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 22 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 choices, too, undoubtedly making way for more Netflix-original docs.

Regardless of the source, 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 Paris Is Burning. If you’re looking to find new, compelling stories, there is still plenty to peruse here—not to mention Beyoncé’s Homecoming and American Factory, two of our 25 best documentaries of the year so far.

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


oasisdoc.jpg 48. Supersonic
Year: 2016
Director: Mat Whitecross
The rise of Manchester Britpop giants Oasis was unimaginable. Liam and Noel Gallagher, the sons of working class Irish immigrants, went in just a few short years from playing in clubs to playing in a field of 125,000 at Knebworth, where almost 3 million people applied for tickets. The two brothers were notoriously quarrelsome and drop-dead hilarious, and both qualities are showcased in this comprehensive behind-the-scenes, rags-to-riches documentary. In addition to commentary from the band, the film features the Gallaghers’ mother, Peggie, who calls a young Liam “the devil” and talks about being driven mad by Noel’s constant guitar playing in his bedroom. It also delves into the drama of their physically abusive father, with Noel commenting, “I guess he beat the talent into me,” and Peggie discussing the night they left him (“I left him a knife and a fork and spoon and I think I left him too much”). Additionally, viewers get a glimpse into Oasis’s Manchester rehearsal studio where they jammed Noel’s songs for the first time, as well as into the metaphorical, high-publicized headbutting between the two brothers that occurred as soon as the band started to skyrocket. Though Oasis didn’t split up until 2009, the film is bookended by the aforementioned famous Knebworth performance in 1996—the footage just as goosebump-inducing as you might expect. —Lizzie Manno


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


ooo.jpg 38. The Two Killings of Sam Cooke
Year: 2019
Director: Kelly Duane de la Vega
The Two Killings of Sam Cooke is another installment of Netflix’s original music documentary series ReMastered, attempting to create a holistic portrait of American soul legend Sam Cooke—one that doesn’t carelessly whitewash his story just because his crooner soul also appealed to white audiences. In an effort to save his “murdered legacy,” the film examines his early roots in black churches, the evolution of his music, his impressive business acumen and his political activism later in life, which is believed to have led to his eventual murder. As Cooke became an increasingly influential cultural figure, his associations with other politically active black figures like Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali and Jim Brown posed a threat to the racial status quo. Cooke’s murder arises as an integral point of discussion in the film, and the details to this day are still muddy. Just as Cooke began writing politically-minded music—the sequence where “A Change is Gonna Come” plays in the background is breathtaking—his life was tragically cut short, and this film is a reminder of his unbelievable talent, and his embrace of blackness, that history largely forgot. —Lizzie Manno


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


knock-down-the-house-movie-poster.jpg 36. Knock Down the House
Year: 2019
Director: Rachel Lears
For viewers expecting comprehensive policy platforms and detailed breakdowns of the candidates’ positions on the issues of the day, Knock Down the House is about as valuable as the Joe Crowley flyer Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez holds under harsh scrutiny partway through the film: All flash, no substance, nothing to inform the audience of the subjects’ politics beneath the surface. But Rachel Lears is more interested in character and profile than she is in ideology, so the unintended hypocrisy is forgivable. Knock Down the House is accidental history in the making, a movie about four progressive Democratic campaigns leading into the 2018 midterms—those of Ocasio-Cortez, Amy Vilela, Cori Bush and Paula Jean Swearengin—and the factors driving them to take American governance into their own hands.

Truthfully, this is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez: The Movie. Lears couldn’t have known it at the time—AOC wasn’t AOC then—but Vilela, Bush and Swearengin aren’t household names. They are, bluntly put, losers, and culture tends to remember the winners. Ocasio-Cortez’s presence sets the movie aflame. Even if Lears avoids talking about policy, there’s value in learning about this unexpected Bronx superhero, her origins, her humanity, her success. (Watching footage of Ocasio-Cortez walking into a bar to find that she won her election is a rare, astounding gift.) But even the defeated candidates tell a greater story about increased political action in the late 2010s, as Republican rule increasingly chokes out huge swaths of the country, even swaths that their voters call home. Some people get into politics because of legacy or because they believe in service. Others get into politics because the political is personal. Knock Down the House might not strike the right balance between all of its participants, but it understands that philosophy well. —Andy Crump


the nightmare poster (Custom).jpg 35. 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


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


sun-mu-movie-poster.jpg 23. I Am Sun Mu
Year: 2015
Director: Adam Sjöberg
A former North Korean propagandist and subsequent defector, artist Sun Mu is known for his satirical political pop art that openly criticize the repressive Kim Jong-un. By inverting the propaganda he once painted for the regime, he smears the “Supreme Leader” with new versions that now inspires hope in place of repression and heartbreak. Living and working under a pseudonym meaning “no boundaries,” he continues to face extreme danger as a defector. As perhaps one of the most exhilarating art documentaries you’ll ever watch, I Am Sun Mu chronicles the journey the undercover artist takes as he hosts his first solo exhibition in China and faces the many conceivable dangers that come with being a defector—all for the sake of exposing the truth. —Brent Taalur Ramsey


terror-doc-movie-poster.jpg 22. (T)ERROR
Year: 2015
Directors: Lyric R. Cabral, David Felix
The title, pointing out the similarity in the words “terror” and “error,” is the closest this absorbing, sobering documentary gets to cutesiness. Otherwise, (T)ERROR grimly offers a terse tale of an aging former Black Panther who has turned FBI informant, snitching on suspicious Muslims not because of any sense of righteousness but because he needs to make a living. Directors Lyric R. Cabral and David Felix Sutcliffe want to expose the ethically slippery activities in which the U.S. intelligence agencies are engaged in our name. But (T)error is just as upsetting in its stark depiction of the country’s haves and have-nots, illustrating how the powerless, minorities and the disenfranchised tear each other apart while those in authority watch from the sidelines. —Tim Grierson


civil-war-movie-poster.jpg 21. 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 20. 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 19. 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


unknown-known-movie-poster.jpg 18. The Unknown Known
Year: 2013
Director: Errol Morris 
Over the past 15 years, documentary filmmaker Errol Morris has been preoccupied with the methodology behind warfare, specifically investigating the mismanagement of American armed conflicts, from Vietnam to Iraq. With the exception of his fascinating 2010 crime doc Tabloid, his output over has predominantly been a sober postmortem on our overseas failures: The Fog of War, Standard Operating Procedure and The Unknown Known. Where earlier documentaries looked at aspects of the military mindset, his feature-length visit with Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of Defense under George W. Bush from 2001 to 2006, puts a face to hawkish policies. Previously, Rumsfeld served in the Nixon and Ford administrations, bearing witness to the conclusion of the Vietnam War; when wars went wrong for America over the last 50 years, Rumsfeld was been there. As with Morris’s Fog of War, which was a similar interview with 1960s Secretary of State Robert McNamara, The Unknown Known consists mostly of its subject talking. Even-keeled and slightly cocky, Rumsfeld answers Morris’s questions, which range from government policy to how he proposed to his wife. (He wasn’t really interested in getting married, Rumsfeld explains, but it made good sense: He didn’t want her marrying anyone else.) To be sure, Rumsfeld can be extremely evasive and willfully vague, but what’s remarkable is how often he isn’t. He doesn’t confess to any major mistakes, but he’s candid in explaining his rationale. And although he may not convince you of his motives, there’s little doubt that he convinced himself a long time ago. As per norm, Morris utilizes his Interrotron, a device that allows his interview subject to look directly at the audience, and Rumsfeld recalls everything with impressive clarity—unless, that is, Morris confronts him with a fact that he doesn’t want to address. (The former Secretary of State asserts that the American people weren’t led to believe by the Bush administration that the invasion of Iraq was launched because Saddam Hussein was behind the 9/11 attacks, even though opinion polls from the time clearly suggest that was the case.) No film in years has produced such a shockingly vivid reminder of what the Bush years felt like: utter confidence, vague contempt, a fiendish skill for playing the PR game in such a way that the administration was guaranteed to come out on top. Rumsfeld “wins” the argument with Morris because he knows how to phrase responses so that his interviewer can’t really rebut them—it’s exactly what he did during those press conferences as well. 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? —Tim Grierson


24-Netflix-Docs_2015-biggie-tupac.jpg 17. 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 16. 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


american-factory-movie-poster.jpg 15. American Factory
Year: 2019
Directors: Steven Bognar, Julia Reichert
The plight of the American Rust Belt in the era of globalization, mechanized labor and outsourced jobs is real but, also, a media construct that’s been simplified into a talking point. For those not experiencing that reality on a daily basis, it can very easily become an abstraction. Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert’s American Factory sympathetically illustrates what those everyday pains look like, bringing us into the world of an Ohio automotive plant laid low by the 2008 recession. Several years after the factory closed, a Chinese company called Fuyao moved in, hiring back many of the employees of the old plant and offering hope to an economically depressed community. The American workers would help build windshields for cars and, ideally, along the way discover that Chinese and American employees can live together in harmony.

Bognar and Reichert’s film chronicles how that wishful thinking collapsed, but this is not a simpleminded story in which we can grasp onto an easy rooting interest. While American Factory is certainly told more from the perspective of the Americans, there’s an evenhandedness to the filmmaking, which gives the material the sobering weight of grim inevitability. Early on, we can surmise that things may not work out: The Chinese bosses note derisively to their cohorts that the Americans have fat fingers, while the American workers feel alienated by motivational slogans put on the walls in fractured English. American Factory is a portrait of how two cultures clash—not violently or maliciously or even intentionally. Nonetheless, divisions start to form, and overriding financial interests take precedence over individuals, resulting in employment shakeups for both workforces.

A documentary as bluntly titled as American Factory may suggest a definitive take on a large socioeconomic situation, but Bognar and Reichert’s film succeeds because it stays micro. Even their conclusions are measured, if also dispiriting. American Factory doesn’t suggest that China is the future—or that America is in decline—but, rather, just how much power corporations have in shaping society and dictating our fates. One of this film’s most crushing ironies is that its true villain is a faceless, insatiable desire for higher and higher profits. Every person we meet in American Factory is at that monster’s mercy. —Tim Grierson


20-feet-from-stardom.jpg 14. 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


strong-island-movie-poster.jpg 13. 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


fire-at-sea-poster.jpg 12. 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


homecoming-beyonce-movie-poster.jpg 11. Homecoming: A Film by Beyoncé
Year: 2019
Director: Beyoncé Knowles-Carter, Ed Burke
Childish Gambino, Ariana Grande, Tame Impala: None of those performers, or any of the others at Coachella 2019, were able to match the grandiosity of Beychella, Beyoncé’s epic pair of sets at last year’s festival. Netflix’s Homecoming, a documentary written, produced and directed by Mrs. Knowles-Carter herself, features stunning footage of each weekend’s set and dives deep into the symbolism, production and eight-month rehearsal process behind Beychella. The film also arrived with a surprise live album encompassing the entire Coachella set as well as new music. It’s all just The Carters’ latest in a long line of masterpieces, a colossal, visually stunning spectacle that not only summarized Beyoncé’s 20-year career, but also Historic Black Colleges and Universities in an entirely new way. We see clips from football games at schools like Howard University and Alabama A&M interspersed with Beychella rehearsal footage, the entire performance and film a celebration of those institutions, perhaps even an antithesis to what most people would consider a primarily white experience—Coachella. If you haven’t seen it yet, you might want to consider canceling your plans tonight: Bey deserves your full attention. —Ellen Johnson


jiro-sushi.jpg 10. 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 9. 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


theyll-love-me-when-im-dead-movie-poster.jpg 8. They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead
Year: 2018
Director: Morgan Neville
The making-of documentary They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead, released by Netflix to go with the Orson Welles’ finally finished The Other Side of the Wind—the streaming giant’s finest moment—shows Welles, enormous and half-baked, describing what he calls “divine accidents.” These accidents were responsible for some of his oeuvre’s best details (wherein God resides), like the breaking of the egg in Touch of Evil; they were something he aimed to chase after (like chasing the wind) with this, his final project, released several decades after its shooting as Netflix opened their coffers to open the coffin in which the raw footage was locked. His former partners on the shoot, Peter Bogdanovich and Frank Marshall, make good on their old oath to their master to complete the film for him, and in finding the spirit of the thing, deliver us a masterpiece we barely deserve. A divine accident. It’s no wonder Netflix released a lengthy documentary about that whole ordeal; “troubled production” doesn’t quite do justice to the haphazard strife of it all. —Chad Betz


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


13-Netflix-Docs_2015-paris-burning.jpg 6. 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


35-Netflix-Docs_2015-brothers-keeper.jpg 5. 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 4. 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


encounters-at-the-end-of-the-world-movie-poster.jpg 3. Encounters at the End of the World
Year: 2007
Director: Werner Herzog 
Just as Werner Herzog’s documentaries often reflect his particularly unique view of reality, so do they explore how his subjects—usually of the odder variety—exist within their own subjective reality. Encounters at the End of the World sees Herzog at, arguably, his most personal, representing the Arctic and the scientists/individuals who call that desolate place home as totem objects to work through his own existential dread—his feelings about humanity’s natural footprint—finding inspiration in the unlikeliest of places (in this case, under-ice footage from the Arctic led Herzog to first make The Wild Blue Yonder and then Encounters). In recent years, Herzog’s vocal delivery, where every fiber of the universe hangs on the importance of his next words, has molded him into a sort of tongue-in-cheek cultural object, but to hear him here and not heed what he has to say, not take his message about our planet to heart—not realize that maybe a lone, lost penguin is really a perfectly absurd Sisyphean hero—is to deny the filmmaker’s power. —Cole Henry


rolling-thunder-revue-movie-poster.jpg 2. Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese
Year: 2019
Director: Martin Scorsese 
Bob Dylan’s life and career are so encased in myth that it can be hard to untangle the romanticism from the reality. As much a symbol as he is a man, Dylan has spent most of his adulthood resisting being labeled the voice of his generation while slyly welcoming fans’ desire to dissect his every utterance, devoting much of the last couple decades opening up the vaults to release a series of official “bootleg” recordings associated with his most iconic albums and tours. He invites us to look deeper and listen harder, as if the answers can be gleaned from closer study. Long before David Bowie, Tom Waits, Madonna or Lady Gaga dabbled in persona play, Robert Zimmerman made us ponder masks in popular music. He’s both there and not there, which can be frustrating and fascinating. Both sensations are on display in Rolling Thunder Revue, the oft-spectacular, sometimes shtick-y chronicle of Dylan’s 1975 Rolling Thunder tour. As is typical when depicting anything in the Dylan universe, this concert film/documentary simultaneously oversells its subject’s genius and provides overwhelming evidence of what a brilliant artist he is. The documentary’s full title should also be a disclaimer: Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese. Early on, the movie features a contemporary interview from Dylan confessing that he doesn’t quite remember what prompted Rolling Thunder or what his ambitions were. “I don’t have a clue because it’s about nothing,” he says, another example of obscuration and seduction. The movie is a “story,” which means some parts might be invented or exaggerated, and because it’s “by Martin Scorsese,” the whole film is filtered through one artist’s perspective on another. Scorsese is after something grander than mere documentation—more layers of myth are applied while trying to present an honest account of a tour and a performer. At nearly two-and-a-half hours, Rolling Thunder Revue is overlong but also overpowering, inconclusive yet undeniably stirring. It left me exhausted, but I kinda want to see it again. —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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