2012 Year in Film: Year of the documentary

December 21, 2012

from Indy Week

In recent years, I’ve noticed a curious algorithm regarding pop culture oddsmaking: In any given week of DVD releases, the most interesting title hitting shelves is almost always an independent documentary. I have a theory as to why documentaries hold such an appeal these days: Because docs are about real places and real people, they provide a sense of wonder that we don’t experience too much at the multiplex anymore. I love it when I go to the movies and a story blows me away. But when a true story blows me away, I get really interested.



Scary documentaries, in particular, can be much more frightening than the most explicit horror films. Take, for instance, two very different docs that were featured earlier this year at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival in Durham. Both have since gone on to great success, and considered together, they’re even scarier than the sum of their parts.

The Queen of Versailles features some of the most hallucinatory sequences of the year. The film chronicles a year or so in the life of billionaire couple David and Jackie Siegel, as their time-share real estate empire collapses around them. The Siegels, wrapped for so long in their delusional world of extreme wealth, have no idea how to tighten the household budget. Jackie takes the family stretch limo to the McDonald’s drive-through. David sells all the furniture but insists on preserving the commissioned oil paintings of himself (mounted shirtless on horseback). It’s raw footage of One Percenters in psychosis, and it would be funny if it weren’t so terrifying.

The fest’s other scary movie was Detropia, which concerns the devastating economic collapse of the city of Detroit and was recently shortlisted for this year’s documentary Oscar. The film is similarly packed with surreal images—blocks of derelict houses, packs of feral dogs, avant garde artists wandering the ruins in spaceman suits. Several experts in the film speculate darkly that Detroit is the canary in the coal mine, and what’s happened here will happen in the rest of America. As a member of the vast Detroit diaspora, the film depressed me mightily. Taken together, these two films were like watching the American Dream get crushed from above and below.

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