The 12 Best Documentaries of 2014

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6. Rich Hill
Cousins Tracy Droz Tragos and Andrew Droz Palermo grew up in Missouri near the economically depressed town of Rich Hill, which has about 1,300 residents. Their documentary focuses on three young people in Rich Hill, but more broadly Rich Hill is a portrait of poverty and diminished dreams in America’s heartland. Tragos and Palermo force us to see these residents in their unvarnished surroundings, but rather than mocking or patronizingly ennobling them, Rich Hill simply asks viewers to question our prejudices. It’s a modest ambition rendered with great feeling. —T.G.


5. Last Days in Vietnam
Rory Kennedy’s pointed documentary Last Days in Vietnam doesn’t deal with much of that political turmoil that steamrolled the country, or the notion of right and wrong or Red versus Red, White and Blue; instead, it chronicles a very narrow slice of the war—the time after the Paris Peace Accords when the United States had officially exited the war and the ensuing dilemma that faced U.S. forces remaining in Vietnam, particularly what to do about the allied South Vietnamese who faced certain peril at the hands of the oncoming North. What she has rendered is so subtly poignant it sneakily stays with you—the true test of an effective documentary. Her effort sheds new light and understanding on a dark chapter in American history. It also serves notice about a promising filmmaker whose name stems from the American legacy itself. —Tom Meek


4. The Green Prince
Director Nadav Schirman took a gamble when making his third feature: he assumed that his subjects and their intertwining stories were fascinating enough to sustain 90 minutes of what is essentially a documentary about two men talking. He assumed correctly, because The Green Prince builds the same levels of psychological tension one could find in any spy thriller, all the while offering a rare look into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It is informative without being didactic, confident without bias—through only two viewpoints presented clearly, Schirman illustrates a magnificently bigger picture. —Jeremy Mathews


3. The Unknown Known
Some reviews of The Unknown Known have expressed frustration that Morris fails to unmask his adversary—that he’s never able to bring Donald Rumsfeld to a moment of soul-searching reflection similar to what occurred with McNamara in The Fog of War, which won the Best Documentary Oscar. This hardly seems like a failing, though. The Unknown Known isn’t about revelation as much as it is about portraiture. What we have on display here are the workings of a formidable intellect—the film is a case study in unbridled self-assurance. You watch The Unknown Known in a bit of a fog, forced to tip your hat to Rumsfeld’s deft handling of language and meaning. The documentary is a reluctant, disturbing tribute to that mastery. You get the sense that Rumsfeld might have been Morris’s white whale—the one man who could finally be taken to task for the failures of the Iraq War. But even he can’t get Rumsfeld to crack. In a way, that’s fitting: What kind of worthy adversary would Rumsfeld be if he was so easy to catch? —T.G.


2. National Gallery
National Gallery focuses on problem-solving and theory, which proves to be a fascinating juxtaposition. On one hand, a museum is a business that has to worry about economics and marketing—but on the other, its mission is grander, connecting us with our cultural history as well as our political history. But Frederick Wiseman never beats us over the head with these observations: We glean them from the footage he compiles, in which the daily business of running a museum is undertaken with crisp precision.
In this way, National Gallery is itself open to interpretation as much as the paintings on display are. There are far more questions and suggestions in National Gallery than there are firm answers—about the meaning of art or anything else. And in kind, Wiseman (as is his wont) doesn’t show any interest in judging what he sees. As he’s done with several of his recent films, the man lends a sympathetic, slightly detached perspective to National Gallery, portraying a sense of a place, its mission and its struggles. —T.G.


1. The Overnighters
The bulk of The Overnighters is about Williston, N.D. It may not be the most happening city in the United States, but it is one of the fastest growing thanks to the controversial fracking boom and subsequent influx of jobs. Thankfully, Moss leaves the fracking debate for other documentaries to handle. In turn, he focuses on the economically challenged men who seek work in the area, and the harsh realities they find instead.

Rather than the instant riches and six-figure salaries afforded a lucky few, scores of job seekers are left to fend for themselves, living out of cars and alienated by a less-than-welcoming community. The notable exception is Lutheran pastor Jay Reinke, who happily throws open the doors of his Williston church with a housing program dubbed “The Overnighters.” Without the consent of his congregation, Reinke invites these desperate pilgrims to make the building their temporary (or semi-permanent) residence. For Reinke, this radical act of charity is simply the Christian thing to do. For many of his parishioners, it’s an uncomfortable intrusion on their spiritual sanctuary—especially when the local paper prints a list of registered sex offenders in the area and a few of those names are Overnighters. One even lives in Reinke’s own home, with the approval of Reinke’s wife and three children.

The experience of The Overnighters is about so much more than just what does or doesn’t drive Reinke. It’s about what’s happening in America right now, how we can have as many abstract discussions about economics, the environment, crime and punishment, and religion as we want, but that these abstract ideas have real impacts on real people. —Geoff Berkshire

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