The Best Documentaries of 2012

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From Sundance to the Oscars — and every festival, critics list and industry awards show we can find in between — we’re continually updating our list of lists of the “best” documentaries.

View the “Big Chart” »

Update (February 25, 2013): It’s Searching for Sugar Man! With the Oscars behind us and the awards season concluded, we’re wrapping up our list of lists of the best documentaries of 2012.

Explore the big chart and analyze how more than 100 films fared in our compilation of about 60 year-end lists, or view the final Top 10 below.

Do you agree with the list? Let us know in the comments…

#10. Marina Abramović: The Artist is Present
The performance artist prepares for a major retrospective.

Sheffield Doc/Fest 2012 Special Jury Award winner.
Points: 67 List Appearances: 7 Wins: 1

#9. Detropia
An artful take on the decline of an American city.

Won the U.S. Documentary Editing Award at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival.
Points: 71 List Appearances: 8 Wins: 1

#8. This Is Not A Film
Banned from filmmaking in Iran, Jafar Panahi continues his art while under house arrest.

Topped Indiewire’s year-end critics poll.
Points: 88 List Appearances: 10 Wins: 2

#7. The Central Park Five
Ken Burns co-directs a film about the racially charged Central Park Jogger case and a wrongful imprisonment.

Won the 2012 New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Non-Fiction Film.
Points: 94 List Appearances: 13 Wins: 2

#6. The Imposter
The story of a French conman who impersonated a missing Texan boy.

Named the year’s best documentary by the London Critics Circle.
Points: 96 List Appearances: 14 Wins: 1

#5. The Gatekeepers
1967′s Six Day War is recounted by members of Israel’s security agency, Shin Bet.

Winner of the National Society of Film Critics Award in the Best Nonfiction category.
Points: 101 List Appearances: 12 Wins: 3

#4. How to Survive a Plague
A chronicle of activism around the AIDS crisis and its legacy.

Gotham Award winner for Best Documentary.
Points: 103 List Appearances: 13 Wins: 2

#3. The Queen of Versailles
The 2008 financial crisis interrupts a wealthy couple’s plan to build the largest private home in America.

Won the U.S. documentary directing award at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival
Points: 118 List Appearances: 16 Wins: 1

#2. The Invisible War
Reveals the alarming rate of sexual assault within the U.S. military.

The best reviewed documentary of 2012, according to Rotten Tomatoes.
Points: 159 List Appearances: 18 Wins: 5

#1. Searching for Sugar Man
Fans search a would-be 70s rock legend.

Won the Academy Award for Best Documentary.
Points: 260 List Appearances: 25 Wins: 11

View the Full List »


Update (January 19, 2013): Searching for Sugar Man is not likely to give up the No. 1 spot, though The Invisible War has a chance to gain some significant ground with few big nominations that could turn into awards over the next month (including the Oscars, the Spirit Awards, the DGA Awards and PGA Awards). At this point, almost all of the critics we’re tracking are accounted for (about 30 individuals and critics’ associations), with apologies to Roger Ebert for including his “not a ‘best of the year’” in the calculation. Here’s the latest Top Ten:

#10. Marina Abramović: The Artist is Present
#9. Detropia
#8. This Is Not A Film
#7. The Imposter
#6. The Central Park Five
#5. The Gatekeepers
#4. How to Survive a Plague
#3. The Queen of Versailles
#2. The Invisible War
#1. Searching for Sugar Man

Update (December 22, 2012): With additions including the Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Awards, the DocGeek blog and the Chicago Film Critics Association, Searching for Sugar Man has expanded its lead in our list of lists. The Imposter returns to the Top 10. But we’re waiting to hear from more critics before the end of the holiday season.

#8(tie). The Central Park Five
#8(tie). The Gatekeepers
#8(tie). Detropia
#7. The Imposter
#6. How to Survive a Plague
#5. This Is Not A Film<
#4. Marina Abramović: The Artist is Present
#3. The Invisible War
#2. The Queen of Versailles
#1. Searching for Sugar Man

Update (December 19, 2012): We’ve seen some big swings in the list of lists with critics announcing their favorite documentaries of the year, but Searching for Sugar Man still holds the top spot. This round of updates includes awards from critics’ circles from Boston, L.A., D.C. and Toronto, Critics Choice nominations, individual picks from the New York Times, Washington Post and New Yorker, and roundups from Paste and Indiewire. The Gatekeepers, The Central Park Five and The Waiting Room are new entries in the Top 10.

#10. The Waiting Room
#6 (tie). The Central Park Five
#6 (tie). The Gatekeepers
#6 (tie). The Invisible War
#6 (tie). Detropia
#5. Marina Abramović: The Artist is Present
#4. How to Survive a Plague
#3. This Is Not A Film
#2. The Queen of Versailles
#1. Searching for Sugar Man

Update (December 8, 2012): Searching for Sugar Man was a big winner this week, with awards from IDA and the National Board of Review, in addition to an appearance in the Oscar Best Documentary shortlist, and it’s shot up to #1 in our list of lists. Chasing Ice, The House I Live In, How to Survive a Plague are new entries — the three films are currently tied for 10th place.

#10 (tie). How to Survive a Plague
#10 (tie). The House I Live In
#10 (tie). Chasing Ice
#9. The Queen of Versailles
#8. Only The Young
#7. This Is Not A Film
#6. The Law in These Parts (Shilton Ha’Chok)
#5. 5 Broken Cameras
#4. The Invisible War
#3. Detropia
#2. Marina Abramović: The Artist is Present
#1. Searching for Sugar Man

Update (November 30, 2012): In the last week or so, we’ve heard from IDFA and The Gotham Awards, and the nominations are in for The Spirit Awards. The Invisible War is a new entry in the current Top 10, while Marina Abramović: The Artist is Present has increased its lead. But there’s a lot more to come! We’re expecting to hear a lot from critics in the next few weeks, and we’ll keep the updates coming.

#9 (tie). Special Flight (Vol Spécial)
#9 (tie). Only The Young
#6 (tie). 5 Broken Cameras
#6 (tie). Indie Game: The Movie
#6 (tie). Call Me Kuchu
#5. The Invisible War
#4. The Queen of Versailles
#2 (tie). Detropia
#2 (tie). The Law in These Parts (Shilton Ha’Chok)
#1. Marina Abramović: The Artist is Present

Update (November 3, 2012): The Gotham Awards and Cinema Eye Honors have announced their nominees and Marina Abramović: The Artist is Present has leapt to the top of our list of lists (so far). Detropia, The Queen of Versailles and 5 Broken Cameras are new additions. Here’s the current Top 7 10:

#10. This Is Not A Film
#8 (tie). Special Flight (Vol Spécial)
#8 (tie). Only The Young
#5 (tie). 5 Broken Cameras
#5 (tie). Indie Game: The Movie
#5 (tie). Call Me Kuchu
#4. The Queen of Versailles
#2 (tie). Detropia
#2 (tie). The Law in These Parts (Shilton Ha’Chok)
#1. Marina Abramović: The Artist is Present

Update (October 11, 2012): Our current list is tracking 58 films, but we’ve got only enough data for our weighted algorithm to determine a Top 5, so we’re holding back the big chart for a later update. (And note that last year’s eventual top doc, The Interrupters, didn’t pull away from the pack until we started compiling the year-end critics’ polls and the post-New Year awards shows…)

So far, the list of lists includes top honors from Sundance, Sheffield and Hot Docs, along with noted docs from the “best-so-far” lists from sites such as IndieWIRE, Paste Magazine and A.V. Club, and a snapshot of how the audience has voted with their dollars at the box office and on IMDb, but there’s a lot more to come…

When the year is done, will these be the best documentaries of 2012? Share your thoughts on these films, or others you’ve seen this year, in the comments. (And expect a next update in December!)

#5. This Is Not A Film
#3 (tie). Indie Game: The Movie
#3 (tie). Call Me Kuchu
#2. Marina Abramović: The Artist is Present
#1. The Law in These Parts (Shilton Ha’Chok)

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
  • Filmbuff88

    My Perestroika, More Than a Month and Bitter Seeds were 3 really unique docs I wish more people saw.

  • jeanette rivera

    Can not find this documentary on list 911 Explosive Evidence “Experts Speak Out”.

  • Jim Caron

    “How to Survive a Plague” should be on the list! An inspiring and powerful film about activists who forced drug companies and FDA to “fast track” meds for HIV. Though not widely promoted, this film has a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes–many excellent reviews!

    • joobazhie

      It is

  • Sam Durbin

    Jiro Dreams of Sushi is perhaps the most fascinating documentary I have seen in ages. Why is it not on the list?

    • http://www.djkidhack.com KidHack

      it came out in 2011

  • rj

    Searching For Sugar Man is the best film of 2012 not just the best documentary, The story is amazing and the people make it memorable. It’s an absolute must see.

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  • John

    wasn’t the KONY documentary released in 2012? I know it wasn’t the greatest documentary, but it managed to reach so many people. I cant think of another documentary which managed to go so viral. And an important worthy cause too.

    If you have not seen it (and I cant believe you havnt) then check it out! Ill add a link,

    http://www.documentaryon.com/search.php?searchdocumentaries=2012

  • thelawmc

    Searching for Sugar Man, Jason Becker – Not Dead Yet, Butch Walker – Out Of Focus

  • http://twitter.com/docuphile Documentary Ninja

    Watched 30 titles from this list *not bad meme* :)

  • http://dbakeca.com Dbakeca Italia

    waw,,,,interesting

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  • John

    What about Bones Brigade? Not many people have seen this sports documentary, but it is a great sports documentary, if not the most entertaining sports doc. It exceeded all my expectations because it is also a emotional doc with depth.