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The Best Documentaries of 2018

Written by on December 13, 2018 

best-documentaries-2018

An epic concert from nearly a half-century ago, sports documentaries that break the mold, a look at the American Midwest, a document of a film that never was — these were just a few of the subjects and stories that this year’s documentary offerings brought us. With 2018 wrapping up, we’ve selected 16 features in the field that left us most impressed, so check out our list below and, in the comments, let us know your favorites.

Amazing Grace (Sydney Pollack)

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A time capsule that’s as fresh and powerful an experience as it must have been when recorded live in Watts in 1972, Amazing Grace is arguably one of the year’s most-anticipated films arriving after years of litigation and a fetal technical glitch that was finally resolved thanks to digital workflows and persistence. What remains is a powerful and captivating performance by the great Aretha Franklin as she opts to record a live album after a string of number one hits. Reverend James Cleveland accompanies along with the Southern California Gospel Choir for a spiritual performance that brings the house down and attracts the likes of Mick Jagger to observe. Before the first night of her performance Revealed Cleveland tells the audience that you don’t have to believe to feel the spirit the spirit and 46 years later the film still inspired a range of raw reactions from clapping, toe-tapping, and tears when screened at Film Forum during its sold out Oscar-qualifying run. The raw, often handheld improvisational style of its filmmaking is a departure from the heavily-choreographed and -covered performance documentation we see today, giving the film the raw intimacy of sitting in the church watching the production of the record take shape in the moment. Amazing Grace, directed by an uncredited Sydney Pollack and completed by producer Alan Elliott and editor Jeff Buchanan is a powerful experience and one that should be seen (and heard) in cinema.  – John F.

Bisbee ’17 (Robert Greene)

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Over the past decade, Robert Greene has carved out a place as one of the most vital American documentarians working today, and with Bisbee ’17, he has produced perhaps his most accomplished work to date. A chronicle of the centennial reenactment of the forced deportation of mining workers that occurred in the eponymous Arizona town, the film emerges as a clear-eyed, blistering look into contemporary political divisions through an entire spectrum of viewpoints, while still possessing some of the most lucid and impressive filmmaking of the year. – Ryan S.

Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun? (Travis Wilkerson)

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Throughout the remarkable Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun? – director Travis Wilkerson’s attempt to learn more about and confront the murder of the African American Bill Spann by his white great-grandfather, S.E. Branch, through a cinematic essay on racism in America – there are many black-and-white images of houses, forests, and roads in Alabama, the state in which the killing took place. As interview subjects recount memories or details related to the crime — through either first-person testimony or Wilkerson’s second-hand paraphrasing — the film often eschews focusing on the speaker to dwell on local spaces, quietly moving through static shots of Alabaman milieus. These images are so still that, at first, they resemble photographs — specifically, old photographs of the sort that one might find in the photo album of someone who was alive when Bill Spann was killed. But if you look closely, you’ll see that the leaves and grass are actually moving, rustling ever so slightly in the breeze. – Jonah J. (full review)

Good Luck (Ben Russell)

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There is a symbol at the beginning, middle and end of Good Luck. It is a simple geometric circle with a horizontal line evenly separating top from bottom. Does it represent above ground and below; Northern and Southern Hemispheres; Ying and Yang; daylight and darkness? It could be any one of these or all of them at once. Shot in 2016, this visually stunning, obliquely political, and rather extensive ode to the hardest of graft is built to offer the viewer the otherworldly experience of first going down the shaft of a state-run copper mine in Serbia and, in the second half, that of illegally digging for gold under the Surinamese sun. – Rory O. (full review)

The Green Fog (Guy Maddin, Galen Johnson, Evan Johnson)

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Few directors seem to reinvent cinema with each new picture, but Guy Maddin and his passion for boundless experimentation does it time and time again. His latest formally thrilling film is a “parallel-universe version” of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, utilizing footage from San Francisco-set features, ranging from Hollywood classics to avant-garde films to prime-time television. Commissioned by San Francisco Film Society, it’s not only a must-see for cinephiles but not since Thom Anderson’s L.A. opus has a filmmaker so gleefully dissected a location with clearly beloved footage. – Jordan R.

Hale County This Morning, This Evening (RaMell Ross)

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Structurally, Hale County This Morning, This Evening does not do much to distinguish itself from other contemporary vérité documentaries which focus on quotidian details within a certain milieu. But even so, it still finds value in the unique incidents it captures. Send a hundred different filmmakers to a hundred different places, and even if their work is aesthetically identical, they’ll each document at least a few unique moments that will make each piece worth it. Beyond that, director RaMell Ross demonstrates a talent for framing a scene in a striking manner, such as shooting a trash fire so that the rays of the sun shine through the smoke. – Dan S. (full review)

Infinite Football (Corneliu Porumboiu)

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In Romania at the end of the 1980’s–the autumn years of the Ceausescu regime–Adrian Porumboiu worked as a professional referee for the national football league (or however it was referred to at the time). His son Corneliu (born in 1975) would grow up to become a significant filmmaker in the so-called Romanian New Wave of the mid ’00s. In 2014, Corneliu made a movie about his dad called The Second Game in which he narrated over a full 90-minute match that his father had refereed. Through the ever-politicized veil of sport the director was able to talk about the realities of those times. He returns to the beautiful game in 2018 with Infinite Football, a contemporary portrait of a man who suffered a bad injury before his career—at least in his eyes–had the chance to take off. – Rory O. (full review)

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