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The Best Documentaries of 2017

Written by on December 19, 2017 


Healing from past trauma, film preservation, ISIS, libraries, chimps, rats, and cats — these were just a few of the subjects and stories that this year’s documentary offerings brought us. With 2017 wrapping up, we’ve selected 21 features in the field that left us most impressed, so check out our list below and, in the comments, let us know your favorites.

Abacus: Small Enough to Jail (Steve James)


Steve James’ filmography has long been about finding entry into larger conversations through intimate portraits. The director’s landmark debut, Hoop Dreams, and latter-day efforts like 2014’s monument to critic Roger Ebert, Life Itself, don’t have much in common on the surface, but they both use their central characters to tell larger stories about big picture topics like structural dysfunction and the purpose of film criticism. That double purpose is the quiet genius of James’ latest documentary, Abacus: Small Enough to Jail. The central story recounts the stranger-than-fiction courtroom saga of Abacus Federal Savings Bank, a family-owned Chinatown bank that is still the only bank indicted in the aftermath of the 2008 American financial crisis. But James’ priorities are less about the courtroom minutiae than the case’s reverberations through the owner Thomas Sung, his family, and their misunderstood immigrant community. – Michael S. (full review)

All These Sleepless Nights (Michal Marczak)

All These Sleepless Nights 2

Blurring the line between documentary and fiction like few films before it, Michal Marczak’s All These Sleepless Nights is a music-filled ode to the ever-shifting bliss and angst of youth set mostly in the wee hours of the day in Warsaw, Poland. Marczak himself, who also plays cinematographer, is wary to delineate the line between narrative and nonfiction, and part of the film’s joy is forgoing one’s grasp on this altering perspective, rather simply getting wrapped up in the immaculately-shot allure of its location. Read my full review. – Jordan R.

Behemoth (Zhao Liang)


There’s just one thing missing from Zhao Liang’s visually masterful documentary Behemoth: a before image of what this wasteland of coal and rock used to be before God’s beast was unleashed. That creature — as represented by the industrial machine — devours the mountains of Mongolia, exploding large formations into rubble to be separated by the Sichaun people acting as minions. These citizens become the cause and effect, each job necessary to aid in their survival also proving to be the root of their demise. All this land destroyed; all these innocents dead amongst the ash. What was once a haven of gorgeous landscapes has slowly devolved into a blight of dust and fire, its inhabitants’ purgatorial existence consumed as Hell rises from beneath. – Jared M. (full review)

City of Ghosts (Matthew Heineman)


Cut together with gut-wrenching intensity and packed with footage that feels equal parts remarkable and horrifying, Cartel Land director Matthew Heineman returns to Sundance with City of Ghosts, a 90-minute documentary chronicling the lives of the head members of Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS). A campaign made up of activists based in the Syrian city of Raqqa and around the world, these young men risk their lives to garner intel on and about ISIS, what they’re doing and what they plan to do. As the Arab Spring brought revolution to countries like Syria, the vacuum of potential democracy was filled by a militant group calling themselves the Islamic State (ISIS). – Dan M. (full review)

The Challenge (Yuri Ancarani)


What do you do when you have everything? When you can do literally more than any human being could ever hope to fit into one life? This film Qatari sheikhs suggests that you get a sports car or two… and then put your pet cheetah in the passenger seat… on your way to bid more than most people ever make in their lifetime on a falcon… as a start. Yuri Ancarani’s dispassionate, almost anthropological survey continually lays bare the obscenity of the wealth. It’s bad enough that these assholes hog all the money, but they don’t even have the decency to pretend to enjoy any of the ridiculous activities they spend it on. – Dan S.

Contemporary Color (Bill Ross IV and Turner Ross)

Contemporary Color 2

Contemporary Color often plays as a snapshot of one moment in time — brief footage of an empty room’s TV broadcasting news of marriage equality passing in the U.S. is one quiet moment of the world passing by that’s later externalized in a performance from host David Byrne and guest St. Vincent — as much as an apotheosis of effort for its young participants, for whom this may have passed as quickly as it began. But just as none of the involved players are likely to forget that moment for the rest of their lives, Bill Ross IV and Turner Ross’ film, in its displays and occasional transcendence, ensures their efforts and passions live forever. – Nick N.

Dawson City: Frozen Time (Bill Morrison)


There is a scholarly theory that proposes films are always telling the story of their creation, singing an endless song about their own history. That seemed to have been literally the case in 1978 when Frank Barrett, a construction worker in Dawson City in the northern Yukon, discovered strips of nitrate film poking out of the earth in the site of a new recreation center — like stubborn blossoms trying to defeat the harshness of winter. Children had taken to lighting the visible strips on fire unaware that in the joy of the pyrotechnic display they were erasing history. Barrett’s unique discovery led to the unearthing of over 500 reels containing films made in the 1910s and 1920s, and considering that it is believed that 75% of all silent films were lost, this might have been the most important finding in the archaeology of film. Taking clips from these reels and solving the mystery of how they ended up buried in the Yukon, director Bill Morrison made Dawson City: Frozen Time which might just be the ultimate found footage film. – Jose S. (full review)

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