SIFF's Best Documentaries of 2011
This week, SIFF presents 18 films that constitute its best documentaries of 2011. The selection is not bad at all. In fact, four of the films on its list are in my top 10 documentaries for last year: Charlotte Rampling: The Look by Angelina Maccarone, Page One: Inside the New York Times by Andrew Rossi, General Orders No. 9 by Robert Persons, and Beats Rhymes & Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest by Michael Rapaport. Sadly, the film at the very top of my list, Nostalgia for the Light by Patricio Guzmán, is undeservedly absent, as well as the one that's second on my list, Into Eternity by Michael Madsen, and third, Eames: The Architect and the Painter by Jason Cohn and Bill Jersey—a documentary that did unexpectedly great business for Northwest Film Forum and was later picked up by SIFF to repeat this success.
I will conclude with a quick word about General Orders No. 9, which was screened last fall at Grand Illusion. Set in the rural South and filled with mystery, poetry, and gorgeous images, No. 9 has much in common with Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life. Both films have two main parts: one that is great and one that is bad. For No. 9, the good part of the film runs nearly 50 minutes, which is more than half of the film. For The Tree of Life, it runs only 30 minutes, which is less than a fifth of the film.
With No. 9, the great part of the film is undone when its pro-environmental agenda becomes an anti-urban agenda. With The Tree of Life, it happens when its own anti-urban moment initiates a sequence of cosmic events—the birth of the universe and the demise of the dinosaurs—that culminate with a Freudian drama between a mean old daddy and a sensitive boy. Had General Orders No. 9 stayed away from the city and focused on the small town and its surrounding country, it would have been everything that Malick wanted his film to be: an important work of American cinema. SIFF Cinema at the Uptown, Jan 20–26.