1)
Natalia Almada

21. How to Die in Oregon (2)
Peter Richardson

44. Restrepo (1)
Tim Hetherington, Sebastian Junger

67. Dreams of a Life (1)
Carol Morley

22. Better This World (2)
Katie Galloway, Kelly Duane de la Vega

45. At Night I Fly (1)
Steve Gomer

23. If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front (2)
Marshall Curry, Sam Cullman

46. Calvet (1)
Dominic Allan

Adnaan Wasey
Adnaan Wasey is the Executive Producer of POV Digital, which leads new storytelling iniatives for the PBS documentary series POV. Follow him on Twitter @adnaanwasey, Google+ or LinkedIn. Five documentaries he's into (today): 1. Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse 2. Hoop Dreams 3. The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters 4. Sweetgrass 5. Last Train Home
  • WordSmith

    I thought the ‘Cave of Forgotten Dreams’ was boring – BORING. I finally just went to the computer and found the website for the cave.

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  • Sfsaf

    Have this list for previous years?

  • KarpleTunnel

    Kind of nerdy interesting, but extremely questionable method.  No links to some of the more diffuse sources such as “IMDB” or “Indiewire” – there’s a lot of people writing at Indiewire – not sure if you noticed.

    And how is it you don’t include Sundance Film Festival, or Tribeca, as a source, but you do include SXSW?  And then you include very scattershot “nominations” for some places; none for others.

    Not sure many people reference “About.com” or “IMDB” in their “best of” list conversations.

    Sloppy…

  • Vacapipopo

    the graph isn’t complete it appears to me either.  Not sure how accurate your tally is for each film. I see errors with Buck for example. 

  • Redfort

    Yes, sloppy & ill-informed.

    And these are the gate-keepers of “P.O.V.” submissions?  Explains a few things…

  • Izisharp

    What about “Into Eternity”!?!?! Made my overall top 10 of the year. Fascinating film that challenges us to alter our perspective big-time (by millenia!) when considering nuclear power/proliferation/waste.

  • http://www.skylightpictures.com/ Pamela Yates

    I don’t really understand the methodology used in the measurement. If the film was included in a purely doc fest, but not in the official doc selection of Sundance (most prestigious festival in the US, and a top tiered festival internationally as well), it’s not measured. Or how about Human Rights Watch International Film Festival or their global network of festivals (great majority docs). Isn’t this survey based on the market and not on impact. So what constitutes “best”? And if a film was given a review in the NY Times, but not a “good” review, there is no point given? Who decides what constitutes a “good” review or mention? So can you make your methodology more transparent on this page, so we can judge how POV is judging the “best”.
    Thanks, Pamela Yates, Director: GRANITO How to Nail a Dictator

  • Elizabeth Tadic

    This list is completely arbitrary. What about the great Australian documentary for 2011 “Mrs Carey’s Concert”? 

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  • Fasty

    great list, to watch all of these great docs head on over to http://www.documentaryjungle.com/