Looking over the list of our favorite documentaries of 2015, we’re struck by how many more of them, compared to previous lists, are biographical portraits of familiar faces—Nina Simone, Amy Winehouse, Russell Brand, Janis Joplin, and others. But our favorite documentary in a very long time was very different—a stark portrait of a seemingly intractable crisis and two communities’ desperate attempts to address it. And for the third time in four years, our favorite documentary is from a first-time director. Here are our twenty favorite documentaries of 2015.
20. Finders Keepers
Finders Keepers can boast of having one of the better single-sentence synopses of recent memory, when it comes to documentaries: “After a man loses a leg in a plane crash and mummifies it himself, an errant storage locker sale deposits it into the hands of an entrepreneur who refuses to return the body part even after the leg’s original owner demands it back.” That’s the “meat” of Finders Keepers, if you will—a custody battle over a severed body part that really took place between leg-loser John Wood and leg-finder Shannon Whisnant in the years following 2007, when the discovery of the leg and resulting feud made national news. The resulting documentary is an absurd, rambling, he-said/he-said story that reveals two fascinating personalities residing in rural North Carolina. At times, the story seems headed toward an expected conclusion, but every time it feels like things should be wrapping up, some new hurdle arises to be overcome. —Jim Vorel
19. What Happened, Miss Simone?
The exceptional and the conventional do battle in What Happened, Miss Simone?, a thoughtful, admiring look at the gigantically talented singer and artist Nina Simone. Directed by veteran documentarian Liz Garbus (Oscar-nominated for co-directing The Farm: Angola, USA), the film seeks to showcase Simone in all her complexity—civil rights icon, trailblazing jazz musician, a victim of mental illness—and there’s no questioning the love that flows through every frame. Miss Simone?’s highlight is the scenes of Simone on stage: fiery, mournful, transcendent, sometimes combative. (A great moment comes when she stops performing mid-song to admonish an offscreen audience member for getting out of his or her seat.) In these brief glimpses, taken from across her career, we see a woman flower and then harden, circumstances intervening to inform and sometimes impair her talent. We’re really—finally—seeing Simone in all her glory and complexity. —Tim Grierson
18. The Wolfpack
Imagine a small, dingy Manhattan apartment; imagine you can’t leave; and imagine: The only contact you have with the outside world is through movies. Growing up like this, anyone could imagine that things could get pretty weird—and the Angulo family, a literal band of brothers raised in isolation by their paranoid parents, are indeed an interesting bunch. Their only outlet for creativity, undertaken as a way to basically stave off boredom, is to recreate their favorite films (like Reservoir Dogs, The Dark Knight and The Grand Budapest Hotel), crafting costumes out of cereal boxes, yoga mats and whatever other resources they can get their pale hands on. In The Wolfpack, director Crystal Moselle has nearly unlimited access to the Angulo brothers; at one point they inform her that she is the only person who has ever been invited over to their home, and is the only guest they’ve ever had. Sad and strange, funny and touching, wholly unusual and like nothing you’ve ever seen before, The Wolfpack is both powerful and unsettling. —Brent McKnight
Kapadia wisely puts his subject front-and-center; friends, family members and music industry associates are all interviewed for the film, but nearly all of them are presented as voiceovers rather than talking heads. Even when others are speaking, it’s impossible to take your eyes off Winehouse in Amy. He has a way of making her reality feel cinematic, lingering in slow motion as she looks back at the paparazzi and rolls her eyes after rushing into a car amid a flurry of camera flashes. When she wins the Grammy for Record of the Year and gazes up at a screen broadcasting the ceremony, the way her eyes light up will make you briefly think you’re not watching a documentary, but rather an awards-season biopic with some actress in a beehive wig trying to earn her Oscar. Then you’ll pity anyone dumb enough to try to top Amy with something scripted—there’s nothing like the real thing. —Bonnie Stiernberg
16. Best of Enemies
William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal’s infamously grueling rhetorical slugfest is the subject of Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville’s Best of Enemies. Neville won the hearts and minds of arthouse audiences (as well as of the AMPAS voting body) in 2013 with 20 Feet from Stardom, a film that peers behind curtains in show biz to showcase the unsung performers responsible for buttressing the careers of our favorite singers. In Best of Enemies, Neville has teamed with Gordon to pull back a different curtain, one concealing the very real ugliness bubbling and boiling off-camera for the length of ABC’s attempt at spicing up the otherwise staid world of political commentary. Best of Enemies deftly contextualizes the debates within the framework of their era, but the film is more concerned about how much they’ve echoed through the years. The tenor of Buckley’s meetings with Vidal is felt in every inch of our society’s contemporary political machine, from the speech of our crop of wannabe commanders-in-chief to the language used by our televised cognoscenti. Our ability to speak the same language has long been fractured, and Best of Enemies tracks the faultlines of that social temblor with remarkable precision. —Andy Crump
15. The Nightmare
Documentarian Rodney Ascher makes movies with catchy concepts that, deep down, aren’t about the thing they claim to be. His 2012 debut Room 237 investigated the obsessive fans of The Shining who have devoted their lives to exploring Stanley Kubrick’s film, picking the horror movie apart to find all the hidden messages they think the director embedded within its frames. At its core, though, Room 237 isn’t about conspiracy theories or even The Shining, but, rather, fandom and the way our favorite movies seem to expand in our minds, suggesting worlds of meaning their makers probably never intended. Ascher’s follow-up, The Nightmare, is also a very human story, in that it isn’t what it claims to be. It purports to explore the phenomenon of sleep paralysis—but it’s really about how people try to make sense of the world around them. If The Nightmare ultimately isn’t as transfixing as Room 237, it nonetheless strengthens one’s conviction that Ascher has found a rich vein of nonfiction filmmaking he’s made his own. He doesn’t judge his subjects, he lets them speak for themselves. He has faith that his audience will be thoughtful enough to put themselves in his interviewees’ positions, wondering about fate, luck and the universal instinct to find meaning in the inexplicable. With The Nightmare, that faith is rewarded. T.G.
14. Welcome to Leith
It’s a small town in an almost nondescript kind of Americana. All 24 members of the community know and look out for one another. Welcome to the small town of Leith.
A nice enough stranger takes an interest in their town. He quickly buys up tracts of land and becomes one of the biggest stakeholders in the area. But this particular stranger, Craig Cobb, is not just a dowdy loner. He’s a white supremacist instigating an Aryan coup in the American heartland. What recourse do the locals have to oust the interloper? The answer: shockingly, not much. Welcome to Leith poses the question of where tolerance and intolerance begin. How quiet do we get when the Dutton family espouses their beliefs as “white separatists” around their young children? How do we feel about individual rights when the will of that individual is essentially to terrorize a community and repurpose their homes for hatred? For its eerie sense of timeliness and excellent storytelling, Welcome to Leith is one of the must-watch documentaries of 2015. —Monica Castillo
13. Approaching the Elephant
Most would agree that America’s public schools have their significant flaws, but are there any alternatives that are better? That’s the provocative question asked by Approaching the Elephant, a documentary about an untraditional school in its early stages—and what’s best about this film is that its answer is far from conclusive by the end. With patience and a clear-eyed perspective, Approaching the Elephant goes beyond weighing the value of what’s known as “free schools” to consider how children develop and what role teachers have in shaping them. —T.G.
12. We Come as Friends
Some messages, even if they’re familiar, need to be repeated. Filmmaker Hubert Sauper’s scalding documentary We Come as Friends reminds us yet again of the ongoing monstrous behavior visited upon Africa by the rest of the developed world, which harvests the continent’s resources at the expense of its people. Other recent nonfiction films, including Sauper’s Oscar-nominated Darwin’s Nightmare, may have covered similar terrain, but the anger and sophistication he wields throughout We Come as Friends make this a standout and a worthy addition to the current, ever-clamoring chorus of protesting voices. —T.G.
11. Stray Dog
Winter’s Bone director Debra Granik’s little-seen documentary is a companion piece of sorts to her Oscar-nominated previous outing. Both films peer into the modern-day Midwest, and in Stray Dog she introduces us to Ron Hall, a roughhewn Vietnam vet who hasn’t let go of that war or its moral impact. Following Hall as he adjusts to married life and helps newer veterans cope with life back home, Stray Dog is one of the most humane and complicated visions of Heartland America in recent years. It’s a cliché to say that there are no red states or blue states, merely different degrees of purple: Granik’s quiet gem brings that bromide to vivid life. —T.G.