1. Marina Abramović: The Artist Is Present (dir. Matthew Akers). Completely engrossing portrait of performance artist Marina Abramović.
2. Street Dogs of South Central (dir. Bill Marin). Dramatic and engaging, this great little documentary brings us into the world of ownerless dogs who must provide for themselves and each other on the streets of Los Angeles.
3. Far Out Isn't Far Enough: The Tomi Ungerer Story (dir. Brad Bernstein). A visually stunning documentary detailing the life of outcast illustrator Tomi Ungerer from his childhood in Alsace during the Second World War to his career in New York.
4. Sex Crimes Unit (dir. Lisa F. Jackson). An amazing look at the lawyers who prosecute sex crimes in New York City, one of the standouts at the DOXA festival this year because of the deft way the film tells the history of the justice system's attitude toward rape while following real cases through the courts and letting the personalities of the lawyers and complainants emerge.
5. Side by Side: The Science, Art and Impact of Digital Cinema (dir. Christopher Kenneally). The voiceover narration by Keanu Reeves is a bit dry but the interviews he conducts are surprisingly engaging, we get the views of various directors and cinematographers (including Danny Boyle and Martin Scorsese), set beside a chronological history of digital cinema, particularly the period from 2002 to 2008. I saw this the first day of VIFF and it was one of the best at the festival.
6. Mr. Cao Goes to Washington (dir. S. Leo Chiang). Fascinating documentary about the congressional career of Joseph Cao, the first Vietnamese-American to serve in the House of Representatives, elected in 2008 as a Republican from a traditionally Democratic, poor, majority-African-American district in Louisiana. The film, which I saw at VAFF, is among other things an illuminating case study of the hyperpartisanship in modern U.S. politics.
7. Tectonics (dir. Peter Bo Rappmund). Rappmund's previous film, Psychohydrography, also screened at VIFF and was on my list of top 10 documentaries of 2010. His latest, Tectonics is similarly formed from thousands of still photographs, this time taken along the US-Mexico border.
8. Nuclear Savage (dir. Adam Jonas Horowitz). Fascinating, and often shocking, look at an incident in the Marshall Islands when local people were exposed to radiation from a U.S. nuclear test. The American government has always maintained it was an accident, but Horowitz argues that it was an intentional scientific experiment to learn the effects of radiation on human beings.
9. 56 Up (dir. Michael Apted). Props to Michael Apted for continuing this longitudinal documentary series, I remember watching 21 Up in high school and would never have thought I'd get addicted, needing a fix every seven years. Interviewed by Jian Ghomeshi, Apted said he would be directing 84 Up when he is 99. I saw this at Vancity Theatre in December 2012, I guess it premiered on British TV earlier in 2012 and has an American theatrical release in 2013.
10. The Light Bulb Conspiracy (dir. Cosima Dannoritzer). I'm usually very skeptical of conspiracy theories, but this film does make a good case that consumers have been cheated on a grand scale by corporate policies of planned obsolescence. Great visual style, a terrific narrative thread involving a printer that no longer prints, never a boring moment.
Honourable mentions: Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry | The Ambassador | Birders: The Central Park Effect | The Castle | The Flat | Fruit Hunters | More Than Honey | Nuala | Stories We Tell.