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The Best Documentaries of 2016

Written by on December 20, 2016 

O.J.: Made in America (Ezra Edelman)

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Incrementally sprawling over eight hours, Ezra Edelman’s O.J.: Made In America begins comparatively small as a well-made 30 for 30 style sports documentary before gradually revealing the scope of its national interests through a microscopic regional context. This chronicle of O.J. Simpson transforms into a decade spanning examination of our own willful blindness about racial assumption, class perception, and exceptionalism. Overflowing with information, context, and perspectives, Edelman avoids all chances to simplify the story for neatness sake, presenting O.J. with all of his contradictions intact – political and personal – and folding in every social context from the Rodney King riots’ repercussions to the impact of Simpson’s visibility as a black man in the 70s and 80s. – Michael S.

Peter and the Farm (Tony Stone)

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If documentary is some form of truth — not necessarily conventional documented truth, but perhaps vital and elemental human truth — then Tony Stone’s Peter and the Farm is a blistering achievement of documentary filmmaking. As a singular portrait of a man both bewitchingly charismatic and challengingly repugnant, viewers are given a window into the grime and beauty of a soul at odds with itself. Made with care and thought, no judgement is passed on this figure at its center — farmer Peter Dunning, sole proprietor of a farm in Vermont — which gives the sensation of an almost-unfiltered exploration of a life. This can never really be true, of course, but Peter and the Farm still feels crushingly open and raw, lensed with a striking poeticism that steeps you in the tactile experiences of Dunning’s world. Viewers are forced to watch the slaughter of a lamb in all its gut-soaked minutiae, just as they are granted the first promising sunlight of spring with Peter and his faithful pup. This duality feels like a happenstance of Peter’s broken life as much as it does a filmmaker’s artistic construction. When the credits roll, one might feel that’s all they can ask of a film: some form of truth, whether precisely unwoven from a narrative yarn, or ripped straight from a person’s chest. – Mike M.

Tickled (David Farrier and Dylan Reeve)

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One of the most compellingly weird films of the year, Tickled redefines the notion of “stranger than fiction.” Initially begun by New Zealand-based TV personality David Farrier as a lighthearted novelty segment on the online world of “competitive endurance tickling,” the project – and the film – rockets farther and farther into the twilight zone as Farrier digs into the tickling fetish video “scene” to find out who calls the shots in this niche corner of the World Wide Web. Where it ends up can only be described as resembling HBO’s The Jinx, if it had emerged from the pen of the most twisted postmodern satirist (Pynchon, Vonnegut, take your pick). And yet, unless Farrier and his crew are guilty of some major fabrications, it’s all mind-boggling nonfiction. As the diligent film crew continues to uncover one layer of bizarre online conspiracies after the next, the film crosses the threshold of absurdity so many different times that it ultimately becomes too outlandish NOT to believe. More than just a freakish kink-shaming novelty, however, Tickled ultimately makes a deeply disturbing case for the sheer destructive power our newborn world of constant global connection and information overflow can grant to an endlessly resourceful and truly sick individual. – Eli F.

Tower (Keith Maitland)

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An engrossing panoramic portrait of the bystanders caught in the crossfire of the 1966 University of Texas shooting, Keith Maitland’s Tower is the rare documentary that values chaos over clarity in storytelling. Presented in a rotoscoped form, and with a careful attention to tone through aesthetic mood, color, and repetition, the film uses little more than the turning dial of an FM radio to teleport into the perspectives of dozens of witnesses. Some of them were instrumental in stopping the shooter, and others are little more than passerby stranded by the shots, but Tower knows that they were all permanently changed by those few short hours. – Michael S.

Voyage of Time: The IMAX Experience (Terrence Malick)

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Although I haven’t seen the 90-minute Life’s Journey version yet, which will arrive next year, there’s a lot to admire in this 45-minute cut. Aside from being stunned by every shot, Terrence Malick‘s framing device is deeply affecting. The introductory text is omniscient and Brad Pitt‘s narration is inquisitive, then Malick’s recurring cuts to a child place the entire journey as if we’re seeing it through their eyes. It’s a humbling perspective to behold as we elegantly glide through, well, everything, strengthened by the staggering clarity in each frame. Malick’s entire career has been showing the beauty all around us, but Voyage of Time is his most direct plea that we don’t take it for granted. Ultimately, it strikes the difficult balance of making one feel infinitesimal and integral at the same time. – Jordan R.

Weiner (Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg)

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A tentatively sympathetic, cautiously optimistic portrait of the notorious ex-Congressman and the partisan forces that surround him, Weiner might hold some kind of record for the shortest length of time it’s taken a documentary film to become perversely dated. Which isn’t to say it’s not also one of the best documentaries of 2016. Filmmaker Josh Kriegman‘s near-total access to Anthony Weiner during his failed New York City mayoral bid in 2013 is quite possibly without precedent in the history of political video journalism. As a dedicated fly on the wall in the constant presence of a politician without filters, Kriegman (with the help of co-director Elyse Steinberg) seizes disarmingly candid moments of a man, a family, and a political system in turmoil. Weiner is equal parts funny, eye-opening, tragic, and cringeworthy — qualities all magnified now, in the lens of hindsight, in ways the filmmakers likely never foresaw. – Eli F.

These twenty films only scratched the surface of the documentary offerings as we were also impressed by a handful that didn’t make the cut. Newtown works better than just a tear-extractor; Werner Herzog‘s other documentary this year, Lo and Behold was a compelling, scary look at the future; Dark Horse was perhaps the most inspiring documentary of the year; fans of the band will be pleased by Oasis: Supersonic; City of Gold will please your taste buds; Zero Days is Alex Gibney‘s best movie in years; there’s been great praise for The Other Side, but we were a little cooler on it; Miss Sharon Jones! honors a late icon; National Bird is a vital film about the true cost of war; the Jim Jarmusch-produced Uncle Howard is a touching eulogy; and Notes on Blindness has stylistic panache.

What was your favorite documentary this year?

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