What does it mean anymore to search for truth? It’s so tired it’s practically cliche: We think we know the difference between what’s “real” and what’s “fake,” and we use those terms as if we’ve shored up a pretty precise definition between the two in our heads. Functionally, though, we operate as if we care less about what’s “true,” and more about what truth, however it’s defined, does to affect our lives. We’ve transcended finding the difference; we now conceive of truth in terms of whether or not we have to take responsibility for it.
The best documentaries of the past 10 years, then, aren’t about the gray area between truth and fiction, but about the responsibility of witnessing: When truth is in the eye of the beholder, what burden must that beholder carry? What is the burden of seeing?
And so, the following documentaries chronicle the weight of these burdens. They are movies of work, of identity through work, of physical creation, of physical Creation, of taking responsibility for oneself through the privilege of seeing, of that “taking” as both political action and declaration of individual identity. As for our number one pick, the director’s work is to see, and her film has deep respect for that occupation.
We’ve also reserved spots on this list for only one movie per director, unless the film is part of a companion piece. Which means that Frederick Wiseman has made more than one great documentary this decade (see also: Ex Libris and Monrovia: Indiana); so has Robert Greene, and Steve James, and Jodie Mack, and Brett Story… we’re wading into the many shades of capital-”T” truth here, folks. We manipulate it how we see fit.
Some honorable mentions of course just barely missed the list—Brimstone & Glory, Exit Through the Gift Shop, Hypernormalisation and This Is Not a Film all come immediately to mind—but the following is essential.
DIrector: 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
Director: Lotfy Nathan
An elegant mix between a scrappy visual bildungsroman of a 13-year-old Baltimore youth and a cursory glance at the dirt-bike and four-wheeler culture that’s risen to near legendary status in the city, 12 O’Clock Boys is a gorgeously shot testament to the social climate that has made Baltimore such a focus for racial and institutional tension over the past decade (see Rat Film below)—though Nathan’s documentary is almost totally removed from any particular time. Instead, it’s concerned more with the quotidian, how the City’s youth live for their bikes, for the thrill of testing their physical limits, for the freedom and personality such machines afford them in a place that rarely allows them to ever express the same. Baltimore’s problems have been indelible to its personality for so long, and yet, as embraced by Pug—our protagonist, the boy who obsesses over joining the 12 O’Clock Boys, Baltimore’s so-called biker gang—the City is a complex web of thoroughfares and blank slates ready to be etched into stone by anyone with a motor and a death wish. Between goose-pimply vignettes of the 12 O’Clock boys posturing for the camera—popping wheelies and grinning wildly—and sobering passages in which Pug’s family (and friends) face one tragedy after another, the film is moored to the foundation of Pug’s dream: That one day he will be legend too. —Dom Sinacola
Director: Tatiana Huezo
Tatiana Huezo’s Tempestad is the aural record of two women ground under the heel of Mexico’s corrupt government and associated criminal network of cartel control. In measured voice over, Miriam and Adela tell their stories while visual notions and slice-of-life vignettes magnify the prolificacy of their pain across so many lives in Mexico: The former tells of a sudden arrest, accused of a crime she didn’t commit and lost within the cartel’s prison system, and the latter, a traveling circus clown, remembers the ineptitude and cruelty of Mexican authorities in failing to help her get back her kidnapped daughter over the course of the past decade. They persevered, though the intensity of their hardships makes one wonder why; Huezo refrains from inflating, or really even exaggerating in the slightest, what these women experienced. Miriam eventually makes it back to her son, suffering severe post-traumatic stress disorder to this day, and Adela never finds her daughter, continuing to perform, to coach upcoming ingenues, to generally find a reason to keep going every single day. Tempestad ends on a note of transformation, on an image of a silhouette that only grows in importance the more we remember what these women told us. That feels like hope enough—an image, if any, to tie the films of this decade, and those to come, together. Not that anyone would want to. —Dom Sinacola
Director: Patricio Guzmán
The goal for every great documentary is to, for at least one fleeting moment, glimpse the inconceivable. There’s no hyperbole in that statement, only recognition of ambition—relentless, endless and indelible, borne from some sort of need to find reasons for all of the incomprehensible chaos that surrounds us. And so director Patricio Guzmán created a spellbinding exploration of the Atacama Desert in Chile, where today astronomers from all over the world flock to fulfill their wildest researching dreams. Due to the renowned lack of moisture in the region, star-watching is almost effortless, and Guzmán acknowledges this, citing his own fascination with astronomy at a young age.
But this he takes even further: Astronomers are studying the ancient past, looking for clues to the origin of all reality in the light of galaxies emitted literally millions of years ago, but the Atacama is also perfect for another kind of archaeological excavation. Because of how dry it is, Atacama preserves so much—plant matter, primeval fish, even human remains—and so Guzmán shifts focus to the atrocities committed by the Pinochet dictatorship in the late ’70s and early ’80s, much of which happened in concentration camps located in the desert. And all these years later, a small group of women who lost loved ones still searches the desert for traces of the old grief they’ve suffered so long.
Guzmán offers no answers to the tragedies befallen the desert and the country—he only attempts to provide consolation through the regularity and awe of the act of searching itself. In that sense, most of the film’s heart is held in long, wandering shots of breathtaking galaxies interspersed with desert vistas, woven together with an almost intuitive grace. And when, in the film’s final moments, he brings these women to state-of-the-art observatories in order to, for once in their lives, look up from the desert floor, Nostalgia for the Light attains something nearly transcendent: the overwhelming feeling that we’re all much too small to matter, and that we’re all in this smallness together. —Dom Sinacola
Director: Steve James
Life Itself may tell the story of a remarkable life, but it’s at its most enlightening when dealing with death. Steve James’s documentary on Roger Ebert naturally chronicles its subject’s exploits, trials and triumphs as he became the most recognizable film critic in the United States. But it weaves his life story around footage shot during the last months of his life, as we see the effect his impairments and mortality have on him and his loved ones.
While the director’s best-known works, like Hoop Dreams and The Interrupters, mainly use location footage and naturalistic interviews shot by James himself, the historical segments of Life Itself take on a slick production quality that would be more closely associated with Ken Burns—complete with old photos and archival footage. While the movie jumps around chronologically, its contemporary footage is the pivot on which it all turns. But James is most at home while working with his own footage, and that’s where the movie really shines. Shooting began a few months before Ebert’s death, but no one knew that the end would come so soon. Ebert had been publicly battling cancer for several years, after all; surgeries and subsequent complications in 2006 left him with no jaw, nearly unrecognizable and unable to eat without tubes or speak without a computer. When James joins him, Ebert is doing even worse after breaking his hip. It’s fitting that Ebert often professed his love for documentaries that unfold in a way the filmmakers couldn’t have predicted when production began. He would have loved this one. —Jeremy Mathews
Director: Ross Lipman
Some movies are the happy accident of mismatched collaborators who, against the odds, produce a masterpiece forged in the fire of their creative clash. Then you have Film, a misbegotten 1965 avant-garde short put together by famed playwright Samuel Beckett and desperate-for-a-paycheck Buster Keaton. In the revelatory documentary Notfilm, director Ross Lipman excavates this little-remembered curio, talking to everyone from cinematographer Haskell Wexler to film historian Leonard Maltin to create a mosaic about celluloid, thwarted ambitions and the reasons why movies still enrapture us after so many years. This is a gift for film-lovers, even if you’re not a Film-lover. —Tim Grierson
Director: Laurie Anderson
Laurie Anderson and Lou Reed purchased their rat terrier Lolabelle from a mall store—a store supplied, no doubt, by a so-called puppy mill, where inbreeding and genetic neglect make for maximum puppy output at the cost of pretty much any functional ethical integrity. This Anderson describes in her lyrical documentary, Heart of a Dog, putting a fine point on it with a tracking shot of adorable baby dogs caged and crushed together, yipping and climbing over one another to find enough room to lay down. The legendary artistic couple—two people, we assume, who must have been attuned to the moral grey they’re wading into by giving money to a store which is totally cool with selling Costco-bulk creatures—were only giving one helpless puppy soul a better life. A better home. They freed Lolabelle. It was one small thing they could do: They gave this dog a better context.
It’s clear in Anderson’s documentary that she and Reed adored Lolabelle, especially in the context of Anderson’s ruminations on grief following Lolabelle’s death, but the more telling aspects of the film are all the ways in which Anderson treated Lolabelle like her own child. She opens the film by retelling a dream in which she forgoes all manner of medical malpractice to give birth to Lolabelle, forcing doctors to implant the full-grown dog, alive and well, into her uterus, to soon after be expelled. Then, too, there are the piano lessons, the recording sessions and performance gigs, the concerted effort to develop a language with the dog—if you aren’t a self-identified “dog person,” this will all translate as alien and obsessive. And yet, the most human of Lolabelle’s luxuries was the fact that Anderson shared with her dog a Buddhist teacher. They would work toward nirvana together.
Instead, Lolabelle moved faster, sprinting down the beach ahead of her owner into oblivion—arriving at the end of her life long before Anderson ever could. When she died she was at home; Anderson and Reed elected to, at the behest of their Buddhist teacher, allow Lolabelle to approach death on her own terms, and not, as their vet had advised, through the intercession of euthanasia. They gave their dog the freedom to confront death, then back away, then confront death again. She could finally go forward when she was ready. Heart of a Dog wallows in the grief that follows. And while Anderson steps aside frequently to muse on post-9/11 surveillance or anecdotes about her childhood, the film’s throughline is that grief: how to deal with it, how to live with it. How to, ultimately, control it.
Because the agony of our reality after 9/11 is that all illusions of control have been completely torn down. It’s what Anderson is talking about when she tells the story of Lolabelle’s encounter with a bird of prey in rural California: She saw the moment in her terrier’s eyes when the dog realized that death could come from the sky, from an entire “180 degrees” of heretofore un-inspected, unguarded space. There’s little more relevant to our ideas of mortality than the notion that every one of us, bipedal or avian or bellies-to-the-ground or whatever, is totally helpless in the face of an indifferent universe.
But control? We’ve got to take it for ourselves—we’ve got to embrace what little control we do have over these short lives of ours, and make it count. With that in mind, in the aftermath of Lolabelle’s death, Anderson’s Buddhist teacher coaches her toward something that at first seems like a paradox: “You should learn how to feel sad without actually being sad.”
The difference between “feeling” and “being” is one of control. To be sad is to exist, rudderless, in a state of misery that’s simply endured, but to feel sad—that’s to hold that sadness, to turn it in your hands, to trace its contours and understand it like a phrenologist treating an especially craggy noggin. Maybe the functional difference between the two doesn’t really matter—and maybe you aren’t into piddling over such semantics—but for Anderson (who in close succession lost her dog, her mom and her husband), the idea that she can take ownership of her sadness is a comfort when dealing with the incomprehensible forces of the universe she has no choice but to live with. —Dom Sinacola
Director: Jeff Malmberg
One night in 2000, Mark Hogencamp was beaten close to death by five men outside of a bar he frequented. No one really knew why it happened; after nine days in a coma, Hogencamp awoke with severe brain damage and little memory of life before. Unable to pay for intensive therapy, he slowly devised a world of his own to reconstruct in place of the one he’d lost: Marwencol, a World-War-II-era Belgian town made from 1/6th scale hobby sets and GI Joe/Barbie dolls. He populated the place with characters transposed from his life as he knew it—himself, friends and the men who attacked him. In order to find reason, and one assumes come to some sort of closure, Hogencamp—charmingly chain-smoking—acts out serialized plots in his little town, meticulously positioning tiny hands or dragging action figure vehicles down back country roads, all the while in thrall to every trivial detail within his control.
Marwencol explores Hogencamp’s imagination as he attempts to rediscover the identity he lost, following the man to New York when his photos of Marwencol are featured in Esopus magazine and shown in an art gallery. The trip proves to be the first time since the accident that Hogencamp’s left his rigorously controlled, excessively private life, and with that director Jeff Malmberg captures him finally getting a grip on the quietly slumbering truths that may have—somehow—brought him to that point. It’s a story rich in awakenings, about the precarious nature of identity and the surprises of spirit awaiting us, somewhere, out of our control, yet held deeply within. —Dom Sinacola
Director: Khalik Allah
When any advertising agency is commissioned to shoot a Jamaican tourism commercial, they’ll inevitably wend their way around to the same old hook: Bob Marley’s “One Love.” Come and visit Jamaica, the land of All Right! Everything’s all right, all the time here on the Jamrock! The ad people are just following the path most traveled (and perhaps even dictated by travel agencies and tourism boards), promoting Jamaica as a land of leisure and ease, where the sun shines, people smile, life is good, and no one wants for anything, especially spiritual assuaging. Advertising may sell audiences on a Jamaican ideal, but with his documentary, Black Mother, director Khalik Allah achieves a goal far greater: presenting audiences with the truth, however lovely or hideous it may be. Allah’s approach takes the form of a visual essay/tone poem. It’s a fractured piece of work, a story about Jamaica the way that Hale County This Morning, This Evening is a story of Alabama. Allah’s filmmaking functions as stream of consciousness. He eschews narrative documentarian traditions. This approach poses a challenge to the viewer—Black Mother is made in a language rarely spoken in cinema, be it multiplex or arthouse. Allah throws his audience into the ocean and forces them to tread water, soaking in the country’s textures and contradictions and trauma. Through his lens, Allah presents a nation decayed by oppression, whether political, social or even religious, and a people forced to do whatever they can to sustain themselves. That doesn’t mean Allah is committing poverty tourism. Instead, he’s a character in the film, made invisible by the tool of his trade. But he lets the people he meets tell their stories in their words, and anchors those words to truth through imagery. The effect of Black Mother’s technique—Allah shot on both 16mm and HD—is dizzying to the point of overwhelming, but the discipline required to engage with it is rewarded by a singular moviegoing experience. —Andy Crump
Director: Matthew Heineman
Director Matthew Heineman’s film opens at night, alongside masked men cooking meth in the Mexican desert: an up-close-and-personal vantage point that he maintains throughout Cartel Land. Shot with an assured attention to dramatic compositions and edited with a swiftness that generates uneasy, suspenseful momentum, Heineman’s documentary has the electricity of an adrenalized war film. Cartel Land is complex and harrowing, about drug gangs’ grip on Mexico (and the Mexican-American borderlands) as much as it is a portrait of the difficulties of grassroots revolutionary movements. In Michoacán, a Western Mexican state in the grip of the Templar Knights cartel, in response to his neighbors being gunned down and beheaded—an atrocity he photographed with his camera as proof of his enemies’ barbarism—Dr. José Mireles sought to fight back against his community’s oppressors by creating the Autodefensas, a vigilante group that took up arms against the cartels. Liberating one occupied town after another, the Autodefensas were a response to both the cartels and to the corrupt government with whom they were in league. Soon, a state-wide movement was afoot, with fed-up everyday citizens donning the Autodefensas’ uniform—a white t-shirt—and picking up machine guns to oppose an enemy that, as one woman horrifyingly recounts, has committed torture, murder, dismemberment and rape with narcotics-fueled glee.
Cartel Land’s depiction of Mireles’s efforts to expand Autodefensas’s reach, and then to keep the organization together, soon transforms the film into something more than just a snapshot of a particular conflict. As Mireles loses control of his outfit to criminal membership elements and fellow leaders intent on embracing the government’s efforts to integrate the group into a state-sanctioned unit, what emerges is a case study in the various ways in which virtuous independent movements are corrupted from within and co-opted from without. The film’s kinship with fictionalized genre cinema is furthered by the fact that the Autodefensas’s militiamen engage in regular daylight-street shootouts with gunmen, while cartel drug cooks (in an anecdote that suggests a real-life Breaking Bad) confess they learned their trade from a father-son duo who’d been brought in from America by their bosses. Eschewing narration and on-screen text in favor of interviews that serve to keep the story propelled ever-forward—and often taking up residence right beside, or over the shoulder of, its Autodefensas subjects—Cartel Land is the rare non-fiction work that routinely keeps one’s nerves on edge. —Nick Schager
Director: Andrew Dominik
Following the death of his son in 2016, Nick Cave went to work finishing an album of songs he’d mostly begun before that unfathomable loss, the bulk of which would make up Skeleton Tree, Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds’ 16th studio album. Given intimate access, director Andrew Dominik stages a series of live performances of the album’s songs in black-and-white 3D; Cave and his band and his family quietly flounder in the wake of the tragedy, doing their best to record, to work, to pull something from—or push something through—a vast nothingness. That Cave also offers voice over, as if he’s reading from a diary Dominik asked him to keep to chronicle his own relationship to having his trauma filmed, provides a fourth dimension to something otherwise ungraspable, Dominik struggling alongside his friend (and iconic musician) to witness pain in its many facets—to give shape, aided in part by cinematographer Benoit Debie, to grief. One could be forgiven for ever forgetting that sad songs only make up a portion of what Nick Cave writes: One listen to Skeleton Tree and the portents of his son’s accident sound undeniable. But Cave’s given to surprising thoughtfulness throughout his despair, musing about the elasticity of time, remembering musings later in the film and revising, clarifying revisions even later, always in a conversation with himself about how to narrativize his life, or how to refrain from that. He admits that there’s no way he can deny his lyrics spoke to truths to come—if that were the case, would it matter? Would the mass of his grief weigh any less? Dominik lets those questions linger; one climactic performance in color bears nothing but instant, ravishing relief, whether existential or metaphorical or aesthetic or what, a single key light a magnificent backdrop to the realization that Cave’s loss will not end with the film. His loss will persist, hanging over our heads, probably forever. Dominik literalizes that emptiness, crafting a concert doc of uncommon grace and insight. —Dom Sinacola
Director: Bill Morrison
For those who know the work of avant-garde documentary filmmaker Bill Morrison well, his latest (and, significantly, longest) opus, Dawson City: Frozen Time, may shock in how formally conventional it is. In essence, the film plays like a feature-length history lesson. That is hardly a criticism, though, when the history is as compelling as it is here. From its humble beginnings as a hunting and fishing village for a nomadic First Nation tribe, Dawson City rose briefly to prominence thanks to the Klondike Gold Rush of 1896, but then plummeted in renown once the rush ended in 1899 and prospectors migrated elsewhere, reducing its population from approximately 40,000 to about 1,000. 1896 was also the year that commercial cinema was basically invented, with the creation of film projectors and the development of movie theaters. These two threads eventually converged in a dilemma for Dawson City officials, as films that were shipped there for exhibition accumulated over time as studios rarely, if ever, asked them to be returned. While many of the prints—all of them made out of nitrate, highly flammable material—burned up in fires, others were simply dumped into the Yukon River, while 533 reels were stored in the basement of the Carnegie Library. In 1929, one official decided to move all those films in the Carnegie Library to a spot underneath a re-built hockey rink, thus unknowingly providing the permafrost cover necessary to ensure their survival and eventual rediscovery in 1978, even as the athletic center that housed the rink burned to the ground in 1951.
Morrison’s fascination with those surviving nitrate reels is certainly in keeping with his general fascination with film history, as evinced by his previous work. But Dawson City: Frozen Time also reminds us that Morrison has never been just a vintage-cinema enthusiast. The Miners’ Hymns, especially, coursed with a working-class empathy that came to the fore in its final section, with archival footage of coal miners marching into a church in union solidarity, illustrated with blazing brass fanfares in Jóhann Jóhannsson’s score. Similarly, Dawson City: Frozen Time isn’t just about film history, but also about the history of this particular town—especially its struggles to stay afloat after the Gold Rush ended—and how that history reflected the history of the world around it (artistic and economic luminaries ranging from Jack London and Fatty Arbuckle, to Sid Grauman and Daniel & Solomon Guggenheim are all noted as having passed through Dawson City in some way).
Ultimately, though, the heart of Morrison’s film lies in that unearthed nitrate footage, and what he shows of it is often astonishing. Clips of lost silent films are one thing, but images of Fatty Arbuckle playing Dawson City stages, and even footage of the crucial play that led to the 1919 Black Sox scandal are quite another. As impressively exhaustive as it is as a work of history, Dawson City: Frozen Time plays even more affectingly as Morrison’s most direct love letter to cinema: a tool not only for recording history, but also for capturing between-the-lines truths that history books can only graze. That nitrate footage unearthed below a hockey rink in Dawson City, on a broader level, stands as a testament to the potential of art to weather and endure the ravages of time. —Kenji Fujishima
Director: Kitty Green
An unlikely cross-section of humanity 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, drawing 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: 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 preceding 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.
They mount 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 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 in 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: Bing Liu
In a year rich with slice-of-life glimpses at pubescence in flux care of skateboard crews struggling with arrested development, Minding the Gap is undoubtedly the best of its cinematic ilk, 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 their friend Bing 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 is the 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 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, is 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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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: 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
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
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
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
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
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