2023 in Review: Best Documentary Films of the Year

As I am prone to do every year, I separate documentaries into their own Best of the Year list, not because I feel they should be judged any differently than narrative films, but because I want to call attention to as many great docs as I possibly can, and trying to do that and still limit my main Feature Film Best Of list to 30 or 40 titles 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 contemplated in terms of perspective, information, or fuel for outrage or celebration.

Part of the thrill of being a living, thinking, evolving human being is absorbing new information and experiences, as well as allowing this newness to inspire fresh ideas and points of view. That’s the standard to which I hold documentaries: don’t just teach me, but move me or alter my DNA in some fundamental way.

Here are 20 titles that did just that in 2023…

20. Squaring the Circle (The Story of Hipgnosis) (Dir: Anton Corbijn)

19. The Pigeon Tunnel (Dir: Errol Morris)

18. Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie (Dir: Davis Guggenheim)

17. Judy Blume Forever (Dirs: Davina Pardo & Leah Wolchok)

16. American Symphony (Dir: Matthew Heineman)

15. Pretty Baby: Brooke Shields (Dir: Lana Wilson)

14. Little Richard: I Am Everything (Dir: Lisa Cortes)

13. Every Body (Dir: Julie Cohen)

12. The League (Dir: Sam Pollard)

11. The Mission (Dirs: Amanda McBaine & Jesse Moss)

10. Beyond Utopia (Dir: Madeleine Gavin)

9. The Disappearance Of Shere Hite (Dir: Nicole Newnham)

8. The Eternal Memory (Dir: Maite Alberdi)

7. Lakota Nation vs. United States (Dirs: Jesse Short Bull & Laura Tomaselli)

6. Silver Dollar Road (Dir: Raoul Peck)

5. Four Daughters (Dir: Kaouther Ben Hania)

4. 20 Days In Mariupol (Dir: Mstyslav Chernov)

3. Kokomo City (Dir: D. Smith)

2. The Deepest Breath (Dir: Laura McGann)

1. Menus-Plaisirs Les Troisgros (Dir: Frederick Wiseman)

The ultimate observer, Wiseman doesn’t just fill this sprawling, four-hour piece with extended scenes of chefs preparing one magnificent meal after another. He’s interested in what keeps an establishment (actually three) running smoothly while maintaining its long-established quality. By the end of the film, you know this family franchise inside and out and have become fully invested in the lives of everyone who works there. Wiseman is a master craftsman, never afraid to linger in a moment too long, especially if it means getting to better understand the inner workings of whatever institution upon which he’s chosen to cast his eyes.

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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.