The reason I separate out documentaries is not because I feel they should be judged differently than feature films, but because I want to put as many great doc titles in front of you as I possibly can, and trying to do that and still limit my main list to 50 films is an impossibility. I get such a wonderfully unique charge from a great documentary, whether it’s on a subject I know a great deal about or if it covers ground I’d never even considered in terms of perspective, information, or sources of outrage.
Sometimes, the sheer beauty or tragedy of a subject moves us to tears; other times, it’s something quite ugly and worth despising that gets under the skin, takes root, and refuses to let go until we take action (often times, that action is the simple act of sharing the film with others). The experience I treasure the most when it comes to documentaries is when a genuinely well-made work doesn’t just examine a subject, but it also allows me to consider a way of thinking that had never occurred to me before.
Part of the thrill of being a living, thinking human being is taking in new things, taking part in new experiences, and allowing this newness to infect and inspire us with fresh ideas. That’s the standard to which I hold documentaries: don’t just move me or teach me, but change me in some way. Here are 20 titles I think do just that…
1. Bisbee ’17
For several years, filmmaker Robert Greene has examined the process of creating a performance and how the act of becoming someone else reveals a great deal about who the performer is. In 2011’s Fake It So Real, Greene looked at the world of independent pro wrestling; at its core, 2014’s Actress was about a woman playing a version of herself; and 2016’s Sundance favorite Kate Plays Christine profiled actress Kate Lyn Sheil prepping to play newscaster Christine Chubbuck, who committed suicide on the air in 1974. There are times in his films when the lines between performer and character are deliberately and masterfully blurred, never more so than in Bisbee ’17, about a former mining town on the Arizona-Mexico border preparing to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the darkest day in its history with a re-enactment film of said day.
The incident in question—now called the Bisbee Deportation—concerns the rounding up and shipping off of 1200 mostly immigrant miners who were in the early stages of organizing into a labor union. The day turned brother against brother, friend against friend, neighbor against neighbor, and revealed a decidedly racist core to the town. That day is one that is still being debated by the residents to this day, with many towing the mining company line that extracting those miners kept the town from erupting into violence; while others see it as the ultimate act of corporations squashing workers’ rights. The deportation is much talked about in the town, which makes this re-creation all the more curious, as it opens up decades-old wounds and gives the players a chance to work out some of their aggressions about the town’s troubled past.
Foregoing the typical fly-on-the-wall documentary approach, Greene orchestrates a great deal of what goes on during the filming, while giving us a window into how a small town maintains a balance in the present, even if it’s been built on a foundation of troubling behavior. The way the modern-version of the retelling is structured (and perhaps adjusted to reflect the collective memory) is one of the highlights of the film. The result—a haunting, emotional and oddly relevant tale—is the best documentary of the year, in a year with a great number of winning docs.
2. Minding the Gap (Dir: Bing Liu)
3. Free Solo (Dirs: Jimmy Chin & Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi)
4. Three Identical Strangers (Dir: Tim Wardle)
5. On Her Shoulders (Dir: Alexandria Bombach)
6. Science Fair (Dir: Cristina Costantini & Darren Foster)
7. Leaning Into the Wind: Andy Goldsworthy (Dir: Thomas Riedelsheimer)
8. Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (Dir: Morgan Neville)
9. Say Her Name: The Life and Death of Sandra Bland (Dirs: Kate Davis & David Heilbroner)
10. Hale County This Morning, This Evening (Dir: RaMell Ross)
11. RBG (Dirs: Julie Cohen & Betsy West)
12. Shirkers (Dir: Sandi Tan)
13. Generation Wealth (Dir: Lauren Greenfield)
14. John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection (Dir: Julien Faraut)
15. Did You Ever Wonder Who Fired the Gun? (Dir: Travis Wilkerson)
16. Hal (Dir: Amy Scott)
17. Tea with the Dames (Dir: Roger Michell)
18. The Road Movie (Dir: Dmitrii Kalashnikov)
19. Filmworker (Dir: Tony Zierra)
20. Hitler’s Hollywood (Dir: Rüdiger Suchsland)
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