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The Best Documentaries of 2018

Written by on December 13, 2018 

John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection (Julien Faraut)

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From the years 1973 to 1981 the great film critic Serge Daney held the position of editor of Cahiers du cinéma, that most revered and storied of film journals. He also wrote a tennis column. That idea of a shared symbiotic passion for the worlds of cinema and sport—and how the two might be connected—provides the basis for Julien Faraut’s experimental documentary In the Realm of Perfection, a witty and contagiously impassioned ethnographical study of the game and, in particular, the 1985 finals at Roland Garros. – Rory O. (full review)

Makala (Emmanuel Gras)

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Late in Makala, lead subject Kabwita, exhausted after innumerable tribulations, enters a church for spiritual renewal. The preacher declaims that the Book of Job shows that, no matter how much suffering one faces, blessings are still guaranteed. Anyone who’s read the Book of Job will recognize that he is proselytizing the exact opposite message from what most scholars take from the text, which is that the whole point of the story of Job is that there is no sense to suffering, and often no reason for it whatsoever. Kabwita fervently prays on regardless. He has to cling to the hope he can find. – Dan S. (full review)

Matangi/Maya/M.I.A. (Stephen Loveridge)

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Long before “Galang” and “Paper Planes,” and prior to her Oscar nomination and universal fame, there was a time M.I.A. was Mathangi Arulpragasam, the daughter of Tamil refugees who fled conflict-stricken Sri Lanka to settle in 1980s England. More an account of her origins than a stylized tour documentary, Matangi/Maya/M.I.A. draws from over 700 hours of footage M.I.A. personally recorded at different stages of her career to offer an intimate pre- and-post-stardom bio-doc that feels just as magnetic as the artist it brings and dissects on screen. – Leonardo G. (full review)

McQueen (Ian Bonhôte, Peter Ettedgui)

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By the time he was 25, Lee Alexander McQueen had gone on to launch his own fashion label. Before he was 30, he had designed costumes for David Bowie and Björk. By age 31, Gucci had acquired his company naming him artistic director and expanding his empire to include flagship stores all over the world. His success, in more than one way, defied Great Britain’s antiquated but prevalent class system; for how could a gay man born to a teacher and a Scottish taxi driver ascend to the highest levels of society? Rather than sticking to a traditional (i.e. fairy tale-esque) rags-to-riches narrative, in McQueen directors Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui explore the ways in which the designer constantly rebelled against the establishment and still managed to become one of the most celebrated figures of his time. – Jose S. (full review)

Minding the Gap (Bing Liu)

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Lorde’s song “Team,” with its lyrics “we live in cities you’ll never see on screen; not very pretty but we sure know how to run things,” seems to sum up the basic story of Bing Liu’s stirring, visually stunning study of time, place, and self. Minding the Gap is a shape-shifting documentary about lost youth stuck in a form of arrested development. They have not quite risen to the challenge of adulthood, stuck — as Springsteen fans know — in the darkness on the edge of town. Instead of music they turn to skating for salvation in fluid, sweeping low-angle, wide-lens shots that recall the collaborations of Terrence Malick and Emmanuel Lubezki. – John F. (full review)

Monrovia, Indiana (Frederick Wiseman)

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Lately American documentary filmmakers seem laser-focused on projects that aim to examine and reveal the United States’ socio-political consciousness, be it an attempt to broadly capture this generation’s zeitgeist or to propose a “why” and “how” narrative of events that reconcile the nation’s tumultuous and still-unfolding present. Leave it to the prolific Frederick Wiseman to sidestep such lofty ambitions, instead using his keen observational style to document the sleepy Monrovia, Indiana—a rural town of less than 2,000 people who appear more concerned with local municipal matters than the federal politics that have seemingly consumed the public consciousness elsewhere. Although the 2016 election is never explicitly mentioned, its shadow hangs over the serene pastoral imagery Wiseman’s camera lingers on. The octogenarian documentarian shows what it’s really like to be in the American heartland in 2018 through astute, humane observation, his lens never judging the people of Monrovia nor suggesting any of their customs or traditions are crude, despite how utterly bizarre those Freemasons seem. – Kyle P.

Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood (Matt Tyrnauer)

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If the phrase “tell-all” hadn’t been coined before 2012, Scotty Bowers’ memoir Full Service: My Adventures in Hollywood and the Secret Sex Lives of the Stars would have done the job. Here’s a Marine Corps veteran of World War II born in Illinois who decided to land in Hollywood upon his return on a whim. He answered a “wanted” advertisement to work at a gas station, was hit on sexually by Walter Pidgeon while pumping gas, and realized he could use this well-trafficked locale to help pair off closeted male movie stars with young hustlers like himself for twenty bucks a pop. From there he met Cary Grant and Spencer Tracy, had a threesome with Lana Turner and Ava Gardner, and eventually spilled the beans about it all. – Jared M. (full review)

Shirkers (Sandi Tan)

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Shirkers was the name of the script Sandi Tan wrote in the early ‘90s. A cinema-obsessed 18-year-old living in famously strict Singapore, Tan was inspired by the likes of Jim Jarmusch, the French New Wave, and the Coen Brothers to concoct a tale about a teenage girl who goes road trip (in a country which takes 40 minutes to cross) to “collect” friends while assassinating people she likes (with finger guns). Now, Shirkers is the documentary Tan has made about her youth dream project – how she and friends put it together, and how it fell apart. The ‘90s portrait of youthful energy is now directly a photo album of their youth. Tan compares shots of buildings once under construction to the finished structures, or to now-shuttered locations, or to things that have replaced what once was there entirely. People age or de-age in a blink; reminisce becomes a dialogue between what one dreams for themselves and what they actually become. It evokes legitimate wistfulness for the movie that could have been; Shirkers might not have been a masterpiece, but from the footage it looks well-shot, compelling, and imaginative. – Dan S. (full review)

They Shall Not Grow Old (Peter Jackson)

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Peter Jackson reinvents the wheel of the typically austere archival-footage genre in this absorbing salute to everyman troops of the First World War. Plundering the archives of London’s Imperial War Museum, which commissioned the film to commemorate the centenary of the armistice, he finds an outstanding array of images that encapsulate daily life for troops on the Western Front. The happy-go-lucky pluck of Tommies contrasts with rotting food, open latrines, and dreaded trench foot. But Jackson’s coup de cinema is to give these silent 100-year-old images sound and color, assisted by a team of lip-readers and voice actors that creates a dazzling, deeply humane spectacle. Overladen with moving testimony of those who came home–often to friends and family who refused to believe how bad the Great War really was–They Shall Not Grow Old is a document that expresses that it’s the truth of soldiers’ personal stories, not dates or historical events, through which we shall remember them. – Ed F.

Honorable Mentions

There were many more documentaries that impressed us this year that didn’t quite make the cut, including Free Solo, Crime + Punishment, Distant Constellation, Of Fathers and Sons, Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda, The King, Maison du bonheur, Dead Souls, The Workers Cup, A Skin So Softand ¡Las Sandinistas!. Also, for those asking why they aren’t on the list, we don’t quite get the love for Three Identical Strangers and Won’t You Be My Neighbor?.

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