The Best Documentaries of 2011 (Updated)

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Nerd out to our infographic of the top documentaries of 2011, based on lists from critics, documentary festivals, industry organizations and online voting!

With awards season wrapping up with an Academy Award win for Undefeated, we’re posting our final numerical (or call it numerological) tally of the “best” documentaries of 2011. This edition of the infographic also gives us a chance to expand the scope of honors, the 2011 Sundance Film Festival’s prizes for one (an omission from the original list).

Note: This list was created by a formula and doesn’t represent the favorite documentaries of POV staff. For that, go here!

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The Best Documentaries of 2011: The Final Tally!

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

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With wins at Film Independent’s Spirit Awards and Cinema Eye Honors since we first published the list at the end of 2011, Steve James’ The Interrupters asserted its place at the top of the list. Here are the Top 10 films from this list of lists:

Poster of the documentary The Interrupters

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

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

Here’s the full list for easy scanning:

1. The Interrupters
Steve James

29. Born to be Wild
David Lickley

57. TT3D: Closer to the Edge
Richard De Aragues

2. Senna
Asif Kapadia

30. Bombay Beach
Alma Har’el

58. Zeitgeist: Moving Forward
Peter Joseph

3. Project Nim
James Marsh

31. Thunder Soul
Mark Landsman

59. The Woodmans
Scott Willis

4. Hell and Back Again
Danfung Dennis

32. An African Election
Jarreth J. Merz, Kevin Merz

60. Phil Ochs: There But For Fortune
Kenneth Bowser

5. Cave of Forgotten Dreams
Werner Herzog

33. You’ve Been Trumped
Anthony Baxter

61. Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness
Joseph Dorman

6. Nostalgia de la Luz (Nostalgia for the Light)
Patricio Guzmán

34. Everyday Sunshine: The Story of Fishbone
Lev Anderson, Chris Metzler

62. Granito: How To Nail A Dictator
Pamela Yates

7. Buck
Cindy Meehl

35. Our School
Mona Nicoara, Miruna Coca-Cozma

63. John Muir In The New World
Catherine Tatge

8. Position Among the Stars
Leonard Retel Helmrich

36. Family Instinct
Andris Gauja

64. Where Soldiers Come From
Heather Courtney

9. The Arbor
Clio Barnard

37. Scenes of a Crime
Grover Babcock, Blue Hadaegh

65. Semper Fi: Always Faithful
Tony Hardmon, Rachel Libert

10. Bill Cunningham New York
Richard Press

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

66. The Bully Project
Lee Hirsch

11. The Redemption of General Butt Naked
Eric Strauss, Daniele Anastasion

39. Life in a Day
Kevin Macdonald and others

67. When the Drum is Beating
Whitney Dow

12. If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front
Marshall Curry, Sam Cullman

40. The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu
Andrei Ujica

68. Dreams of a Life
Carol Morley

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

41. Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest
Michael Rapaport

69. Phunny Business
John Davies

14. Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey
Constance Marks, Philip Shane

42. Marathon Boy
Gemma Atwal

70. One Lucky Elephant
Lisa Leeman

15. Pina
Wim Wenders

43. Restrepo
Tim Hetherington, Sebastian Junger

71. Make Believe
J. Clay Tweel

16. How to Die in Oregon
Peter Richardson

44. At Night I Fly
Steve Gomer

72. Waste Land
Lucy Walker

17. Dragonslayer
Tristan Patterson

45. Calvet
Dominic Allan

73. The Last Mountain
Bill Haney

18. Undefeated
Daniel Lindsay, T.J. Martin

46. Gun Fight
Barbara Kopple

74. Strongman
Zachary Levy

19. Into the Abyss
Werner Herzog

47. The Ambassador
Mads Brügger

75. The Real Rocky
Jeff Feuerzeig

20. Tabloid
Errol Morris

48. Bad Weather
Giovanni Giommi

76. The Harvest
U. Roberto Romano

21. Better This World
Katie Galloway, Kelly Duane de la Vega

49. The Castle
Massimo D’Anolfi, Martina Parenti

77. Shut Up Little Man! An Audio Misadventure
Matthew Bate

22. Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles
Jon Foy

50. I Am
Tom Shadyac

78. Fake It So Real
Robert Greene

23. Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory
Joe Berlinger, Bruce Sinofsky

51. African Cats
Alastair Fothergill, Keith Scholey

79. Convento
Jarred Alterman

24. The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975
Göran Olsson

52. Louder Than A Bomb
Greg Jacobs, Jon Siskel

80. Abendland
Nikolaus Geyrhalter

25. Planet of Snail
Seung-Jun Yi

53. Garbo: The Spy
Edmon Roch

81. Cuchillo de Palo / 108
Renate Costa

26. Justin Bieber: Never Say Never
Jon M. Chu

54. Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop
Rodman Flender

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

27. Page One: Inside the New York Times
Andrew Rossi

55. The Art of Flight
Curt Morgan

83. El Velador (The Night Watchman)
Natalia Almada

28. We Were Here
David Weissman, Bill Weber

56. Foo Fighters: Back and Forth
James Moll

Find out more about the sources that went into the creation of this chart:

  • IDA: IDA 2011 Documentary Awards: Best Feature winner and nominees More info »
  • Sundance: Winners from the 2011 Sundance Film Festival: Grand Jury Prize: Documentary, World Cinema Jury Prize: Documentary, Audience Award: Documentary, World Cinema Audience Award: Documentary, Directing Award: Documentary, World Cinema Directing Award: Documentary, Documentary Editing Award, World Cinema Documentary Editing Award, Excellence in Cinematography Award: Documentary, World Cinema Cinematography Award: Documentary, World Cinema Special Jury Prize: Documentary, Special Jury Prize: Documentary. More info »
  • Oscars: 2011 Academy Awards: Best Documentary Feature winner and nominees More info »
  • Griersons: Grierson 2011 British Documentary Awards: DocHouse & The Bertha Foundation Best Cinema Documentary winner and nominees More info »
  • Spirit Awards: 2012 Independent Spirit Awards: Best Documentary winner and nominees More info »
  • Sheffield: Sheffield Doc/Fest 2011: Special Jury Award winner and nominees More info »
  • IDFA: International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam 2011: VPRO IDFA Award for Best Feature-Length Documentary winner and nominees More info »
  • BAFTA: BAFTA Orange British Academy Film Awards: Documentary award winner and nominees More info »
  • IndieWIRE: IndieWIRE: Critics’ Poll Top 10 More info »
  • Hot Docs: Hot Docs 2011: Best International Feature winner and Special Jury Prize – International Feature More info »
  • Box Office: Box Office Mojo: Top 10 documentaries (2011 Domestic Grosses) More info »
  • IMDb: Internet Movie Database: Highest-rated documentaries released in 2011 with more than 100 votes More info »
  • duPonts: 2012 Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Awards: Gold Baton and Silver Baton winners (limited to theatrically-released documentaries) More info »
  • Gotham Awards: Gotham Independent Film Awards 2011: Best Documentary More info »
  • Cinema Eye Honors: Cinema Eye Honors: Outstanding Achievement in Nonfiction Feature Filmmaking winner and nominees More info »
  • Rotten Tomatoes: Rotten Tomatoes: Best Reviewed Documentaries of 2011 More info »
  • About.com: About.com Documentaries: Best Documentaries of 2011 More info »
  • Nat’l Board of Rev: National Board of Review: Best Documentary and Top 5 Documentaries More info »
  • Nat’l Soc Film Critics: National Society of Film Critics 2011: Best Nonfiction and runners up More info »
  • Critics Choice: Critics’ Choice Movie Awards: Best Documentary Feature winner and nominees More info »
  • Online Film Critics: 15th Annual Online Film Critic’s Society Awards: Best Documentary winner and nominees More info »
  • Paste Magazine: Paste Magazine: The 20 Best Documentaries of 2011 More info »
  • Silverdocs: Silverdocs 2011: Sterling Award for Best U.S. Feature and Best World Feature and Special Jury Mentions More info »
  • Full Frame: 2011 Full Frame Documentary Film Festival: The Anne Dellinger Grand Jury Award winner More info »
  • SXSW: SXSW 2011 Film Awards: Best Documentary Feature More info »
  • LA Critics : 37th Annual Los Angeles Film Critics Association Awards: Best Documentary/Nonfiction Film winner and runner up More info »
  • NY Critics: 2011 New York Film Critics Circle Awards: Best Non-Fiction Film (Documentary) winner More info »
  • Toronto Critics: The Toronto Film Critics Association: 2011 Allan King Documentary Award and runners up More info »
  • Boston Critics: Boston Society of Film Critics: Best Documentary More info »
  • SF Critics: 2011 San Francisco Film Critics Circle Awards: Best Documentary More info »
  • DC Critics: The Washington, D.C. Area Film Critics Association: 2011 winner, Best Documentary More info »
  • New York Times: The New York Times: Documentaries on the list of “Film Favorites of A. O. Scott and Manohla Dargis in 2011″ More info »
  • Washington Post: Washington Post: Documentaries on Ann Hornaday’s best films of 2011 list More info »
  • Black Critics: Black Films Critics Circle: 2011 BFCC winner for Best Documentary More info »
  • London Critics: London Critics Circle: Documentary of the Year More info »
  • Roger Ebert: Roger Ebert’s Journal: The Best Documentaries of 2011 More info »
  • NPR: NPR: Five Breakthrough Documentaries from 2011 More info »
  • Women Film Journs.: Alliance of Women Film Journalists: 2011 EDA Award for Best Documentary and nominees More info »
  • Documentary Blog: The Documentary Blog: Top 20 films of 2011 More info »
  • Cinema Tropical: Cinema Tropical Awards 2011: Best Documentary Film and nominees More info »
  • WGA: Writers Guild Awards: 2012 Awards Winner for Documentary Screenplay More info »
  • DGA: The 64th Annual Directors Guild of America Awards: Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Documentary More info »

Get more documentary film news and features: Subscribe to POV’s documentary blog, like POV on Facebook or follow us on Twitter @povdocs.

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
  • oneloveforusa

    I think that the one missing from this list, probably because of its non-traditional release strategy (using some pretty awesome new distribution technology from Yekra) is THRIVE: What On Earth Will It Take?  Granted, it was only released on 11/11/11 so it didn’t have much time to garner votes, but it has become an online sensation.

    What’s even better is it is available for free directly from their website, thrivemovement.com.

    Seriously, this documentary is the MUST-SEE of 2011 and 2012.  I hope that it will feature in your 2012 poll!

  • Bryan Tucker

    Thanks for writing this Tom. I’ve often wondered about this, and there is little information out there about Netflix deals for filmmakers. I’m planning for self-distribution of my doc in the fall, and came across Distribber as an option to get it on Netflix. Haven’t spoken w/ anyone directly at Distribber, but through their website they seem confident in negotiating w/ Netflix on the filmmakers’ behalf (for a flat fee upfront, then low annual cost). Anyone used them before and have any thoughts on their abilities? Thanks.

  • Anonymous

    also for content partners looking to monetize their own apps on Connected TV devices/tablets companies like adRise help develop apps for free adrise.com

  • JohnH

    Right now Netflix is not looking for volume but “curated content” (their term), which is why they prefer working with companies that actually select their films, and not just acquire whatever comes their way.

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  • Patrick Shen

    Went thru a distributor. Netflix doesn’t accept direct submissions from filmmakers. You can reach out to digital distros like Film Buff, The Orchard, Gravitas, etc. You might also want to look into services like Distribber. Good luck with the film!