The best documentaries of 2017 will only become more vital as we leave this year behind, gaining perspective the further we drag ourselves from the past 12 months. It’s no small gesture to call a documentary film “essential,” but in a year in which so many of our lives have needed something essential, something urgent, to push us forward, ranking these films feels futile: Is the movie about fireworks more essential than the movie about the murder of Michael Brown?
Well, no, but both are ecstatic expressions of truth, of catharsis and rage and awe—two very different documentary films equally capable of offering some semblance of clarity, even if emotional, to an otherwise boundless chaos. After all, if one of the movies below is just a long TV episode, then hard and fast rules obviously don’t apply when it comes to truth.
So instead of providing a Top 15, we’ve chosen what we believe to be a list (in alphabetical order) of 2017’s essential documentaries, each an examination of the anxieties and histories that have driven us this year to the brink of madness—and how maybe there really isn’t much of a difference between the two anyway.
Some honorable mentions: Served Like a Girl, Step, Dawson City: Frozen Time, Buzz One Four, In Transit, Kiki, Obit, Kedi, Raising Bertie, and recent Netflix addition, Jim & Andy.
Director: Steve James
Imperiled families are popular forms of community in documentaries this year—on the more heartwarming side is Abacus: Small Enough to Jail, the deceptively straightforward new film from Hoop Dreams director Steve James. In it, James details the ordeal of the Sungs, who ran the only bank to face federal prosecution in the aftermath of the 2008 financial collapse. What’s even more surprising is that their bank, Abacus Federal Savings, was a tiny, local institution catering to New York City’s Chinatown residents—hardly one of the massive financial corporations that helped crater the world economy. There is a happy ending to Abacus’s legal nightmare, however, but James uses the court case as a means to explore the Sung family, particularly patriarch Thomas Sung, who even in his late 70s still elicits a strong hold over his adult daughters, who help run the bank with him while jockeying to curry his favor. Abacus is a family portrait mixed with current events, and if it’s less ambitious than Hoop Dreams that doesn’t diminish the warmth and subtlety James brings to this look at an anxious, close-knit clan who rally around one another once the government goes after them. —Tim Grierson
Director: Viktor Jakovleski
One of the three premieres at this year’s True/False was Brimstone & Glory, a celebration of the Mexican city of Tultepec’s San Juan de Dios festival. Director Viktor Jakovleski’s hour-long film isn’t so much concerned about studying the town, its people or the significance of this annual party—it just wants to show us fireworks. Lots and lots of fireworks. More a sensory experience than a structured portrait, Brimstone & Glory contains more primal, enrapturing images than any documentary since Leviathan. Jakovleski’s cameras take us right onto the street as fireworks detonate all around us, often threatening the revelers who happily put themselves in harm’s way to dance among the explosions. This may be a slight film, but I can’t recall a movie that better demonstrated the thin line between danger and euphoria that’s inherent in such public revelries. Tultepec’s yearly celebration is meant to honor San Juan de Dios, a local hero who famously rescued patients from a burning hospital without getting a mark on him, but the partiers don’t walk away so lucky. (We see people being treated for eye injuries, and some of the event’s organizers have clearly had bad encounters with fireworks by the looks of their mangled hands.) Brimstone & Glory is community as catharsis, and you can’t stop staring in stupefied astonishment. —Tim Grierson
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
Director: Matthew Heineman
There need not be a documentary about the Syrian catastrophe to rally the world around its cause—just as, in Matthew Heineman’s previous film, Cartel Land, there was no need to vilify the world of Mexican cartels or the DEA or the paramilitaristic nationalists patrolling our Southern borders to confirm that murder and drug trafficking are bad. The threats are known and the stakes understood, at least conceptually. And yet, by offering dedicated, deeply intimate portraits of the people caught up in these crises, Heineman complicates them beyond all repair, placing himself in undoubtedly death-defying situations to offer a perspective whose only bias is instinctual. So it is with City of Ghosts, in which he follows members of Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently, a group committed to using citizen-based journalism to expose the otherwise covered-up atrocities committed by ISIS and the Assad regime in Syria. In hiding, in Turkey and Germany and at an event for journalists in the U.S.—in exile—these men, who Heineman characterizes as a very young and even more reluctant resistance, tell of both the increasingly sophisticated multimedia methods of ISIS and their hopes for feeling safe enough to settle and start a family with equal trepidation about what they’ve conditioned themselves to never believe: That perhaps they’ll never be safe. Heineman could have easily bore witness to the atrocities himself, watching these men as they watch, over and over, videos of their loved ones executed by ISIS, a piquant punishment for their crimes of resistance. There is much to be said about the responsibility of seeing in our world today, after all. Instead, while City of Ghosts shares plenty of horrifying images, the director more often that not shields the audience from the graphic details, choosing to focus his up-close camera work on the faces of these men as they take on the responsibility of bearing witness, steeling themselves for a potential lifetime of horror in which everything they know and love will be taken from them. By the time Heineman joins these men as they receive the 2015 International Press Freedom Award for their work, the clapping, beaming journalists in the audience practically indict themselves, unable to see how these Syrian men want to be doing anything but what they feel they must, reinforcing the notion that what seems to count as international reportage anymore is the exact kind of lack of nuance that Heineman so beautifully, empathetically wants to call out. —Dom Sinacola / Full Review
Director: Frederick Wiseman
Every Frederick Wiseman movie is an event, and this three-hour-plus look at the New York Public Library continues his recent exploration of educational institutions in the face of dwindling economic resources. Like National Gallery and At Berkeley, Ex Libris is both a cornucopia of information—Wiseman’s unobtrusive cameras catch brief lectures on dozens of different topics—and an overview of the individuals who frequent such institutions. As is always the case with a Wiseman film, Ex Libris offers no talking heads or title cards; instead, the nearly 88-year-old filmmaker simply immerses us in a dense, fascinating ecosystem in order to slowly explicate its inner logic. Ex Libris isn’t just a tribute to a library—the film doubles as a snapshot of New York City at the dawn of the Trump era and a trenchant examination of class and clashing cultures. Above all, this is a celebration of knowledge, not to mention of Wiseman, an institution in and of himself. —Tim Grierson
Directors: Agnès Varda and JR
The year’s best road movie was this delightful French film from New Wave pioneer Agnès Varda and photographer JR. The odd-couple contrast between co-directors is physically striking—she’s a woman, he’s a man; he’s much taller and younger than she—but they’re aligned in their desire to document the lives of everyday French citizens, taking oversized photos of the people they meet and plastering them on the sides of buildings to commemorate their specialness. Faces Places is very much in the style of Varda’s most recent documentaries, such as The Gleaners and I and The Beaches of Agnès, which chart how art and life weave inextricably together, but at 89, she doesn’t have the same stamina she once did. That fact lends added poignancy to a movie that, in part, is about the fragility of everything: small towns, photographs, loved ones, long friendships fading into disrepair. With JR as her co-conspirator, the Varda we see in Faces Places stands as a model for how to carry oneself through the world: with humor, humility and grace. —Tim Grierson
Director: Ai Weiwei
Human Flow isn’t about its creator, Ai Weiwei, but one of its key moments, occurring about a half an hour before its end, is pure Ai. On their tour of hotspots in our burgeoning global refugee crisis, the director and his crew stop at the U.S./Mexico border to capture footage and talk with locals living on the line of delineation separating the two countries. As the crew films, they are at one point interrupted by the arrival of an American yokel riding a four-wheeler. Whether he’s official or just some self-styled border patrolling vigilante is unclear, though his intent to intimidate the filmmakers is crystalline. Ai Weiwei, having spent the better part of the film’s two-hour running time demonstrating his unfailing grace alongside his bottomless compassion, scarcely reacts. He doesn’t even budge.
Ai is not a man you can easily cow. If you’ve read about his trials in China, or watched Alison Klayman’s excellent 2012 documentary Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, then you know this well enough. But watching his mettle in action in Human Flow inspires a different reaction than it does in Never Sorry. Rather than admire his boldness, we’re invited to search out that boldness in ourselves. The problem that Human Flow documents is massive and gaining in scope, chronicled first as a trickle, then a stream, then a torrent, now a deluge—soon a tsunami. The crisis of our refugees all over the world isn’t a problem one fixes merely by, for instance, banging away at a keyboard or saying pretty things in public spaces. Instead, the problem requires action, and Human Flow, generously taken at face value, is a tribute to those in the trenches: relief workers, volunteers, doctors, academics and lawmakers fighting to give refugees fleeing disease, famine and violence unimaginable to many of us the respect and protection they deserve. In turn, the film asks the audience to what lengths they would go to safeguard innocent people from harm, to give them opportunities to make their lives better. Ai has no vanity; he does not position himself as the hero. Through his devotion to his subjects, Human Flow reminds us how much work it is to help the helpless. The tragic conclusion is that we’re not doing enough. —Andy Crump
Director: Raoul Peck
Raoul Peck focuses on James Baldwin’s unfinished book Remember This House, a work that would have memorialized three of his friends, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and Medgar Evers. All three black men were assassinated within five years of each other, and we learn in the film that Baldwin was not just concerned about these losses as terrible blows to the Civil Rights movement, but deeply cared for the wives and children of the men who were murdered. Baldwin’s overwhelming pain is as much the subject of the film as his intellect. And so I Am Not Your Negro is not just a portrait of an artist, but a portrait of mourning—what it looks, sounds and feels like to lose friends, and to do so with the whole world watching (and with so much of America refusing to understand how it happened, and why it will keep happening). Peck could have done little else besides give us this feeling, placing us squarely in the presence of Baldwin, and I Am Not Your Negro would have likely still been a success. His decision to steer away from the usual documentary format, where respected minds comment on a subject, creates a sense of intimacy difficult to inspire in films like this. The pleasure of sitting with Baldwin’s words, and his words alone, is exquisite. There’s no interpreter, no one to explain Baldwin but Baldwin—and this is how it should be. —Shannon M. Houston / Full Review
Directors: Petra Epperlein, Michael Tucker
If you didn’t live in East Germany during the decades the Stasi was extending its insidious reach, perhaps your only knowledge of the GDR secret police comes from the 2007 Oscar-winner The Lives of Others. If nothing else, Petra Epperlein and Michael Tucker’s Karl Marx City offers a necessary riposte to Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s film—and not just because one talking-heads expert in the film takes devastatingly direct aim at that film’s bogus sentimentalities. Epperlein and Tucker go deeper into elucidating the inner workings of Stasi authoritarian machinery than most films, exposing a whole society driven by paranoia, one where few people felt they could trust even their closest friends. But perhaps the most noteworthy achievement of Karl Marx City lies in the way it manages to use Epperlein’s own personal story—her quest to discover whether her late father was, in fact, a Stasi informant—as a conduit to explore this harrowing period in German history without coming off as merely solipsistic. Here is a sterling example of a deeply intimate story that successfully opens out into broader historical terrain in genuinely eye-opening ways. —Kenji Fujishima
Director: Nathan Fielder
The feature-length finale to season four of the Comedy Central “reality” show operates well apart from the rest of the series, both self-contained and synecdochal for the particular brand of business acumen Fielder has flexed throughout the past four-plus years. If Nathan for You is about how dishonesty and manipulation are at the foundation of good business, then Finding Frances digs as deeply as it can into that bedrock, determining what lies beneath those lies. Rather than excoriate capitalism, Fielder embraces the surreal nature of “doing business,” an approach which lends itself fitfully to the story of the host helping a Bill-Gates-impersonator-who’s-not-actually-a-Bill-Gates-impersonator, Bill Heath, find the whereabouts of his long-lost paramour, Frances. Traveling together to Arkansas to dig up whatever clues they can, Fielder and Heath heap layer of unreality upon layer of unreality, exploiting loopholes and rules and bureaucratic ephemera and the basic kindness of strangers to get closer and closer to actually finding Frances, mounting such schemes as convincing a high school that they’re a crew from Mud 2 in order to gain access to the school grounds (and, vicariously, student records) or throwing a fake high school reunion (with Heath posing as a student from Frances’s year, memorizing trivial facts about the guy, in order to interrogate other attendees about Frances) or staging a dress rehearsal with hired actors to prepare Heath for his inevitable meeting with Frances. At each juncture, as the two add one more fabrication to the equation, Heath’s background comes to light, regarding his past with Frances, yes, but also whether or not he actually is a Bill Gates impersonator (he’s not) and what that means about his relationship with Fielder. Meanwhile, Fielder grows increasingly attached to Maci, an escort, developing a romantic connection that would be upsetting were it not so innocent. As iconic documentarian Errol Morris recently wrote about Finding Frances, “We all know that it entails an element of artifice. But where does the artifice begin and end?” Morris wonders if Finding Frances is about the essence of roleplaying, pointing out that Heath only pretended to be a Bill Gates impersonator in order to play one on Nathan for You. Similarly, is Fielder playing a weird guy falling love with a hired escort, or is he actually falling in love—and can the former truthfully lead to the latter? In the film’s last moments, Maci wonders about the film crew still following them around. “You’re filming something. That’s kind of the purpose, right?” she muses. Stupidly hilarious and equally heart-wrenching, Finding Frances literally pulls out in the end to admit that there is no end. Like a Ross McElwee joint without all the solipsism, Fielder’s work never pretends that the documentary form is anything but a grand gesture of pretension, of real people acting out real lives, acting as if someone is watching, faking it until they’re making it—and not knowing where the faking it ends and the making it begins. —Dom Sinacola
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.” —Dom Sinacola / Full Review
Director: Mehrdad Oskouei
Mehrdad Oskouei, the director of this sobering documentary about young girls in a juvenile-detention facility in Iran, is well-regarded in his home country, but until the Museum of the Moving Image in New York gave this film a theatrical run earlier this year, he was barely known, if at all, by international audiences outside of the festival circuit. Based on Starless Dreams, though—and especially in tandem with two earlier, shorter, similarly themed documentaries of his, It’s Always Late for Freedom (2007) and The Last Days of Winter (2011)—the belated wider attention seems richly deserved. A mix of talking-heads interviews and fly-on-the-wall observational sequences, Starless Dreams couches its critique of a heartless judicial system, and by extension a repressive society, in deeply human terms. The personal stories Oskouei, with his paternal manner, collects are heartbreaking in their evocation of childhood innocence crushed at a prematurely early age, with some of them either fearing returning to their normal lives outside of the facility, and others simply wishing for death. And yet, occasionally these girls are able to find pockets of light, mostly through the bonds they’ve forged with each other. Abbas Kiarostami may have left this earth last year, but his gently inquisitive spirit, at least in the nonfiction realm, finds a successor in Oskouei. —Kenji Fujishima
Directors: Shaul Schwarz, Christina Clusiau
Shaul Schwarz and Christina Clusiau’s Trophy should find an audience among people with a sensitivity to animal suffering, but there’s a decent chance it won’t. Their documentary, an intimate, breathtaking examination of the overlap between conservation efforts and the big game hunting industry from Namibia to South Africa, is too unflinching and honest, too willing to put that suffering at its forefront as a necessary gesture for driving home its points about the unexpected ways its two focal points intersect. Schwarz and Clusiau bounce back and forth from hunters, to safari agents, to conservationists, to ecologists, letting each tell their story of Africa’s relationship to animals, and to the art of the hunt. The film ultimately ties its threads into one innately messy but startlingly cohesive tangle, making the case not for any one of its arguments (whether in favor of hunting or conservation or both), but for nuance in a conversation that tends to trigger most of us. If the thought of seeing rhinos doped up on tranquilizer darts having their horns sawed off is upsetting, or if the idea of animals living out their days in cages, waiting for hunters to select them as prey, gives you nightmares, then you’re the type of person for which Trophy was made, but you’re also the type of person who will find the film unendurable. —Andy Crump / Full Review
Director: Sabaah Folayan
Following the murder of 18-year-old Michael Brown by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, filmmakers Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davis examine the American media’s biased, racist coverage of the tragedy and the protests in response. Whose Streets? asks that—rather than if black lives matter to prosecutors, or State’s Attorneys or the American police (all culprits in the teen boy’s modern-day lynching)—viewers place their faith in those real heroes, like activists Brittany Farrell and David Whitt. You might go into Whose Streets? expecting to simply see a film about the Black Lives Matter movement and some of the people behind it. And if you are of the opinion that black lives do matter, you might expect to be moved and motivated to either continue on in your activism, or take to the streets for the first time in your life. I, for one, anticipated another powerful, but difficult, film, similar to 13th and this year’s equally excellent The Blood is on The Doorstep. And while I was right, I also had no idea how deeply personal the protestors’ stories would get. The directors frame the film around the very young children of the activists they follow, but Whose Streets? is one of those rare and wonderful experiences in which a piece’s framing manages to both enhance and intensify the central narrative. “Whose Streets?” refers to the protest chant encouraging people to take back their neighborhoods from the cops and racist, classist policies that would seek to destroy them, but the answer to the question is actually more devastating: These streets—whether they’re covered in the blood of slain, unarmed black people, or humming with protestors both peaceful and riotous, or swarming with members of the national guard in tanks, sent in to militarize an entire city—these streets are always seen and experienced through the eyes of those with the least ability to change it, and the most to lose. By personalizing the experiences of their activist subjects, and demanding viewers see how the subjects’ choices and sacrifices directly impact their children and families, Whose Streets? becomes all about the kids and, therefore, all about the the future. And so much of that future, the film seems to insist, is dependent on the emotion and anger that keeps the film’s subjects in the streets, and the cameras in the hands of the filmmakers who also put their own bodies on the line. A political documentary that dares acknowledge rage as a tool as useful as hope or faith: That is one that [Black] America will surely need in 2017, and beyond. —Shannon M. Houston
Directors: Jairus McLeary, Gethin Aldous
The men of The Work talk, cry and bond over the course of a remarkable four-day group therapy session. This intense, cathartic documentary from Jairus McLeary and Gethin Aldous takes us inside a unique Folsom Prison program in which people from the outside sit side-by-side with hardened criminals in order to get in touch with personal issues. The intimacy of the setting is matched by the candor of these individuals, who unearth buried pain with startling clarity. But the breakthroughs don’t just happen on screen: The Work is revelatory in how it asks us to examine our own prejudices—about masculinity, about those in prison and about the unlikelihood of making a difference in a stranger’s life. You’ll be moved by what you see in The Work, and maybe even restored. —Tim Grierson