As was the case in 2017, narrowing down the best documentaries of 2018 felt more than difficult—unnecessary, even, given the glut of vital (we do not use that word lightly) and groundbreaking documentary films to come out of a festival like True/False, to name but one, this year. That doesn’t even count how, compared to most other genres, documentaries seem to struggle to score decent distribution outside of the biggest cities. That two of the movies below are exclusively available on streaming services—namely Netflix and Hulu (the latter features Crime + Punishment as well, a film that almost made the following list)—is a testament both to how important these services have become for this genre, and how no one really goes to the movie theater to watch documentaries anymore.
Still, we did our damnedest to only list films readily available to our readers (or soon to be readily available), based on U.S. release dates. (Here’s to hoping that Jodie Mack’s The Grand Bizarre and Khalik Allah’s Black Mother find wider distribution next year.) The documentaries listed below—unranked—are about as essential as such vessels of truth can get, presented with both breathtaking candor and heartbreaking drama to get to the core of what it means to be a witness in 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 haunts 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
Directors: Joshua Bonnetta, J. P. Sniadecki
With the Sonoran desert an unforgiving canvas, Joshua Bonnetta and J. P. Sniadecki’s El mar la mar attempts to graft deeply personal stories across a vastly impersonal divide—namely, the U.S./Mexico border. Excising any guiding semblance of structure, the directors prefer to cast the voices of the region’s storytellers, telling tales from the absurd to tragic, sometimes against a completely black screen, the better to draw you in to that single voice trying only to let you know what’s going on there, in the dark. As Bonnetta and Sniadecki patch in ambient soundscapes, allowing the soft noise of a thunderstorm or the squeak and rustle of night creatures to seep into the picture, their camera lingers on stretched out, scorched landscapes. The effect is cumulatively gutting: They end up with a grainy pastiche of this godforsaken part of the world, nothing instructive, just a lasting, melancholy impression. El mar la mar may be a film about memory, but it resists regurgitation, instead about tragedy time-stamped for an eternity in the desert, about the immigrants who’ve crossed that desert to come to the U.S., about how the U.S. expects them to forget everything that came before, and about how the desert won’t let them. —Dom Sinacola
Director: Kate Novack
Oh, to spend a day with legendary, luminously sincere fashion editor André Leon Talley. For most of us poor unfortunates, that day will never come. For Kate Novack, that day came in 2016, lasted the entire year, and provided the structure of her new film, The Gospel According to André, a portrait of Talley and his irresistible grandeur. Partway through, an acquaintance describes him as “a towering pine tree of a guy,” which doesn’t quite do justice to his folkloric image. The Gospel According to André is very much about Talley’s experiences, being his life, times and philosophies, and less about his experience, being his accomplishments as a journalist and fashion icon. Novack never shies away from opportunities to bask in his warm presence and the obvious joy he takes in his profession. He’s a man full of stories. At 68 years old, he’s practically made of them. And Novack could have focused the film on fashion alone. But late in the film she throws a gut punch in there, a hushed sequence from November 9th, as Talley watches the morning news in silence, then goes for a shave and a haircut. His eyes are liquid with words unspoken. He is cleaned up in keeping with his code, its own form of stoic defiance. We cut to him live-blogging the inauguration with Maureen Dowd, back to work but in somber context. Beauty and style retain meaning, and yet the film’s lingering message cares for neither. Talley rose above Jim Crow as a young man. Novack’s documentary leaves us with the sobering thought that decades later, still he must rise. —Andy Crump
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
Director: Steve Loveridge
MATANGI / MAYA / M.I.A. is a candid look at the singer Maya Arulpragasam, popularly known as M.I.A.—a film that has been a long time coming. About ten years ago, the “Paper Planes” star turned over hours of home videos to director Steve Loveridge. What happened after that could almost form the basis of its own documentary—at one point in 2013, Loveridge declared that he “would rather die” than keep working on the project—but what has emerged is an uncommonly unadorned look at a young artist growing up before our eyes. Think Amy without the crushing heartbreak—although that’s not to say that M.I.A.doesn’t have its share of sobering moments. “He took all of my cool out,” the musician told Billboard after the film’s Sundance premiere. “He took all the shows where I look good and tossed it in the bin. …I didn’t know that my music wouldn’t really be a part of this. I find that to be a little hard, because that is my life. It’s not the film that I would have made.” Her assessment is inaccurate—among M.I.A.’s highlights is its booming version of her galloping Kala track “Bamboo Banga”—and it also fails to appreciate how much care Loveridge has taken in shaping his story about a young woman reconciling her family history with her own burgeoning political awareness.
As her fans no doubt know, M.I.A. was born in London but grew up in Sri Lanka, where her father Arul formed the revolutionary organization the Tamil Tigers. Arul’s activities became a cloud over her head during her early career—perhaps burnishing her reputation as a musical rebel but also inspiring protests from those who labeled him a terrorist—and M.I.A. chronicles in nearly real time how the performer educates herself on Sri Lanka’s political strife and incorporates it into her daring, electric music. In recent years, M.I.A. has fallen out of critical favor for myriad reasons—the furor over her decision to flip off the camera during the 2012 Super Bowl halftime show, her inability to repeat the phenomenal success of “Paper Planes”—but the film makes no attempt to rehabilitate her career. Instead, Loveridge, who went to art school with M.I.A., is after something far more profound: mapping the risks and rewards of being a potent but imperfect political artist in an age when sensationalism is everywhere and nuanced rhetoric is, sadly, in short supply. It’s a sign of M.I.A.’s unfinished maturation that she can’t quite grasp the gift her friend has given her. —Tim Grierson
Directors: Ian Bonhôte, Peter Ettedgui
The first fashion collection from Lee Alexander McQueen, titled “Jack the Ripper Stalks His Victims,” announced an artist who wasn’t going to play around. Models walked down the runway, horror on their faces, sometimes stumbling out onto the catwalk, the garments as provocative as textiles as the shows were transgressive. This was McQueen’s MA graduation collection from 1992, and he was 23. More than 25 years later, directors Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui have achieved the nearly impossible, crafting a documentary almost as stunning as the artist it profiles. While McQueen, structured around the fashion “bad boy”’s five most important shows in his career, could be argued (rather reductively) to follow a “tortured genius” narrative, perhaps what makes it such ravishing filmmaking—biographical documentary filmmaking, at that—is not only its ability to embody and manifest the same kind of indenciary qualities as the works of McQueen, but that it actively probes at the ways in which mental illness and addiction shaped his life and work, without resorting to cheap sentimentality. McQueen is a moving testament to a once-in-a-lifetime artist, and, even moreso, an examination of just how human his art was. —Kyle Turner
Director: Bing Liu
In a year rich with slice-of-life glimpses at pubescence in flux care of the arrested development of skateboard crews, Minding the Gap is undoubtedly the best of its cinematic ilk—not because it’s “real,” but because it’s so clearly focused on interrogating the toxicity that keeps these kids from truly growing up. In Rockford, Illinois, just a smidge too far outside of Chicago to matter, three kids use Liu’s camcorder to chronicle their days spent avoiding responsibility and the economic devastation suffered by so many Rust Belt cities of its kind: Zack, a cute and reckless elder of the crew, about to embark on fatherhood with his (noticeably younger) girlfriend Nina; Keire, a seemingly always-grinning black kid who stays stiffly quiet whenever Zack claims that he has permission to use certain racial epithets, or when another kid insists that white trash kids have it the same as black kids; and Bing, the director himself, one of the few from his friend group able to escape Rockford. Splicing nostalgic footage of their time skating with urgent documents of their burgeoning adult life, Liu builds a portrait of the modern male in Middle America, lacing ostensibly jovial parties and hang-outs with shots of Rockford billboards vilifying absentee parents and pleas from Nina not to tell Zack that she admitted on-camera he’s hit her. As Liu discovers more and more about the abuse indelible to the young lives of his two friends, he reveals his own story of fear and pain at home, terrorized by his stepfather up until the man’s death, pushing him to confront his mother in the film’s climax about what’s been left unsaid about their mutual tormenter. It all breathes with the nerve-shaking relief of finally having these burdens exposed, though Liu is careful to ground these moments with the harsh reality of Rockford and those towns like it: Billboards beg men not to leave, not to hit their family members, not to take out their deep-seated emotional anxiety on their loved ones, because it will happen anyway. Zack, who was abused, will pass on that abuse. We hope he won’t, because we see simultaneously how he skates, how all of his friends skate together, the act less about being great at skating (though a sponsorship could help their pocketbooks), and more about finding respite from the shackles of their worlds. That Liu shoots these scenes—especially the film’s opening, set to a stirring classical score—with so much levity and beauty, with so much kinetic freedom, only assures that, for as much as Crystal Moselle and Jonah Hill love their subjects, Liu lives with them. He’s shared the weight of that. —Dom Sinacola
Director: Frederick Wiseman
If you live in Monrovia, Indiana, there’s a better than decent chance you’ve never encountered a Frederick Wiseman film, because, despite his prolific output—the 88-year-old documentary master has banged out a new film nearly every single year of his career, with minimal gaps dividing their releases—his movies tend not to travel very far beyond America’s coasts. Partly that’s a consequence of distribution. He founded Zipporah Films back in 1970 to serve as the arm for pitching his movies to the rest of the country beyond the borders of Cambridge, Massachusetts. But Wiseman has long refused the conventions of the documentary form, functioning as a fly on the wall, if that, in his own movies. You can tell a Frederick Wiseman movie from how little of him there is in it: His camera is the host, not him. (Another explanation for the limited reach of his name: Most Americans probably don’t watch documentaries at all, much less documentaries that aren’t built on talking head segments and archival footage.)
This is all to say that Monrovia, Indiana serves as both a portrait of its namesake town and a reminder that we’re all pretty well removed from one another in the ol’ U.S. of A. Monrovia represents the kind of rural solar system where a mere handful of town amenities and businesses—a pizza place, a bar, a tattoo parlor, a gun store—orbit around farmland that’s circling the drain. Monrovia withers before our eyes, and Wiseman’s lens only affords us a two-hour stay within its bounds. Monrovia, Indiana isn’t an exposé on MAGA culture or an indictment of Trump’s America (which, quite frankly, is simply America) because Monrovia doesn’t give half a shit about Trump in the first place. We see neither red caps nor signs proclaiming his name on lawns or in storefronts. When Wiseman settles in with his subjects, the residents of Monrovia, they gab about gallstones or argue with city council members about fire hydrants. They don’t talk about the wall or locking her up. (If the caravan was a concern at the time of the film’s production, they’d probably not talk about that, either.)
The lack of Trump in Monrovia, Indiana has fueled the suspicions of critics, who richly imply that Wiseman has left footage evincing Trump’s sway over the town out of the picture entirely. This, according to Wiseman himself, isn’t remotely true. The town is divorced from America writ large, because Monrovians have their own concerns on their mind. Wiseman is patient with them, which is to say that he’s himself, a deliberate filmmaker willing to take his time to tell the stories he stumbles across in his usual stream of consciousness style. This isn’t Trump country. It’s the country Trump, and the rest of us, have all forgotten. —Andy Crump
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
Director: Morgan Neville
Morgan Neville’s winning portrait Won’t You Be My Neighbor? withholds darkness. Which makes sense since the Oscar-winning director of 20 Feet From Stardom has turned his attention to Fred Rogers, a kindly TV personality who entertained a couple generations of kids with his benign PBS program Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Rogers died in 2003 at the age of 74, and this year marks the 50th anniversary of his landmark show, so expect plenty of tributes over the next several months. Appropriately, as an official chronicling of the man’s life and legacy, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? isn’t remotely innovative. We get polished interviews from colleagues, family members and Rogers’ widow. There are plenty of clips from his show, as well as other archival material. There’s a gimmick-y recurring use of animation to illustrate parts of his story that’s the only truly cloying element of a film that mostly eschews mawkishness. And yet, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is a stunningly moving film that also feels just the teensiest bit radical. That word will be used a lot during this golden anniversary for Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, as his fans remind everyone that, rather than starring a smiling square who couldn’t have looked less manly, the show was actually a pretty progressive program that frankly discussed everything from race relations to John F. Kennedy’s assassination. Neville accentuates Rogers’ unembarrassed sweetness as an example of his principled stand against bigotry and injustice, making the case with conviction and gusto.
At my True/False screening, the audience was warned before Won’t You Be My Neighbor? that we ought to have Kleenex in hand to prepare for what we were going to experience. I’m an unashamed movie crier, but I resent being prepped for how I should feel about a movie I’m about to see. And yet, the warning was warranted: The tears elicited from Won’t You Be My Neighbor? are a testament to Neville’s tasteful, loving (but not fawning) depiction of a decent, unassuming man. The movie’s not just a balm in the age of Trump—it’s an opportunity for viewers to reconnect with their own decency, and Neville’s gentle skill at arguing for goodness ends up being a minor miracle. —Tim Grierson