The struggle for racial equality in America, the careers of cinematographers, directors, and photographers, the immigration crisis, music as celebration and grief, and strange conspiracies — these were just a few of the places and stories that this year’s documentary offerings brought us. With 2016 wrapping up, we’ve selected 20 features in the field that most impressed, so check out our list below and, in the comments, let us know your favorites.
13th (Ava DuVernay)
Following the stunning Selma, which conveyed a present-tense urgency sorely lacking in many biopics and radically distributed screen-time away from Dr. King to communicate the collectivity inherent to any reform movement, Ava DuVernay has shifted her rhetorical approach, but her anger remains. Whereas Selma was emotive and explosive, 13th is lucid and level-headed, gradually and methodically making a case that black incarceration is actually just a reconfigured and rebranded form of slavery. Sticking to conventional but effective documentary tactics that maximize the clarity of her message, DuVernay crafts a shockingly compelling argument that swells in power with each additional interviewee and statistic. As everything from D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation to Nixon’s War on Drugs to the prison system’s economic incentive is implicated in the perpetuation of the new slavery, 13th transcends its journalistic ethos to become a call to action as well as indisputable proof that DuVernay is one of the most important filmmakers working today. – Jonah J.
Author: The JT Leroy Story (Jeff Feuerzeig)
Author: The JT LeRoy Story relives the literary hoax of the early aughts, the truly weird and out-of-control tale of JT LeRoy. An allegedly gender-fluid HIV-positive son of a West Virginia truck stop hooker, he rose to the heights of indie stardom befriending the likes of Courtney Love, Shirley Manson, Lou Reed, Michael Pitt, Billy Corgan, and filmmakers Gus Van Saint and Asia Argento (both would “adapt” works by LeRoy). An anonymous experiment originally conducted by Laura Albert, the myth grows out of control when she hires Savannah Knoop, her sister-in-law, as an avatar. The real Laura Albert had been described by media accounts as a Brooklyn housewife, but here director Jeff Feuerzeig dives deeper. – John F. (full review)
Cameraperson (Kirsten Johnson)
A travelogue through one artist’s subconscious, Cameraperson is perhaps the most plural film of 2016 – a formal, tonal, situational, and pacing exercise that lulls viewers into thinking it’s set on one thing before turning towards seemingly new territory. And it never feels out-of-balance because director Kirsten Johnson has, by building this film around moments that “marked” her, granted such an intimate experience that it almost feels wrong to intellectualize much of anything that’s going on here, no matter how much the treatment may be deserved. So I say to you: see Cameraperson. Nowhere else this year are you more likely to find something relatable, funny, sad, upsetting, and life-affirming in one package. – Nick N.
De Palma (Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow)
Write what you know. Then maybe talk about what you know. Or, better yet, ask someone who knows better to talk about what you know. Like any of the best longform-interview docs, Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow’s De Palma — a career-spanning, film-by-film dissection of the great movie brat’s work, told by the man himself — feels more like a meeting of minds than a Q&A session; like a chat between colleagues, or even friends. We never get to see Baumbach or Paltrow, but the manner in which Brian De Palma opens up to them on screen says a lot. He’s talking shop, of course, not offering his life story, but it’s a side of filmmaking we don’t hear about often enough. Shot over the course of five years, but staged to look like one session, De Palma talks candidly about the business, its peaks and troughs, its constant difficulties, occasional wonders, and the apparent freak nature of each failure or success — plus casting a young De Niro; directing Orson Welles; his debt to Hitchcock; then Carrie, The Untouchables, Scarface, Tom Cruise, etc. It might be the most succinct, informative, and entertaining look at the filmmaking process since Making Movies, Sidney Lumet’s peerless 1996 directorial guidebook. – Rory O.C.
Don’t Blink – Robert Frank (Laura Israel)
Few people are living embodiments of their style. Now that David Bowie and Prince have left us in the same year, even fewer are. Robert Frank, the subject of Laura Israel‘s documentary Don’t Blink – Robert Frank, and his art — striking photographs and film of Americana — reflect one another like those collages of dog owners and their pets. Rather than both having droopy ears or a snooty nose, they crunch like shards of glass beneath boots. Frank and his creations grind against good taste while still being sharp and beautiful. His is an imperfect America, as if Norman Rockwell subjects stepped out of frame for a few drinks and a game of dice, then got lost on their way back home. – Jacob O. (full review)
The Eagle Huntress (Otto Bell)
For seven generations, the men of Nurgaiv’s family have mastered the art of eagle-hunting, a tradition in western Mongolia that goes back some 2,000 years. For the Kazakh people of the Altai region, it is a practice that is not only crucial to their survival in the remote area, but also a badge of honor and expertise in the long-held tradition. Inspired by her father, Nurgaiv’s daughter Aisholpan has taken an avid interest in the craft with hopes of tearing down the boundaries of cultural sexism and becoming the titular, first-ever The Eagle Huntress. In capturing her passion, her family’s encouragement, and the societal roadblocks ahead of her to overcome, director Otto Bell has created an empowering, gorgeously shot documentary. – Jordan R. (full review)
Fire at Sea (Gianfranco Rosi)
The migrant crisis leads the news agenda in almost every European country, but its crucible is not the EU capitals that’ve been sites of terrorist incidents, nor the UK, which recklessly voted for a Brexit led by anti-immigration candidates. No, its fulcrums are Mediterranean islands like the setting of Gianfranco Rosi’s Golden Bear-winning documentary Fire at Sea: Lampedusa, a craggy eight-square-mile island between Sicily and Tunisia. Tens of thousands of African immigrants have landed there hoping to gain entry to Europe, and many others died trying. Without voiceover or music, Rosi observes the island’s residents who continue to go about their normal life while horrors occur just off Lampedusa’s cliffs. But death just beyond the periphery can only be intellectualized in the “that’s life” vein for so long. When Rosi does eventually travel alongside migrants on boats in the film’s final third, we see charred skin burned from leaked fuel, and the dead brought ashore — victims of heat exposure, dehydration, and, of course, a system of cruel exploitation. As haunting as those images are, it’s the helplessness of the island’s residents – like a doctor bursting into tears describing what he has seen – that endure as emblems of how we in the so-called “first world” have failed to deal with this age-defining crisis. Without giving answers, Rosi’s film does what the best docs do: it encourages to not close our eyes to what is happening in our society, or indeed our world. In that way, it’s a defining movie of 2016. – Ed F.
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