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The Best Documentaries of 2017

Written by on December 19, 2017 

Kedi (Ceyda Torun)


All animals make for good cinema simply by being as they are, but this holds especially true for cats. Ceyda Torun understands this, and has made this film a delightful cavalcade of feline mischief. But you could get that effect from a compilation of YouTube videos. Torun has more on her mind, linking the massive population of cats living on the streets of Istanbul to the humans who care for them, as well as the shifts of the city itself. Kedi captures the intangibles beyond geographic or even cultural features which mark a place as unique. – Dan S.

Rat Film (Theo Anthony)


It’s not often that a documentary with such a clear focus surprises and unnerves you. Rat Film, directed by Theo Anthony, finds its narrative in the parallel between rat-control efforts in Baltimore and the redlining that has kept certain neighborhoods in the city locked in poverty and crime. With a passionate attention to historical detail and nuance that is belied by the robotic narration of Maureen Jones, the film seduces the audience into following its train of thought through moments and ideas both grotesque and harrowing. Some of the tangents and paths of thought that Rat Film travels are surreal to the point of abstraction, but at the end of it all your view of urban development and its impact on human lives will have been fundamentally altered for the better. – Brian R.

School Life (Neasa Ní Chianáin)


A gentle and often whimsical look at the art of raising children at Ireland’s only primary boarding school, Headford, School Life is a warm work of cinéma vérité. The documentary focuses on creative mentorship as long-time teachers Amanda and John Leyden guide students into passions, including football, literature, and rock-n-roll. The film spends a good deal of time on the latter as John directs his students to perform tunes by contemporary artists Rihanna, John Newman and Elle Goulding, often complaining they can carry a tune but lack the rhythm. He arranges the school’s rock groups while advising a student learning Rihanna’s “Diamonds” to be gentle on the piano: “It’s done nothing to you, don’t hurt it.” – John F. (full review)

Starless Dreams (Mehrdad Oskoeui)


One of the most considered and moving films of the year came in the form of Starless Dreams, a rather singular documentary about teenage girls living in an Iranian detention center. The reasons for their incarceration vary – robbery, cocaine addiction, even murder – but director Mehrdad Oskoeui manages to balance the gravity of these offenses with the raw, often fragile humanity of their perpetrators. The stories of a few are the main focus, but Starless Dreams just as often uses one story to reflect upon another, which in turn reflects upon another, and in doing so demonstrates a truly wondrous sense of compassion and hope, even in an ostensibly hopeless space. – Ryan S.

Trophy (Shaul Schwarz and Christina Clusiau)


Somewhere in America, a man named Philip teaches his young son how to take down a trophy buck. Rifle in hand, eye peaking through the scope, the kid takes the shot. Direct hit. The father makes sure to get a couple of photos of his son, holding up the hunted, proud smile on his face. Moments later, we are in South Africa, where Rhino breeder John Hume and his team find a rhino, sedate it, and trim it’s horns as a means of protection, so poachers will ignore the lesser stumps and move along. It’s an interesting opening to Trophy, a complicated look at big-game hunting from director Shaul Schwarz. – Dan M. (full review)

The Work (Jairus McLeary and Gethin Aldous)


Set inside California’s Folsom Prison, three men from the outside join an extensive, profoundly candid therapy session spread over four days. There are no talking heads or even a great deal of context. The heart-wrenching brilliance of The Work is how we’re placed intimately into these circles, almost to the point that feels like we shouldn’t be privy to such emotionally revelatory glimpses of these souls, including the demons that consume some. Through an unflinching eye, we witness life-altering spiritual and psychological transformations, the likes of which prove that any screenwriter or actor can match up to the best of non-fiction. – Jordan R.

Uncertain (Ewan McNicol and Anna Sandilands)


Located on the border of Louisiana and Texas, Uncertain (Population: 94) looks like the sort of place dreamed up in a novel, but directors Ewan McNicol and Anna Sandilands dig past the town’s quirky surface to find a series of rich and engrossing stories underneath. Profiling three different generations of men (a 21-year-old fighting addiction to gain independence, a middle-aged hunter trying to move on from his dark past, and a 74-year-old widower wanting to live out the twilight of his life in peace) living in town, Uncertain weaves their stories together, highlighting what they have in common while showing how much their place in life influences their own philosophies and attitudes. It’s an effective method that McNicol and Sandilands structure around an environmental crisis involving an invasive weed that provides a perfect symbol for the struggles these men face in their lives. Much like the town itself, Uncertain went largely unnoticed after its small, self-distributed release earlier this year, but it’s a film well worth seeking out, and a true definition of a hidden gem. – C.J. P.

What was your favorite documentary this year?

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