Ebola. Ferguson. The missing Malaysian jetliner. Russian aggression. ISIS. 2014 provided plenty of news stories that are sure to be fascinating subjects for future documentaries, but it provided quite a few outstanding docs for right now, too. Our favorites this year touched on subjects ranging from death metal to national park preservation (both in Africa), from a historic war in Asia to a current one in the Middle East, and from a nearly forgotten photographer to the mot famous whistleblower in the world. Two of our top three films came from two of the greatest documentarians alive—Errol Morris and Frederick Wiseman—but in the end, a much lesser known filmmaker brought us our favorite doc of the year. Here are our twelve favorites.
12. Happy Valley
Why do we pledge allegiance to institutions? Why do we assign positive attributes to unfeeling organizations like sports teams, telling ourselves that our virtue is reflected in their greatness? Amir Bar-Lev’s Happy Valley examines the scandal that engulfed the Penn State Nittany Lions after it was determined that assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky had molested children for years—and that the university (and beloved head coach Joe Paterno) had covered it up. Less a portrait of a sick soul than a chronicling of its repercussions among the Penn State faithful, Happy Valley starkly illustrates what happens when people simply refuse to acknowledge the moral rot in their midst. —Tim Grierson
11. Death Metal Angola
Death Metal Angola’s tone is hopeful rather than nihilistic. This is not a picture about the specters and shades that haunt a corner of the world purged by bloodshed. Rather, it examines how the survivors of those atrocities find common cause through music. You may have figured the musical genre from the title—and if you’re not the metal type, you may also choose to pass the film over. You shouldn’t. Death Metal Angola does more than paint a portrait of hardship for its viewers, or lecture us on regional devastation that isn’t glamorous enough to make the evening news. Its primary concern is the power of art to bring people together, and to give them a filter for their emotions, their struggles, their misfortunes. —Andy Crump
At Camden International Film Fest, I figured going into Virunga, Orlando von Einsiedel’s excellent documentary about the fight to save a huge national park in Congo, that I was going to get majestically beautiful nature porn, and an impassioned call to action to save a site that is truly a world treasure. Plus cool shots of apes doing cool stuff. And I did indeed get all that. But I got so much more. Virunga is also part history lesson, part investigative thriller, part war movie and part character study besides. It’s exceptionally engaging, exceptionally moving, exceptionally convincing. And those nature shots? Spectacular, too. —Michael Dunaway
Few documentaries have cameras rolling as history is being made. But director Laura Poitras found herself in the middle of momentous times while making Citizenfour, which takes us behind the scenes as NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden works with (among others) journalist Glenn Greenwald to expose the organization’s systematic surveillance of everyday Americans. From the worried initial meetings in a Hong Kong hotel room to the later fallout across the globe, Citizenfour has the rush of a thriller, humanizing its subjects so that we see the uncertainty and anxiety coursing through them, along with the guts and indignation. —T.G.
It’s perhaps fitting that for a movie as nakedly personal as Actress, I have a somewhat unusual personal story about it. I interviewed doc subject Brandy Burre (you may know her best from The Wire) at the Sarasota Film Festival, and we became fast friends. I learned a lot about her in the months that followed, but nothing could have prepared me for the depths to which director Robert Greene plunges in his documentary about his next door neighbor. In the film, Burre is trying to navigate a return to acting after some time taken off to raise a family, and of course as an actress beyond her teen years, she’s struggling with the industry’s perception of her, and what her new place in it might be, if any. She’s also struggling to make sense of her role in her relationship, as it encounters some rough waters. And she’s doing it all in front of a camera, which raises Heisenberg-esque questions even she may not be able to answer about how much of her journey of self-discovery is organic and how much is prompted by the camera. And does it even matter? Those kinds of epistemological questions lie at the heart of Greene’s work here, and it’s to his great credit that rather than give answers or even ask the questions out loud, he’s quite willing to let the situations unfold in front of us and have us ask the questions ourselves. I’ve never seen a documentary quite like Actress, and now I don’t know if I’ll ever see my friend the same way either. —M.D.
7. Finding Vivian Maier
When Vivian Maier died at the age of 83 in the spring of 2009, those who had known the woman remembered her as a nanny with a humorously stiff gait and a penchant for taking photographs. In the short time since Maier’s death, her narrative has been radically rewritten, her striking street photography celebrated in exhibitions from Los Angeles to London. That such a private, peculiar woman could retroactively be recognized as one of the best photographers of the last 50 years is a testament to the untold great art being made under our collective nose. It’s an enticing story, and it’s breezily told in Finding Vivian Maier, a documentary that examines her path to the posthumous spotlight. —T.G.