You can have all the arguments you want about the quality of mainstream cinema this year – and people have certainly had them – but here’s an unimpeachable truth: it was a great, great year for documentaries. This year, we saw nonfiction cinema tell vital stories, conduct bold experiments with form, and (over and over again) provide history and context for the most pressing concerns of the present day – and, it seems, of the years to come. These are our picks for the films that achieved those feats, and more, most memorably.
10. Author: The JT LeRoy Story
You can imagine just about any reputable nonfiction filmmaker making something compelling out of the notorious ‘90s literary scandal, in which an HIV-positive homeless teen fiction writer was unmasked, after years of literary fame and celebrity gallivanting, as a full-on hoax, the creation of a quick-thinking fabulist named Laura Albert. Director Jeff Feuerzeig digs deeper, beyond the customary then-she-did-this-and-then-she-did-THIS approach, to ask the more interesting question: why did she do those things? What compelled her to manufacture this tragic/triumphant person out of whole cloth? And, what, ultimately, did she gain from it?
Clay Tweel’s documentary profile of NFL linebacker Steve Gleason and his struggle with ALS (aka Lou Gehrig’s Disease) could’ve been (we’re all friends here) either insufferable pap or a soul-wrecking tear-jerker – and make no mistake, it will make you sob like a newborn baby. But it’s also a funny film, and a joyful one, finding life and laughter in his wit and relationships, which makes his inability to maintain either as the disease takes hold all the more wrecking.
Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg’s documentary was already the political tragi-comedy of the year before he (quite possibly) led directly to the defeat of his wife’s boss. Anyway, the movie: What should’ve been a comeback story for liberal firebrand congressman Anthony Weiner turned, on a dime, into an unforgiving warts-and-all portrait of self-destructiveness and political implosion. Weiner documents every painful step, with access that surely must’ve seemed a good idea at the time, and results in a cringe-inducing case study in what drives our politicians – and our politics.
John R. Brinkley was an early 20th century radio pioneer, gubernatorial candidate, and world-famous doctor who made waves for a controversial procedure implanting goat testicles into impotent men. He was also entirely full of shit, a con artist and snake-oil salesman whose fame is either a sad testament to the gullibility of John Q. Public, or the definitive American success story. (And yes, the decision not to include any proper nouns in that sentence is purposeful.) Director Penny Lane ingeniously tells his story like the folk tale it was, supplementing the usual archival materials with original animation and narration, a clever stylistic device that brilliantly ties in to the film’s overarching concerns about how we consider “truth,” and who we trust to tell it.
Apologies for the lumping, but these two extraordinary films are inextricably linked in my mind: I first saw them within days of each other at SXSW, they were released within days of each other in October, and I wrote about them together, as stylistically divergent but thematically connected surveys of the human cost of gun violence in general and school shootings in particular. Tower is set in the more distant past, exploring the 1966 sniper massacre at the University of Texas, but uses animation and dramatization make its story pressingly immediate and terrifying. Newtown concerns the Sandy Hook shooting, and the insurmountable grief left in its wake, spending most of its running time with grieving parents whose lives, it seems, will never be the same – honoring their loss, yet inspired by their actions in the passing years. Both films take incidents that have become shorthand for murder and madness, and turn them back into human stories, both heartbreaking and horrifying.
4. Do Not Resist
Director Craig Atkinson takes an immersive, almost invisible approach to this broad yet precise look at police militarization (and the human costs of that movement), disappearing into the walls and crowds at training seminars, SWAT busts, and tense protests, capturing what he sees, and letting those images – and his juxtapositions of them – tell the story. He doesn’t make the arguments; he doesn’t have to. The culture he’s capturing doesn’t seem to have much trouble speaking for itself.
“I’m frequently asked why I don’t write my memoirs,” Pauline Kael wrote in the introduction to her career-spanning collection For Keeps. “I think I have.” That idea – that the work captures the person and the life they’ve led, even when it’s ostensibly about something else – is brought to smashing life in this breathtaking film scrapbook by cinematographer Kirsten Johnson (Citizenfour, The Invisible War, Darfur Now, and many more), who assembles outtakes and set-up footage from years of her films to document not only her creative process, but the lives, conflicts, and tragedies she’s captured. By its conclusion, the connections she makes and the emotional truths she’s weaved are overwhelming; it’s a movie not just about being a filmmaker, but about being a human being.
2. O.J.: Made in America
Ezra Edelman’s 467-minute examination of race and power (which played festivals and theatrical engagements before its run, as a five-part mini-series, on ABC and ESPN) is, quite simply, a staggering piece of non-fiction filmmaking – a wide-ranging analysis that treats the notorious 1994 double-murder in Brentwood as a cultural flashpoint, meticulously chasing down the gasoline trails of celebrity worship and police corruption that led to it, and sifting through the ashes of its aftermath. Riveting, complicated, and impossible to shake.
1. I Am Not Your Negro
The year’s most essential movie, and its best – documentary or no – is Raoul Peck’s thrilling exploration of civil rights in our past, present, and future, viewed through the searing words of James Baldwin (in the notes he left for an unfinished book). Yet what’s so bracing about Peck’s work isn’t just the importance of this history, or even the prescience of Baldwin’s text; it’s how alive he is to the possibilities of cinema, how he’s unbound by rules of chronology or source, seeing everything in the world around him – music, film, prose, photographs, archival footage, faces from today’s news, and tomorrow’s – as raw materials for this potent mosaic. “The story of the Negro in America is the story of America,” Baldwin wrote. “It is not a pretty story.” Truer words were never spoken.
Also worth singling out this year: 13th, Michael Jackson’s Journey from Thriller to Off The Wall, Tickled, Into the Inferno, Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You, Zero Days, Presenting Princess Shaw, Team Foxcatcher, Accidental Courtesy, TRAPPED, The Lovers and the Despot, and Life, Animated. Stay tuned for our ten best narrative films of the year.