15. Leviathan (2013)
Directors: Véréna Paravel, Lucien Castaing-Taylor
“The film is a gesture, a physical and emotional reaction to our experience, almost like an epileptic crisis or something—an aesthetic translation of what we have been subjected to.” That’s how co-director Véréna Paravel describes her documentary Leviathan, an utterly ravishing and pummeling impressionistic account of life on a high-seas fishing boat. Instead of storylines or talking-head interviews, Paravel and her partner Lucien Castaing-Taylor’s film simply plunges us into the terror and isolation of a brutal, dangerous job, its cameras diving into the ocean or following along as a fish gets caught in the net on its way to being gutted. You don’t learn many facts about commercial fishing from Leviathan, but you leave the film convinced you understand it on a primal, cathartic level—that you get Paravel’s “aesthetic translation” as a way to unearth deeper truths. —Tim Grierson
14. The Other Side (2016)
Director: Roberto Minervini
Director Roberto Minervini has crafted a nonfiction narrative in the thick of the Louisiana swamp, drawing on locals to tell a bifurcated story that both exploits liberals’ fears of what the “other” America looks like and constructs a compassionate, clear-eyed account of those who are being left behind economically and culturally. Mark Kelley, like everyone else in the documentary/fiction hybrid The Other Side, is playing a version of himself, living as an ex-con battling addiction without any meaningful job prospects. Lisa Allen is his girlfriend, and she seems awash in her own troubles: Everywhere you look in The Other Side, there are burned-out trailers, unhappy people, rural poverty and a general sense of anxiety and resentment.
Not unlike Harmony Korine, Minervini (who was born in Italy but lives in the U.S.) is fascinated by the great, unadorned vitality of America’s back roads and lurid subcultures. The Other Side’s first half is an intimate character drama concerning Mark and Lisa, but its second section feels like a Southern-fried version of Korine’s Trash Humpers mixed with the reckless abandon of Spring Breakers. We see wet-T-shirt contests and drunken days at the beach amidst a collection of random revelers. We also observe a meeting of what appears to be a local militia group that’s fiercely anti-Obama, the men expressing their rage at the country’s direction by blowing a car to smithereens with their high-octane weapons.
Minervini’s film contains scenes that feel fly-on-the-wall, while others have clearly been rehearsed and scripted. If he was trying to mock these people, that line between fiction and reality might have been more uncomfortable, but The Other Side is actually a deeply empathetic portrait. It obviously has its share of cultural dog-whistling—the whole movie could be a cinematic illustration of the economically disenfranchised voters Obama was referring to in 2008 on the campaign trail when he said, “…they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations”—but The Other Side brings this world to such vibrant life so that we can see these people’s pain, and, perhaps, even understand the rage and violence swirling around them. The Other Side has been made by an outsider who refuses to shy away from other outsiders’ humanity. In an election year dominated by anger and disillusionment, the movie isn’t some freak show but, instead, an incredibly moving, undeniably frightening articulation of why so many in America want to blow the whole thing up and start all over again. —Tim Grierson
13. Rat Film (2016)
Director: Theo Anthony
Director Theo Anthony draws parallels: between statistics and hunches, between logistics and subtext, between the systemic and the everyday, between the drama of history and the total lack of histrionics required to support his 100-year-old post-apocalyptic vision of institutionalized racism. This vision is Rat Film, Anthony’s brilliant docu-essay chronicling Baltimore’s city planning and resultant systemic segregation as a microcosm of the still-failing American Urban Experiment. In it, first we hear a voice (Maureen Jones, siri-adjacent). Amidst stark black, before we see anything we hear: “Before the world became the world it was an Egg. Inside the Egg was Dark. The rat nibbled the egg and let the Light in. And the world began.” From these initial moments, Rat Film introduces the idea of creation—from whatever mythos Anthony culled this intro—not as an expansion, a pushing out, but as an illusion of growth hiding something so much more claustrophobic, so much more suffocating. Rat Film is ostensibly about Baltimore’s rat problem, about how the City has historically dealt with and studied and used parts of their poorest neighborhoods to address pest control, trial-and-erroring over decades, but as Edmund the amicable exterminator with the Baltimore City Rat Rubout Program tells us, “There ain’t never been a rat problem in Baltimore; there’s always been a people problem.”
This is the parallel Anthony most wants to explore, how systems of power treat minority and impoverished communities as lab rats, expendable and experimental. The path he treads wanders wildly—his film a weaving, loosely tracked tone poem, its free form in direct opposition to the boundaries and strictures imposed on the aforementioned communities, human and rodent alike—but his themes are always clear, and the points he makes always buttressed by simple, unadorned facts. Anthony’s historic documents—photographs, maps, letters, news articles—he wields with Ken Burns-like precision, demonstrating both in-depth research and a journalist’s eye for sussing out the larger ideas behind the cold information. All of it culminates in a heartbreaking tale of how a Baltimore denizen’s barn was converted into a warehouse space wherein Johns Hopkins scientists built a cloistered rat colony, observing how isolation manifested in a rat community. The results are, of course, devastating. These many threads and faces and stories wind around one another as Rat Film moves toward a final point—its final point being the same point upon which it started, so anticlimactic and graceful that it hardly bears repeating, only watching, over and over and over. —Dom Sinacola
12. Bisbee ’17 (2018)
Director: Robert Greene
Robert Greene opens his essential new documentary, Bisbee ’17, with a quote from American writer Colin Dickey’s 2016 book, Ghostland: “Cities that are haunted … seem to straddle past and present as though two versions of the same city are overlaid on top of each other.” He’s talking about haunted manors littering the United States specifically and not the Arizona burg of Bisbee, but the town Greene acquaints us with indeed straddles its past and present, and something more—a collision between the two in the form of theater. In 1917, at the height of World War I, Bisbee was a critical hub in the war effort, not just a copper town but the copper town churning out minerals and profits. Then the miners went on strike, demanding safer work conditions and railing against campwide discrimination. To quash protests, Bisbee’s sheriff deputized a small army of locals, rounded up strikers in the early morning of July 12th, stuck them on cattle cars, and dropped them off in the New Mexico desert in an effort by the Phelps Dodge mining company and Bisbee’s law to halt dissent and restore order to their bottom line.
Greene comes into the story 100 years later, as Bisbee’s current residents, prepping for the Bisbee Deportation’s centennial, decide they must recognize the evils of Bisbee yesteryear. How best to do so? By putting on a reenactment, casting townsfolk as miners, as the sheriff’s posse, as witnesses to the travesty. This is Greene’s jam: He blends traditional documentary techniques, talking head interviews and appraisals of primary sources, with the artifice of feature narrative. Greene’s craftsmanship invites awe as easily as the reenactment itself, scrappy but successfully harrowing in execution. The players get into their roles with more than professional enthusiasm—their performances exhibit a relish and zeal both shaped by an underlying desperation to observe the truth when for so long Bisbee has lived with truth unspoken. As the crimes of the deportation haunt Bisbee and its inhabitants, so, too, are we haunted by them through the filter of Greene’s lens. But that experience, the experience of being haunted, proves vital. Maybe it’s necessary to let history haunt us. —Andy Crump
11. No Home Movie (2015)
Director: Chantal Akerman
Most startling, perhaps, is Chantal Akerman’s voice when it first comes from behind the camera. She sounds broken, ground into gravelly paste, and given that she’s in her mother’s apartment in Brussels, filming small, intimate and completely mundane conversations had during visits, her mother’s health failing throughout, it becomes futile to source the legendary director’s pain. Her mother’s impending death, her own depression, the endless maw of distance and time that separates them when Akerman’s in the U.S.—No Home Movie breathes with regret: not that Akerman, or any of us, didn’t appreciate what she had when she had it, but that she didn’t appreciate enough, didn’t linger enough to savor her mother’s company, didn’t truly understand what her mother went through as an Auschwitz survivor, didn’t stay when she should have or remember what she’s forgotten, now all gone. As can often be the case with Akerman’s films, no meaning is approached directly, and every conversation or long shot (in this case: desert landscapes and her mother’s empty, perfectly clean apartment) is an oblique tapping into some sort of richer, subtextual vein. This isn’t a home movie, it’s much more aware than that; this isn’t a movie about Home, because Akerman, in her 60s, seems to be realizing that Home is something she’s missed all her life. No Home Movie is a reflection on that lack, on the emptiness she put between her and those she loved most, an emptiness we all wield, an emptiness that Skype and the phone can’t make up. Can anything make it up? Akerman committed suicide not long after the film’s release, a film she’s said she never intended to make when she was filming in 2014. If we’re looking for reasons as to why she did what she did, we have No Home Movie, which isn’t enough. It was never intended to be enough. —Dom Sinacola
10. The Prison in Twelve Landscapes (2016)
Director: Brett Story
Empathy is at the forefront in The Prison in Twelve Landscapes, director Brett Story’s masterful collection of vignettes. No central figure to focus upon, Story uses her snapshots of different individuals to suggest something grander—namely, Americans’ inescapable entanglement with their country’s overwhelming prison system. With so many different stylistic techniques—sometimes her subjects address the camera directly, sometimes we’re a fly-on-the-wall observing, from a distance, people talking to each other—The Prison in Twelve Landscapes may risk didacticism, but such worries are mitigated by Story’s aesthetic adventurousness.
There’s a cumulative power, a headlong rush, in watching one vignette segue into another, the viewer trying to make connections between seemingly dissimilar American portraits. The Brooklyn man who started a business that ships penitentiary-approved goods to inmates; the Detroit P.R. rep who has no idea how slimy he sounds; the St. Louis County resident waiting in long lines—Story deftly makes the point that they’re all invisibly part of the same system, and the juxtaposing, sometimes counterintuitive correlations enliven each snapshot and make The Prison in Twelve Landscapes stronger collectively than in any one sequence. Other filmmakers would mount a frontal assault on the classism and racism rampant in the way we lock up so many people, but Story doesn’t want us to stare at the usual images and absorb the normal statistics. She’s asking us to see the dilemma in a new light, and her powerful essay film never stops making us queasy—and, at the same time, alive with anger and sorrow that the dilemma is being communicated so forcefully and innovatively. —Tim Grierson
9. The Grand Bizarre (2018)
Director: Jodie Mack
A spectacle of tedium; an opus of patience: Experimental filmmaker Jodie Mack seems to bring so many of her aesthetic and physical concerns to bear with the jaw-dropping The Grand Bizarre, one struggles to conceive of the ways she “got that” or “did that” or “made that happen.” Context, especially in Mack’s work, is important—the climax of the hour-long film uses the scant sounds of Mack’s 16mm Bolex camera in her studio, clicking once per image, to convey just how arduous the gleeful images we’d witnessed were to birth—and while we watch the swathes of textiles and colors spin and whirl across the screen and throughout countless international landscape, patterns whorling in time to a, in turns, quirky and menacing and blissful techno beat (like Holly Herndon’s Platform or Matthew Herbert’s concept albums, an arrangement of post-industrial detritus metamorphosing into music), we can’t escape the nagging question: Was all this work worth it? The answer must be “absolutely,” because The Grand Bizarre is too often astounding, but the answer is in the question as well. Mack wants us to know that she individually photographed innumerable pieces of cloth, that she painstakingly animated this whole hybridized doc. Mack wants us to be constantly aware of her work—just as she, in filming huge open air markets and major shipping ports and long car rides with fabric strobing in the rear view mirror (how many hours did she sit in the back of a car and just hold up pieces of cloth?), begs us to think about the labor behind these textiles and colors and patterns and materials, how much human effort is expelled in getting them, doing them, making them happen. Exciting and exhausting, The Grand Bizarre is both celebration and eulogy to that which nourishes us as much as it kills us. —Dom Sinacola
8. Shirkers (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 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
7. Hale County This Morning, This Evening (2018)
Director: RaMell Ross
In Hale County This Morning, This Evening, seeing truly is believing, or at least comprehending, because putting what filmmaker RaMell Ross has done into words is as close to impossible as writing about film can get. A portrait of Alabama’s Hale County—a place named for Deputy to the Provisional Congress of the Confederate States and career racist Stephen F. Hale—as well as a glimpse into the lives of Ross’s family, friends and neighbors, the film defies documentarian conventions through structure and language: There are no talking heads, no bland expositional devices, only stream of consciousness storytelling occasionally interspersed with intertitles that playfully, but soberly, fill in the names of Ross’s subjects, or provide context we would certainly lack without them. In its interior, free-associative way, Hale County This Morning, This Evening is thrilling, a word not often used for characterizing slice-of-life documentaries. (In line with that: If possible, it must be seen on the big screen, too.) Ross boils down lifetimes and the passage of days, weeks, months, perhaps even beyond, into 70 minutes, and, as a result, the movie ultimately lives in between the passage of seconds. Rather than feel compressed, Hale County This Morning, This Evening emerges sweeping and grand, an elusive, awesome American fable. —Andy Crump
6. Stories We Tell (2013)
Director: Sarah Polley
With Stories We Tell, actress-turned-director Sarah Polley has proven herself a consummate filmmaker, transforming an incredible (and incredibly) personal story into a playful yet profound investigation of the nature of storytelling itself. The central mystery to her documentary—that the man she grew up believing to be her dad is not her biological father—is public knowledge at this point, easily revealed in the film’s trailer and associated marketing. Yet Polley conceals and reveals information—starting with her relationships to her interview subjects—in such an effortless way as to constantly surprise, even shock, her audience without leaning into revelations for the sake of them. The result is a film that scrutinizes the ultimate purpose of truth—only to come up with a gorgeously rendered shrug. —Annlee Ellingson
5. Faces Places (2017)
Directors: Agnes Varda and JR
One of the decade’s best road movie was this delightful French film from New Wave pioneer Agnès Varda and photographer JR. The odd-couple contrast between co-directors is physically striking—she’s a woman, he’s a man; he’s much taller and younger than she—but they’re aligned in their desire to document the lives of everyday French citizens, taking oversized photos of the people they meet and plastering them on the sides of buildings to commemorate their specialness. Faces Places is very much in the style of Varda’s most recent documentaries, such as The Gleaners and I and The Beaches of Agnès, which chart how art and life weave inextricably together, but at 89, she doesn’t have the same stamina she once did. That fact lends added poignancy to a movie that, in part, is about the fragility of everything: small towns, photographs, loved ones, long friendships fading into disrepair. With JR as her co-conspirator, the Varda we see in Faces Places stands as a model for how to carry oneself through the world: with humor, humility and grace. —Tim Grierson
4. At Berkeley (2013)
Director: Frederick Wiseman
Frederick Wiseman is a national treasure, a filmmaker who has spent his career diligently and perceptively documenting institutions, whether they be mental hospitals (Titicut Follies) or French burlesque clubs (Crazy Horse). At Berkeley is one of his best, and one of his longest: a four-hour examination of the University of California at Berkeley that chronicles everything from administrative meetings to classroom lectures. With Wiseman’s trademark restraint—rather than interviewing his subjects, Wiseman simply stands back and observes them in their natural habitat—he asks us to consider the college experience as a microcosm for the world with its warring philosophies and agendas. And if Wiseman’s thesis is accurate, we live in a pretty remarkable world. —Tim Grierson
3. The Act of Killing (2012); The Look of Silence (2014)
Directors: Joshua Oppenheimer, Christine Cynn
Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing focuses on one of the darkest chapters of the 20th century, speaking to some members of the Indonesian death squads who slaughtered hundreds of thousands of their countrymen and women in 1965 and ’66. These people don’t live in the shadows, though—instead they’re treated like royalty in their native land, celebrated as heroes who helped “save” Indonesia from communism. The film is so shocking and depressing that its subjects’ utter disconnection from morality would almost be funny if it wasn’t so frightening. Oppenheimer amplifies those conflicting reactions further by introducing a daring gambit: In the process of interviewing these butchers—who brag about raping and killing their victims (including the occasional beheading)—the director asked if they would be interested in re-creating their murders through fictionalized, filmed scenes. The men—most notably a gentleman named Anwar Congo, who was one of the death squad leaders—leapt at the chance. What follows is a literally nauseous glimpse into the minds of men who have spent decades mentally escaping the inescapable.
And like The Act of Killing, 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. —Tim Grierson and Dom Sinacola
2. O.J.: Made in America (2016)
Director: Ezra Edelman
ESPN’s newest installment in its 30 for 30 series is its most ambitious, transcending superficial descriptions such as “entertaining” to get at something deeper, richer, truer. But if you’re conversant with the structure of earlier 30 for 30s, it’s also pleasingly familiar. O.J.: Made in America clocks in at seven-and-three-quarter hours, but it breezes by. The film encapsulates 30 for 30 at its best: It’s endlessly riveting, smartly packaged and exceedingly intelligent. And most important of all, the nearly eight-hour O.J. makes a pretty convincing case to non-sports fans why the rest of us invest so much emotional energy into the exploits of men playing children’s games. Sports are never just sports—they’re an extension of the race and class issues we experience on a daily basis. O.J. Simpson symbolized something powerful in our collective unconscious. And as this movie demonstrates, his fall from grace was partly ours.
It’s engrossing from its first minutes. The expectation might be that the film will focus on Simpson’s mid-1990s murder trial, where he faced charges of killing his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman, and while that’s somewhat true, director Ezra Edelman wants to graft a much more profound and overarching narrative around that court case. And so we start at the beginning, the documentary returning to the poor Northern California community where Simpson grew up, quickly fast-forwarding to his first brush with glory and fame as he becomes a celebrated running back at the University of Southern California in the 1960s. 30 for 30 films usually concentrate on one incident—a classic game or playoff series—but not unlike ESPN’s portrait of the 1990s Michigan basketball team, The Fab Five, O.J. aspires to be a comprehensive biography. As such, O.J. is a seductive rise-then-fall narrative that will be familiar to those who know Simpson’s story. And yet, Edelman consistently digs deeper to find the telling societal detail or intriguing character quirk so that we feel like we’re relearning the athlete’s life from a fresh, thoughtfully considered new perspective. It would be inaccurate to say that one walks away from O.J. feeling that its subject was misunderstood or got a bad rap, but Edelman recontextualizes his life so that we see it as a tragedy of his own making. Our complicity in that tragedy is our collective blind worship of celebrities and sensationalism—the movie queasily reminds us about how the trial was a triumph of emotion—as well as our unwillingness to grapple with racial inequality in this country. —Tim Grierson
1. Cameraperson (2016)
Director: Kirsten Johnson
Kirsten Johnson’s title for her latest documentary feature could not be any more nondescript. And yet, the anonymity of that title points to perhaps the most remarkable aspect about this film: its maker’s sheer selflessness, her devotion to her craft and her subjects, her seemingly complete lack of ego. The film is pieced together from outtakes from the long-time documentary filmmaker/cinematographer’s extensive body of work, but beyond occasionally hearing her voice behind the camera (and one shot towards the end in which we finally see her face as she points the camera toward herself), Johnson forgoes the safety net of voiceover narration to tie all this footage together. The footage speaks for itself, and for her.
Which is not to say that the film is just a compilation of clips strung together willy-nilly. Johnson breathes an animating intelligence into Cameraperson’s construction, employing a method that suggests a mind processing one’s life experiences, contemplating the sum total of her work, veering off into tangents whenever she happens upon a piece of footage that triggers broader reflections. Johnson’s film also lightly touches upon questions of documentary ethics. In some of these outtakes, you hear someone—whether her or a director, it’s not always made clear—behind the camera directing interview subjects to address the camera in a certain way, and maneuvering her camera in order to capture a perfect shot. A young one-eyed boy in Afghanistan is encouraged to speak in his native language instead of English, presumably for the sake of authenticity because he appears to know English perfectly well. Elsewhere, Johnson inadvertently puts a taxi driver in Yemen in danger as she angles for a particular shot of a prison. Through such scenes, one may well be able to feel in one’s bones that aestheticizing distance that perhaps all documentarians ultimately have from their subjects. Perhaps that is as it should be within a medium as fraught with ethical minefields as nonfiction filmmaking, and, by extension, journalism. It’s a measure of Johnson’s overall humility that she is willing to be as brutally honest about herself with the viewers in this way—and it’s that humility that ultimately makes Cameraperson such an inspiring experience. —Kenji Fujishima