Your Guide to the Best Documentaries of 2012 as Nominated by the Cinema Eye Honors

By  · Published on November 3rd, 2012

Last night, at a special event in conjunction with the AFI FEST, the nominees for the 2013 Cinema Eye Honors were announced. And once again, the titles contending for the ten feature categories, all of which focus solely on nonfiction films (to make up for the Oscars’ minimal recognition), represent the year’s best in documentaries. As someone who professionally concentrates on docs elsewhere, I tend to feel kinda useless or redundant when Cinema Eye names its nominees, because now when someone asks me what’s great this year I can just point to their list of 31 features.

Of course, some of these films are only up for specific honors, like those for original music score and graphic design, and may not be quite as necessary as the six up for the top award or the 10 nominated for the Audience Choice Prize (which sadly, for publicity-sake, lacks a Justin Bieber movie like last year). Also, I could name a bunch of exceptional docs that haven’t been recognized, such as This is Not a Film, The House I Live In, Under African Skies, Beware of Mr. Baker, Last Call at the Oasis, The Queen of Versailles, Girl Model (though its directors are up for Downeast) and The Invisible War.

Still, I’m very excited that one of my top three nonfiction films of the year, The Imposter, is one of the most-nominated titles, while I’m even more ecstatic that the CEH could bring more attention to brilliant, lesser-known works like Only the Young, Tchoupitoulas, Planet of Snail, ¡Vivan las Antipodas! and Vol Special (Special Flight). The Cinema Eye Honors will be held January 9, 2013 in NYC. After the jump, check out all the nominees, including shorts, with some info about each.

5 Broken Cameras

Nominated for Outstanding Achievements in Nonfiction Filmmaking and Editing (Véronique Lagoarde-Ségot and Guy Davidi) and for the Audience Choice Prize.

Cole spotlighted the film in a European Film Market rundown: “’5 Broken Cameras looks at Palestinian farmer Emad Burnat, who has been documenting his village’s resistance to advancing Israeli settlements since 2005, using the 5 cameras of the title. Each camera tells a part of the story.’ A doc with an interesting angle, timely subject matter, and a reluctant storyteller who ends up getting a new camera every time one is broken in the conflict.”

Currently in theaters and on the festival circuit. Hits DVD on January 15.

Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry

Nominated for Outstanding Achievement in Production (Alison Klayman and Adam Schlesinger) an Debut Feature Filmmaking (Alison Klayman).

Cole spotlighted the film in a European Film Market rundown: “’Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry is the inside story of a dissident for the digital age who inspires global audiences and blurs the boundaries of art and politics.’ A firebrand, bizarre activist with a mind for design and sculpture, Sundance Selects has recently picked it up to show in theaters near us.”

Currently in theaters. Available to rent from iTunes.

Argentinian Lesson

Nominated for the Spotlight Award (a juried award typically recognizing undistributed films).

From the Silverdocs program guide: “Turning a highly observant lens on fleeting childhood innocence, acclaimed Polish director and cameraman Wojciech Staron captures his son’s experiences during a year the family spent in Argentina. Young Janek and his Argentinian friend Marcia get a lesson in life’s complexities outside of the family cocoon. The boy’s reticence in a strange land, paired with the father’s acute powers of perception, result in a masterpiece of visual storytelling through nuance and detail.”

Beauty is Embarrassing

Nominated for Outstanding Achievement in Graphic Design or Animation (Neil Berkeley, Anthony Maiuri) and the Audience Choice Prize.

Kevin reviewed from SXSW: “Would you have ever expected that a completely eccentric, beautifully talented artist, and sometime puppeteer was behind the some of the puppets and set design on Pee-Wee’s Playhouse? Actually you might, because those were some of the strangest puppets ever to hit television. But there’s an equally strange personality behind them. Wayne White, a Tennessee-born surreal pop art artist and puppeteer, is the subject of the incredibly impressive Beauty is Embarrassing documentary that was one of the most entertaining films I saw during SXSW this year.” It was even one of our 12 Best Movies of SXSW 2012 and later Cole interviewed White and director Neil Berkeley. Check out our post on the film’s trailer here.

Currently in theaters and available to rent from iTunes and Amazon.


Nominated for the Spotlight Award (a juried award typically recognizing undistributed films).

Cole reviewed from Berlin: “The simple way to describe this convention-bucking flick is that it’s a little over an hour of animals. That alone makes it watchable, but the brilliance of the project is in its more complex description: a film composed entirely of sequential static shots of wild beasts and humans watching or caring for wild beasts that shines a spotlight on observation and fine art.” And he reiterated in the European Film Market rundown: “A truly clever concept that delivers a unique movie-watching experience. It’s a doc that works unnervingly well on the deep end, and even without the subtext, it’s still gorgeous moving photography of animals.”

Big Boys Gone Bananas!*

Nominated for Outstanding Achievement in Production (Margarete Jangård).

From a Sundance program announcement: “The behind-the-scenes story of a full-scale attack on freedom of speech. When Dole set its sights on the WG Film production Bananas!* in May 2009, confusion was the method, aggression was the tactic and media control was the story.”


Nominated for the Audience Choice Prize.

From our coverage of the controversy regarding its R rating: “an important look at a terrible behavioral plague that has the American school system in its grip, and has already lead to an unacceptable amount of violence and death. This movie deals with the lives of bullies and those that are bullied; it’s theoretically an eye-opening experience meant to preach an anti-bullying message to a generation of people who are growing increasingly more callous in the way they treat one another.”

Chasing Ice

Nominated for Outstanding Achievement in Cinematography (Jeffrey Orlowski).

From a SXSW program announcement: “Photographer James Balog was once a skeptic about climate change, but he discovers undeniable evidence. Balog reveals hauntingly beautiful, time-lapse videos of vanishing glaciers, while delivering hope to our carbon-powered planet.”

Opens in theaters Friday.

Cutting Loose

Nominated for Outstanding Achievement in Nonfiction Short Filmmaking (Finlay Pretsell and Adrian McDowall).

From a SXSW program announcement: “’I’m trusted with a pair of scissors and I’m in here for murder.’ A snapshot of prison life in the build up to the annual hairdressing competition.”


Nominated for Outstanding Achievements in Nonfiction Filmmaking, Direction (Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady), Editing (Enat Sidi) and Original Music Score (Dial.81).

Kate reviewed at Sundance: “Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady (Jesus Camp, The Boys of Baraka) attempt to tackle the many issues facing Detroit in their film, drawing from different perspectives to form a complete and complex picture of why Detroit is, as one of their subjects grimly announces, ‘never coming back,’ With the automobile industry decamping for cheaper labor and bigger factories in other countries (mainly Mexico) and the constant threat of competitors (China and Japan specifically), Detroit has become a ghost city, one where nearly 90,000 houses lay vacant, one where their own mayor (Dave Bing) proposes a plan to relocate citizens from failing neighborhoods into ones more prone to survival in a desperate bid to keep the city operating. Detroit is, in short, a very unhappy city.” … “along with their cinematographers Tony Hardmon and Craig Atkinson have succeeded when it comes to the technical aspects – making a truly goregous film, filled with crisp, effective visuals. The camerwork in Detropia is both extremely natural and richly kinetic, it’s a feast for the eyes, even as it tracks decay and disarray. Detroit may be in relative ruins, but it frequently looks lush and intriguingly haunted, the sort of ghost town you’d want to explore, without fear.”

Currently in theaters.


Nominated for the Spotlight Award (a juried award typically recognizing undistributed films).

From our Tribeca program announcement: “Hit hard by the closure of the sardine canning factory, its laid-off residents – mostly 70-year-olds – just want to get back to work. So why is Italian immigrant Antonio Bussone having so much trouble getting federal funds to open a new lobster processing plant? Charged with the spirit of a generation that still gives it 110 percent, this poignant and poetic documentary sheds new light on the trying task of putting America back to work.”

Family Nightmare

Nominated for Outstanding Achievement in Nonfiction Short Filmmaking (Dustin Guy Defa).

Currently at AFI FEST. From their program guide: “Re-purposing a series of unearthed home movies, Dustin Guy Defa dubs his own voice over the voices of his family members to create a haunting portrait of family dysfunction.”

Good Bye Mandima (Kwa Heri Mandima)

Nominated for Outstanding Achievement in Nonfiction Short Filmmaking (Robert Jan-Lacombe).

From the Hot Docs program guide: “A panoramic photograph taken in 1980s Zaire (today’s Congo) shows a village assembled on a grassy airstrip. “Panoramic photos,” the narrator tells us, “are made to get an overview of a special moment or place.” In this case, a family is leaving – forever. This award-winning short is the retrospective goodbye of a European boy to the African culture that raised him.”

Herman’s House

Nominated for Outstanding Achievement in Graphic Design or Animation (Nicolas Brault, Tom Hillman).

I wrote on this film at “revisits the very popular (and still tragic) documentary subject of the Angola Three – or one of them, 30-year solitary confinement-suffering prisoner Herman Wallace – and artist Jackie Sumell, who is working on a project in his honor and possible benefit. In addition to tackling prison conditions, human rights advocacy and political art, the doc also gets into a number of other topics including architecture, community, post-Katrina development of New Orleans and very personal stories involving Sumell’s background and family. For a film spawned from an issue of constraint, it’s anything but limited. Ambitiously, Bhalia reaches about and covers a lot of ground yet the doc never feels scattered, although it does occasionally come close. “

Currently on the festival circuit.

How to Survive a Plague

Nominated for Outstanding Achievements in Editing (T. Woody Richman, Tyler H. Walk, Jonathan Oppenheim) and Debut Feature Filmmaking (David France) and the Audience Choice Prize.

From Cole’s post showcasing its trailer: “It’s hard to think of a plague still hanging around, but that’s exactly what AIDS is. It was a misunderstood disease that saw some lawmakers fighting back against finding a cure with any relative speed, but this doc chronicles a group of men and women literally fighting for their lives.”

Currently in theaters and available On Demand.

The Imposter

Nominated for Outstanding Achievements in Nonfiction Filmmaking, Production (Dimitri Doganis), Cinematography (Erik Alexander Wilson and Lynda Hall) and Original Music Score (Anna Nikitin) and the Audience Choice Prize.

Kate reviewed at Sundance: “Sometime around the halfway mark of Bart Layton‘s The Imposter, I became aware of the fact that I was watching the movie with my eyes wide as saucers. Even with a strong grasp of the film’s subject matter, it’s hard not to be totally blown away by what plays out on-screen, to become gape-mouthed in the face of so much (hyperbole aside) insanity.” … “An unbelievable true story told in an engaging and inventive manner.” It made our list of 10 Must-See Movies to see in July 2012. Check out the trailer, which we showcased here.

Currently in theaters.

Indie Game: The Movie

Nominated for Outstanding Achievement in Graphic Design or Animation (James Swirsky).

Allison reviewed from Sundance: “follows three sets of video game creators (Edmund McMillen and Tommy Refenes, creators of Super Meat Boy; Phil Fish, creator of FEZ; and Jonathan Blow, creator of Braid) each at different points in their careers (and the games they are working on) to show not only the process of being an independent game creator, but what happens when you pour yourself into something that you eventually have to leave up to other people to determine its success.” … “Both video game fans and casual gamers should find this documentary not only interesting, but compelling as you watch these real life stories unfold and experience the various emotions that come with creating something from scratch and then releasing it into the world.”

Currently available to rent from iTunes and stream at Netflix, Amazon, YouTube and Sundance Now.

Into the Abyss

Nominated for Outstanding Achievement in Original Music Score (Mark De Gli Antoni).

From Rob’s DVD picks: “Werner Herzog tells the story of a triple murder in Texas and the two young men behind it. One is interviewed just eight days before his execution, and the other is behind bars for another four decades, but the real story here is with the suffering their actions left behind. Herzog makes his stance on the death penalty clear, but he wisely moves beyond the issue by instead focusing on a culture of ignorance and poverty that breeds addiction and violence.” And Landon reviewed: “the filmmaker seems completely uninterested in using the medium to convince audiences of his point-of-view. Herzog instead lends his camera to the many individuals directly or tangentially involved in the crime that resulted in a triple homicide, victims’ families, the criminals’ family members and their attorneys, and employees of Texas execution chambers. For a filmmaker whose personality is so thoroughly present in his work, it’s fascinating to see Herzog largely relegate himself to the backseat as he mines through the experiences of others.”

Available on DVD and Blu-ray and to stream at Netflix, Amazon and Sundance Now.

Into the Middle of Nowhere

Nominated for Outstanding Achievement in Nonfiction Short Filmmaking (Anna Francis Ewert).

One of the most adorable short documentaries you could ever see, it shows a bunch of kids playing in an outdoor nursery in the middle of the woods.

Available to stream on Fandor.

Jiro Dreams of Sushi

Nominated for the Audience Choice Prize.

From Rob’s DVD picks: “Jiro Ono is an 85 year old sushi chef who runs a small restaurant in a Tokyo subway station, but don’t let the location fool you. It only seats 10, but reservations are required, it’s not cheap and it’s the only restaurant of its kind to receive Michelin’s 3-star rating. The doc examines Jiro’s techniques, his teaching style with his sons and apprentices and his outlook on life in general. It’s inspiring and mouthwatering in equal measure, and it will have you craving sushi by the midway point… and I’m a vegetarian.” And Dustin reviewed from Santa Barbara: “sits atop my viewing list thus far here at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival. It’s beautiful, insightful, will absolutely make you hungry, and has a a depth and character that is undeniable. David Gelb has a winner.”

Available on DVD and Blu-ray, to rent from iTunes and to stream at Netflix, Amazon and Youtube.


Nominated for the Audience Choice Prize.

I wrote on this film from last year’s SXSW film fest at Cinematical: “Vikram Gandhi’s life-experiment doc is more Sacha Baron Cohen than Morgan Spurlock, but it lacks the laughs of either. Not that I’m sure Gandhi is aiming for comedy. In the film, which took home an Audience Award from SXSW, the U.S.-born filmmaker takes on the character Kumare, a long-haired, bearded guru from India who has gone to Arizona to teach people that they don’t need a guru, or any sort of religious leader. But the message is overlooked because these students begin to idolize the mystical stranger.” … “less revealing than you want it to be, and its message is rather simplistic, and Gandhi’s methods are certainly questionable, but I couldn’t walk away from it.”

Currently in theaters.

The Law in These Parts

Nominated for Outstanding Achievement in Direction (Ra’anan Alexandrowicz).

From our Sundance program announcement: “Israel’s 43-year military legal system in the Occupied Palestinian Territories unfolds through provocative interviews with the system’s architects and historical footage showing the enactment of these laws upon the Palestinian population.” I reviewed the film at “I have a great appreciation for the self-aware historicism driving The Law of These Parts, particularly because of how the interviewees respond to many of Alexandrowicz’s questions. They avoid certain analysis of whether decisions were right or wrong with even such far-reaching hindsight, making claims that such answers are for the historians or history to determine. As if that’s not one of the functions of this documentary. Others tell the filmmaker he’ll have to ask someone else about this or that, or they reject a reasonable line of questioning for being too theoretical. At times I wanted to laugh at the abstract absurdity of what the film was unraveling before me, but it’s not really a humorous matter at all.”

Marina Abramovi?: The Artist is Present

Nominated for Outstanding Achievement in Nonfiction Filmmaking and Debut Feature Filmmaking (Matthew Akers) and the Audience Choice Prize.

From our Sundance program announcement: “Marina Abramovi? prepares for a major retrospective of her work at The Museum of Modern Art in New York hoping to finally silence four decades of skeptics who proclaim: ‘But why is this art?’”

Now available on DVD.

Meanwhile in Mamelodi

Nominated for the Spotlight Award (a juried award typically recognizing undistributed films).

From the Hot Docs program guide: “South Africa, 2010. How close can one be to the World Cup soccer celebrations without really being a part of it? In District 11, one of the poorest of Mamelodi – a former Blacks-only township near Pretoria where people still make do without paved roads, electricity or running water – Steven Mtsweni follows the competition on his blurry black-and-white TV as if watching a man land on the moon for the first time. Meanwhile, mere miles away, the rest of the world celebrates. This intimate and moving portrait of a man struggling to make ends meet while tending his kiosk and looking after his young son, teenaged daughter and mentally ill wife, reminds us that while life isn’t easy, there’s always a reason to keep hope.”

Only the Young

Nominated for Outstanding Achievements in Nonfiction Filmmaking, Direction (Jason Tippet and Elizabeth Mims), Cinematography (Jason Tippet and Elizabeth Mims) and Debut Feature Filmmaking (Jason Tippet and Elizabeth Mims).

Currently playing AFI FEST. From our announcement of their program: “Best friends Garrison and Kevin are equally passionate about the gospel, their girlfriends and the half-pipe in this non-fiction look at teenage life in America.”

Paradise (Paraíso)

Nominated for Outstanding Achievement in Nonfiction Short Filmmaking (Nadav Kurtz).

Shortlisted for the Academy Award. From our announcement of these films: “The story of three immigrants working as window washers”

Planet of Snail

Nominated for Outstanding Achievement in Direction (Seungjun Yi).

From our announcement of the Tribeca program: “Deaf and blind, Young-Chan lives in a quiet, isolated world in his small apartment. But when Soon-Ho, an empathetic woman compromised by a spinal disability, comes into his life, a unique love story begins. Poetic and gently paced, Planet of Snail brings to life the sensual world shared by this special couple, and illustrates that the greatest beauty can be found in the smallest and most unlikely love stories.”

Room 237

Nominated for Outstanding Achievement in Editing (Rodney Ascher), Debut Feature Filmmaking (Rodney Ascher), Original Music Score (Jonathan Snipes, William Hutson, The Caretaker – aka James Kirby) and Graphic Design or Animation (Carlos Ramos).

Kevin reviewed at Sundance: “If you’re the sort of person who loves conspiracy theories, hidden meanings, codes, ciphers, clues, and other mysteries that bear unraveling, then Room 237 is right up your alley. DirectorRodney Ascher has put together a fascinating movie that will most likely change the way you watch Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining forever, or will at least make you search out some of the things that are discussed in this documentary.” And Brian reviewed less favorably at Fantastic Fest: “The most aggravating issue plaguing Room 237 is it’s amateurish editing. So much of a director’s job on a documentary is to carefully assess the accumulated footage and sound bites and arrange them in such a way as best serves the material. Apparently, no one bothered to tell Ascher. There are such blatantly boneheaded flubs with the connectivity of visuals or quality of audio, that it makes it difficult to take seriously, especially in light of the already flimsy arguments.

Opens in theaters in 2013.


Nominated for Outstanding Achievement in Cinematography (Ron Fricke).

Cole showcased the trailer and wrote: “In 1982, Ron Fricke wrote, edited and directed photography for Koyaanisqatsi, a movie that’s become a modern experimental classic that sought to create a pure sensory experience beyond what narrative storytelling could do. It’s the kind of film that audiences have to yield to, letting it wash over them like color-wrapped sound waves, and it seems likely that Samsara will be artistically related to Fricke’s early work.” … “ the imagery! It’s amazing. The kind of stuff that steals your heart right out of your chest and makes you wish your whole body were made of eyeballs. See it and marvel.” Also check out a clip from the film here.

Currently in theaters.

Searching for Sugar Man

Nominated for Outstanding Achievements in Nonfiction Filmmaking, Production (Simon Chinn), Debut Feature Filmmaking (Malik Bendjelloul) and Graphic Design or Animation (Oskar Gullstrand, Arvid Steen) and the Audience Choice Prize.

I declared it the first film of any kind to secure an Oscar nomination with its acclaim and popularity: “tells a kind of musical fairy tale about singer-songwriter Rodriguez, who was a huge star in South Africa and never knew of his fame there for decades, is astonishingly popular. I’ve seen long standing ovations at film fests for this doc. I’ve interviewed multiple filmmakers, many of which are Academy members, who cite it as their favorite of the year.” And Jeremy reviewed from SXSW: “a stupendous documentary, a bit heavy on the talking heads technique, but that’s a matter of personal tastes. You watch the story unfold, and you’re caught up in the music and politics of it all, all the while wanting nothing more than to watch this man perform live. There are so many documentaries and biopics about musicians we know, household names whose fame could easily be taken for granted. Searching for Sugar Man is about the other guys, those artists who never quite make it, and this one singer/songwriter in Detroit who became a legend and didn’t even know about it.”

Currently in theaters.


Nominated for Outstanding Achievements in Direction (Bill Ross and Turner Ross) and Editing (Bill Ross).

Currently playing AFI FEST. From our program announcement: “This dreamlike documentary from the brothers Ross follows three young boys across the Mississippi into New Orleans’ French Quarter for a kaleidoscopic night of revelry.”

Opens in theaters December 7.

Trash Dance

Nominated for the Audience Choice Prize.

From our SXSW program announcement: “A choreographer finds beauty and grace in garbage trucks, and against the odds, rallies reluctant city trash collectors to perform an extraordinary dance spectacle. On an abandoned airport runway, two dozen sanitation workers – and their trucks – inspire an audience of thousands.”

Currently on the festival circuit.


Nominated for Outstanding Achievement in Graphic Design or Animation (Brooklyn Digital Foundry/John Szot).

From Rob’s DVD picks: “Gary Hustwit is interested in man-made shapes and designs. After examining typography (Helvetica) and manufactured goods (Objectified) he’s now turned his eye outwards and upwards to dissect the structure and design of our urban centers. From the angles, heights and front edifices of buildings to the layouts of streets, parks and other public spaces, Hustwit builds a fascinating look at the people behind the places we pass through everyday.” And Brian Kelley highlighted the film in a streaming showcase: “The film is neatly presented by dividing its time between different cities around the world and focusing on the successes and failures in their planning. From cities with roots in the 1100s to those as new as the 1980s, the pitfalls of planning and the deep connection to human psychology become increasingly apparent. It is a film, like the others in Hustwit’s trilogy, that will truly make you think different about your surroundings.” We also showcased the trailer here.

Currently available on DVD and Blu-ray and to rent from iTunes and Google Play and stream at Netflix and Amazon.

¡Vivan las Antipodas!

Nominated for Outstanding Achievements in Direction (Victor Kossakovsky), Production (Heino Deckert), Cinematography (Victor Kossakovsky) and Original Music Score (Alexander Popov).

I wrote on the film from True/False at the Doc Channel Blog: “a film that shows us things as they’ve never been seen before, and yet because it doesn’t have a narrative it may be thought of as inaccessible. Also, it’s not as blatantly thought-provoking. Regardless, I can’t get it out of my head. Probably because it blew my mind and has taken residency in the spaces it cleaned out.” … “this isn’t the stuff of IMAX and Disneynature. While the cinematography alone would be worthwhile by itself, it’s the clever juxtapositions and visual trickery achieved through editing and special effects that make this film so special. Kossakovsky plays with the idea of antipodes, giving us plenty of upside-down shots, reflective bodies of water, horizontal split-screens imaginatively presenting the world as having a literal top and bottom. And we’re shown paralleled views of life and land, what matters in the world and what matter makes up the world.”

Vol Special (Special Flight)

Nominated for the Spotlight Award (a juried award typically recognizing undistributed films).

I wrote on the film at “observes a Swiss detention center for illegal migrants and asylum seekers who will eventually be shipped back to the countries they’ve fled. The real issue of the film doesn’t come up until the very end, as for the most part the men locked up are treated fairly well, for being prisoners, at this particular center. It’s what they face on the outside that’s to be feared, whether their fate back home in the Congo or Kosovo, or even before that with the abusive authorities who transport them on the “special flight” out of Switzerland. But there’s also a subtle, underlying evil of the neutrality and feigned sincerity and innocence on the part of the center’s staff which is thoroughly disturbing.”

The Waiting Room

Nominated for Outstanding Achievement in Debut Feature Filmmaking (Peter Nicks).

I wrote on the film at “A look at one 24-hour period inside the waiting room and ER of a public hospital, specifically Oakland’s Highland Hospital. Using a composite of footage shot over many months, the film plays out mostly in an observational verite style akin to the work of Frederick Wiseman, except that there’s also voiceover from each of the uninsured subjects (patients or family of patients) providing additional exposition and some very on-the-nose commentary. Instead of being about the place, it’s about the people there, albeit people who were seemingly very intently picked out.” … “but most of the points here are familiar, obvious, repetitive and redundant, stressed too literally where simple, straight observation would suffice.”

Currently in theaters.

Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.