The Most Interesting Documentaries of the Year

From school teachers' plight to exotic pets to black power, these are films you don't want to miss.

Fri Dec. 23, 2011 4:00 AM PST

Don't miss our year-end lists of the best books and music to come out in 2011. They all make great gifts, as does a MoJo gift subscription, by the way.

Gerrymandering

Though gerrymandering is nearly as old as the Republic—its namesake was early 19th century Massachusetts governor Elbridge Gerry (pronounced "Gary," if you please)—it's never really been a hot-button issue for voters. Gerrymandering seeks to change that with an entertaining yet outraged look at the odd practice of letting politicians pick their voters. Just consider the case of Barack Obama, who got a major career boost when he helped redraw the boundaries of his mostly black Illinois state Senate district so it represented white liberals.

A bipartisan cast of talking heads, including California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Howard Dean, make the case for reform. But Gerrymandering walks the boundary between documentary and political ad: Just as I received a review DVD at work, I also received a copy at home—mailed to me and other Golden State voters by the backers of a redistricting reform proposition. —Dave Gilson

The Stinking Ship

One night in August 2006, a tanker chartered by Trafigura, a British oil trader, anchored off the Ivory Coast and illegally unloaded 500 tons of toxic waste into Abidjan's landfills. The pungent, blistering sludge killed 16 and hospitalized more than 100,000. Director Bagassi Koura's short documentary skillfully chronicles how Trafigura dodged environmental regulations to save a mere $300,000, only to spend millions trying to cover up its responsibility.

What makes The Stinking Ship so heartbreaking are the stories of the people still living with the effects of the "Ivorian Chernobyl," which has yet to be fully cleaned up. A community leader laments, "When it rains or it's windy, frankly we can't live in the village. The stench reaches far beyond it. We are walking dead." —Titania Kumeh

POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold

Morgan Spurlock downed a month of McDonald's for our fast-food sins in his notorious 2004 film Super Size Me. Now he's aiming to show us how ad-soaked our lives have become by financing an entire doc about the ubiquity of product placement using—what else?—product placement. The title is no joke; Spurlock pitches POM the naming rights on camera. From then on, he is shown imbibing only the pomegranate beverage, while other drink brands are visibly blurred out. He flies exclusively on JetBlue, wears Merrell shoes (giving a pair to Ralph Nader), and drives Mini Coopers. His contracts obligate him to interview anti-commercialization advocate Susan Linn at a Sheetz gas station, and to stay at a Hyatt when he travels to São Paolo to cover the city's outdoor ad ban.

While amusing as a meta-commercial packaged as an inquiry into artistic integrity, the film inevitably feels like a stunt. The slyest touch may be that amid the hawking and well-worn revelations about advertising, the biggest sell is for the amiable Spurlock as the genre's reigning goofball tour guide. All that's missing is the obligatory survey question: Are you more or less likely to purchase this brand in the future? —Robert Abele

The Elephant in the Living Room

Don't be misled: The only animals you'll see in a living room in this doc are a cougar and a Burmese python. (The runaway—slitheraway?— Gabon viper is nabbed in a garage.) Director Michael Webber's fast-moving, bittersweet film reveals a world of dangerous and entirely unregulated pets (lions, tigers, bears) raised behind closed doors. Much of the action takes place in suburban Ohio, a state that rivals parts of Florida for nuisance alligators. Hidden cameras rolling, we attend a reptile show where dads cart off snakes that could devour their offspring. But the real drama lies in the interplay between a passionate cop who moonlights as an exotic-animal rescuer and a sympathetic sadsack who can't bear to part with his full-grown African lions. The cat owner's tear-jerking travails drive home the filmmaker's point better than any finger-wagging activist ever could. —Michael Mechanic

Page One: Inside the New York Times

Director Andrew Rossi opens his doc with shots of clunky presses spitting out broadsheets—footage that feels dated, and that's the point. He catches the Gray Lady at a moment when print is waning and the bosses are scrambling for ways—a paywall?—to survive the impending digital era. Rossi becomes "part of the furniture" at Times HQ as journos mull the value of Twitter, whether to publish WikiLeaks docs, and how best to cover the demise of newspapers. And while the film's big unanswered questions might leave viewers feeling untethered, the paper's personalities—from editors' goofy antics to reporters coaxing sources into going on the record—leave us believing that all the news that's fit to print isn't doomed quite yet. "Of course we will survive," insists media columnist David Carr, the film's smack-talking star. "You," he reminds his fellow journos, "are a bunch of tenacious motherfuckers!" —Maddie Oatman

The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975

Revisiting the Black Power movement of the '60s and '70s through the lens of the era's Swedish journalists? It's a strange premise for a doc, but filmmaker Göran Hugo Olsson has dug up tons of old 16 mm footage, adding commentary from civil rights icons (Angela Davis, Harry Belafonte) and contemporary hip-hop artists (Erykah Badu, Questlove, Talib Kweli). Despite some great scenes—children of Black Panthers singing "pick up your guns" and Davis' moving prison interview about the Birmingham church bombing—Olsson's depiction of the struggle comes off as something you'd grudgingly watch in a high-school history class. As Badu says, "It's about the story." And this version, while informative, is rarely moving. —Anna Pulley

American Teacher

When Rhena Jasey decided to become a public-school teacher, her friends were appalled: "You went to Harvard!" she recalls them saying. "You should be a doctor or a lawyer." Jasey is one of four teachers profiled by director Vanessa Roth and coproducers Dave Eggers and Nínive Calegari as they address the hottest question in education reform: how to attract and retain great teachers? That, education experts agree, is the single most effective thing a school can do to boost student achievement. Real wages for teachers, the filmmakers argue, have been in a 30-year decline. One subject, a history teacher and coach, makes just $54,000 after 15 years on the job. He supplements that by driving a forklift—indeed, the film reports that 31 percent of US teachers take second jobs to get by. But instead of support, they get the blame for lackluster test scores. With more than half of the nation's 3.2 million public pedagogues coming up for retirement in the next decade, American Teacher succeeds in reframing education's abstract ideological battles in terms of kitchen-table realities. —Kristina Rizga

Front page image: Hana/Shutterstock

Get Mother Jones by Email - Free. Like what you're reading? Get the best of MoJo three times a week.