The Best Documentaries on Hulu (Spring 2018)

Movies Lists Hulu
The Best Documentaries on Hulu (Spring 2018)

Hulu may not be known for its movie selection—let alone for its documentary library—but as Netflix continues to shed its non-original content, the TV streaming service and its similarly-minded peers (such as Amazon Prime, who shares a lot of these titles) reap the benefits of what Netflix loses. This means that Hulu features an idiosyncratic mix of recent critical darlings like Weiner, Whose Streets? and Step, some of the best documentaries of all time, and even Hulu originals, like Ron Howard’s Beatles documentary.

Not that we’re typically into shilling out praise for a streaming service owned by a faceless mega-corporation who continues to advertise with FOX News (and Sean Hannity in particular), but Hulu also has a lot of great stuff to offer in the wake of Netflix’s resilience when it comes to dumping half their library every month.

Here are the 50 best documentaries on Hulu right now:

the-kill-team.jpg50. The Kill Team
Year: 2014
Director: Daniel Krauss
The Kill Team, winner of the Best Documentary Feature at the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival, focuses on one of the more incendiary stories of the Afghan War theater, in which members of an American unit were accused of deliberately targeting and killing innocent civilians, all for simply the thrill of the kill. Directed by Daniel Krauss, Oscar-nominated for his short The Death of Kevin Carter, the film unfolds chiefly through the perspective of Adam Winfield and his parents, Christopher and Emma. When, in early 2010, 21-year-old Winfield heard about and witnessed members of his platoon murdering innocent civilians—planting so-called “drop weapons” on the corpses to make it appear as though they were terrorists—he reached out to his father by instant message, unnerved by these heinous war crimes. Left on his own and with threats against his life by the commanding officer, Staff Sergeant Calvin Gibbs (who was at the center of these actions), Winfield would find himself drawn into a moral abyss, eventually forced, in May of that year, to make a split-second decision. When the platoon’s actions were later discovered, Winfield was among five charged with premeditated murder in a military court. (Six more would be charged with participating in a cover-up.) The Kill Team is certainly bracing in its forthrightness. With extraordinary access to the key individuals involved in the case—including the candid confessions of two other members of the so-called “Kill Team,” Jeremy Warlock and Andrew Holmes—Krauss’ briskly paced film takes a thought-provoking look at one of the types of stories of war that is so frequently forgotten once the first wave of stateside civilian outrage dissipates after a couple of news cycles. —Brent Simon

birthright.jpg49. Birthright: A War Story
Year: 2017
Director: Civia Tamarkin
Birthright: A War Story refocuses attention from what many people probably believe is the entirety, or at least the main component, of the “debate” over abortion legality: the rather philosophical one over the “personhood” of a fetus and at what point we transit from being a clump of cells to a person with legal rights. What Birthright clarifies deftly and chillingly is that the “personhood” conversation is the tip of a really terrifying iceberg. Criminalizing abortion leads to a loss of the medical knowledge of how to perform one safely, which can lead to maternal death. The strength of Birthright: A War Story is the spotlight it places on what’s really at stake in this exceedingly misguided debate. “A woman’s right to choose” means much, much more than the right to choose whether to terminate a pregnancy. This documentary is distinctly polemical—every woman on camera is a victim of the system and every “pro-lifer” is a wingnut—and ultimately it would have strengthened the film’s message to balance things a bit more, but that doesn’t make its message any less important. Imagine having a miscarriage—which, if you have never had one, is a crushing experience—and being unable to see your doctor because it might prompt social workers or even police officers to start digging through your trash to see if there were any beer bottles in there and charging you with felony child endangerment if there were. Imagine dying of sepsis because your OBGYN would lose her license for treating you. Imagine missing life-threatening conditions because you can’t get blood drawn without the results being available to law enforcement. These things aren’t crazy imaginary scenarios. Don’t watch this documentary expecting an artistic masterpiece. Do watch it if you want to understand what we’re really talking about when we talk about overturning Roe v. Wade. —Amy Glynn

manny.jpg48. Manny
Year: 2014
Directors: Leon Gast, Ryan Moore
Manny follows the life of famed Filipino boxer Manny Pacquiao. It’s a beautiful story that plays like a feature film, with a role that Pacquiao himself would probably want to play. Coming from humble beginnings, we see the man rise to being the most famous face in the Philippines, but we also see an ego that extends beyond the world of boxing. His attempt at recording an album is embarrassing, as is his acting in several films. His foray into politics has been met with mixed results, and in 2014 he announced that he would be coach and player on a Filipino basketball team. Yet, the film shows Manny’s ability to laugh at his mistakes and smile through the difficulties. —Tim Basham

we-are-x.jpg47. We Are X
Year: 2016
Director: Stephen Kijak
They’ve sold 30 million albums over three decades. Their fans faint and cry at the mere sight of their long spiked hair. Influencing countless bands and selling out stadiums around the world, including the Tokyo Dome 18 times (which seats over 55,000 people), X Japan is one of Japan’s most important bands of all time, and you probably haven’t heard of them if you live in the States. Formed in the ’80s by two troubled teens, the band built up its fan base as well as its member count by presenting a new look and sound to the Japanese public. Pioneers in the Visual Kei movement (a mixed look of glam, punk and heavy metal, with a dash of androgyny and a speed metal sound), the band inspired a movement, but their inability to break out in the United States has been a sore spot for the group. Finally, a chance for this to change arises with their first performance at Madison Square Garden. This is where Stephen Kijak’s documentary We Are X starts, but where it goes? Chronicling the band’s meager beginnings to their domination of the Japanese market, the story is anything but straightforward. Kijak weaves multiple narratives and unexpected twists together beautifully, even subtly, allowing the viewer to see the world of X Japan through the eyes of its front man, Yoshiki. This is all real, and it gets weird. —Joshua Wilmott

grim-sleeper.jpg46. Tales of the Grim Sleeper
Year: 2014
Director: Nick Broomfield
Filmmaker Nick Broomfield should have had plenty of source material to work with here, as the “Grim Sleeper” did his thing for a quarter century before finally being apprehended. But because his victims were doing their thing too—trying to feed their bodies, and often their addictions, by walking the streets of South Central LA—few people noticed or cared when they disappeared. There was no interest from the media at the time, and not much more from law enforcement. Broomfield’s film, made for HBO, says as much about society’s dehumanization of these women as it does about the inhuman acts perpetrated against them. —Allison Gorman

whitey.jpg45. Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger
Year: 2014
Director: Joe Berlinger
Acclaimed filmmaker Joe Berlinger (Brother’s Keeper and Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills) turns his focus on the trial of the infamous Boston mobster. Bulger was a fugitive for 16 years, with 12 of those years on the FBI’s Most Wanted List before finally being nabbed in Santa Monica, Calif., in 2011. We hear directly from the former crime boss of the Winter Hill gang, who contends he was never an FBI informant, contradicting the official record. Boston critics weighed in that, pleased to have such access to his subject, Berlinger never really challenges Bulger on his claims. But it’s still a fascinating portrait of one of the most colorful and memorable criminals in American history. The Hollywood counterpart, Black Mass, starred a nearly unrecognizable Johnny Depp as the ruthless mobster. —Sharon Knolle

the-summit.jpg44. The Summit
Year: 2013
Director: Nick Ryan
K2 might be overshadowed—in terms of height and the publicity it receives—by Everest, but many consider it an even bigger challenge. Traffic jams on the way to the summit can and do occur, and the results can range from frustratingly tedious to deadly. In 2008, a series of events unfolded on the mountain resulting in 11 deaths, one of the worst mountaineering disasters in recent history. Nick Ryan’s documentary, The Summit, attempts to dissect and explain what happened in painstaking detail through interviews with survivors, vividly shot recreations, and chilling footage from climbers who were on the mountain at the time. The descent is often the most dangerous part of any climb, and this proved especially true over a few days in August 2008. Twenty-two climbers set out for K2’s peak from Camp IV (at about 8,000 meters) in perfect conditions, but almost immediately a problem arose when a passage became clogged with people moving too slowly. This occurred in the “death zone,” the area on a mountain above 26,000 feet where the lack of oxygen can easily lead to disorientation, and where fatalities are most common. Ryan seamlessly blends together recreations shot in Switzerland with actual footage from the mountain, and intersperses fascinating and, at times, heart-wrenching interviews. Despite all of the tragedy and death that occurred on that dark August night in the death zone, there are moments when the viewer can get caught up in what drives someone to conquer a mountain like K2. When the image of the perfectly pointed peak shadowing the horizon across the Pakistani border into China appears on screen, shot on a climber’s video camera from the summit, one can understand, to at least some extent, what sends someone up the mountain. And if you enjoy mountain-climbing drama, Kevin McDonald’s Touching the Void is also worth watching on Netflix.Jonah Flicker

seymour-intro.jpg43. Seymour: An Introduction
You could be excused for assuming that the documentary Seymour: An Introduction was just a vanity project for director Ethan Hawke, who has the means and the name to engage in such thing. But if you assumed that, you’d be missing quite a powerful film. Hawke first met composer, pianist and piano teacher Seymour Bernstein at a dinner party, and was immediately taken with him, as viewers will be, as well. As he began spending more time with the octogenarian, he became more and more taken not only with his life story, but also with his views of art and of life well lived. Seymour: An Introduction turns out to be part biopic, part artistic musing and part late-night “meaning of life” discussion, and Hawke shows a deft touch in balancing the three. He takes a remarkable individual who’s influenced his life and thinking, and shares him with the rest of us. It’s a generous—and a moving—piece of filmmaking. —Michael Dunaway

the-cove.jpg42. The Cove
Year: 2009
Director: Louie Psihoyos
With all the immediacy and excitement of the best action movies, The Cove follows along as animal rights activists undertake a covert mission to save dolphins being captured and abused in the seaside town of Taiji, Japan. The documentary doesn’t just uncover the inhumane treatment of highly intelligent mammals, but it also reveals the real dangers faced by activists around the globe trying to shine a light on institutionalized injustice. Directed by Louie Psihoyos, The Cove won the 2009 Academy Award for Best Documentary. —Allison Gorman

where-to-invade.jpg41. Where To Invade Next
Year: 2016
Director: Michael Moore
Where To Invade Next works like a Frankenstein’s Monster of Michael Moore’s favorite themes, making it a nice, if redundant, stroll down memory lane. As he travels from country to country with the express purpose of stealing their “best parts,” familiar issues like universal healthcare and affordable education become Exhibits A through Z about how to make America a better place. Released at a time when America, steeped in toxic cynicism, is in a stranglehold with race, violence and poverty, Where To Invade Next still retains its relevance even when it’s actively slight—or just plain bad. Filled with winking, easy jokes which skirt racist stereotypes and beset by a fluffy glibness, the film often hobbles itself with its own intentions instead of letting the undeniably powerful subtext breathe. Still, as compared to previous Moore entries: Change doesn’t seem quite so impossible. In the last decade, America has made small but necessary strides in LGBT rights, gun control, mental illness awareness and the fundamental dignity of human beings. Who’s to say we can’t keep going? —Michael Snydel

do-i-sound-gay.jpg40. Do I Sound Gay?
Year: 2014
Director: David Thorpe
“That’s so gay” has become a rather colloquial—albeit still offensive—phrase in American culture. But outside of its discriminatory undertones lies the crux of an interesting debate: Are there actual, distinguishable gay traits? That question drives David Thorpe’s 2014 documentary, Do I Sound Gay? Starting with the premise of the “gay voice,” or a specific tonal inflection commonly associated with people in the gay community, Thorpe explores the ways nature versus nurture versus stereotype helps form the gay identity. The writer-director tackles how things like misogyny, masculinity and bullying result in internalized homophobia and code-switching, which then impact how gay men present themselves. The biographical-meets-analytical series of conversations allows its subjects and viewers the chance to explore both the more organic and culturally constructed perceptions of what it means to be gay. Thorpe approaches a rather heady conversation with intent, but also cleverness and ease, making Do I Sound Gay? an engaging look at where the literal and metaphorical gay voice comes from. —Abbey White

the-challenge.jpg39. The Challenge
Year: 2017
Director: Yuri Ancarani
The Challenge lives up to its title in more ways than one. Literally, Yuri Ancarani’s documentary is about a falcon tournament held in a desert in Qatar, in which Qatari sheikhs gather to participate in hunting competitions and bird auctions. But on an aesthetic level, Ancarani issues a challenge of his own: The Challenge eschews a standard informational talking-heads style in favor of a fly-on-the-wall approach, at times recalling Frederick Wiseman in his deliberate forsaking of context. Only, Ancarani’s film feels nothing like those of Wiseman. Instead, with its impeccably framed wide compositions, immersive long takes, and a cross-cutting narrative style that touches on the work of Matthew Barney—or, in a considerably more mainstream vein, Christopher Nolan—The Challenge feels like avant-garde art more than anything else. Ancarani, an Italian filmmaker and video artist, may be an unapologetic aesthete in his gaze, but in The Challenge he rarely allows visual beauty to overwhelm genuine anthropological fascination. Though the film isn’t exactly chock full of dialogue, the bits of conversation we do see and hear demonstrate, among other things, the reverence with which these upper-crust Arabs regard falcons and falconry. The Challenge is a genuine pleasure just to simply sit back and watch. The cinematography, which Ancarani did with Luca Nervegna and Jonathan Ricquebourg, frequently takes the breath away with its majestic desert landscapes, as does the lush (if perhaps a tad over-assertive) orchestral score by Lorenzo Senni and Francesco Fantini—used sparingly, but packing an indubitable punch when it pops up on the soundtrack, by turns excitable and contemplative. The Challenge’s biggest coup, though, comes with the literal bird’s eye view footage it includes. It’s an enthralling way to end a consistently stimulating film, keeping us aloft before, as the falcon finally catches its prey, sending us back down to earth. —Kenji Fujishima

american-teen.jpg38. American Teen
Year: 2008
Director: Nanette Burstein
A teen’s fate changes from minute to minute, text message to text message, and nothing illustrates this fast and fickle phenomenon better than the shifting skin conditions of a nerd: One minute a veritable lunar landscape, the next a blessedly and surprisingly clear expanse, if a little shiny. You’re cool; then you’re not. You’re hopelessly in love; then you’re not. You’re feuding with a friend; then you’re not. You’re filled with inconsolable rage and a need for revenge; then a day later you’re ready to forgive yourself or someone else. Documentary filmmaker Nanette Burstein skillfully and artfully captures this speedy and perpetual shifting of fortunes for four archetypal teenagers—the nerd, the jock, the popular girl and the artsy outsider—in American Teen, a documentary that is at once MTV slick and earnestly warm. Though the territory tread here is not new, Burstein manages some special feats: Her cameras are somehow present for these kids’ most raw and defining moments, and she manages to very quickly make us care for every character, no matter how flawed, self-absorbed or downright mean. The kids, who at first seemed so aware of the cameras, and maybe even emboldened by them, soon appeared to forget all about them—a skill perhaps acquired by a generation raised on reality television and somehow accustomed, or welcoming, to cameras in their faces. American Teen focuses on a Breakfast Club-like assortment of 17-year-olds at a high school in central Indiana: Colin, the basketball player who’ll end up in the Army if he doesn’t get a sports scholarship; Hannah, the loveable art-geek who pulls a Pretty in Pink and dates a popular boy; Megan, the popular girl whose mean streak stems from a family tragedy; and Jake, the band nerd who is often invisible at school but occasionally gets the girl. Missing is diversity of race, and—more surprisingly—the somewhat newer crop of teenage archetypes: the bulimic, the self-cutter, the super-slut, the Ritalin addict, the potential school shooter. But American Teen is stronger without calamitous characters, whose traumas might’ve overpowered the film, desensitizing the audience and leaving little room for the important nuances of love, conformity, friendship, heartbreak and yearning. That—plus the cartoon-animated dreams and nightmares of these teens—makes the film resonate. —Christine Van Dusen

place-table.jpg37. A Place at the Table
Year: 2013
Directors: Kristi Jacobson, Lori Silverbush
The dark side to all those choices we face at an American supermarket and why a nation should be ashamed is featured in the poverty documentary A Place at the Table. Directed by Lori Silverbush and Kristi Jacobson, A Place at the Table opens brilliantly, quickly tackling possible stereotypes by featuring Rosie, a white fifth grader in Colorado who has to depend on charity from friends and neighbors to have enough to eat. Not only does she have to deal with a growling tummy, but she has to deal with failing grades caused by that growling tummy. Her teacher, herself a part of the hunger cycle in the past, tries to help and has some success. The problem is we learn there’s millions of Rosies out there. How many? Try 1 in 4 American children. It turns out that hunger in the U.S. doesn’t stop with children, although they are a significant part of the nearly 50 million who are undernourished or don’t know where their next meal comes from. A Place at the Table doesn’t just show a collection of families struggling with hunger; it also shows how they band together with others to spur action from politicians. However, as with most issues, politicians have the uncanny ability to turn victory into defeat. The film doesn’t go too deep into the government’s perpetually failed policies regarding the agribusiness machine. (For that, check out Food Inc.) Nevertheless, A Place at the Table does educate the audience on how food can be in short supply in a land of record obesity, and on the harm that scarcity causes to this and future generations. —Billy Tatum

rsz_last_days.jpg36. Last Days Here
Year: 2011
Directors: Don Argott and Demian Fenton
During the mid-1970s, a doom metal band influenced by the likes of Black Sabbath emerged onto the scene. Although the group never achieved commercial success, their music has been influential to artists such as Hank Williams III and Phil Anselmo, in addition to maintaining an underground fan base. Last Days Here follows the frontman of the metal band Pentagram, Bobby Liebling, and his struggle to shake drugs and finally get his due respect. Leibling’s first appearance in the doc serves as unsettling proof that you can survive as a drug addict, but you won’t be doing anything that resembles living. The singer’s road to recovery is certainly a bumpy ride, but throughout the documentary, viewers can see the fire of redemption shine in Liebling’s eyes. He may have missed his initial break in the ’70s, but second chances are real. And it’s certainly impressive what can be accomplished when one has the power of rock ‘n’ roll on their side. —Shawn Christ

diana-vreeland.jpg35. Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel
Year: 2006
Director: Lisa Immordino Vreeland
For someone who was the editor-in-chief of Vogue for nearly a decade, it’s amazing how well Diana (dee-yahhh-na) Vreeland lived out the philosophy that the best things in life are free. In Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel, a dazzling fashion documentary directed and produced by her granddaughter-in-law, Lisa Immordino Vreeland, Diana’s legacy is shown to have more to do with imagination, personality and a bit of lunacy than with anything sold on her pages. Lisa was prepared to discover a different side to Diana other than her eccentricity and hyperbolically glamorous fashion spreads (think models in couture gowns scaling the sides of Russian cathedrals). But what she didn’t expect was how open Diana was to other people and ideas from low culture as well as high. In a flurry of nearly 30 interviews laced throughout the film, fashion bigwigs like Manolo Blahnik and Diane Von Furstenberg, as well as former employees and family members who knew her on a more quotidian level, recount her inordinate amount of creative vision and the power she had to inspire others. The film hops, skips and jumps through blips in Diana’s childhood and highlights of her career, but Lisa has a knack for tying things together. Diana’s role in creating the fashions of the ’60s with the likes of Twiggy, Lauren Hutton and blue jeans reflects her love for the freedom of the ’20s, when she used to spend nights dancing in Harlem and gallivanting through Paris. It can be hard to keep up at points—not with the plot, but with the amount of inspiration that Diana can still strew over an audience. The film is as much a tribute as a documentary. The Rolling Stones’ “She’s a Rainbow” plays through the opening credits. In hindsight, the choice a pretty appropriate for someone whose life arched over the fashion industry: a colorful constant that never failed to amaze. —Gabrielle Lipton

cocaine-cowboys.jpg34. Cocaine Cowboys
Year: 2006
Director: Billy Corben
Cocaine Cowboys is a stimulating head rush of a documentary, diagramming the surreal and vicious history behind Miami’s notorious drug wars during the ’70s and ’80s. Director Billy Corben constructs a hyperactive slideshow of neon glitz and harrowing interview footage, packing grainy, hand-held police video around direct accounts of some of the most infamous movers behind the trafficking. Corben focuses on three main characters in the film; playboy distributor Jon Pernell Roberts, crafty smuggler Mickey Munday and remorseless hit man Jorge “Rivi” Ayala. The first two deliver rags-to-riches tales of their makeshift entrepreneurship as they pioneer cocaine deliveries from Columbia to U.S. shores. The real star, though, is Ayala, who nonchalantly recounts his contract-killing spree with the affable demeanor of a family member reminiscing at the dinner table. The footage moves disturbingly fast for a nonfiction film, injecting the audience into the tumultuous era’s strung-out decadence and anxiety with an authenticity the History Channel rarely achieves. —Sean Edgar

dirty-wars.jpg33. Dirty Wars
Year: 2013
Director: Richard Rowley
With a story that’s every bit as riveting as an episode of Homeland, director Richard Rowley’s cameras follow war journalist Jeremy Scahill in his pursuit of the truth about an American special forces/anti-terrorist military group apparently performing raids that are illegal, not to mention immoral, in foreign countries. Even though he serves as narrator, Scahill is more than an observer as he deals with veiled threats to his safety while he continues to appear on broadcast news networks and in front of investigating panels. It’s an incredibly revealing, and terrifying, story of our military’s poisonous underbelly—a story that most of America knows nothing about. —Tim Basham

leonard-cohen-im-your-man.jpg32. Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man
Year: 2005
Director: Liam Lunson
Even in his final years, Leonard Cohen drew a wider range of fans than a grey-haired troubadour in patent-leather shoes might rightly have expected to, and Lian Lunson’s documentary provides ample reasons why. Leonard Cohen I’m Your Man is a loving tribute, both a concert film shot in Sydney and a series of interviews with Cohen himself. Cohen’s life may be too eventful to summarize with brief anecdotes or burnish with fawning praise, but if someone’s going to wax poetic about him, it may as well be the articulate, sincere musicians in this film. Instead of mapping the many turns of Cohen’s journey, Lunson gives us his songs, reinterpreted in front of an audience by his famous fans like Rufus Wainwright and Nick Cave and beautifully recorded with Cohen’s poetry out front. The self-indulgent performances typical of a tribute are few, trounced by a number of knockout renditions from artists who both honor the songs and make them their own. Wainwright performs three songs. When he sings “Everybody Knows,” the fan who wishes for a more complete look at Cohen’s life may have to admit that the journey’s essence is in the music. The movie closes with the one number sung by the reclusive songwriter himself. It’s not live, and a lip-synched performance done for the cameras is an odd finale for a concert film, but it’s still a kick to see Cohen singing “Tower of Song” with U2 as his backup. Lunson aptly positions the band on a tiny stage with a glittering mylar background, like they’re in somebody’s basement lounge, a setting as classy, poetic and funny as the man himself. —Robert Davis

page-one.jpg31. Page One: Inside the New York Times
Year: 2011
Director: Andrew Rossi
The always entertaining New York Times reporter David Carr could easily have been the focus of the entire documentary about the process of putting the Grey Lady’s news pages together, but director Andrew Rossi smartly uses Carr as an appropriate voice of experience, albeit an unabashed defender of the paper. The grizzled, ex-drug-addict journalist who died in 2015 was a film editor’s dream as he spoke in sharp, insightful and seemingly effortless sound bites. “If you work for the media long enough,” says Carr, “eventually you’ll type yourself back to your own doorstep.” —Tim Basham

tabloid.jpg30. Tabloid
Year: 2010
Director: Errol Morris
Since his breakthrough feature, 1988’s The Thin Blue Line, every one of Errol Morris’ features has essentially been about searching for the truth. It’s been a wide-ranging exploration, one that’s been equally fruitful delving into the mysteries of the universe and displacing common beliefs about Vietnam. With Tabloid, Morris continues probing into this theme, but here he’s found a case in which everyone is lying and the truth itself may be unobtainable—which is likely why its story fascinated him so much. —Sean Gandert

Enron.jpg29. Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room
Year: 2005
Director: Alex Gibney
In a cautionary tale of corporate greed, negligence and diffusion of responsibility, the leaders of Enron defrauded employees and investors out of millions, encouraging others to stay aboard a sinking ship while they were quietly bailing themselves out. Among the highlights of Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room is Alex Gibney’s montage that cross-cuts footage of Stanley Milgram’s 1961 social experiment with images of the chaos caused by Enron in the 2000 California energy crisis, narrated by phone calls between ruthlessly jovial Enron traders, all set to Los Straightjackets’ “California Sun.” The unexpected wit and verve with which this documentary tells its infuriating tale is what sets it apart. —Emily Riemer

ai-weiwei-never.jpg28. Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry
Director: Alison Klayman
Year: 2012
Alison Klayman’s loving portrait of China’s dissident artist Ai Weiwei may strike some as hagiographic—but how can it not be? This is a man who would be a major artist no matter what his national origin. Yet both his art and his story are made infinitely more fascinating by the incredible courage and steadfastness he shows in openly defying and mocking one of the most evil regimes on Earth. He’s smarter than them; he’s more talented than them; he’s more charismatic and popular. But of course: They have the guns. That the fight seems evenly matched may be the greatest tribute of all. —Michael Dunaway

no-place-on-earth.jpg27. No Place on Earth
Year: 2013
Director: Janet Tobias
In 1993, American cave enthusiast Chris Nicola traveled to Western Ukraine for two purposes—to learn more about his ancestral roots and to explore the Gypsum Giant cave system that is home to some of the world’s largest horizontal caverns. When Nicola stumbled onto some miscellaneous artifacts—a key, a comb, a woman’s shoe—he also stumbled onto a much shrouded and forgotten piece of World War II history. In No Place on Earth, director Janet Tobias explores this profound discovery, shedding light on a incredible story of endurance. In 1942, several Jewish families fled their homes near the Nazi-occupied town of Bilche Zolote, seeking shelter in nearby Verteba Cave. Upon being discovered by the Germans, several members of the subterranean community were captured and executed. Those who evaded detection or escaped capture quickly found a new home in Priest’s Grotto, a larger, more remote cave further from town. Thirty-eight people descended into Priest’s Grotto, staying in hiding for a total of 511 days between the two caves. Some of the exiles stayed underground for 344 consecutive days, marking the longest known cave habitation in recorded history. Tobias’ engrossing picture moves along much more quickly than a chronicle of a year-and-a-half underground in hiding seems it should. Once we move past rugged New Yawker Chris Nicola’s account of his discovery and into the reenactment of the Jewish community’s descent and time underground, the film opens up into a beautifully portrayed narrative of survival. Thanks to some stunning photography and the vivid memories of our intrepid narrators, No Place on Earth transports us deep down into the earth—illuminating an important shred of living history. —Cameron McAllister

thunder-soul.jpg26. Thunder Soul
Year: 2010
Director: Mark Landsman
During the early ’70s, there was a group in Houston that was acclaimed by some as the greatest funk band in the world. Amazingly enough, it was made up of high-school students, the Kashmere High School Stage Band. After 35 years, alumni return to give legendary band director Conrad “Prof” Johnson one more concert as he nears the end of his life. Mr. Holland’s Opus meets The Commitments, but real. —Michael Dunaway

48-Netflix-Docs_2015-source-family.jpg25. The Punk Singer
Year: 2013
Director: Sini Anderson
The Punk Singer’s watchability is a testament to how important and necessary Kathleen Hanna was—and is—to music, to the relationship between women and music, to third wave feminism, and to riotgrrrl. Sini Anderson’s film is not so much a documentary as it is a tribute video, an hour-plus love letter to Hanna that features a lot of friends and fellow artists essentially saying the same things over and over. The Punk Singer certainly isn’t a holistic history of riotgrrrl, or even of Hanna’s place within that movement, since the (white) commentators within the film studiously ignore the problems that a movement which frequently invoked intersectionality had with race, class, ability, and gender dissidence. Still, this doc does do a solid job of exploring the way these women responded to Hanna and saw her as an embodiment of riotgrrrl physicality and personality. While The Punk Singer won’t tell you what riotgrrrl was, or what context it existed in, or what its limitations might have been, the film is a wonderful exploration of Hanna’s innate charisma. And though it may read like a video package for a lifetime achievement award, it’s the best possible version of that for a formidable artist who deserves such treatment. —Mark Abraham

dancing-in-jaffa.jpg24. Dancing in Jaffa
Year: 2014
Director: Hilla Medalia
It would be impossible for a single documentary to capture and explain all that has occurred in conflict areas in the Middle East. However, award-winning Dancing in Jaffa director Hilla Medalia goes in through the side door, using children’s ballroom dancing classes in Israel as a lens through which to understand the complex political, religious, and racial issues that still prevail. Following renowned ballroom dancer Pierre Dulaine, Dancing in Jaffa falls into many narratives categories, as a film about the healing power of art, the resilience of the young, and one amazing teacher who transforms a community. That it is a true story, makes it all the more incredible. Pierre Dulaine returns to his hometown of Jaffa, Israel, for the first time in decades to accomplish the impossible. In an area still rife with conflict, hatred and protests, he wants to bring Palestinian and Jewish children together for a ballroom dance competition. Even those of us who believe that art can change a young person’s life will be astounded at the visible effects of Dulaine’s work. But the film also paints an honest portrait of the long journey, and there are many troubling moments. War and violence is a fairly common subject in the schools, and the division between the Israeli-Palestinians and the Jews is very real. Children learn from their parents and from school administrators to distrust the “other” side. It is Dulaine who comes in and tries to create trust through dance, but this is beyond difficult, and he is not always successful. And just as the children are discussing war in the classroom—and appear to be of a world and time so outside of our own—one of them cracks a Justin Bieber joke, and it becomes clear that this is a contemporary story. And so the message of Dancing in Jaffa is twofold—at this very moment we should know that there are people fighting a war; and at this very moment we should also know that there are others dancing for peace. —Shannon M. Houston

i-am-divine.jpg23. I Am Divine
Year: 2014
Director: Jeffrey Schwarz
Jeffrey Schwarz’s I Am Divine covers the life of Divine (born Harris Glenn Milstead) from his early childhood in conservative Baltimore through his rise to fame as the “most beautiful woman in the world.” As I watched the documentary unfold, all my opinions and preconceived notions about Divine slowly vanished. What Schwarz uncovers in his movie—or at least, what he illuminates—is how kind, quiet and generous Milstead was, despite his outrageous alter ego. Through a series of interviews with former collaborators, friends and family, Schwarz helps paint a picture of an extraordinary boy who lived so far outside what was considered “normal,” he had no choice but to blaze his own trail. The story of Divine is intertwined with the story of the Dreamlanders—Divine’s adopted family. This was a group of people who, like Divine, joined forces to create a safe space to express who they were without fear of judgement from the rest of the world. I Am Divine leaves one with was a sense that all things are possible. After all, John Waters and Divine—without experience, without contacts, without money—accomplished what Hollywood continually fails to do. They created iconic, timeless movies that are as powerful now as they were in the 1970s. —Leland Montgomery

client-9.jpg22. Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer
Year: 2010
Director: Alex Gibney
The prolific Alex Gibney released four major documentary features in 2010, but Client 9 was his tightest, his most personal and his best. Gibney has great sympathy for Eliot Spitzer—the former New York Governor who resigned amid a prostitution scandal in 2008—and great anger at the powers that brought him down, but his impatience at the weakness Spitzer exhibited in making that fall possible is evident. As with most of Gibney’s films, expect a sharp intellect, crisp photography, brilliant use of music and a strong viewpoint. —Michael Dunaway

burden.jpg21. Burden
Year: 2017
Directors: Timothy Marrinan, Richard Dewey
In Los Angeles—the city where he lived much of his life until his death in 2015 at the age of 69—Chris Burden is closely identified with Urban Light, a majestic collection of light poles displayed outside the Los Angeles County Museum of Art that’s quickly becoming one of the metropolis’s most photographed locations. Many who visit Urban Light for selfies, engagement photos or a place to wow out-of-town guests have little idea that, just a few decades ago, Burden was among modern art’s most combative practitioners, eliciting visceral responses from violent avant-garde projects which featured, say, having a friend shoot him in the arm at close range. How Burden went from provocateur to beloved cultural institution is one of the compelling threads in a documentary that goes beyond greatest-hits regurgitation, seeking an emotional through-line for a remarkable life. Burden doesn’t reach the heights of definitive artist portraits like Crumb, but it’s frequently inquisitive and nuanced, showing us where the man faltered even when the work captivated. Making their feature-length debut, directors Timothy Marrinan and Richard Dewey do a superb job of suggesting what drove Burden to craft such combative works without trying to psychoanalyze the man. Marrinan and Dewey spent some time interviewing Burden in his later years as he lived in happy seclusion in the hills just north of Los Angeles. Without trying to explain why, the movie presents us with a Burden who softened with age—the indecipherable half-smile still evident, though. His recent installations, including 2008’s Urban Light, don’t provoke, but they’re equally engrossing, Burden as per norm encouraging the observer to feel connected to what he sees. That the same man could have made such different pieces is a riddle Burden has the good sense not to entangle. Better, as always, to let the work speak for itself. —Tim Grierson

project-nim.jpg20. Project Nim
Year: 2011
Director: James Marsh
In Man on Wire, director James Marsh recounted French tightrope walker Philippe Petit’s exploits, most notably his unauthorized 1974 walk between the Twin Towers that held most of the city of New York breathless for an entire morning. In Project Nim, a team of researchers (only one year earlier, in 1973) sets out to accomplish an even more audacious and thrilling goal—to teach a chimpanzee human sign language and initiate meaningful dialogue. Technically the film is flawless. But the really compelling angle for the film is the very idea of inter-species communication.—Michael Dunaway

pina.jpg19. Pina
Year: 2011
Director: Wim Wenders
Wenders’ film demonstrates how Pina Bausch’s attitude and vision toward dance and choreography transcended the theater, how she saw dance in everything, and everything as dance. Bausch once said that in order to dance, “Everyone must have the freedom, without inhibitions, to show everything.” Although the audience might not always understand the precise story behind her choreography, the emotions that lie beneath it are palpable and unwavering, whether boundlessly happy or intolerably sad. Ultimately, Bausch’s choreography is relatable because it draws from life, from day-to-day experiences and emotions with which we are all familiar. Seeing this art reintroduced back into the life it mimics and enhances is a breathtaking spectacle: Pina is an effusion of all the emotions, good and bad, that shape our daily lives and make us human, but most of all, it is a haunting and beautiful elegy to a woman who changed the world’s conception of dance. —Emily Kirkpatrick

into-the-abyss.jpg18. Into the Abyss
Year: 2011
Director: Werner Herzog
Like all Herzog’s work, this film looks far beyond a single idea and, despite a transparent agenda, never sermonizes. Herzog merely puts his belief that capital punishment is wrong to the test, examining it from several angles. In typical Herzog fashion, he explores his subject through conversations between the filmmaker, whom we of course never see, and a plethora of related interviewees. Because it avoids didactic narration and biased statistics, this approach feels honest and reliable and, thus, humanistic. —David Roark

47-Netflix-Docs_2015-queen-versailles.jpg17. The Queen of Versailles
Year: 2012
Director: Lauren Greenfield
Lauren Greenfield only meant to take a few pictures of a very wealthy family in the midst of all their opulence. Her subjects were the Siegels—the self-made billionaire, the trophy wife, the eight not-as-maladjusted-as-you-might-think children, the monochromatic menagerie of animals. But once the family began opening up about their lives, the woman behind the camera decided to stick around a little while longer, positing that there might be more to this story than just infinity symbols for account balances. Her perseverance resulted in an alternately hilarious and heart-wrenchingly cautionary tale about the excesses of the American dream. —Tyler Chase

the-flat.jpg16. The Flat
Year: 2012
Director: Arnon Goldfinger
When Arnon Goldfinger’s grandmother Gerda passes away, he’s left with the task of cleaning out her flat in Tel Aviv. A Jewish couple who moved from Berlin on the eve of the World War II for obvious reasons, Gerda Tuchler and her husband, Kurt, filled their apartment with enough German novels, furniture and knick-knacks to disorient any houseguest. It was a move of physical necessity, so they brought their physical environment with them and created a European oasis in their new locale. But as Goldfinger begins to go through the stashes of photographs, letters and assorted paper stowaways, he finds something even more disorienting: his grandparents’ closest friends, the von Mildensteins, contributed to the very circumstances from which the Tuchlers fled. While other family members play dress up in old furs and scoff at the antiquity of bookshelves lined with Nietzsche, Goldfinger patiently turns his eyes toward old newspapers and soon finds himself on a paper trail into a family history he didn’t know he had. An old clipping from a Nazi publication with the headline “A Nazi Goes to Palestine” stars none other than Leopold von Mildenstein, which gets Goldfinger wondering who his grandparents really were and why Nazis would be traveling to visit them after the war. Like many who take the time to research who and where they come from, Goldfinger finds that not everything is as linear as branches on the family tree, and the answers that he’s looking for aren’t always there. —Gabrielle Lipton

step-doc-poster.jpg15. Step
Year: 2017
Director: Amanda Lipitz
Following in the similarly crowd-pleasing Drumline and Stomp the Yard’s foot-stomps is dance documentary Step. This year, especially as the film is set against the backdrop of the Black Lives Matter movement and the death of Baltimore’s Freddie Gray, America seems miles away from something so unabashedly heartwarming, sometimes an uncomfortably innocuous offense in a harsh environment, like candy smuggled into prison. The film is a pleasant (if sweetly facile) reprieve from the real world, though the real world threatens this small joy. That threat comes care of the fact that the documentary isn’t just about stepping, but about the successes and struggles of those in the first class to attend the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women, an all-girls high school with the express goal of having all of its graduating seniors accepted into college. The best parts, then, of this sometimes-sidetracked documentary are those capturing small moments between high schoolers. A hair-styling session buzzes after the question of “MLK Jr. or Malcolm X?” and a buffet date night sours when the boy’s immaturity evolves to selfishness. These moments build relationships with the subjects that render the film’s potentially saccharine story so gently and successfully. Step may stumble over its own hurried pace (cramming months of school into montage after montage), but such a method is almost forgivable once you realize that the film is speeding towards an effective finale that will have you cheering no matter what. —Jacob Oller

kiki-poster.jpg14. Kiki
Year: 2017
Directors: Sara Jordenö
With the help of model/activist Twiggy Pucci Garçon (who gets co-screenwriting credit here, in addition to appearing prominently), Sara Jardenö returns to the voguing scene Jennie Livingston so memorably captured in the legendary 1990 documentary Paris is Burning. What she finds is perhaps less immediately revelatory than it was almost 30 years ago, when Livingston first brought the voguing scene to a wider audience through her film. Which is probably to be expected, because much has changed since then, with AIDS no longer the scourge it once was, and with trans people of color becoming more visible. But as Kiki poignantly demonstrates—and as the real world constantly reminds us now in the midst of the Age of Trump—much more work still needs to be done. Thus, Jardenö’s greater focus on personal stories here is welcome, showing us an array of figures, some of whom are in the stages of gender transition, some who are trying to help others in the community and keep the voguing scene a safe space for them to fully express themselves. Kiki may be more of an activist documentary than Paris is Burning was, but it is no less affecting for it. —Kenji Fujishima

eight-days-a-week.jpg13. Eight Days a Week
Year: 2016
Director: Ron Howard
The best documentaries, regardless of subject, give us something new. They teach us. They offer fresh perspective. That is really, really hard to do when you’re making a documentary about the Beatles. After more than 50 years, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone unfamiliar with the story of the Fab Four. Eight Days a Week, Ron Howard’s new Beatles documentary, focuses exclusively on the band’s touring years, from 1962-1966—and while it certainly doesn’t break any new ground, it’s a fun retelling of the band’s meteoric rise. What it does feature are new interviews with surviving members Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, as well as a generous amount of archival interviews with John Lennon and George Harrison. Previously unseen, fan-recorded concert footage and some revealing studio outtakes are littered throughout, and while the film hits all the major points you’d expect it to (Beatlemania was crazy!), it’s so enjoyable you’re reminded there’s a reason this well keeps getting re-tapped. Just like the Beatles’ records will continue to spin across the world, from generation to generation until the end of time, we’ll keep poring over footage of these lads and talking about how they changed music—and pop culture as a whole—forever. —Bonnie Stiernberg

weiner.jpg12. Weiner
Year: 2016
Directors: Josh Kriegman, Elyse Steinberg
“Why did you let me film this?” This simple question, posed at the end of Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg’s Weiner, is as baffling to the movie’s subject as it is to everyone else. Anthony Weiner gave a documentary crew incredible behind-the-scenes access to his 2013 New York mayoral campaign while his political career crumbled and his personal life turned to a shambles. He campaigned on (and the crew filmed on), refusing to acknowledge that he sunk himself by making the exact same mistake that sunk his career years earlier—maybe because he’s an egotist and couldn’t bear being out of the spotlight, or maybe because he’s an idealist, believing that people would see past his online indiscretions and vote based on his ideas. Or maybe he’s nothing more than a self-destructive glutton for punishment. Whatever the truth, the public will remember Weiner for his scandals, which fell from the sky like a host of divine gifts to late-night comedy. Directors Kriegman and Steinberg so superbly convey the sweeping excitement Weiner could generate that it makes things all the more depressing when he can’t even get five percent of the vote. The movie shifts from energetic editing, showing people’s love for the candidate, to a claustrophobic, drawn-out humiliation. If the filmmakers had an agenda besides studying Weiner’s character, they did a great job of hiding it. Weiner shows many facets of his personality: He can be charming and funny, but he can also be a petulant, entitled jerk. The veneer wears off as the stress mounts, making things increasingly uncomfortable—it’s excruciating to watch this man try to salvage respect from certain humiliation, but it makes for a devilishly intimate look into the madness of modern politics. —Jeremy Mathews

lamour-fou.jpg11. L’Amour Fou
Year: 2010
Director: Pierre Thoretton
At first, this exceedingly quiet film seems to offer little in the way of insight: through the laconic accounts of long-time partner Pierre Bergé, the story of fashion industry icon Yves Saint Laurent is laid out in strikingly economical detail. He gained notoriety, and with it critical respect, as he lost much of a perspective on the bounds of his wealth and the impenetrability of his depression. In fact, upon learning Laurent had only a few weeks to live due to brain cancer, Bergé elected to keep the information from his partner—and husband, married only a few days before Laurent’s death—because he knew the designer wouldn’t be able to functionally deal with the news. In these moments, L’amour fou plays out like a touching, though slight, testament to a great artist and the unyielding love some people felt for him. It’s probably no surprise that as his profile rose, Laurent began to pull away, both physically and mentally, from the person with whom he chose to spend his life. Yet, the film’s success lies in the way it thoughtfully dwells over every insignificant piece of rare art or expensive accoutrement amassed by the couple over their lifetimes, so much so that (especially with Laurent’s presence removed) Bergé’s home looks little more than a stuffy, poorly organized museum—fastidious and far from homely. And then, when Bergé endeavors to sell all of it on auction, the sense of loss grows to tenuous levels: Is he trying to find closure, or instead proving that everything they accumulated did nothing to make their lives any better, or any worse, when viewed in retrospect? Bergé, the inheritor of an astounding amount of money due to the auction (which Thoretton documents plainly, watching Bergé as he calmly hears one astronomical closing bid after another), finds nothing in the end but whatever security all that wealth provides … which, as we watch Bergé blankly stare out of a dreary window, Come Aguiar’s perfectly nuanced score accompanying his silence, feels like even more of nothing at all. —Dom Sinacola

12-oclock-boys-movie-poster.jpg10. 12 O’Clock Boys
Year: 2014
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 in the past two weeks. But don’t dare compare this to The Wire—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

life-itself-poster1.jpg9. Life Itself
Year: 2014
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

muscle-shoals.jpg8. Muscle Shoals
Year: 2013
Director: Greg “Freddy” Camalier
Freddy Camalier’s masterly Muscle Shoals is about the beginnings and heyday of the recording scene in Muscle Shoals, Ala., a tiny town that improbably changed the face of rock ‘n’ roll forever. First-timer Camalier is obviously a natural storyteller, but there’s so much more to the doc than promise—the cinematography is lush and beautiful, the editing is crisp and precise, and it’s in turns heartbreaking, inspiring, wry, thought-provoking, nostalgic and genuinely funny. It’s simply a stunning debut film. It helps that Camalier and his producing partner Stephen Badger are after more than just a lesson in musical history: They delve into the Civil Rights Movement and its effect specifically on Alabama, especially as it relates to a Muscle Shoals music scene that was, shockingly enough, lacking in any racial tension. They return again and again to the ancient Native American legend about the river that flows through the town, and the water spirit who lived there, sang songs and protected the town. Not to mention that the personal life of Fame Records founder Rick Hall, the protagonist of the film, is itself worthy of a Faulkner novel. Muscle Shoals is thrilling, it’s engaging, it’s fascinating, it’s stirring, it’s epic—whether you’re a music lover or not. —Michael Dunaway

24-Netflix-Docs_2015-biggie-tupac.jpg7. Biggie & Tupac
Year: 2002
Director: Nick Broomfield
From its very first moments, Biggie & Tupac—a sort of truther’s glimpse into the murders of rappers Notorious BIG and 2Pac—is an exceptionally strange film. Director and narrator Nick Broomfield speaks in a clipped cadence, as if English isn’t his first language, and Earth isn’t his home planet. That he is somehow able to waddle his way into the most exclusive (and sometimes terrifying) situations is nearly incomprehensible, until one realizes that, to some extent, all his weirdness probably makes him seem so non-threatening that the folks who spill deeply incriminating confessions probably never figure his footage will ever see the light of day. And yet, Biggie & Tupac is endlessly compelling, far from an actually competent procedural but still ringing with enough sincerity that, buried beneath Broomfield’s weirdness and his very dubious journalistic intentions, there must be something true he’s tapping into. I’ve heard Broomfield referred to, among other epithets, as a “bottom-feeding creep,” and it’s not a stretch to see how his methods and results could be construed as the work of such. Yet, the access the man gets … when it comes to documentary film, do the ends justify the means? Because: the last 10 minutes of the film alone are worth the journey, in which an interview with Suge Knight (whom the film pretty clearly portrays as the orchestrator of both murders) reveals unnerving opinions on socioeconomic and racial realities. —Dom Sinacola

room-237.jpg6. Room 237
Year: 2013
Director: Rodney Ascher
There exists a rare species of obsessive cinephile: the hyper-fan who focuses on one film, mentally and emotionally ingesting it dozens, maybe hundreds, of times. Along a certain parallel, there is also a serious breed of conspiracy theorist, compulsive in his or her beliefs, taking things far beyond just watching Doomsday Preppers for fun. Push these two types inextricably together, you get Room 237, the confounding, eye-opening and often hilarious documentary about individuals whose over-wired brains are devoted to one cinematic masterpiece, Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. The most outlandish—and perplexing—theories in Room 237 posit The Shining either as a vehicle meant to comment on dark, oppressive periods in history, or as a massive, cryptic revelation. As a cinema sociologist, director Rodney Ascher acts as non-participant observer, letting his Room 237 subjects sell themselves, leaving us to jump on, laugh or stare in amazement. As a documentary filmmaker, Ascher voraciously digs into the stories, freezing frames from the 1980 classic, adding explanatory graphics and complex maps of the hotel’s physical layout. As the subjects analyze Kubrick, Ascher analyzes their analyses, which in turn inspires an analysis of Room 237 itself, making for a documentary film that twists in on its own guts so thoroughly one can’t help but feel similarly obsessed by film’s end. —Norm Schrager

Whose-Streets-poster.jpg5. Whose Streets?
Year: 2017
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

survive-a-plague.jpg4. How to Survive a Plague
Year: 2012
Directors: David France
A New York journalist who has covered the AIDS epidemic for 30 years, first-time filmmaker David France has assembled both a superbly researched record of the decade-long fight for a viable treatment protocol and an intimate portrait of the personalities leading the charge. Serendipitously, the arrival of HIV coincided with the availability of consumer-grade camcorders, and as a result, much of this developing story—from private conversations to public protests—was recorded for posterity. France combines this historic footage, courtesy of more than 30 videographers, with archival news reports and present-day interviews to craft a complete picture of the founding, mission, strategies, in-fighting, splintering, failures and successes of ACT UP, a Greenwich Village-based protest group that forced government agencies and health organizations to take AIDS seriously and invest in finding a cure. Yet, by the time this story ends in 1996, with the development of a combination drug therapy that actually works, 8.2 million people had died. How to Survive is indeed a tale of survival, but the AIDS community didn’t get there without a fight—and a steep personal toll. —Annlee Ellingson

47.ManOnWire.NetflixList.jpg3. Man on Wire
Year: 2008
Director: James Marsh
In 1974, high-wire walker Philippe Petit fulfilled a longstanding dream by sneaking into New York’s World Trade Center, stringing a cable between the tops of the two towers, and—with almost unfathomable guts—walking across it without a net. The man is clearly a nut, but he’s also a great storyteller with a heck of a story, and Man on Wire gives him a chance to tell it. Petit’s stunt was both an engineering challenge and a test of, well, a test of something that most of us don’t possess in this much quantity. Filmmaker James Marsh uses standard documentary techniques, combining new interviews with a satisfying pile of footage and photographs, but his film has the suspense of a caper movie. The title comes from the report written by a police officer who was more than a little uncertain about how to respond to the audacity on display. —Robert Davis

exit-through-the-gift-shop.jpg2. Exit Through the Gift Shop
Year: 2010
Director: Banksy
When renowned graffiti artist Banksy took the camera away from Thierry Guetta, the man shooting his biopic, and decided that the subject would become the documentarian (and the documentarian, the subject), an incomparably zany (and very, very funny) documentary was born. Against all odds, Mr. Brainwash, as Guetta christens himself, puts on the largest and most profitable street art exhibition in history. The film never quite takes a side on the Warholian question of whether Guetta/Mr. Brainwash is actually a legitimate artist or has merely convinced enough people that he is—or whether those are one and the same, or whether it even matters. But the most compelling theme of the film is its cinematic exploration of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle: That a phenomenon cannot be observed or measured without simultaneously changing it. Guetta never puts spray can to wood until he’s being documented by Banksy. Does that mean Banksy made him what he is? Destroyed, in some sense, what he was? And is that good or bad, or neither? Banksy’s not saying. —Michael Dunaway

stories-we-tell.jpg1. Stories We Tell
Year: 2013
Director: Sarah Polley
With Stories We Tell, actress-turned-director Sarah Polley has proven herself a consummate filmmaker, transforming an incredible personal story into a playful and profound investigation into the nature of storytelling itself. The central mystery of her documentary—that the man she grew up believing to be her dad is not her biological father—is public knowledge and revealed in the film’s trailer. Yet Polley conceals and reveals information—starting with her relationships to her interview subjects—in such a way as to constantly surprise, even shock, her audience. The result is a film that entertains and delights viewers while elevating her investigation to art. —Annlee Ellingson

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