The 25 Best Documentaries of 2020

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The 25 Best Documentaries of 2020

Though the pandemic has all but murdered moviegoing in 2020, for the lowly documentary film, the distribution landscape has never looked more promising. Often relegated to festivals and then, if fortune-favored, Netflix or HBO, documentaries rarely receive the attention or the right platform to reach more than a specialized audience. If it seems like 2020 was a particularly bright year for documentaries, that might be because you could actually watch many of these at home, streaming through virtual cinemas or online festivals or via services like Mubi and Kanopy (off the top of the dome).

In the spirit of such bounty, the following 25 documentaries cover a broad swath of picks: Jodie Mack’s feature-length The Grand Bizarre, which only became widely available this year; the latest from stalwarts of the form, such as Spike Lee, Werner Herzog, Steve James and Frederick Wiseman; Khalik Allah’s 200-minute IWOW and Sky Hopinka’s feature debut, which both seemed like they’d never find their way out of the festival circuit; a 30 for 30 entry that isn’t The Last Dance; a film essay about Showgirls; and a truly mesmerizing, nearly four-hour account of one of the weirdest teams in the one of the weirdest professional sports, told as a hybrid of Ken Burns archiving and PowerPoint presentation, now free to watch on YouTube.

Here are our picks, listed alphabetically, for the 25 best documentaries of the year:


76 Days

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Filmed throughout four Wuhan hospitals in the first two-and-a-half months of the COVID-19 outbreak—as the rest of humanity was only beginning to understand the difference between what was happening a world away and what was to come—76 Days thrums with intimacy and desperation devoid of any sort of political messaging. This is undoubtedly due to Chinese government interference; director Hao Wu (working with Weixi Chen and an anonymous co-director) has talked about the pressure to remove all sense of the government’s response to the building crisis (whether positive or not), focusing entirely on the medical staff and their patients responding to one unprecedented scenario after another, just to get it released at all. But in the vacuum left by the dearth of bureaucratic context, the streets—all of civilization really—surrounding these hospitals seem empirically empty, ghost towns of shuttered life, leaving the doctors and nurses and (mostly) older, poorer patients struggling to breathe the sole inhabitants of a new kind of dystopian afterlife where only a noble few dressed in paper-and-tape hazmat suits can save us from the brink. And yet, quiet moments break from the furor: a cell phone from a dead person, wrapped in plastic and blinking with countless missed calls; a rose drawn by one nurse on another’s paper carapace, like a doodle on a cast to add some grace to the graceless; a call from a son to his aging father, commanding him to be a good Party member and to quit crying—the first glimpses of the devastating burdens we’re still carrying almost a year later. —Dom Sinacola


American Utopia

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Three and a half decades since Jonathan Demme empowered Talking Heads to reach the upper echelons of the concert film in Stop Making Sense, Spike Lee drills down into David Byrne’s musical and ideological evolution for the sublime spectacle of American Utopia’s stage show. Byrne is overtly invested here in the journey, exploring a narrative of movement and instrumentation and letting the music flow casually—perhaps because he’s got so much more music under his belt since the last time his voice helped a rock doc soar to the ceiling. He and his barefoot ensemble sing cerebral hymns celebrating synapses and social bonds rather than gods or miracles. Its a humanist spirituality made all the more affecting by Lee’s impeccable camera placements and moves—not to mention some signature Spike stylings none of his joints are complete without. It’s a thematically dense show made all the denser by Byrne’s wry appeals to the audience, at first vague and then searingly specific (you all better be registered to vote now, concert attendees), and the endlessly interpretable nature of the songs. Like its central performer, American Utopia is seemingly indefatigable in its hope and optimism, not only for the future but for those who must shape it. In the face of racist violence, police brutality, an increasingly isolated and polarized society, and more hardships, American Utopia emphasizes empathy. For many, it’ll be one of the best shows they’ve ever been to and for almost all, it’ll be the best of their year.—Jacob Oller


The Annotated Field Guide of Ulysses S. Grant

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Jim Finn’s The Annotated Field Guide of Ulysses S. Grant is less concerned with the particulars of its eponym’s legacy than it is with unpacking the fall of the Confederacy and the rotten underpinnings of The Lost Cause. Composed of narration detailing stories alongside Grant’s path liberating the South, modern images of historical sites and stop-motion animation of battle strategy board games, the film appears at first glance a matter-of-fact travelogue. Finn pairs historical anecdotes with quiet, almost picture-book-like images lensed on 16mm, his narration providing the sort of moral clarity one wishes could replace the “state’s rights” strain of history textbooks, though condemning the Confederacy and its white supremacy is a relatively low ideological bar to clear, fascinating as the stories and research may be.

Thankfully there’s more to it: As the contrast between the images and narration starts to develop, Finn arrives at something. He films ruins, monuments and battlefields in their current state, and it is in these visits to places like Stone Mountain up the tram, and stop-motion board games and bubblegum cards, where Finn finds a perspective beyond a corrective history lesson: the cheap commodification of Southern history, sanitized and glazed with a sort of he-man plasticity, revealing the strange ways our culture can present the past as benign myth when its direct effects are still readily observed. On its own, Finn’s arrangement of research remains rich and compelling, subtly exposing the core of The Lost Cause and its legacy. But what makes the film work on a level worth praising are such stories in conversation with images of today’s public presentation of history: the highways where it has been paved with modernity, the gaudy products of myth-making and the silent landscapes where it is at once forgotten and remembered. —Daniel Christian


Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets

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Songs of the soul flow from the drunken mouths of the jukebox-loving inebriates in Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets. The Ross brothers have created a prototype barroom experience: It is closing night for the fictionalized Roaring 20’s in Las Vegas, a real bar actually operating in their home base of New Orleans, and the regulars, led by local professional actor Michael Martin and otherwise populated with true bar-frequenting non-actors, have come together to kiss their favorite watering hole goodbye. Its much-discussed fictional framework is merely that—a framework—beneath which legitimate human interactions play out, with characters representing themselves and actually drinking the night away. There is authentic war vet commiseration and romantic longing, bartender-led singalongs and, inevitably, one guy trying to fight another “with eyes tattooed on his eyelids.” The holy trinity of dive bar life—despondency, frivolity and pugnacity—is present and spiritually enriching.

As always, the Ross bros depict those before their camera with the deepest care and respect. Pangs of regret and anguish sound between moments of hilarious drunken crosstalk, with Martin’s character pulling in close his younger, rambunctious four-eyed friend and imploring him not to likewise spend his life in a bar. The film runs the gamut of drunken night emotions, from wistful dancing to maudlin bouts of self-loathing, but the mood is never pinned to any specific emotion; it is less about one peak or one valley than it is about creating the shape of a waveform in itself. Yet each crest and trough is tinged with the fleeting feeling of the other: To be low is to be touched by the immense depth of drunken feelings, and to be high is to ride forth in embarrassing obliviousness. But somehow the images never whiff exploitation; they radiate a sense of humanity and an understanding of these American outcasts, who will surely flit from one closing bar to the next. What awaits them thereafter is a mystery, and perhaps a sad story we do not need to know. —Daniel Christian


Boys State

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The tendency to read too much into Boys State as a representative of American politics—contemporary, functional, broken and otherwise—doesn’t quite line up with the event itself, in which every year the American Legion sponsors a sort of mock government sleepaway camp in Texas for high school boys (girls get a similar program of their own), where attendees join parties, run for office, craft platforms, run campaigns, hold debates, then ultimately exercise their right to vote. As one candidate for fake boy office explains, “My stance on abortion would not line up with most guys’ out there. So I changed my stance. That’s politics…I think. You can’t win on what you believe in your heart.” Money has no place in their policies, nor do women, immigration, or anything that isn’t gun control or abortion. They aren’t much interested in exploring U.S. governmental systems and lawmaking as they are in reinforcing an ideal of obsolescing democratic rule. There is no representation here, there are only screaming masses of peachfuzz and popularity contests. Instead of taking a divided nation’s temperature through its puberty-ridden youth, Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine’s documentary becomes a dramatic account of modern American masculinity in the making, blisteringly hormonal and desperate to be taken seriously. —Dom Sinacola

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City Hall

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The complex and often paradoxical nature of institutions is the definitive interest of prolific documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman, and at age 90 he’s released his 46th film, a four-hour-and-32-minute epic examining Boston’s City Hall. Whether in board rooms, on garbage routes or inside Boston apartments, Wiseman reveals the broad scale and impact of city government in all of its glory—when this well-oiled machine works seamlessly, that is—but also highlights the lack of essential services and resources for Boston’s most vulnerable communities and citizens. Wiseman paints intimate portraits of parts of society that on the surface might seem banal and unextraordinary, but are in fact exhilarating in their hidden details. The filmmaker’s verité style of filming allows the viewer to not only be a spectator, but a student of the mechanics of these systems. There are no interviews, narration or text to guide us; instead, we’re completely absorbed in the spaces and interactions Wiseman films, eventually becoming embedded in the institutions he unpacks.

While City Hall is certainly drenched in Wiseman’s trademark style, it is also distinct among the filmmaker’s massive catalogue due to his personal relationship with Boston: He was born and raised in the city and taught at Boston University before his film career. His first film, the 1967 documentary Titicut Follies, depicts the squalid living conditions of the Bridgewater State Hospital at the time, located only 25 miles outside of the city. The filmmaker also took to Boston for the similarly-lengthy 1989 film Near Death, which follows patients and medical personnel in the ICU at Beth Israel Hospital. City Hall feels like a homecoming film for Wiseman in many ways—returning to a city that served as both residence and inspiration for the filmmaker throughout his career. —Natalia Keogan


City So Real

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There is perhaps no film that exudes the collective essence of Steve James’s body of work as much as his latest. City So Real is ostensibly about a Chicago in crisis amid the trial of former Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke, who was charged with the first-degree murder of Laquan McDonald in 2018, and the crowded 2018-2019 mayoral election. The film’s most immediate charms do not come from navigating these threads, however. For all its outward perspective, it feels more than anything else a film in which James is expressing a very particular and complicated affection for his home city. In that way he synthesizes his finest films.

City So Real retains the sprawling intersectionality of America to Me but reduced to a tidy four hours, and at times echoes the place films of Frederick Wiseman, like Belfast, Maine or Monrovia, Indiana, in its commitment to documenting such a comprehensive array of people, spaces and conversations. James replaces Wiseman’s distance with closeness, using chance encounters with the likes of dog-walkers and Uber drivers to provide essential shading of this multifaceted city portrait. He makes excursions to seemingly every corner of Chicago, highlighted by a graphic that appears on screen to indicate which neighborhood this barbershop, or this dinner party, belongs to. As James weaves between these revealing vignettes and scenes of embedded access with several mayoral candidates, City So Real takes a sweeping look at the public and private lives of Chicago, of the political machine and of everyday sidewalk stories, of life at work and sometimes at home. Exploring racial and cultural contradictions that often lurk just below the surface, James’s camera seems to parse the dissonance and cacophony of city noise to locate each individual voice for a brief moment. Beneath the scaffolding of the election, these brief encounters amass to the point that the minutiae transcends itself. We see a collection of moments that speak to James’s understanding of humanity, often troubled, mundane and optimistic all at once. —Daniel Christian


Collective

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Alexander Nanau’s documentary unfolds like a procedural so efficiently, his access so surprisingly unfettered, one can’t help but begin to doubt the horrors exposed. Like three seasons of The Wire adulterated into two hours, Collective begins with the aftermath of a nightclub fire in Bucharest in 2015, which killed 27 people and wounded nearly 180, as parents of victims—both those who perished that night and (many of) those who died in hospitals soon after—begin to gather and question how the Romanian government, top to bottom, seems to be at the heart of such tragic dysfunction. Nanau shows us startling clear video from that night, unflinching and terrible, and then continues to not look away as a group of journalists begin to uncover the corruption that led to so much suffering. Meanwhile, Nanau follows survivors and activists, and then the newly appointed Health Minister (after the other guy resigned for gross incompetence), young and idealistic, as the system crushes every moral step he tries to make, buffeted on all sides by conservative propaganda and the bourgeois class, who have long profited from so much death and misery. The cruelty and perversion of Romania’s governing class should come as no surprise, nor should the results of the election that closes out the film, but Nanau doesn’t frame his drama around the explication of wrongdoings and the punishment of such wrongdoers. He eschews interviews and talking heads for incisive observation, sometimes so intimate it feels like empathy; he returns over and over to the vulnerable people who must endure—their courage, their fear, and the marginal hope they provide the rest of us by simply doing their jobs. It is a testament not to the power of journalism, but to its necessity, one of the last bastions civilization has against normalizing this nightmare here at the End of History. —Dom Sinacola


Crip Camp

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Crip Camp, a documentary about a summer camp for disabled teens, is a movie that, in a casual director’s hands, could turn very easily into a piece of exploitation honed in on adversity. But Jim Lebrecht and Nicole Newnham aren’t casual. They’re coworkers, having collaborated on three documentaries together over the past decade and a half, and Lebrecht, who has Spina Bifida, attended said summer camp in 1971. The film is a personal matter for Lebrecht, facilitated with his longtime colleague, and guided by their relationship, Crip Camp functions partly as a portrait and partly as advocacy.

Half of it is spent strolling down memory lane, revisiting either through oral history or archival footage days at Camp Jened in the Catskills, where teenagers with disabilities—deaf teenagers, blind teenagers, teenagers who survived polio, teenagers with cerebral palsy—congregated under the care of hippy counselors. Here the teens, many for the first time in their lives, were treated simply as teens, and not as societal inconveniences. The other half of the movie unfolds against the backdrop of the battle for Section 504, fought in 1977, as disabled Americans, many of them former Jened campers, organized protests and a famous sit-in to persuade Joseph Califano to sign the important regulations into law. The campaign for disabled rights deserves a spotlight for its own merits, as this isn’t really a chapter in history standardly taught in American schools, but the specifics of Crip Camp’s subject speaks to a broader, urgent point about the power of community: When people unite under one banner for a common cause, there’s little they can’t accomplish. A message as timely as it is timeless. —Andy Crump


Dick Johnson Is Dead

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If every great documentary is about the responsibility of observation, then Kirsten Johnson’s Cameraperson is also about the fragility of that observation. With her follow-up, Dick Johnson Is Dead, Johnson continues to interrogate that fragility, crafting a deeply personal ode to that over which she has no control: her father’s death. It helps that Dick Johnson is a mellifluous soul, an incessantly warm and beaming man surrounded by friends and colleagues and acquaintances who all uniformly, genuinely love him, but from its opening shots, Johnson makes it clear that her father’s wonderful nature will only make saying goodbye to him that much more difficult. And the time when she must do so looms closer and closer.

Her impetus, she reluctantly acknowledges, is partly selfish as she decides to help acquaint her father with the end of his life, reenacting in lavish cinematic vignettes the many ways in which he could go out, from falling air conditioner unit, to nail-festooned 2×4 to the face, to your run-of-the-mill tumble down the stairs, replete with broken neck. The more Johnson loses herself in the project, spending more effort consulting stunt people and art directors and assorted crew members than her own dad (sitting peacefully on set, usually napping, never being much of a bother), the more she realizes she may be exploiting someone she loves—someone who is beginning to show the alarming signs of dementia and can no longer fully grasp the high concept to which he once agreed—to assuage her own anxiety. As her dad’s memory dissipates along with his ability to take care of himself, Dick Johnson Is Dead caters less to Dick’s need to preserve some sense of immortality than to his daughter’s need, all of our need, to let go. —Dom Sinacola


Epicentro

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Cuba may offer unparalleled paradisiacal sights, but, if images from Hubert Sauper’s digital camera are any indication, economic collapse has led to a proliferation of island-hopping Europeans who are breaking the country’s long-held resistance against the sort of imperialistic capitalism that centralizes tourism in caribbean nations’ economies. Sauper approaches this landscape with a meandering look at Cuba’s historical relationship to colonialism, and specifically to the United States, told through discursive visits with Havana denizens and his own musings on the legacy of cinema as a sort of colonial arm itself.

The latter is expressed in myriad ways, including a man with a magician’s top hat showing a theater full of children snippets from Thomas Edison’s 1898 filmed reenactments of the Spanish-American War, footage with a documentary function that positions the United States as liberators. When the stars and stripes are raised on the Cuban beaches, the school children boo, the conflicts of history somewhere between them and the screen. Likewise, footage that appears to depict the explosion of the USS Maine is revealed to be toy boats in a bathtub, and the deathly fumes cigar smoke from the cameramen; “cinema is witchcraft,” he says. Yet Oona Castilla Chaplin, granddaughter of Charlie Chaplin, makes an appearance as a children’s acting coach, strumming a ukulele while students run around her with glee. She screens for them The Great Dictator, and Sauper plays words from the film’s famous final speech (“I don’t want to rule or conquer anyone”) just after another appearance of Edison’s material, briefly pitting an idealistic cinema against a cynical one. If Epicentro seems like a film with a lot on its mind, Sauper lays out the not-quite aimless but certainly scattershot framework up front. Cuba, with all its utopian connotations, has been the epicenter of some of the world’s most dystopian developments. Sauper finds a view of modern Cuba between the contradictions history has forced onto it. —Daniel Christian


Feels Good Man

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Director Arthur Jones’ documentary is a crash course in weird internet, alt-right politics, IP, the feedback loop of social media, and the easygoing Kermit that ties them all together: Pepe the Frog. Much more than an extended deep dive into its Know Your Meme entry, Feels Good Man approaches the star of artist Matt Furie’s Boy’s Club comic, whose face and expressions were co-opted and corrupted by particularly sinister online communities, with warmth and intelligence.

The destructive mundanity of it all, which brakes to an excruciating pace at its more infuriating moments, is a teeth-grinding, jaw-clenching affair that unearths the intimate and deep injustice done to a creator from beneath the vague and broad evil associated with his creation. These are momentary stumbles, but glancing its magnifying glass onto a subculture that’s power has far eclipsed its constituency is a necessary step for the doc. The upsetting, depressing, even frightening interviews allow a greater theme to rise as they contrast with snippets looking into Furie’s life. The editing positions Furie as a mellow, classical creator looking to make the everyday into the fantastical, with father-daughter bike rides and slacker roommates sharing the screen with the artwork grown from them. This Furie is a naive, ultimately goodhearted Luddite whose attempts to reclaim his creation came too little too late, so he had to kill him—and even THAT didn’t work. What’s starting to work is that Furie is growing up alongside his creation, which benefits both. Even as the happy ending comes blackened by disinformation from Alex Jones and his ilk—a bittersweet reminder that there is a large contingent of people in the world that will take everything from us and dress it up as laughable that anyone thinks to protest—Feels Good Man’s greatest strength is affirming that even the most lighthearted things are worth fighting for. —Jacob Oller


Fireball: Visitors from Darker Worlds

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Werner Herzog will show you multiple clips from Mimi Leader’s Deep Impact for no other reason than because he likes them, he finds them well-done and evocative—he says as much in that even-keeled, oddly accented voice over—then soon after chastise “film school doctrine” when complimenting a field video shot by a South Korean meteor specialist in Antarctica. Like Nomad: In the Footsteps of Bruce Chatwin, his documentary from earlier in the year, Fireball (co-directed with Clive Oppenheimer, with whom he made 2016’s Into the Inferno) is less about what it’s about (meteorites, shooting stars, cosmic debris—and the people who love them) than it is about Werner Herzog’s life, which is his filmography, which is a heavily manipulated search for ultimate truth. This is all he makes movies about anymore: himself, navigating falsehood until he can master it, which is basically what he sees as moviemaking anyway. Unlike Nomad, Fireball is partly shot by Herzog’s trusted cinematographer Peter Zeitlinger, which rewards majestic drone shots—now Herzog’s old man bread and butter—with casual sublimity as often as despairing humor. Together they follow tangents all over the world, ridiculing the depressing Mexican town where a meteorite destroyed the dinosaurs and today stray dogs’ dreams rot from their heads, or collecting microscopic space rocks from the roof of an Oslo sports arena. All is at the mercy of Herzog’s curiosity, ravenous and insatiable. —Dom Sinacola


The Grand Bizarre

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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


Heimat Is a Space in Time

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Sites of acknowledged historical significance—battlefields, museums or specific locations of importance—hardly seem to exist in the present tense; they live as cordoned-off spaces of reflection and contemplation, where a peaceful Now blankets a turbulent Then. Visitors who pass through know that the history that has happened in this space is so consequential it has caused time to stop, that nothing else can happen atop what has already taken place. The present cannot look forward. It must look back.

Thomas Heise’s Heimat Is a Space in Time, a three-and-a-half-hour first-person opus tracing his family’s march through the troubled course of 20th century German and Austrian history, takes on the very sort of sensation described above, itself an isolated space for reflection on the past and an individual’s power in a flawed society. Heise presents passions and tribulations of yesteryear matter-of-factly, as if they are evidence of a deterministic perspective suggesting, with ample evidence, that our lives and our choices are dictated by the systems that organize our societies. When Heise reads a correspondence between his mother, Rosemarie, and one of her first lovers, Udo—the couple separated by the East/West Berlin split—he presents their discussions dryly, as if he did not know either party. Heise emphasizes how these bureaucratic limitations exist ideologically and spatially, quite literally shaping the opportunities available to us: The world imposes rules at the whims of those in power, and suddenly people who were together are apart even while living in the same city. This is a history specific to Berlin, but Heimat also views this trajectory as universal, just another rise and fall and rise of governments and systems. Yet the personal stories of Heise’s family, who remained in East Germany under the German Democratic Republic, inform this entire perspective, and its toll on the individual is never far from sight. The film, then, works as its own cordoned-off historical site: a plane of reflection on a past composed of stories specific and broad. In Heimat Is a Space in Time, the imprint of the past is so dense and enduring that its spectral qualities drift beyond the battlefields, beyond the monuments, barracks and documents, to dissolve into daily life. —Daniel Christian


The History of the Seattle Mariners

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“There is nothing on this planet that makes less sense than baseball.” This, a conclusion stated cursorily deep into the 220 minutes of Jon Bois and Alex Rubenstein’s marvelous The History of the Seattle Mariners. Presented through SBNation (where the duo publishes under their “Dorktown” banner) and originally released as a six-part opus—now on YouTube in one long, glorious supercut omnibus—this is their century-spanning quest to determine why the Mariners, a notoriously and epochally “bad” team, counts as one of their favorite franchises, and what “bad” even means in the context of a sport so surreal, so indefatigably weird, that there exists the urge in any human to launch such an exhaustive effort in the first place. What ostensibly appears to be esoterica dressed in lazy graphic design quickly reveals an astounding dramatic depth told with clarity and foresight: The History of the Seattle Mariners exists solely within a navy blue calendar, each square representing a season, every single stat and news clipping and graph and graphic buried strategically within its welcoming symmetry. The friendly voice over, exchanged between our two directors, is infectious, relaying one anecdote after another, introducing characters with satisfying arcs and believable motivations, explaining the significance of mind-boggling numbers and mind-numbing minutiae to grasp at the human undercurrent beneath all that boredom. One need not know anything about baseball to appreciate a line as sterling as “Jay Buhner had just executed a triple blurp in the middle of a baseball game,” and one need not even know the rules of the game to become emotionally invested in a line, and only a line, as it creeps along yet another bar graph. It’s hard to imagine more storytelling more miraculous than this to come out of 2020. —Dom Sinacola


IWOW: I Walk on Water

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One may feel every minute of Khalik Allah’s IWOW: I Walk on Water, some 200 of them, the director’s autobiographical screed written in 16mm, tape, Super 8 and HD. Ostensibly about the corner of 125th and Lexington in Harlem as much as it is about his tumultuous, long-distance relationship with an ex-girlfriend, as much as it is about his abiding devotion to using mushrooms, IWOW is so completely obsessed with itself as a cultural object that one wonders, 60 minutes in, why it even exists for anyone but its creator. About 70 minutes in, one wonders if he’ll record himself getting his dick sucked, and then 90 minutes later he records himself getting his dick sucked.

We only hear it, but it’s a strikingly intimate exchange to witness, especially within the context of the film’s previous two hours of personal tribulation. Elsewhere, Allah introduces us to Frenchie, a Haitian immigrant who’s lived on the street for decades, diagnosed schizophrenic, struggling with addiction. Allah photographs him constantly, having previously made Urban Rashomon (2013) and Antonyms of Beauty (2013) about him, spends countless hours with him talking and shooting, Frenchie sometimes painfully lucid about life and sometimes totally gone, occasionally given to moments of intense anger or instability. Allah eventually takes him home, gets him a haircut and a shower and some new clothes, recording him endlessly, transforming him into a movie’s subject. We watch white audiences watch Allah’s previous film, Black Mother, in museums. We hear Fab Five Freddy, one of many legendary artists with whom Allah crosses paths, warn Allah about letting his guard down around Frenchie, a man who up until filming IWOW, Allah thought was dead, suddenly resurrected. Allah declares himself Jesus; our empathy feels twisted, in thrall to the film’s contradictions, wondering along with Allah if he is who he says he is.

It’s frequently beautiful, practically endowed with a knack for stumbling upon, too often, the sublime. While Allah rambles over top, saying what he deeply means as much as what he knows he deeply doesn’t, IWOW counters with a visual language that prioritizes the delicate connections between all the people he’s captured on film. Mostly, he does this through keeping his conversations non-diegetic, very rarely allowing the image to sync up with the sound, but also never really divorcing the sound from its context either. Long, unbroken shots of his ex-girlfriend’s face seem to touch on and occasionally embrace the rhythm of a conversation from another time, drawing those experiences into a single, felt moment. We understand more about the person inside the frame—or, at least, we begin to understand them the way Khalik Allah does. We’re bewitched by his many compulsions, by the way he feverishly, stubbornly documents everything, leaves seemingly nothing out. We maybe even start to fall in love with his ex, too. —Dom Sinacola


malni – towards the ocean, towards the shore

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Sky Hopinka walks through spaces special and spurious in his first feature, malni – towards the ocean, towards the shore. The translation of the title lies within it, representing a liminal reality known well to both those who live in the Pacific Northwest now and those now who know of the death myth of the Chinookan people, those who lived in the Pacific Northwest first. In joining two Native locals, Jordan Mercier and Sweetwater Sahme, as they go about their rituals, daily and communal and otherwise, Hopinka grafts a sense of spiritual wonderment onto the warmly mundane stories they tell. Cultivating a lush soundscape, and seduced by long walks through the Columbia River Gorge or in and out of outcroppings rising by seemingly abandoned beaches on the Pacific—forward and backward through the membranes that separate sacred terrains—the film uses the death myth as a way to convey the power of the region, of especially the Portland area. Half an hour outside of the city in any direction wait things almost magical to behold; those of us who live here can feel ourselves change the more we cross urban lines. malni’s imbued with all that subtle transformation. —Dom Sinacola


Mayor

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Musa Hadid only addresses David Osit’s camera once throughout all of Mayor, simply asking if Osit knows whether Americans understand what’s really happening there, in the city of Ramallah in occupied Palestine, or not. Osit replies quietly, “I don’t know.” What’s happening there is never stated plainly, but instead described through the exigencies of Mayor Hadid’s everyday job, which, as he tells countless citizens, foreign visitors and press people, entails ensuring that the municipality takes care of its community’s basic needs. He meets with sheep farmers whose land is filling with sewage due to the Israeli settlements increasingly hogging the fringes that loom uphill of the town; he debates with his staff whether their Christmas tree, typically a centerpiece of seasonal festivities, should bear a political message opposing Trump’s decision to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem; he meets with German cadres to promote sisterhood between metropolitan centers, only to have to explain why they simply can’t just cooperate with the Israelis to promote confidence in outside investors. These are responsibilities that are in the job description, and Hadid fulfills his obligations with the accessibility and patience of someone who believes in what he does, 20 or so months in his tenure chronicled by Osit’s fly-on-the-wall documentary. Though we only watch violence from a distance, and though Mayor Hadid’s quotidian often borders on the depressingly mundane (until a breathless climax involving encroaching Israeli soldiers), Osit elegantly assembles a portrait of leadership—confident, caring and above all committed to the people—that feels genuinely alien to the American experience today. —Dom Sinacola


The Metamorphosis of Birds

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Catarina Vasconcelos’s The Metamorphosis of Birds tells of three generations in her family, casting actors in softly stylized vignettes that begin with the director’s grandfather, then follow her and her father, past her mother’s death, to an unknown horizon. Steeped in symbolism that barely escapes pretentiousness—letters of romantic wishing; peacock feathers lined up and counted; household trinkets and the empty corners they once filled now replaced by decades of houseplant growth left unabated—but all the more precious for it, the film reveals the life of her grandfather, a naval officer gone for months and months at a time while his six children transformed at a distance, his wife left to raise them and navigate their change. Fathers are far away, but desperate to send their love, and mothers die, in many cases their deaths essential, somehow, to their little birds leaving the nest, to them forging new symbols out there, on their own. Vasconcelos becomes a character in her own film as she mourns the loss of her mother, but she’s interested, too, in tracing her grief through her father’s grief, losing both his wife and his mother, losing the house his mother kept for him and his many siblings, losing time to the vastness of the ocean that kept his father so far away. In the midst of such closeness to the artist, we too feel the overwhelming space between these loved ones, space that was never closed, space we’re encouraged to confront in our own lives. —Dom Sinacola


The Painter and the Thief

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Career criminal and addict Karl-Bertil Nordland lays his eyes on the oil canvas portrait painted by his most recent victim, artist Barbora Kysilkova, 15 minutes into Benjamin Ree’s The Painter and the Thief, and then experiences a character arc’s worth of emotions in about as many seconds: shock, confusion, bewilderment, horror, awe, then finally gratitude communicated through tears. For the first time in his adult life, maybe in all his life, Nordland feels seen. It’s a stunning portrait, so vivid and detailed that Nordland looks like he’s about to saunter off the frame from his still life loll. Even a subject lacking his baggage would be just as gobsmacked as he is to look on Kysilkova’s work. In another movie, this one of a kind moment of vulnerability might’ve been the end. In The Painter and the Thief, it’s only the beginning of a moving odyssey through friendship, human connection and ultimate expressions of empathy. Ree’s filmmaking is a trust fall from a highrise. Trust is necessary for any documentary, but for Ree, it’s fundamental. The Painter and the Thief isn’t exactly “about” Nordland and Kysilkova the way most documentaries are “about” their subjects, in the sense that the film’s most dramatic reveals come as surprises to the viewer as much as to Nordland and Kysilkova themselves. The sentiment reads as cliché at a glance, but The Painter and the Thief argues that clichés exist for a reason. Think better of art’s power, Ree’s filmmaking tells us, but especially think better of each other, too. —Andy Crump


Sunless Shadows

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Mehrdad Oskouei steps completely out of frame for his follow-up to Starless Dreams, returning to the Iranian juvenile detention facility featured in his 2016 film to once more provide a kind of quiet cinematic freedom to the consciences and consciousnesses of the young women imprisoned there. With Sunless Shadows, he focuses further, documenting a population of women imprisoned for murdering one of their male relatives (usually husbands and fathers), allowing them space and safety to tell their stories however they feel compelled to share. The closeness between director and subjects, as in his previous film, feels particularly poignant given how fundamentally all men have betrayed them—the masculine systems designed to oppress them so complete they can only find peace without men, behind prison walls—but Oskouei the figure, their “Uncle Mehrdad,” rarely makes an appearance. Instead, he captures extemporaneous monologues through Errol-Morris-like confessions made in private rooms; ostensibly unguarded and addressing only a lens, women speak about their regrets, not because they killed someone, but because they can no longer see their sister or their mom, who were complicit in the act, imprisoned elsewhere. They speak of making the wrong choice, or making the right choice, or making any choice. They speak to the man they killed, or to the woman they were only trying to protect, a woman they will never see again. But then, amidst all the heartbreaking, complex testimony, Oskouei pulls back to show us a moment of light these women have found together in the darkness. It can be blinding. —Dom Sinacola


Time

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Hope and despair constitute the vacillating emotions of Garrett Bradley’s Time, a lyrical look at Sibil “Fox” Rich’s efforts to free her husband from the Louisiana prison where he serves 60 years for a botched bank robbery, as his sons grow up without a father in the home (Fox herself served a few years for aiding in the crime). Her dogged attempts to break through to an uncaring bureaucracy are crushing in and of themselves, but the mannered composure with which she takes denial after denial builds a remarkable portrait of strength and resolution. One could ask how much Time grapples with the legitimate wrongdoing of the Rich parents, but Bradley does not give much credence to the question, because to do so would legitimize the system that, in doling out sentences so severe, ignores the humanity of the perpetrators in the first place.

Sibil’s understanding of the morality of her and her husband’s situation is obvious, but also somewhat outside of the purview of Time, which is, for the better, much more concerned with the personal dynamic of the central relationship: how one sustains love and life when divided by an uncompromising and punishing system. The answer, in the case of the Riches, is Sibil’s home-made video diaries from a miniDV camera over the years, patched together with a score that gives the entire film the feel of a swelling epic—the intensely personal elevated to mythical proportions. Time truly builds to an ultimate moment of catharsis, an already deeply human moment filled with the additional powers of cinematic grace. —Daniel Christian


Vick

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While The Last Dance generated more discussion than any other sports documentary this year—no doubt helped along by an early release meant to jolt the otherwise listless and mounting days of quarantine—it is Stanley Nelson’s portrait of Michael Vick’s rise-and-fall-and-plateau, Vick, that stands out as the most worthwhile resuscitation of legend in the first half of 2020. Part one of Vick, which plays in diptych fashion, allows us reminiscences of his revolutionary quarterbacking days with the Atlanta Falcons, when he was the world’s most popular football player: the singular awe that came from watching Vick so expertly navigate space and time, running circles around hapless opponents, weaving through defenses with such fluidity that he once caused two Minnesota Vikings to run into each other as if in a Looney Tunes sketch. Yet, every comment is spoken with the taste of regret, as Vick wonders what life would have looked like had he taken the advice of institutional mentors.

The second half is entirely dedicated to Vick’s dogfighting scandal, the aftermath and his successful comeback with the Philadelphia Eagles. Nelson doesn’t shy away from the atrocities of animal abuse, but perhaps gives Vick’s full story proper contextualization for the first time, looking at the history of dogfighting and Vick’s rough upbringing and cultural significance in Newport News, Virginia (he’s football’s analogue to Allen Iverson). As Tucker Carlson advocates a hanging, Steve Harvey wonders on stage where such righteous fervor was to be found after police killings of Black men, leading to a climax of “Man, fuck them dogs.” The film shows Vick as the perpetrator of an awful crime, but likewise finds space to humanize his Icarus story, portraying him asA homebody loyal to his roots who possessed such undeniable talent it swiftly lifted him from poverty to a world of extreme excess, where his every action as a flamboyant Black quarterback would be subjected to scrutiny and coded racism. The true story of Michael Vick, as Nelson shows, is that of someone caught in the maelstrom of expedited class mobility (e.g., ordering chicken fingers at his first steakhouse dinner with Falcons billionaire owner Arthur Blank), of changing expectations, of the choice between a corruptive relationship with day-one friends and a fortune reliant on cutting ties with his still-close past. A perception of self-preservation led to self-destruction, and eventually, whether one chooses to accept a redemptive arc or not, rebirth. —Daniel Christian


You Don’t Nomi

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For those of us culturally conscious during Showgirls’ release in 1995—who understood the inherently jarring nature of witnessing Jessie Spano rebuke her Valedictorian ways and succumb to the seedy world of adult exploitation—Jeffrey McHale’s witty and endlessly fascinating cinematic essay, You Don’t Nomi, is a welcome codification of the film’s cult status. Loosely divided into sections addressing the ’ most notorious criticisms, as well as how it stands up to assessments as a misunderstood masterpiece and operates in conversation with Paul Verhoeven’s other films, McHale’s documentary eschews talking heads for voice overs from critics and programmers (David Schmader, Adam Nayman, Haley Mlotek), as well as the star of the Showgirls musical (April Kidwell), to wax both academically and emotionally about what the movie means to them. Some are obsessed, some disgusted; in some cases, McHale uses images to contradict the critics, often cuing up clips from Basic Instinct or Black Book or Elle or Verhoeven’s pre-Hollywood films to demonstrate that the issues he explores in Showgirls have never been far from his mind. Such is the fate of a cultural object like Showgirls, one whose reputation (which McHale examines too) thrives on being considered in a vacuum, rather than as a piece of an auteur’s much broader oeuvre. As affectionately hyper-focused as he is on explication—on symbols and subtext and the director’s own (probably purposely) obtuse comments—and as much room as he gives to, in some ways, revitalizing and reconsidering Elizabeth Berkley’s performance as the titular and extremely weird Nomi, McHale never loses sight of that important context. Or that even more important love. —Dom Sinacola