The 50 Best Documentaries on Netflix

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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


24-Netflix-Docs_2015-biggie-tupac.jpg 18. 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 17. 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 16. 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


20-feet-from-stardom.jpg 15. 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


oasisdoc.jpg 14. 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


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


rolling-thunder-revue-movie-poster.jpg 12. 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


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


fire-at-sea-poster.jpg 2. 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


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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