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The Best Documentaries of 2016

Written by on December 20, 2016 

I Am Not Your Negro (Raoul Peck)


After decades of delay, James Baldwin’s last book has finally come out — as a movie. Director Raoul Peck has combined the manuscript for Baldwin’s unfinished Remember This House, his interviews and correspondences, and historical and contemporary news footage to create a sobering treatise on America’s endless war against its black citizens. Baldwin’s thoughts on popular culture and the murders of his activist friends haven’t lost an ounce of relevance. Peck’s balletic editing collapses the boundaries between the past, Baldwin’s present, and the time after his death, allowing him to speak to us now with grim, clear-eyed insight. – Dan S.

Into the Inferno (Werner Herzog)


This is Werner Herzog doing what Werner Herzog does best: exploring people and things that exist at the edge of the world. In this case, Herzog and volcanologist Clive Oppenheimer travel all over, filming active volcanoes around the globe and interviewing those who study, worship, and fear them. As with all of his best documentaries, the details are the difference. The joy of a UC Berkeley professor digging for fossils in the Afar Region in Ethiopia, or the thrill Oppenheimer gets in discussing theories that come from past eruptions, linked to everything from human evolution to climate change. Herzog feeds off the excitement, and that energy fuels the film. – Dan M. 

Justin Timberlake + The Tennessee Kids (Jonathan Demme)


The risk of filming a concert is that cinema might become subordinated to the stage, with the camera being reduced to its function as a recording apparatus. Legendary music documentarian Jonathan Demme brushes aside such concerns in Justin Timberlake + The Tennessee Kids, an exuberant experience that unites live concert with cinematic sleights of hand, thus creating a hybrid work of art that showcases the best of both mediums. Through agile camerawork that weaves among the onstage performers, bringing us closer to the moment-to-moment blossoming of spectacle than live attendance would have allowed, the film does something remarkable: it turns the vast, ostensibly impersonal space of a massive stadium venue into a zone of intimacy and community. Rather than showcasing superstar JT and leaving everyone else in his shadow, the film makes it a point to emphasize the contributions of all the musicians, dancers, and backup singers, as well as the crowd whose ecstatic showerings of affection are what constitute Timberlake’s celebrity status. “It takes a village to make a pop superstar,” Keith Uhlich wrote in his review of the film, and this spot-on description encapsulates Justin Timberlake + The Tennessee Kids, a film that celebrates not just a pop star but the pop experience, which, in its ideal form, is a collective labor of love. – Jonah J.

Kate Plays Christine (Robert Greene)

Kate Plays Christine

Actors put themselves in others’ skins — or they put others’ heads inside their own. Television journalists adopt a persona and try to deliver important information. Women erect calculated fronts to navigate environments not built for them. Many people suffering mental illness do their best to maintain a semblance of “nothing’s wrong.” Film directors orchestrate elaborate works of emotional manipulation. Documentary film directors do so with factual material. Such performances often overlap in the course of life and work; all of them intersect in Kate Plays Christine. – Dan S. (full review)

No Home Movie (Chantal Akerman)


Forever marked, for better and for worse, as Chantal Akerman‘s final endeavor, No Home Movie offers no option but introspection on the fragile balance in which life and its many components always hang. Not that she, one of the greatest filmmakers who ever lived, ever let it play so easy. (Well, all right – A Couch in New York, maybe.) A dual portrait of Akerman and her mother in their final days, it can be difficult to break through without the context of at least a few prior features, but this is not solely for the faithful: as an implication-heavy history lesson and hushed relationship drama between generations with seemingly irreparable gaps (Akerman’s mother is herself a Holocaust survivor), No Home Movie is more observant than nearly any feature this year, documentary or otherwise, and, in its first shot alone, offers one of the greatest visual expressions of grief I’ve ever seen. – Nick N.

Nuts! (Penny Lane)


A story so absurd it requires animation to be told, Nuts!, directed by Penny Lane, continues the filmmaker’s interest in personal histories, following her 16mm found-footage documentary Our Nixon. Collaborating with writer Thom Stylinski, Lane’s entry into the material is initially her subject, John Romulus Brinkley. He crafted an impotence cure, grafting a thin piece of a goat testical gland onto a human male phallus. This is a starting point of folksy curiosity, born from the kind of training one gets at the Kansas City Eclectic Medical University. – John F. (full review)

One More Time With Feeling 3D (Andrew Dominik)

One More Time With Feeling

Is control a myth? Are accidents? Are our actions another variable in the randomness of the cosmos or are they preordained, at the mercy of the gods? These are just some of the questions swirling inNick Cave’s head. Andrew Dominik’s devastating new documentary is, in essence, a 3D black-and-white, behind-the-scenes look at Cave and his Bad Seeds recording their new album (the excellent-sounding Skeleton Tree), but it also offers space for grief and reflection as the veteran avant-garde rocker struggles to come to terms with the death of his child. – Rory O. (full review)

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