2020 in Review: Best Documentary Films of the Year

As I’ve said before, the reason I separate documentaries into their own Best of the Year list is not because I feel they should be judged any differently than feature films, but because I want to put as many great docs in the spotlight as I possibly can, and trying to do that and still limit my main list to 40 or 50 movies is impossible. I get such a 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 fuel for outrage.

Image courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

That being said, I’ll fully admit a shortcoming in my selections this year: I didn’t watch any docs this year that dealt with the COVID-19 pandemic. Granted, there weren’t that many (Totally Under Control and 76 Days being the most notable), but I feel like we’re going to be bombarded with films on the subject of the current pandemic—in particular, America’s severe mishandling of it—over the next couple of years, and I just wanted to have a little distance from the threat of the coronavirus before I dove into documentaries on the subject. I may feel differently in 2021, but I couldn’t bring myself to look directly into the eyes of the subject in a 2020 film.

Part of the thrill of being a living, thinking, evolving human being is taking in new things and experiences, and allowing this newness to 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 fundamental way. Here are 20 titles I think do just that…

20. Vinyl Nation (Dirs: Christopher Boone & Kevin Smokler) — Read my full review

19. Creem: American’s Only Rock ’N’ Roll Magazine (Dir: Scott Crawford)

18. I Am Greta (Dir: Nathan Grossman)

17. Assassins (Dir: Ryan White)

16. The Truffle Hunters (Dirs: Michael Dweck & Gregory Kershaw)

15. MLK/FBI (Dir: Sam Pollard)

14. Beastie Boys Story (Dir: Spike Jonze)

13. The Way I See It (Dir: Dawn Porter) — Read my full review

12. The Painter and the Thief (Dir: Benjamin Ree)

11. Zappa (Dir: Alex Winter)

10. Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets (Dirs: Bill Ross IV & Turner Ross)

9. Crip Camp (Dirs: James Lebrecht & Nicole Newnham)

8. Time (Dir: Garrett Bradley)

7. Dick Johnson Is Dead (Dir: Kirsten Johnson)

6. The Dissident (Dir: Bryan Fogel)

5. On the Record (Dirs: Kirby Dick & Amy Ziering)

4. Boys State (Dirs: Amanda McBaine & Jesse Moss)

3. City Hall (Dir: Frederick Wiseman) — Read my full review

2. David Byrne’s American Utopia (Dir: Spike Lee)

1. Collective (Dir: Alexander Nanau)

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet
Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for
Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and
filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a
frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine.
He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently
owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for
the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer
for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the
city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.