The 50 Best Documentaries on Netflix

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The 50 Best Documentaries on Netflix

Here, we’ll point it out before you can: The best documentaries on Netflix are mostly assembled from movies released after 2010. Whether due to licensing fees, a lack of interest or both, Netflix continues, as is the case every single month, to substantially scale back on its pre-Y2K catalog, featuring only 26 documentaries from before the turn of the Millennium, and a whopping 14 docs to be released before 1990. In the past couple months it’s lost quite a bit of excellent documentaries, too, like Pumping Iron and The Thin Blue Line.

One thing Netflix does well is bring the latest and most groundbreaking in critically lauded documentary films to the service, be it Oscar-nominated Netflix original Strong Island, or their championing of such semi-obscure essentials as Casting JonBenet and Faces Places. If you’re looking to find new, essential documentaries, there is still plenty to peruse here.

For other genres and types, check out Paste’s many, many Best Movies lists, and then make your way through the following—remembering that truth is only relative.

Here are the 50 best documentaries currently streaming on Netflix:

marsha-p.jpg 50. The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson
Year: 2017
Director: David France
Director David France’s documentary portrait of “the Rosa Parks of the LGBT movement” has come under fire from trans filmmaker Reina Gossett, who accuses France of purloining the idea for the film from a grant application she submitted to secure funding for her own film about the pioneering trans activist. Still, in bringing wider attention to Johnson’s life and work, the film is a worthwhile reminder that trans women of color were and remain queer revolutionaries—and that they were and remain disproportionately likely to be murdered, often in cases that are never solved. Following trans activist Victoria Cruz as she tries to find the truth behind Johnson’s 1992 death—which the police swiftly ruled a suicide despite indications of foul play—France blends true crime and the biopic into an illuminating treatment of a true American heroine. —Matt Brennan


miss-sharon-jones-poster.jpg 49. Miss Sharon Jones!
Year: 2016
Director: Barbara Kopple
In 2013, Sharon Jones was diagnosed with Stage 2 pancreatic cancer—in itself a depressing development, but not without a lot of optimism attached to the prognosis. Except for a by-the-book opening segment, in which director Barbara Kopple seems to grind through all of her blandest tendencies to make room for the grist of what’s important, the film filters Jones’s life and career through her illness. We meet Jones’s band, the Dap-Kings, through that lens, getting to know each musician in light of how their friend’s illness has unfortunately affected their livelihoods. They have mortgages and alimony to pay, children to support, a record label to run. That all of this, already precariously balanced due to the nature of the music-making business, is so dependent on Jones’s health becomes a shadow hanging over every interview. When band practices are occupied by 10+ people sitting patiently in a room waiting for Jones to get back into her groove or helping the singer remember the lyrics to her songs, Kopple’s film is heartbreaking, walking that tragic line between hopelessness and optimism, encapsulating so clearly what it’s like to be close to someone who’s so sick.

But the real thrill of Miss Sharon Jones! is in its concert footage, Kopple letting Jones’s performances, old and new, suffice as the best testament to the singer’s power and—unbeknonwst to anyone at the time, though the thought must have crossed their minds incessantly—the most immediate eulogy we’ve got. If you ever had the chance to behold her on stage, then you know how exhilarating she can be. If you hadn’t? Despite recent tragedy, Kopple has some seriously life-affirming stuff you need to see. —Dom Sinacola


a-river-below-movie-poster copy.jpg 48. A River Below
Year: 2017
Director: Mark Grieco
If you, like me, fear the inky depths of bodies of water as the last unknown, the last place unfathomable monsters could be on our planet, A River Below will fuck you up—and not just because it shows us that fishermen are the real monsters. Mark Grieco’s documentary isn’t afraid to use graphic images to get what it wants, and what it wants is an end to the hunt of the endangered Amazon pink river dolphin, an exotic and alien creature, like a bright blue tiger or a polka-dotted bear. They naturally buck against our expectations about what we know we know about Nature, and they’re so wondrously weird as to be the source of hearsay and mystical rumor. Featuring the shaky handheld style common to films documenting the clash between humanity and nature, as well as a slick Planet Earth-like aesthetic flying overhead the ever-winding mocha of the Amazon river, the film engages with the long-beaked and otherworldly dolphin through two conservationists: biologist Fernando Trujillo, a scientist so devoted to the animal that the people indigenous to the area believe him to be a dolphin in human form, and Richard Rasmussen, a Brazilian National Geographic TV superstar, the Steve Irwin of South America. But A River Below’s core focus is the killing of the dolphins as bait for a highly profitable Amazon seafood, the Piracatinga, whose business is a huge industry being quashed and forced into illegality (poaching and smuggling) by the laws and measures put in place by conservationists. Until recently, the practice had been commonplace among local fishermen. It’s all these people have to make money—but, then again, they’re wantonly killing a protected species. A River Below is pure investigative journalism. It trusts no one and questions every side of the story—even the possible coercion of illegal activities by one of its stars while those he coerced have threatened to shoot him in the head if he ever turns up again. It sometimes gets caught up in its own sort of alt-cult of celebrity, and, like most documentaries, it is enraptured with its own interviews, and could use some smarter editing. However, there’s enough self-referentiality—regarding the cameras, the process of gaining access to native populations, the act of shooting itself—that the director open acknowledges that the film inherently taints its subject by its very existence. It can’t help but have an agenda. —Jacob Oller


team-foxcatcher.jpg 47. Team Foxcatcher
Year: 2016
Director: John Greenhalgh
Netflix released this original documentary just two years after Bennett Miller’s film on the same subject, but where Miller’s film stretched the truth into melodrama, Team Foxcatcher plays it straight. Working closely with Dave Schultz’s widow, Greenhalgh recounts the events leading up to Schultz’s murder at the hands of eccentric millionaire John du Pont. Even for the rare viewer unaware of the story’s tragic ending, Team Foxcatcher offers plenty of insight. In revealing home video footage and interviews with Schultz’s fellow wrestlers and friends, the film depicts life at the Foxcatcher estate, where champion wrestlers lived and trained together under du Pont’s financial support, a generosity fueled by a desperate desire for love and belonging. What begins as an athletes’ utopia becomes a strained, dysfunctional family: As du Pont’s paranoia grows, the wrestlers—concerned with their careers and livelihoods—do their best to placate him. Because in the end, Team Foxcatcher’s greatest asset is its heart—even in the face of bizarre and tragic events, the love this large, makeshift family has for each other (du Pont included) is incredibly moving. —Maura McAndrew


iverson.jpg 46. Iverson
Year: 2014
Director: Zatella Beatty
For some of us, a great sports documentary is the kind of film that makes you forget you’re not that interested in sports—or better yet, the kind of film that makes you wonder why you’re not that into sports. Iverson starts out as a portrait of a young black man nearly lost to a criminal justice system that seemed determined to derail his life. Allen Iverson would go on to survive this attempt on his life and become one of the greatest basketball players of all time, as well as a representative of the dangers of respectability politics, which seep into all American organizations, including the NBA. Iverson invites you to sit with the complexities of fame, especially for black men and women who are expected to represent much more than their individual selves, and it also demands that—even if you don’t fall in love with the great Allen Iverson by the end, you have to respect his game. —Shannon M. Houston


mercury-13.jpg 45. Mercury 13
Year: 2018
Directors: David Sington, Heather Walsh
One of the most gutting facts underscored in Hidden Figures was how much creativity and intellectual excellence a society loses when it lets its prejudices set the limits on its ambition. The United States’ inability to beat the USSR in getting a man into space, Hidden Figures made clear, was a direct result of the implicitly biased perspectives of the white men in charge of the program. Netflix’s Mercury 13, which tells the story of the 13 female pilots who, following the whizbang excellence of the Women Airforce Service Pilots in World War II (full disclosure, my grandmother was among them), were put through the exact same physical and psychological tests as the first set of male astronauts and matched (and sometimes exceeded!) their results but who were nevertheless shut out by lawmakers from becoming astronauts themselves, takes this clarity a step further: Because of the explicitly biased perspectives of the white men in charge (and in the Hero Astronaut spotlight), the USSR beat the US in getting the first woman into space. Many of the women who made up the Mercury 13 are no longer alive, but the ones who are and who participated in this documentary have lost none of the sharpness of purpose that made them such crackerjack pilots, and that would have made them equally crackerjack astronauts. So while it would be nice if Mercury 13 showed a bit more about the transition from an all-male astronaut program to a co-ed one (it skips straight from the 1962 testimonies before Congress to Eileen Collins in the early 1990s) and addressed the social and political forces that kept the astronaut program so white for so long (Mae Jemison makes a single appearance in archival footage, but otherwise there is no reference is made to the forces that made the both the Mercury 13 and John Glenn’s cohort universally white), the very fact that it is making available to millions of people a part of history that is not well known makes it more than worth your time the next night you feel a hankering to stream a documentary. —Alexis Gunderson


chasing-coral.jpg 44. Chasing Coral
Year: 2017
Director: Jeff Orlowski
Folks, I don’t care what you happen to believe. Sure, global climate change events happened in the past, before the Industrial Revolution. We refer to them as the “Great Extinctions.” You might not believe we’re experiencing one now. Coral begs to differ with you. You might say, “OK, it’s happening, but it’s not being generated or accelerated by humans.” Coral begs to differ with you. Coral would like you to know it is time to be terrified. So would the folks who made Chasing Coral. The film tracks a crew of dedicated coral-nerds who are trying to capture a “coral bleaching” event (mass death from overheated water) so they can start making the public pay attention to what’s going on beneath the ocean’s surface. There’s some beautiful underwater photography, both still and moving, of corals—healthy coral reefs look like they were drawn by a Finding Nemo animator at Pixar, and they are stunning. On the whole, the documentary is not a blazing artistic groundbreaker. And it isn’t meant to be. It’s meant to get you tuned in to the fact that while everyone’s talking about the impact of global warming as if it were something still in the future, ocean temperatures are now regularly experiencing what used to be extremely exceptional random events—namely, “fever” temps that cause coral to die. And corals are the foundation species of insanely diverse symbiotic ecosystems, ranking only with rainforests for sheer species diversity. Chasing Coral is not intended to be an artwork, though elements of it are artful enough. It is explicitly a public service announcement, and a call to action. We tend not to spend much time thinking about things like corals, because they live in a place we don’t usually see (unless we’re lucky enough to live near a reef). What goes on under the surface of the ocean might not seem that connected to what’s going on here on land, but that’s an illusion. Corals would like you to know that you and they are connected far more directly than you imagine, and that without them, you face a radically destabilized environment. —Amy Glynn


wendy-whelan-poster.jpg 43. Restless Creature: Wendy Whelan
Year: 2017
Directors: Adam Schlesinger, Linda Saffire
Restless Creature: Wendy Whelan isn’t a “dance movie,” per se. Except during the last 10 minutes (and even then, in what looks like a truncated form), there aren’t really any sustained ballet sequences in which to marvel at the former New York City Ballet principal dancer’s legendary physicality. It’s doubtful that neophytes will come away from Adam Schlesinger and Linda Saffire’s documentary with a deeper appreciation of the art form. Instead, this is a portrait of an artist at a professional and personal crossroads, as Whelan faces the potential death of the creative livelihood that has sustained her for so many decades, one that has given her life joy and meaning. Whelan’s process of trying to rediscover herself after a personal setback would not have been half as involving as it is if she hadn’t been so generous with the access she granted the filmmakers. She isn’t afraid to lay bare her vulnerabilities for the camera, and Schlesinger and Saffire are able to capture their subject in occasional private moments that make their subject seem poignantly human. It’s that intimacy that makes Restless Creature: Wendy Whelan an artist documentary that will play movingly—inspiringly, even—for those who aren’t already fans. —Kenji Fujishima


jim-andy.jpg 42. Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond
Year: 2017
Director: Chris Smith
The porous boundaries between storytellers and their stories are the linchpin of Netflix’s Chris Smith-directed, Spike Jonze-produced Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond, a fragmentary, yet compelling, look at the extreme lengths to which Jim Carrey went to portray his idol, singular entertainer Andy Kaufman, in the late Milos Forman’s 1999 biopic Man on the Moon. The film’s narrative hook is immediate: Jim & Andy draws from hours of behind-the-scenes footage that Universal had mothballed so viewers wouldn’t think Carrey, then one of Hollywood’s biggest and brightest stars, was “an asshole.” As we see some 18 years later, Carrey embodied Kaufman both on camera and off, his method acting antics begging meaningful questions about what drives performers to give themselves over to fantasy as well as how warped reality can get with such immersion. Jim & Andy is as moving as it is thought-provoking, a reminder that often in art there is no great joy without great pain. —Scott Russell


holy-hell-movie-poster.jpg 41. Holy Hell
Year: 2014
Director: Will Allen
A documentary equal parts memoir and exposé, Holy Hell focuses on the Buddhafield, a mysterious spiritual group—aka cult—that blossomed in West Hollywood and later in Austin, Texas, in the 1980s and ’90s. The film begins with director Will Allen’s story: A young film-school graduate in 1985 finds himself lost among the yuppies of the Reagan era. In voiceover that accompanies family pictures, home movies and archival film clips of Buddhafield members alternating between states of agony and ecstasy, he says, “This is what happened to me on my 22-year search for the truth.” But as Allen and many of his fellow members learn throughout their respective journeys, the truth is often elusive. Allen served as the Buddhafield’s de facto in-house videographer, capturing the group’s activities over the course of two decades. His inner-circle standing provides access to its leader Michel, the Teacher, a South American transplant and ballet-loving guru who prefers going shirtless and wearing Ray-Bans and Speedos to the long-flowing robes favored by other cult leaders. In crafting his first feature, Allen intersperses insider footage with more recent interviews with former members: What begins as a video memoir evolves into a much larger portrait of betrayal, grief and healing. While Allen inserts his presence on occasion, mostly through voiceover and brief film segments, he lets his fellow Buddhafield members do much of the talking and criticizing of their former guru. It’s a wise choice to not put himself at the center of his own documentary, but this avoidance of the spotlight also indirectly reveals that the filmmaker’s own psyche hasn’t fully recovered from two decades under Michel’s spell. —Christine N. Ziemba


lo-and-behold-poster.jpg 40. Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World
Year: 2016
Director: Werner Herzog 
You didn’t expect a Werner Herzog documentary about the significance of the internet in our daily lives, and how it might alter our future, to fall in the ballpark of “cheerful,” did you? It’s probably too much to hope for the film to be playful, or cheeky, though it is both of these things when not engaged with bleaker affairs, like internet addiction, embodied via obsessive World of Warcraft play, or the incident around Nikki Catsouras’s death. “But who is going to be liable in case of an accident?” Herzog muses on the topic of self-driving cars. “The onboard computer? Its designer? The GPS system? The internet? Or the driver, who eats his breakfast?” Classic Herzog.

Lo and Behold wants you to feel unsafe in your digital habitat, or at least it wants you to reconsider the status of your relative safety. The film suggests terrors on a sliding scale that goes from “no sweat” to “apocalypse” for the purpose of curing us of said terrors. Think of Herzog not as Biblical prophet, hoisting a sign proclaiming the end times, but as the family cat, presenting you with the lifeless form of a slain household pest as a trophy. He’s trying to reassure us, but his reassurances aren’t all that reassuring. But by confronting with his trademark curiosity and intellectual rigor the uncomfortable truths of what disasters might befall a global society grown so accustomed to occupying virtual space, Herzog’s observations are more factual than alarmist. —Andy Crump


43-Netflix-Docs_2015-miss-simone.jpg 39. What Happened, Miss Simone?
Year: 2015
Director: Liz Garbus
Liz Garbus’s What Happened, Miss Simone? probably errs too far towards a thesis that Nina Simone’s mental health was the cause of her genius, rather than a factor that complicated it. But what saves the film, and what makes it engaging, is that I’m not sure Garbus wholly believes that thesis, because many moments in the film betray it. So even though there are times where Garbus elides aspects of Simone’s life and career to represent her decline as inevitable and linear (and even though she problematically chooses to use interviews with Simone’s abusive ex-husband to narrate Simone’s life), the parts of the film where Simone is allowed to speak for herself—from her diary, from interviews, while performing onstage—are utterly compelling. They portray an artist in the late-1960s at the height of her powers and skill, in complete control of her piano and her voice, and brashly embracing radical politics and Black Power in a way that most contemporary popular musicians were far too scared to do. Sure they also portray an artist who was clearly struggling with fame, responsibility, politics, anger, and self-worth—but, especially in performance, the sheer scope of Simone’s technical skill and artistic sensibilities often escape the imposed rise-and-fall narrative. Even footage from late in Simone’s career provides evidence of her insane musical skill: her reinterpretation of early hit “My Baby Just Cares for Me” over a piano arrangement that sounds like one of Bach’s Inventions is astounding in about 30 different ways at once. Though I can only recommend this film with the caveat that it feels overly storyboarded to exploit a tired old idea of the tortured artist in order to answer its titular question—as in, “Q. What happened?; A. The very qualities that made her great also haunted her”—the concert footage alone makes this documentary worth digging into. —Mark Abraham


best-of-enemies.jpg 38. Best of Enemies
Year: 2015
Directors: Robert Gordon, Morgan Neville
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


fire-in-the-blood.jpg 37. Fire in the Blood
Year: 2012
Director: Dylan Mohan Gray
Narrated by William Hurt, Fire in the Blood paints a damning portrait of how government corruption and corporate greed resulted in the deaths of tens of millions of people in developing countries. Filmmaker Dylan Mohan Gray asserts that beginning in 1996, Western pharmaceutical companies as well as the governments of many countries in Africa and on other southern continents prevented low-cost AIDS medicines from reaching the people who needed them. It took the combined efforts of global figures like Bill Clinton and Desmond Tutu, as well as lesser-known ones such as Columbia University economist Joseph Stiglitz, to turn the tide on the AIDS epidemic. Ultimately, Gray’s film gives us hope that individual good can overcome institutionalized evil. —Allison Gorman


sunshine-superman-cover.jpg 36. Sunshine Superman
Year: 2015
Director: Marah Strauch
Sunshine Superman can be a problematic film to love. A thorough, intimate and often beautiful documentary about Carl Boenish and the BASE jumping movement that practically sprang single-mindedly from the endless font of his surreal enthusiasm, Sunshine Superman still can’t grasp the full splendor at the hearts of both the person and the extreme sport that serve as the film’s most plangent concern. And that isn’t necessarily the film’s fault—there is only so much excitement that can be conveyed regarding the freezing of a full-body rush into a small, albeit panoramic and easily gorgeous, picture—but it is something the film can’t get over. First-time filmmaker Marah Strauch spent years crafting something of a perfect eulogy to Carl Boenish—and her dedication to investigating his outsized life is palpable. It’s no real spoiler he dies, because although you don’t discover the details of Carl’s fate until the film’s final 20-minute stretch, his absence is heavy. His ghost is present everywhere else, though—in home recordings, in reel to reel recordings and even in answering machine messages, Boenish’s ebullient voice lives on righteously throughout the film. The way in which Strauch is able to weave the choicest moments from Boenish’s recordings into a larger narrative that neither betrays the freedom of what he was doing nor feels too formless speaks to a film that seems well-crafted beyond its years, despite the ghost that haunts it. —Dom Sinacola


george-harrison-scorsese-movie-poster.jpg 35. George Harrison: Living in the Material World
Year: 2011
Director: Martin Scorsese 
Martin Scorsese’s 2011 documentary meticulously recounts George Harrison’s life story, from his birth in 1943 in a war-ravaged Liverpool, to the maelstrom that was the Beatles, to his solo artist years, to his later life until it ended way too soon when he died of cancer (although, as you’ll see when you watch the film, Harrison probably wouldn’t have believed that he died before his time). He was in many ways the most mysterious of the four Beatles, “the quiet one.” No one really had a clue what he was truly about until his amazing triple solo album, All Things Must Pass, was released in 1970. The interviews in the film (Eric Clapton, Terry Gilliam, Ringo Starr, Paul McCartney, Phil Spector, Eric Idle, George Martin, Yoko Ono, Tom Petty, Jackie Stewart and others) are stellar, as is the archival material, with a lot of rare clips that will delight any Beatles or Harrison fan, as well as plenty of reveals that will keep any viewer enthralled. The Beatles were only a very small part of Harrison’s story—and probably not what he considered the most important part at all, clearly evidenced by a 1969 diary entry we are shown in which he writes casually that he woke up, rehearsed at Twickenham (the tension-filled Let it Be sessions) “and in the evening did King of Fuh at Trident studio, had chips later.” One of the most important things any documentary about someone can give us is a totally new and unique look at a life—Living in the Material World is all that and more. —Holly Cara Price


amy-poster.jpg 34. Amy
Year: 2015
Director: Asif Kapadia
Director Asif 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


for-grace-cover.jpg 33. For Grace
Year: 2015
Director: Mark Helenowski, Kevin Pang
Those going into For Grace unfamiliar with chef Curtis Duffy might think it another on-trend slice of foodie porn about the latest culinary rockstar—and they’d be right, kind of. Chicago Tribune dining reporter/filmmaker Kevin Pang and filmmaker Mark Helenowski introduce Duffy as a two-Michelin-starred hotshot who sharpened his knives under Charlie Trotter and Grant Achatz before leaving his latest venture (Avenues) to open labor-of-love restaurant Grace. And that’s where the devastating backstory comes into focus. As the even-keeled, hyper-disciplined Duffy describes a troubled upbringing that involves the murder-suicide of his parents, viewers glimpse the moments that shaped the recently divorced father of two young girls. He frets over $1,000-a-pop dining room chairs, but he frets arguably more about an opening night visit from his middle school home-ec teacher, who took on a motherly role following his own mom’s death. Throughout, Duffy holds himself with a quiet dignity and, yes, grace that resonates on the elegant plates he crafts. So too does his staff, helmed by a GM/business partner who understands how important it is to make each diner feel special—Googling and social media searches of that night’s reservations are par for the course. At now $235 per tasting menu, such a personalized experience should go without saying, but the sincerity and gratitude is obvious. And, of course, the food looks nothing short of exquisite. —Amanda Schurr


fear-13.jpg 32. The Fear of 13
Year: 2015
Director: David Sington
Sington’s The Fear of 13 has a unique vision often not associated with (though probably well suited for) true crime, applying a stark, poetic narrative style to a fairly run-of-the-mill criminal justice story. Death row inmate Nick Yarris sits in a dark room, like in a black box theater, and recounts his story. The film relies almost entirely on Yarris’s charisma and gift for storytelling—developed during the years he spent educating himself in prison—with just the occasional visual or sonic flourish. It’s a risky strategy, but it pays off: The delights of The Fear of 13 lie in Yarris’s elegantly rendered anecdotes in which death row inmates sing in the dark, a bathroom break provides an opportunity for a nail-biting escape and how there’s palpable joy in learning new words like “triskaidekaphobia.” Though Sington leaves the viewer context-less for most of his film—Is Yarris telling the truth? Is he really on death row? Is he guilty or not?—he answers all in due time, but not before taking viewers on a pleasure of a ride. —Maura McAndrew


amanda-knox.jpg 31. Amanda Knox
Year: 2016
Directors: Rod Blackhurst, Brian McGinn
With the Amanda Knox saga (seemingly) done for good, Netflix recently released a definitive documentary covering it from beginning to end—the murder of Meredith Kercher and subsequent arrest, trials and appeals of Knox and Raffaele Sollecito; the ensuing media frenzy; the quiet, fast-track trial of Rudy Guede, the only party upon whose guilt everyone seems to agree. The film relies mainly on talking head interviews with Knox, Sollecito and two highly entertaining “villains”: boorish prosecutor Giuliano Mignini and smarmy Daily Mail journalist Nick Pisa, the latter wearing a Hugh-Grant-caddishness and a shit-eating grin. While Knox herself is probably the least interesting interview in the film—more fascinating by half are pre-arrest home recordings depicting her as a naïve, giggly teen—Blackhurst and McGinn are clear about where their sympathies lie, and contrasted with the ghastly Mignini and Pisa, it’s hard not to side with these two kids. But still the film feels thoughtful and relatively well-balanced: The media is its true target, and the filmmakers nail the insidious ways that its sensationalism and greed can derail justice and irrevocably ruin lives. —Maura McAndrew


ai-weiwei-never.jpg 30. Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry
Year: 2012
Director: Alison Klayman
Filmmaker Alison Klayman gained an astonishing level of access to the celebrated Chinese artist-activist Ai Weiwei in the years following the opening of Beijing’s Bird’s Nest Stadium in 2008. No sooner was the stadium completed, however, than Ai—a design consultant on the stadium—became both the Games’ and the building’s most vociferous critic, calling them symbols of state propaganda. The criticism immediately made Ai a persona non grata in the eyes of the Chinese state but, to the free world, he was an exciting and shockingly frank artist from a place in sore need of one. Ai’s 2008 brush with state authorities was only the beginning of his escalating agitation with China’s government—something that Klayman compellingly illuminates in her debut documentary, Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry. Her portrait of the artist as a witty sociopolitical critic chronicles the challenges of finding justice and transparency in a repressive state. Indeed, the price for Ai’s agitation led to the demolition of his Shanghai studio and his own three-month detention in 2011. Through interviews with Ai, his relatives and art-world colleagues and curators, we get as fully rounded a picture as possible of an artist who—by virtue of his personality and his political realities—maintains a wry, restrained poise. In her aims to paint a picture of a courageous artist, a revolutionary worshipped by his admirers and Twitter followers, Klayman risks turning her documentary into a publicity machine for its subject. Still, Ai Weiwei is too commanding and fascinating a figure to ignore, and Never Sorry is an excellent showcase for why he matters to the world. Whether he’s photographing himself shattering a Neolithic Chinese vase or stenciling the Coca-Cola logo on an ancient urn, Ai’s artwork always manages to provoke, forcing us to consider the individual’s place at the intersection of history and the future, commerce and heritage, the machinery of the state and the creative ingenuity of a single citizen. —Jay Antani


into-the-inferno.jpg 29. Into the Inferno
Year: 2016
Director: Werner Herzog 
Drawing lines from current events or public moods to the documentaries of Werner Herzog wouldn’t make for a constructive use of time. The only lines Herzog draws are carefully through his own work, the people he’s met and spectacles he’s witnessed and subjects he’s buried deep within him on-call should the spirit move him. In the case of Into the Inferno, Herzog enlists the help of volcanologist Clive Oppenheimer—met while in Antarctica for Encounters at the End of the World—to visit and then gaze into the violent hearts of active volcanoes, a subject he once broached 30 years before in La Soufrière. Shot with the same intensity for long takes he once brought to bear on the Amazon River of Aguirre, the camera in awe of the lava flows, Into the Inferno, like most Herzog documentaries, can’t help but follow symbolic hunches down unexpected tangents. This is how Herzog ends up in North Korea, waxing rhapsodically via voice over about autonomy and artificiality, the mythic spectre of a volcano god hovering in the film’s periphery. As was the case with Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World, and Cave of Forgotten Dreams before it, and Grizzly Man before that, Into the Inferno works as moving, majestic, mind-boggling primer on a director who always has one more movie left in him. —Dom Sinacola


battered-bastards.jpg 28. The Battered Bastards of Baseball
Year: 2013
Directors: Chapman Way, Maclain Way
There’s always been something romantic about independent minor league baseball teams, but that romance has never been quite in full bloom like the story of the Portland Mavericks, a team with no major league affiliation. Owned by actor Bing Russell (Kurt Russell’s dad), Maverickdom spread from Oregon to the nation, beginning with Joe Garagiola’s NBC special. With characters like blackballed Yankees pitcher Jim Bouton, the first woman general manager in baseball (age 24) and the first Asian-American (at 22), the inventor of Big League Chew, batboy Todd Field (Oscar-nominated screenwriter for In the Bedroom), and a ball dog, the antics of the team were as entertaining as the game itself—and yet the their run from 1973-1977 was one of the best in the minor leagues. Bing’s goal was to embody that baseball cliché: For the love of the game. As Bouton says of his fellow $400-a-month teammates, “Our motivation was simple: revenge. We loved whomping fuzzy-cheeked college-bonus babies owned by the Dodgers and Phillies.” The Mavericks’ is an underdog story made for a documentary, and Chapman and Maclain Way have given the team the movie it deserves. —Josh Jackson


cutie-boxer.jpg 27. Cutie and the Boxer
Year: 2013
Director: Zachary Heinzerling
Great artists are often forgiven for personal flaws—as we’ve seen so acutely lately—but such forgiveness usually hinges on success. Cutie and the Boxer, Zachary Heinzerling’s fascinating documentary about Ushio Shinohara and his wife, Noriko, studies the life of a man entering his 80s who still dreams like he’s 20. Ultimately, the audience must decide whether he’s an important mind or a bum: Ushio, who spear-headed the Neo Dadaist movement in the ’60s, is best known for his “boxing paintings,” created by punching the canvas with paint-soaked boxing gloves. (He also makes grotesque cardboard sculptures of motorcycles.) While he’s noteworthy, his work doesn’t inspire many people to pull out their checkbooks, and the documentary follows the passions and struggles of the couple as they live in their small New York City apartment with little income to support their lives and endeavors. Noriko emerges as the heart of the movie, as she recalls her life while writing a graphic novel about her rocky marriage. Heinzerling combines Noriko’s drawings with contemporary footage to create a film that isn’t only a tale of creative minds, but an honest love story. —Jeremy Mathews


peter-farm-movie-poster.jpg 26. Peter and the Farm
Year: 2016
Director: Tony Stone
If the success of a character study can be measured purely by the extent to which the character him-/herself draws one’s attention, then Peter and the Farm is surely one of the most successful of recent years. On the surface, beyond his long white beard, there isn’t anything extraordinarily distinctive about Peter Dunning, a solitary farmer who has devoted 35 years of his life to tending his farm in Vermont, and whose lonely existence masks deep psychological scars underneath. Even his traumas are fairly mundane: estrangement from his ex-wives and kids, curdled hippie idealism, a hand accident that ended his artistic dreams. And yet, once you hear Peter speak in his dramatically galvanizing voice, one can’t help but sit up and pay attention to whatever cantankerous, world-weary, brutally candid statements he utters. However you take Peter Dunning, though, there is something admirable to the way Tony Stone and Co. view their subject with a fascination that’s filled with clear-eyed empathy. It’s the kind of unsentimental compassion that animates the best art. —Kenji Fujishima


five-came-back.jpg 25. Five Came Back
Year: 2017
Director: Laurent Bouzereau
At its best, when text and explication fuse, Five Came Back resembles its source material, the deft combination of historical investigation and incisive criticism that defines Mark Harris’ monograph on Hollywood filmmakers in the Second World War: The series’ director, Laurent Bouzereau, substitutes the language of cinema for Harris’ descriptive precision, illustrating technique as even the finest writing cannot. If Netflix’s rendition necessary loses certain nuances, for the rare footage alone, Five Came Back is an estimable introduction to the subject, or companion to the text. Bodies bobbing off the French coast on D-Day; bloody viscera strewn on the floor of a Higgins boat; Stevens’ dreadful record of the Holocaust, later presented as evidence at Nuremberg, which he captured at Dachau in the aftermath of the German retreat: These form the spine of the series’ moving valediction, in which images—as journalism, as propaganda, as instruction, as bearing witness—are essential to our understanding of the Second World War and its unimaginable cost. —Matt Brennan


Thumbnail image for large_justin_timberlake_and_the_tennessee_kids.jpg 24. Justin Timberlake + the Tennessee Kids
Year: 2016
Director: Jonathan Demme
It becomes clear after only one song that Jonathan Demme was the perfect person to direct this ebullient performance doc. In Stop Making Sense Demme iconized David Byrne in the Big Suit and demonstrated that the best performances of all time are simply a matter of precision, and he seems to understand not only what kind of performer Justin Timberlake is, but why. Filmed over the final two nights of Timberlake’s 20/20 tour in Las Vegas, JT + the Tennessee Kids is so finely tuned, one might be hard pressed to pinch an ounce of fat on this thing, Demme obviously knowing that Timberlake depends on his enormous tour ensemble (introduced briefly at the beginning of the film) to make sure the whole show is a seamless, clockwork-like amalgam of moving parts. Consummate professionals in thrall to consummate professionals: Each frame, whether it hugs Timberlake’s glowing face close or expands to display the intimidating breadth of the band, breathes with love—for the music, for the audience, for each other. But that doesn’t even touch how flawlessly Demme can capture the essence of each section/song, how during “My Love” the camera is positioned at stage level, condensing our perspective so that the whole stage is layered like a two-dimensional side-scrolling videogame or a diorama of paper dolls, emphasizing the celestial geometry of Timberlake and his pop-and-locking dancers. Later, during “Only When I Walk Away,” Demme has the camera behind the band, facing the audience lit with lasers and lighters, shooting Timberlake as an opaque silhouette, like dark matter amidst a flurry of constellations. Even later, a macroscopic view of the whole stage, set against some retro computer graphics, pans slightly down to reveal a piano, and next to that emerges a much larger Timberlake, perspectives skewed but steered with aplomb and purpose. Just like every single minute of this wonderful film. —Dom Sinacola


shes-beautiful.jpg 23. She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry
Year: 2014
Director: Mary Dore
In spite of the sappy title, this recent documentary is an excellent primer on the birth of women’s liberation movement, tracing its earliest years (1966-’71) and the burgeoning power of organizations like NOW. Including interviews with a variety of women who were on the front lines and allowing a great multiplicity of opinion, Mary Dore’s film is unafraid of the contradictions and complexities of feminist thought. The result is a lively, challenging film that refuses to simplify the movement—making it as interesting for the newcomer as it is for the more well-initiated. —Christina Newland


civil-war-movie-poster.jpg 22. The Civil War
Year: 1990
Director: Ken Burns
You can’t know Virginia without knowing the Civil War, and Ken Burns’s mammoth, beyond-classic documentary will stuff you so full of detail you’ll be dreaming of muttonchops and mournful fiddle music for weeks. It’s as good an anti-war film as any that’s been made, and you will leave The Civil War overwhelmed, staggered, devastated by the loss of so much blood and innocence, at once glorying in Emancipation and the heroes of the Union cause. Burns has been criticized for letting too much “Lost Cause” mythology seep into the project, but even if you see men like Virginians Robert E. Lee or Stonewall Jackson as morally complex—and morally compromised—figures by the end of the final “episode,” Burns leaves no room for interpretation: The War was fought over slavery, and the South almost burned the country down to ensure that institution’s survival.

As a Virginian, and especially as a white Virginian from a rural family, you have to reckon with this knowledge if you want to achieve anything close to an honest view of yourself and where you come from. I’m unspeakably in love with Virginia, and proud of where I’m from in the abstract and arbitrary way most of us are proud of where we’re from, but I also never shake the unspeakable—or as Burns shows us, speakable—horrors inflicted by my home state upon thousands of dead in the name of, to put it simply, utter evil. That’s what being a Virginian is, in the end: coming right up against the worst of the American character, looking it in the eye, and trying for the rest of your intellectual life to come to grips with that. I’ll take it, if it means I’ll always be able to come home. The Civil War takes that feeling and casts it across the entire nation. If we can’t look at what we’ve done, Burns says, we’ll never forge ahead. —Corey Beasley


13th.jpg 21. 13th
Year: 2016
Director: Ava DuVernay
Director Ava DuVernay has successfully made a documentary that challenges and even dismantles our collective understanding of one of the most dangerous notions of our time: “progress.” How do we define progress, and who precisely gets to define it? 13th is a captivating argument against those who measure progress with laws that pretend to protect American citizens and amendments, and even to uphold the Constitution. It is a deftly woven and defiant look at how clauses within those amendments (specifically the lauded 13th) and the language of our political system both veil and reveal a profound and devastating truth about America: Slavery was never abolished here, DuVernay and the participants in the film argue. It was simply amended, and it continues to be amended in 2016, with the constant evolution of the criminal justice system. It’s a bold and terrifying statement to make, but in using a documentary instead of, say, a narrative film, DuVernay is able to point directly to that history and to those people who have defined “progress” for black Americans. In doing so, she draws a line directly from the 13th amendment, to today’s America, which has the highest rate of incarceration in the world. —Shannon M. Houston


chasing-trane-poster.jpg 20. Chasing Trane
Year: 2016
Director: John Scheinfeld
Those old and new to John Coltrane will find something to appreciate in this vivid, albeit effusive, tribute to the jazz legend. Family members, former bandmates and famous fans (Kamasi Washington, Wynton Marsalis, John Densmore, Bill Clinton) recount the genius of the sax player’s compositions and evolution of his talents, from his Charlie Parker-mimicking early work to his later, freeform experimentation. Devotees shouldn’t expect much of a deep dive here on any level; via home movies, archival footage and personal diaries read by Denzel Washington, the film takes a linear, survey-style approach to his North Carolina childhood and drug-addled twenties, two marriages, and quick succumbing to liver cancer in 1967 at only 40. Filmmaker John Scheinfeld dips in and out of the music—too much so, it turns out, and with too little insight into the specifics of his gifts. Still, the overarching salvation Trane found in music resonates with such joy. The sequence about his civil rights opus “Alabama,” which took its phrasing cues from the cadence of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., is a stirring illumination of his creative process. As Coltrane’s notes unfold atop King’s words, music and speech flow into and out of each other in a still urgent, impassioned release. Elsewhere, the doc looks at the transformative power of Coltrane’s faith, his relationships and his legacy with iconic works such as “My Favorite Things” and “A Love Supreme.” Midway through the film Dr. Cornel West describes Coltrane as a thermostat, not a thermometer, of the times, an instrument personified that adapted rather than just measured. In its best moments, Chasing Trane succeeds in that as well. —Amanda Schurr


24-Netflix-Docs_2015-biggie-tupac.jpg 19. Biggie & Tupac
Year: 2002
Director: Nick Broomfield
From its very first moments, Biggie & Tupac—a sort of truther’s glimpse into the murders of rappers Notorious BIG and 2Pac—is an exceptionally strange film. Director and narrator Nick Broomfield speaks in a clipped cadence, as if English isn’t his first language, and Earth isn’t his home planet. That he is somehow able to waddle his way into the most exclusive (and sometimes terrifying) situations is nearly incomprehensible, until one realizes that, to some extent, all his weirdness probably makes him seem so non-threatening that the folks who spill deeply incriminating confessions probably never figure his footage will ever see the light of day. And yet, Biggie & Tupac is endlessly compelling, far from an actually competent procedural but still ringing with enough sincerity that, buried beneath Broomfield’s weirdness and his very dubious journalistic intentions, there must be something true he’s tapping into. I’ve heard Broomfield referred to, among other epithets, as a “bottom-feeding creep,” and it’s not a stretch to see how his methods and results could be construed as the work of such. Yet, the access the man gets … when it comes to documentary film, do the ends justify the means? Because: the last 10 minutes of the film alone are worth the journey, in which an interview with Suge Knight (whom the film pretty clearly portrays as the orchestrator of both murders) reveals unnerving opinions on socioeconomic and racial realities. —Dom Sinacola


called-morgan-poster.jpg 18. I Called Him Morgan
Year: 2016
Director: Kasper Collin
I Called Him Morgan is the story of two troubled people, one of whom killed the other. Documentarian Kasper Collin—who previously made My Name Is Albert Ayler, also about a jazz musician—looks at the difficult, abbreviated life of trumpeter Lee Morgan, who was shot dead in the winter of 1972 in New York. It’s not a mystery who pulled the trigger—it was his common-law wife, Helen, who was more than 10 years his senior—but I Called Him Morgan isn’t about solving a crime, rather, it’s about connecting the dots regarding why the crime happened. Throughout the film, you feel the slow, grim pull of inevitable tragedy set against a lush visual palette. (Oscar-nominated Arrival cinematographer Bradford Young is one of I Called Him Morgan’s credited cameramen.) Talking heads’ tales are crosscut with dreamy images—snowy nights in New York, a hypnotically colorful fish tank—that always feel pertinent to what’s being discussed. And then there are the interview subjects and the milieu. Jazz musicians such as Wayne Shorter and Charli Persip talk about their friend with specificity and insight, and Lee Morgan’s music—as well as the music he played in other people’s bands—fills the soundtrack. The film will be heaven for jazz aficionados, but those who don’t know the difference between bebop and hard bop won’t feel lost. Collin understands that his film is about people, not art, but his deft storytelling—and the endless sadness that comes from his tale—flexes its own nimbleness and beauty. —Tim Grierson


the nightmare poster (Custom).jpg 17. The Nightmare
Year: 2015
Director: Rodney Ascher
By my personal estimation, this is one of the most frightening movies on Netflix right now, and one of the most unsettling documentaries I’ve ever seen. Yes, it’s a documentary: from Rodney Asher, director of the similarly horror-themed doc Room 237. The simple structure of The Nightmare involves in-depth interviews with eight people who all suffer from some form of sleep paralysis, allowing them to describe the horrifying visions they encounter on a nightly basis. It’s equal parts tragic and chilling to hear how the condition has made their nighttime hours into a living hell, and legitimately frightening to watch those scenes reenacted. On the other hand, the documentary can frustrating for not asking or answering what seem like fairly obvious questions: Does medication aid with these sleep paralysis episodes? Have any of the subjects of the documentary ever been studied in an overnight sleep study? And so on. This is a fear I’ve always dreaded experiencing, so if you’re anything like me, you’ll agree with the subject who describes the terror as “the kind of horror that is worse than movies.” If you’re going to watch The Nightmare, you don’t want to do it before falling asleep. —Jim Vorel


13-Netflix-Docs_2015-paris-burning.jpg 16. Paris is Burning
Year: 1991
Director: Jennie Livingston
Madonna’s “voguing” phase has nothing on—that is, took everything from—the drag scene of 1980s New York City chronicled in this vibrant doc. Delving into the subculture of fierce, catwalk-styled posing and the clubs in which it thrived, Jennie Livingston depicts the less-than-glamorous realities of life as a drag queen before RuPaul was mainstream: issues of gender and sexual identity, race, bigotry and hate, HIV/AIDS, poverty, crime—theft is a commonplace means by which these would-be “Legends&#8221 seek a desired end: transformation. Named after one of the underground balls in which its subjects find a sense of family—in “houses,” no less—Paris is Burning is a joyous affair, and a curiously meta celebration of what it means “to be real.” —Amanda Schurr


lessons-of-darkness-movie-poster.jpg 15. Lessons of Darkness
Year: 1992
Director: Werner Herzog 
“The collapse of the stellar universe will occur—like creation—in grandiose splendor.” — Blaise Pascal With this quote Lessons of Darkness begins, and so it approaches the aftermath of the Gulf War from the perspective of an alien observer—not so much from another world as functionally from a different dimension, removed and slightly off, then suddenly thrust back into a reality, our reality, brimming with violence and fire. The images to which Herzog lays himself interminably bare are able to be viscerally understood, because they are grandiose: towering, apocalyptic and past the point of logistical comprehension. Every Herzog film comes with at least one near iconic image—an infant desperately gripping a doctor’s finger; a marching line of slaves down a mountainside; a dwarf laughing himself to death; an infinite vista of windmills—and Lessons of Darkness is no different. Though, it could be said that the whole film is one of those images, a meditation on the glamor of devastation: It’s the logical sequel to Herzog’s Fata Morgana, but even more gorgeous, because there’s probably no more thrilling and unadulterated vision of the sheer cataclysm of the human condition than an oil field, burning until the end of time. —Dom Sinacola


strong-island-movie-poster.jpg 14. Strong Island
Year: 2017
Director: Yance Ford
African American filmmaker Yance Ford’s Strong Island is a paean to his brother William, who was shot dead in 1992 by a white mechanic during an argument. The shooter never faced trial—it was ruled self-defense—and in the ensuing decades Ford and his family have wrestled with the injustice. Strong Island is Ford’s way of working through the pain and anger that still consume him, mixing interviews with direct addresses to the camera. It’s a slightly unfocused work (Can anyone fault Ford for being unable to marshal his grief into a completely organized treatise?) but its rawness fuels its astounding strength. —Tim Grierson


tower-doc-jpg 13. Tower
Year: 2016
Director: Keith Maitland
The 1966 University of Texas clock tower shooting ought to be a footnote in American history and not a reference point for contemporary national woes. That Tower, documentary filmmaker Keith Maitland’s animated chronicle-cum-reenactment of that massacre, should feel as relevant and of the moment as it does, then, is startling, or perhaps just disheartening. It was 50 years ago this past August that Charles Whitman ascended the university tower with a cache of guns, killed three people inside, and went on to kill another 11 plus an unborn baby over the course of an hour and a half. Back in those days, a public act of violence on this level was an anomaly piercing the veil of our sense of security. Today, it’s just Sunday. Tower wraps the horror Whitman wrought in a rich, rotoscoped blanket, the vibrancy of Maitland’s palette lending urgency and vitality to the horror he and his cast recreate on screen. —Andy Crump


little-dieter-needs-fly.jpg 12. Little Dieter Needs to Fly
Year: 1998
Director: Werner Herzog 
The story of former fighter pilot Dieter Dengler, told in his own words, is one that, while pretty unbelievable, best illustrates the mastery manipulation of the man helping tell it. Werner Herzog makes no apologies for the way he so often bends truth to more snugly serve the grandeur he finds in the subjects he chooses for his documentaries—but he’s never been interested in unadulterated truth anyway. Instead, he’s in the documentary game for the exultation of truth, conveying it in such a way as to focus on the overpowering emotions at its core. And so, in Little Dieter Needs to Fly, Herzog takes Dengler back to Southeast Asia, where, in the early days of the Vietnam War, he was shot down and taken prisoner, tortured and starved—but then, somewhere within him, found the will to escape. Dengler leads us step by step through this harrowing experience, accompanied by locals who Herzog hired to help Dengler “reenact” the events, and in a sense help him remember. That Herzog later went on to make a narrative feature based on Dengler’s story isn’t at all surprising—Rescue Dawn, starring Christian Bale in the lead role, walks a fine line between harsh reality and patriotic melodrama. Because, as Herzog told Paste more than eight years ago: “Rescue Dawn is not a war movie. It’s a film about the test and trial of men … And survival.” It doesn’t necessarily matter how Dengler escaped, but that he was able to at all. Whatever you want to call it, it was that titular “need” that propelled him onward—and that’s the truth Herzog wants to discover. —Dom Sinacola


jiro-sushi.jpg 11. Jiro Dreams of Sushi
Year: 2012
Directors: David Gelb
Jiro Dreams of Sushi is about one of the greatest masters of the culinary world, one of whom casual foodies have never even heard. Although Jiro’s work—literally, the dishes he so effortlessly prepares, and then the act of watching him as he watches his customers eating the dishes—is ostensibly the film’s focus, the story is truly propelled by the chef’s relationship with his two sons: the youngest started his own restaurant, and the oldest, at the age of 50, continues to work with his father, training to one day take over Jiro’s infamous restaurant. Devoid of the typical familial jealousy you may expect (and so devoid, arguably, of much conflict at all), Jiro Dreams of Sushi is only a beautifully filmed documentary about three men who have devoted their lives to the pursuit of perfection. Which in itself is conflict enough, as the film airily asks: Where do style, artistry, practice and perfection meet? —Emily Kirkpatrick


the-square.jpg 10. The Square
Year: 2013
Director: Jehane Noujaim
Bringing calm insight to an impassioned, still-developing historic event, The Square looks at the 2011 Egyptian Revolution from the perspective of those who were on the frontlines from the very beginning, personalizing the dramatic developments without losing a sense of greater stakes. Director Jehane Noujaim, who previously helmed Control Room and co-directed Startup.com, has delivered a snapshot of a grassroots political movement over its bumpy two-year history, embracing the emotional complexity and logistical obstacles that have made Egyptians’ road to democracy so difficult. Using no voiceover narration and only a handful of intertitles that inform the viewer about the exact time period of events, The Square seeks to create an urgent, immediate experience that tells its story through the reactions of its main participants. In the West, the scenes of peaceful, joyous protest at Tahrir Square were warmly greeted as hopeful signs of a new Middle East. The Square doesn’t throw cold water on those hopes as much as it meticulously demonstrates that systemic change does not come easily. That’s why you care so deeply about the people you see in this movie—it’s not that their quest is easy but that it’s so very hard. —Tim Grierson


abacus-poster.jpg 9. Abacus: Small Enough to Jail
Year: 2017
Director: Steve James
Imperiled families are popular forms of community in documentaries this year—on the more heartwarming side is Abacus: Small Enough to Jail, the deceptively straightforward new film from Hoop Dreams director Steve James. In it, James details the ordeal of the Sungs, who ran the only bank to face federal prosecution in the aftermath of the 2008 financial collapse. What’s even more surprising is that their bank, Abacus Federal Savings, was a tiny, local institution catering to New York City’s Chinatown residents—hardly one of the massive financial corporations that helped crater the world economy. There is a happy ending to Abacus’s legal nightmare, however, but James uses the court case as a means to explore the Sung family, particularly patriarch Thomas Sung, who even in his late 70s still elicits a strong hold over his adult daughters, who help run the bank with him while jockeying to curry his favor. Abacus is a family portrait mixed with current events, and if it’s less ambitious than Hoop Dreams that doesn’t diminish the warmth and subtlety James brings to this look at an anxious, close-knit clan who rally around one another once the government goes after them. —Tim Grierson


20-feet-from-stardom.jpg 8. 20 Feet From Stardom
Year: 2013
Director: Morgan Neville
“Da Doo Ron Ron.” Ray Charles’ “What’d I Say.” Joe Cocker’s “Feelin’ Alright.” Lynyrd Skynrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama.” The Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter.” Strip these classic anthems of their backup vocals, and they’re just not the same. In 20 Feet from Stardom, music documentarian Morgan Neville introduces talented women like Darlene Love, Merry Clayton and Lisa Fischer, who, for one reason or another, lived mostly out of the spotlight. As Bruce Springsteen says in the movie’s opening interview, “That walk to the front [of the stage] is complicated.” 20 Feet from Stardom is a thorough document on the craft of backup singing, revealing the special skill set required to achieve a perfect blend of voices and the spiritual high that can sometimes result; the difference between backup singers and eye candy (looking at you, Ike Turner); and the recording of “Sweet Home Alabama” amid the Civil Rights Movement. And it’s all set to a soundtrack of some of the best tunes to come out of the second half of the 20th century. —Annlee Ellingson


shirkers-movie-poster.jpg 7. Shirkers
Year: 2018
Director: Sandi Tan
Making sense of one’s past can be both a lifelong undertaking and a thorny proposition. In Shirkers, novelist Sandi Tan accomplishes that trickiest of endeavors, directing a documentary about herself that isn’t cloying or cringe-worthy. Quite the contrary, her movie is refreshingly candid and self-critical: She may be the star of the show, but she has a story to tell and the right perspective to frame it properly. Tan narrates the documentary as a memory piece, recounting her childhood in Singapore with her best friend Jasmine, where they were the two cool kids in their pretty square school, dreaming of being filmmakers and leaving their mark. To further that ambition, they collaborated with another friend, Sophia, on a surreal road movie called Shirkers, which would be directed by Tan’s mentor, an older teacher named Georges who carried himself as someone who knew his way around a movie camera. In her late teens and perhaps smitten with this man who showed her such attention—the documentary is cagey on the subject—Tan was intoxicated by the rush of making a film that she wrote and would be the star of. So how come we’ve never seen it? The documentary traces the strange, mysterious journey of the project, which was waylaid by Georges sneaking off with the reels of film with a vague promise of finishing the work. That never happened, and 20 years later Tan decides to open those old wounds, connecting with her old friends and trying to determine what became of Georges. Scenes from the unfinished film appear in Shirkers, tipping the audience off to the fact that there will be a happy-ish resolution to Tan’s quest. But the documentary ends up being less about tracking down the film canisters than being an exploration of nostalgia, friendship and the allure of mentors. Tan is lively, self-effacing company throughout—her voice has just the right sardonic tinge—but her visits with Jasmine and Sophia are particularly lovely and illuminating, suggesting how lifelong pals can see us in ways that we cannot. —Tim Grierson


35-Netflix-Docs_2015-brothers-keeper.jpg 6. Brother’s Keeper
Year: 1992
Directors: Joe Berlinger, Bruce Sinofsky
There’s an alleged crime at the center of Brother’s Keeper: whether or not Delbert Ward, a 59-year-old farmer from Munnsville, New York, is guilty of murdering his older brother William. But that’s not really what Brother’s Keeper is about. Filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky instead focus on the wide fissure between urban and rural American cultures in the late-1980s and early-1990s, examining the way the three remaining Ward brothers, essentially outcasts in their community prior to William’s death, are increasingly embraced by Munnsville as the media descends upon the town to report on Delbert’s trial. The mystery here is not about whether or not William was murdered; the mystery is what lies at the heart of community bonds and national identity, and how allegiances change as communities grow larger. —Mark Abraham


casting-jonbenet-poster.jpg 5. Casting JonBenet
Year: 2017
Director: Kitty Green
An unlikely cross-section of humanity also populates Casting JonBenet, which boasts a provocative idea that yields enormous emotional rewards. Filmmaker Kitty Green invited members of the Boulder, Colorado community where JonBenet Ramsey lived to “audition” for a film about her. But in the tradition of Kate Plays Christine or The Machine Which Makes Everything Disappear, that’s actually a feint: Green uses the on-camera interviews with these people to talk about Ramsey’s murder and the still-lingering questions about who committed the crime. She’s not interested in their acting abilities—she’s trying to pinpoint the ways that a 21-year-old incident still resonates. It’s a premise that could seem cruel or exploitative, but Casting JonBenet is actually incredibly compassionate. Green wizardly finds connective tissue between all these actors, who have internalized the little girl’s killing, finding parallels in their own lives to this tragedy. High-profile murders like Ramsey’s often provoke gawking, callous media treatment, turning us all into rubberneckers, but Casting JonBenet vigorously works against that tendency, fascinated by our psychological need to judge other people’s lives, but also deeply mournful, even respectful, of the very human reasons why we do so. —Tim Grierson


18-Netflix-Docs_2015-cave-forgotten-dreams.jpg 4. Cave of Forgotten Dreams
Year: 2010
Director: Werner Herzog 
Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams is the story of humanity’s oldest surviving pieces of artwork: everything they can teach us about ourselves and how we got here. It’s yet another one of those seemingly random yet functionally primordial bits of human minutia that the German director’s imagination so often keys upon, and in this case it yielded one of his most placidly beautiful, intimate films. As Herzog provides minimal narration, drifting with his camera through Chauvet Cave in southern France, the film unfolds rather like an educational movie that one might watch at a museum or informational kiosk at a historical site, except infused with the director’s personal, unflagging sense of wonder. Here, we learn the stories and historical perspective behind the oldest cave paintings on record, estimated at 32,000 years old, the product of some of the first modern human beings in Europe. The walls depict vivid impressions of their surroundings—and in some sense breaches the fabric of their imaginations. The film has that same sleepy, oneiric quality; it’s never in any hurry, and it feels remarkably self-sufficient, thanks to the three-person crew that filmed the entire thing due to French law regarding access to the caves. Herzog himself even worked the lights, in what is also his only 3D film, offering moving, unprecedented, tactile access to a piece of our biological history which the majority of us will never be able to see in even our wildest dreams. —Jim Vorel


fire-at-sea-poster.jpg 3. Fire at Sea
Year: 2016
DIrector: Gianfranco Rosi
Fire at Sea is an imagistic grasp at a few months on the Mediterranean island of Lampedusa, 100 miles south of Sicily and the first glimpse of land for hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing Africa and the Middle East. With no voiceover and little context, Italian director Gianfranco Rosi juxtaposes the lives of men, women and children barely sustaining themselves on the fringes of society, of humanity, with the everyday, mundane existences of the denizens of the island—both those who devote their lives to helping the refugees and those who work or play or eat big mounds of spaghetti without one thought for the deluge of sad souls passing over their home turf. In long takes and cinematography that aches with the need to push beyond the boundaries of the screen, Rosi indulges in the rhythm of that juxtaposition, daring us to move on from one atrocity after another in order to understand what moving on takes: a lot of boring afternoons and silent plates of spaghetti. —Dom Sinacola


faces-places-poster.jpg 2. Faces Places
Year: 2017
Directors: Agnès Varda and JR
The year’s best road movie was this delightful French film from New Wave pioneer Agnès Varda and photographer JR. The odd-couple contrast between co-directors is physically striking—she’s a woman, he’s a man; he’s much taller and younger than she—but they’re aligned in their desire to document the lives of everyday French citizens, taking oversized photos of the people they meet and plastering them on the sides of buildings to commemorate their specialness. Faces Places is very much in the style of Varda’s most recent documentaries, such as The Gleaners and I and The Beaches of Agnès, which chart how art and life weave inextricably together, but at 89, she doesn’t have the same stamina she once did. That fact lends added poignancy to a movie that, in part, is about the fragility of everything: small towns, photographs, loved ones, long friendships fading into disrepair. With JR as her co-conspirator, the Varda we see in Faces Places stands as a model for how to carry oneself through the world: with humor, humility and grace. —Tim Grierson


look-of-silence.jpg 1. The Look of Silence
Year: 2015
Director: Joshua Oppenheimer
Like The Act of Killing, Joshua Oppenheimer’s companion film—the syntactically similar The Look of Silence—asks you to contemplate the literal meaning behind its title. Again returning to Indonesia, a country languishing in the anti-communist genocides of the 1960s, Oppenheimer this time sets his eye on Adi, a middle-aged optician whose brother was murdered by the men who were the focus of the first film, people today treated as local celebrities. Without question, the film is an interrogation of what it means to watch—as those who led the genocides; as those who are loved ones of those who led the genocides; as those who must repress the anger and humiliation of living beside such people every day; and, most palpably of all, as those of us who are distant observers, left with little choice but to witness such horror in the abstract. As in its predecessor, Oppenheimer’s patience and ability to acquaint himself intimately with the film’s subjects make for one gut-scraping scene after another—the sight of Adi’s 100+ year-old father, especially, is harrowing: blind and senile, the man is abjectly terrified as he scoots around on the floor, flailing and screaming that he’s trapped, having no idea where, or when, he is. Yet, moreso than in The Act of Killing, Oppenheimer here demands our undivided attention, forcing us to confront his quiet, sad documentary with the notion that seeing is more than believing—to see is to bear responsibility for the lives we watch. —Dom Sinacola

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