The hurricane of elements that’s led to such a rich and rewarding period of documentary filmmaking – technological advances reducing the cost of production, an explosion of online options for viewing, the ongoing incorporation of documentary aesthetics into mainstream entertainment – contributed to an extraordinary year in non-fiction, one in which this particular viewer had as much trouble making a top-ten documentary list as a conventional narrative one. (More, perhaps.) On top of all that, the events of the world outside the frame – and those which, in some cases, worked their way into it – lent a particular urgency to non-fiction moviemaking, which seeks to capture and convey facts and truths, in a media landscape where those elements are too easily dismissed or politicized. Whether attempting to penetrate that logjam, or merely telling small, personal stories and finding truth there, this year’s crop of documentary films is, simply put, extraordinary. These were the best.
Few documentarians match Brett Morgen’s deftness at telling a new story by organizing (and re-organizing) existing elements; his films on Kurt Cobain, the Rolling Stones, and the media frenzy of the O.J. Simpson case made those pop cultural artifacts seem fresh and new again. Here, he sculpts 100+ hours of footage, most of it shot in the 1960s (long thought lost, then rediscovered in 2014) to show how Jane Goodall – a researcher’s secretary, with no training or scientific degree, inspiringly refused to accept her “place” and ended up doing some of the most important in-the-field scientific research of her time. Combining that extraordinary footage, her own narration and interviews, and a Philip Glass score that’s stirring in that very specific Philip Glass way, Morgen paints a portrait of an innovator and groundbreaker from both a professional and personal perspective, wisely shortchanging neither.
9. A Gray State
On Christmas Day in 2014, an independent filmmaker named David Crowley killed his wife, his five-year-old daughter, and himself. But because of cryptic clues he left behind, and the fact that he was making a Libertarian fringe thriller for the Alex Jones set, this horrible tragedy became fodder for that fringe audience, many of whom believe he was silenced for his anti-government leanings. Erik Nelson’s sad and often chilling documentary is born of the same climate that infests our airwaves and social media with the most feverish of conspiracy theories, while disclosing that those elaborate scenarios paper over a far more common story: that of a couple succumbing to despair, and to the same kind of paranoia that infused his work. This is a hard movie to watch, as his private audio and video recordings serve as journals of a descent into madness. But it’s a harrowing portrait of how easily our own darkness can take us over, if we let it.
Of course Hulk Hogan v. Gawker was documentary catnip: it’s got a celebrity wrestler, a shock jock, a sex tape, and a rabble-rousing website – oh yeah, and fundamental questions of celebrity, Internet privacy, and freedom of the press. Unsurprisingly, when it was happening in Florida last year, most of the ink and pixels focused on the more sensational aspects. Brian Knappenberger’s terrific film properly reframes the case, and wisely uses it not as a destination, but a starting point for a wide-ranging examination of who was responsible for the case, and who most directly benefits from it. And in drawing the line directly to a president who can (and has threated to) limit the press’s ability to investigate, report, and criticize, Nobody Speak is a chilling alarm siren.
The musical profile documentary has become a bit of a “one for them” paycheck for some of our best nonfiction filmmakers, but Nick Broomfield doesn’t approach this portrait of Whitney Houston as a throwaway; he imbues it with the investigative curiosity and thematic depth of his best work, and comes up with a powerful portrait of addiction and depression. To do so, he marries Rudy Dolezal’s previously unseen all-access footage from her 1999 world tour – a pivot point for her career, and her life – with his own current interviews with family, friends, and colleagues (including the people on that tour). Those cameras capture some sad and telling images – private moments, in which her struggle is apparent – to tell the story of a squandered gift, a toxic marriage, and an addiction that could not be conquered. Most heartbreakingly, the film finds a Rosebud in the form of Robyn Crawford, her lifelong friend, collaborator, and probable romantic partner, had the relationship been allowed by her stiflingly religious parents and the celebrity culture of the day. It’s a heartbreaking movie, transcending rubbernecker voyeurism and sensationalism to tell the story of a magnetic performer who never found the happiness and peace she deserved.
In 1988, Errol Morris rewrote the rules of documentary filmmaking – drawing in such heretofore taboo elements as reenactments and a moody, original score – in his true-crime groundbreaker The Thin Blue Line. His latest, edited for viewing as either a six-part Netflix series or a one-intermission, four-hour theatrical documentary, is the closest thing he’s done to a Blue Line sequel, returning not only to the fertile soil of an unsolved murder, but to the kind of formal experimentation you expect from a first-time filmmaker and not one of the giants of his field. It’s a gripping spy thriller, a compelling mystery, and a thoughtful dive into the existential question of knowability – all at once, in perfect symphony.
5. The Reagan Show
The subject of Sierra Pettengill and Pacho Velez’s semi-experimental documentary is President Ronald Reagan, but it’s not the story of his campaign, reelection, governorship, or legacy. Instead, they peer into the lenses through which we did and did not see that office for eight years, dismissing talking heads and summarizing narration for a brilliantly edited multi-media montage of newscasts, TV addresses, and official White House videos. But “official” doesn’t tell the whole story – more often than not, we’re seeing pre-roll and outtakes, making this the political documentary counterpart to bootleg records, where the most telling moments are often the studio chatter. Surveying the Reagan years through that specific prism underscores the degree to which this administration manipulated images to stage their message, to an extent unprecedented at that time, but S.O.P. these days. Or, to put it another way, shudder along with Peter Jennings as he contemplates how “politicians who come after him are going to have to succeed first on television.” Uh huh.
4. In Transit
The Empire Builder is the busiest long-haul passenger train route in America, a three-day journey from Chicago to the Pacific Northwest (or the other way around). The final film of the late, great Albert Maysles – co-directed with Lynn True, David Usui, Nelson Walker and Benjamin Wu – is a chronicle of the people on that route. They pass the time by playing cards, singing songs, conversing, and confessing; there are bits of mini-drama here and there (chief among them a young woman whose baby was due three days ago), but Maysles doesn’t get hung up on any of it. He just settles in to the rhythms of those long nights and bleary-eyed mornings, and gets into the get-up-and-go spirit of these trips, best summarized by a line employee’s memory of understanding the trains as a child: “It was just amazing to me that all these people were going someplace that I’d never been.” And in his own quiet way, Maysles captures that wonder. This is a lovely, perfect film.
3. Ex Libris: The New York Public Library
The great Frederick Wiseman spends three-plus hours observing the ins and outs of the NYPL, and as ever, he’s interested in observing how things work, how people live, and ultimately, how society functions. In the library’s range of activities and the intersections of its workers and its users, he finds a cross-section of race, class, education and experience – a microcosm of NYC itself. And that’s why Wiseman is such an ideal documentarian for this subject: he seems to be interested in literally everything, and he finds what the librarians and community members have to say just as valuable, if not more so, than the wisdom of the visiting authors. The democracy of his filmmaking is, as ever, striking; this is one of our most American artists, and Ex Libris is the very definition of what he does well.
2. LA 92
In a country still shaking from the earthquakes of Ferguson and Cleveland, still stunned by the public displays of racism in Charlottesville and Charleston, still contemplating the dark undercurrents that put a white supremacist in the White House (and made another the nation’s chief law enforcement officer), this look back at the Los Angeles riots following the Rodney King verdict goes off like a powder keg. It was one of many documentaries timed to the 25th anniversary of that protest, and while all are good, none pulse with LA 92’s immediacy – particularly as Oscar-winning filmmakers Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin (Undefeated) chose to place their film firmly in the present tense, using not retrospective interviews or narration, merely pulling from media and home video footage of the story as it was happening. The results are visceral, scary, and infuriating all over again, a true miscarriage of justice that turned into a civil uprising that asked more questions than it answered.
1. The Work
Twice a year, Folsom State Prison expands its weekly group therapy sessions into a four-day intensive session with therapists, convicts, and volunteers from the public. As one of those cons puts it, “For four days, let’s be what we could be.” This extraordinary documentary by Jairus McLeary captures that process with strength and sensitivity, as guards are let down and tears are allowed to flow. The film’s subjects come from cultures and neighborhoods where feelings like these, and displays of emotion, are interpreted as weakness, and the impulses that drive their behaviors and attitudes are so deeply ingrained, they’re borderline unshakable. These sessions nevertheless try to wiggle them lose, resulting in moments that are charged, angry, difficult, and staggeringly affecting. “This is work,” one of them explains. “This is ugly-ass shit.” It is that – and it’s important work, particularly when framed by a year in which the toxic masculinity they’re battling has been exposed as the root of so much of our American sickness.
HONORABLE MENTIONS: Five Came Back, 78/52, Abacus: Small Enough To Jail, The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography, Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story, Chasing Trane, Citizen Jane: Battle for the City, David Lynch: The Art Life, Dawson City: Frozen Time, The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson, The Departure, Faces Places, The Force, I Called Him Morgan, Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold, Let It Fall: Los Angeles 1982-1992, Long Strange Trip, Mommy Dead and Dearest, No Stone Unturned, Obit, Oklahoma City, One of Us, The Rape of Recy Taylor, Rat Film, Voyeur, and Whose Streets?
Coming tomorrow: Our list of the year’s best narrative features.