The tragic downfall of artists, behind the scenes of a genocide and the war on drugs, celebrations of music and locales, a look into the political divide from multiple angles, the history of a legendary conversation on filmmaking — these were just a few of the places and stories this year’s documentary offerings brought us. With 2015 wrapping up, we’ve selected 25 features in the field that most impressed us, so check out our list below and let us know your favorites in the comments.
Amy (Asif Kapadia)
Asif Kapadia entered cinematic radars with his BAFTA-winning Senna, a terrific documentary on the life and tragic death of Formula 1 race car driver Ayrton Senna. The subject matter of his follow-up documentary doesn’t seem, at first, to be a million miles away. Amy, which screened out of competition in Cannes, follows the meteoric rise and tragic fall of the late singer Amy Winehouse. It is a devastating, infuriating and sometimes breathtaking watch, and through his remarkable editing, Kapadia finds some startling truths lurking behind all the music, tabloids and nonsense. – Rory O. (full review)
Ballet 422 (Jody Lee Lipes)
One of the best ways to truly understand the process of creation is to observe. This is the dictum that drives Ballet 422, the story of a first-time choreographer who is tasked with creating a brand-new ballet for the New York City Ballet. With delicate composition and an unwavering gaze, director Jody Lee Lipes watches as dancer Justin Peck conceives and begins to create his vision. Watching as he first conceptualizes the dance moves, teaches them to the dancers, works with the costume department, and even tackles the lighting, it is plain to see the true cost and investment required to bring this performance to life. A final, understated reveal at the end of the film shows the true depth of commitment that Peck had been keeping up all along. Beautiful, thoughtful, and plainspoken, Ballet 422 is a truly wonderful look at a world often dramatized but rarely understood. – Brian R.
Best of Enemies (Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon)
Relevant and engaging — more so later this year than during the film’s release this summer — Best of Enemies centers on a multi-year debate between two influential intellectuals: conservative thought leader William F. Buckley and the liberal bisexual essayist and writer Gore Vidal. Brilliantly directed by Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville (20 Feet from Stardom), Best of Enemies explores the relationship beyond those discussions during the 1968 national conventions in Miami and Chicago that spawned a life-long rivalry. Gordon and Neville have crafted an intellectual character study alive with a political and cultural debate that continues to polarize today. – John F.
Call Me Lucky (Bobcat Goldthwait)
Many have rightly compared comedian Barry Crimmins to Bill Hicks, save for one glaring difference: Barry was a natural-born joke writer. Bobcat Goldthwait‘s heartfelt and funny portrait of Crimmins opens, as you would expect, with the broad strokes of the little-known comic’s career. Comedic greats such as David Cross and Marc Maron tell uproarious, insightful stories about Crimmins, yet all the while a feeling of dread hangs over the film. Soon, the tone drastically shifts, revealing a troubling secret from his past. That secret throws the rest of his life into a sobering light, providing the audience a new understanding of this artist through the prism of his tortured past. Crimmins was a pivotal figure in the ’80s Boston comedy boom, owning two prominent clubs, Stitches and The Ding Ho, in addition to his own notoriety as an angry, politically charged performer. On stage, Crimmins’ honesty is sometimes barbaric, speaking candidly about his life in a way that would horrify most mainstream comics. Goldthwait has always been as hit-and-miss behind the camera as he is in front, World’s Greatest Dad being a notable exception. With Call Me Lucky, Goldthwait has made the best film of his directorial career. – Tony H.
Cartel Land (Matthew Heineman)
Late in Cartel Land, Matthew Heineman’s bracing, ground-level examination of vigilantism on both sides of the border, the documentary entirely shifts from its expected trajectory. It’s a mic drop moment in general, but it retroactively changes the tenor of the entire story. Previously, there’s a monastic nobility and underlined fruitlessness to the actions of Autodefensas leader, Dr. Mireles and self-appointed border lawman Tim “Nailer” Foley. The movie doesn’t quite end up at the other side of the ethical spectrum, but by the end, Mireles’ seeming halo has long dissipated into a cloud of bureaucratic corruption, personal weakness, and crime. History has decided to blot out his name, and he’s powerless to fight back. Foley, meanwhile, isn’t a sympathetic character. He has views that intersect with some of the most extreme methods and philosophies of the United States, and every scene involving him and his rogue deputies is shot through with uncertainty and self-righteousness. The first half of the film is practically a running tally of successes as the camera sprints alongside the Autodefensas in a hail of bullets, as they rescue plagued towns and stage search and destroy missions of Templar cartel members’ homes. The second half though gains a fluidly ambiguous morality that’s as porously movable as the border. Cartel Land is smart enough not to make political pronouncements, but by the end, Foley’s raving fear of the unknown is palpable. – Michael S.
Cobain: Montage of Heck (Brett Morgen)
It is the great triumph of Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck that it manages to rewire the way one thinks about Cobain through nothing more than the writing, illustrations, music, and videos of the man himself coupled with brief conversations with his family and friends. No doctors, no journalists, no art historians or music producers or critics – just the life remnants of the man who became the Voice of a Generation. Seeing Kurt Cobain at home with Frances, his infant daughter, and reading his panicked, raw words regarding his devotion to her, it makes our own reaction to his passing seem all the more strange and selfish, even as we empathize and ache more than ever. We lost an artist, but his daughter lost her father, and he lost not only her, but himself. – Brian R. (full review)
Democrats (Camilla Nielsson)
Offering intimate access into the sausage-making behind Zimbabwe’s historic new constitution, Camilla Nielsson braves intimidation to create a balanced and intimate exploration of the process. Following Paul Mangwana of President Mugabe’s ZANU-PF and Douglas Mwonzora of the opposition part, MDC-T through a series of multi-year political negotiations requiring both compromise and dirty tricks. Following parties that are power-hungry, passionate and flawed, Democrats is often frustrating while offering a rich and rewarding experience as we watch how history is made from the streets to the conference room. – John F.
Finders Keepers (Bryan Carberry and J. Clay Tweel)
Finders Keepers’ stranger-than-fiction narrative could tell itself. And it did in the subsequent period after the original incident when local and national media punched down, also making a parody out of John Wood and Shannon Whisnant’s showdown over an amputated foot. These are outsized, naturally hypnotizing leads — characters who speak casually in colorful and provincial turn of phrases, and speak respectively with an electric, sorrowful egocentrism and a wounded melancholy — but it took Bryan Carberry and Clay Tweel’s filmmaking perspective to tap into the sad humanity at the core of this story, below its winding absurdity. Finders Keepers knows that this documentary isn’t about mere wackiness. It’s a story about second chances, and the phantom limbs that can move us forward and hold us back. It’s about kids stuck living in the shadows of their parents, and those who are willingly and unwillingly forced into the spotlight. And finally, it’s about feelings of entitlement inherent in destiny, and how sometimes things just aren’t meant to be, whether it’s who deserves a foot or who feels they’ve been slighted by the universe. – Michael S.
Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief (Alex Gibney)
If the bank of trustworthiness requires constant investment, Alex Gibney’s previous work pays dividends in what is his most challenging film to date, Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief. With a deep filmography that even the Church of Scientology have yet to find a flaw of veracity within, Going Clear is as thoughtful and carefully researched as possible. To the extent in which this film can be called a hit piece, it’s not for a lack of trying to understand; perhaps the knowledge acquired within the church is difficult to parse out (including its creation myth), but Gibney and company were certainly exhaustive in their investigation. The church’s chairman, David Miscavige, appears in archival materials but declined an interview request, fearing perhaps a Frost/Nixon-style showdown. – John F. (full review)
Hitchcock/Truffaut (Kent Jones)
The world of cinematic discourse was a markedly place when François Truffaut interviewed Alfred Hitchcock Nowadays, high-profile filmmakers are talking about their craft whenever someone turns on a recorder, and few people doubt the greatness of this text’s main subject. This might explain why the decidedly old-fashioned degree to which Kent Jones’ documentary honors the book seems out-of-place. What Jones (most often identified as an essayist / critic) settles upon is a chance to expand the field, and he slyly does so by letting new authors — be it Scorsese or Fincher or Assayas — give point-by-point illustrations of how they read scenes, more fully revealing what they find valuable in cinema. The final result probably won’t change your own conceptions of the form, but a bit of insight never hurt. – Nick N.
The Hunting Ground (Kirby Dick)
Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering’s useful call to action focuses largely on the epidemic of campus sexual assault at some of the most well-known academic brands in higher education: Harvard, Stamford, Berkley, Florida State, and UNC Chapel Hill, as told through survivors, media reports, and activists. Powerful and at times even inspirational, Dick and Ziering conduct an investigation into a famous accusation poorly handled by the Tallahassee police and Florida State that has been criminally misrepresented in the media (ESPN in particular) ,while also chronicling Annie Clark and Andrea Pino, two victims turned activists who inspired thousands of survivors to file Title 9 lawsuits against institutions. The latest film in a trilogy exploring institutional sexual assault from Kirby Dick (following Twist of Faith and The Invisible War), The Hunting Ground ought to be required viewing for all incoming college freshmen. – John F.
In My Father’s House (Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg)
Amongst the national conversation we’re having about race, there’s a topic often glossed-over: the conservative talking point of “accountability.” Yes, there are fathers who lie, cheat, steal, break the law, go to jail, abuse drugs, and the sort. Breaking the cycle of poverty is critical: a generation of men are lost to the system, either in prison or dead, thus repeating the cycle. Amongst those who broke the cycle and is mentoring young men to do so as well is Che “Rymefest” Smith perhaps best known on mainstream radio for writing Kayne West’s “Jesus Walks,” and most recently for the Oscar-winning song “Glory” from Selma. Based in Chicago, he discovers his childhood home is on the market and decides to purchase and fix it up for his family, including wife Donnie and children they hope to have. – John F. (full review)
Iris (Albert Maysles)
Sadly, this year saw the death of esteemed documentarian Albert Maysles. But before he shuffled off this mortal coil, he left us with a delightful look at style icon and collector Iris Apfel. The camera follows the 93-year-old “rare bird of fashion” as she recalls an enviable former life as a world traveler and interior decorator for the rich and famous, as well as her current role as a respected matron of the fashion arts, all the while dispensing her candid, New York-bred witticisms. The film serves as a tribute to both its subject and to the power of creativity, as Apfel — with her signature giant eyeglasses and colorful wardrobe of fur, feathers, and found objects — demonstrates her infectious, surprisingly unpretentious approach to sartorial self-expression. Scenes depicting the caring relationship between Apfel and her husband, Carl, also provide a bittersweet reflection on aging and accepting the inevitable, a theme that becomes all the more poignant when considering that Maysles, who was well into his ’80s at the time, was confronting the same reality. – Amanda W.
Junun (Paul Thomas Anderson)
Following Punch-Drunk Love, it took Paul Thomas Anderson five years to release There Will Be Blood and another five to follow with The Master. A mere two years of waiting before Inherent Vice felt anomalous, and merely one year for Junun is downright shocking. Part of that has to do with his latest film being a documentary, but the other concern’s Anderson subtle shift in filmmaking, in which his films have incrementally felt less like they were planned, instead made through a series of more spontaneous filmmaking decisions from a general sketch — a mode for which this kind of documentary is the logical end. Junun is shot in a centuries-old fort in Rajasthan, India and documents the recording of a collaborative album between Israeli composer Shye Ben Tzur and Jonny Greenwood, best known for his work as lead guitarist of Radiohead. Even ignoring how great the music is — seriously, buy the soundtrack — Anderson evidently has a knack for this kind of freewheeling filmmaking, as he plays with drones and lets his camera search without a clear object of interest in sight, a move that happens to work very well in capturing such a collaborative artistic project. Junun reveals Anderson to be a director whose depths run far deeper than even his best films revealed. Where could he go from here? It’s hard to say, given this left turn — but, wherever it is, there is now even more reason to be excited. – Forrest C.
In Jackson Heights (Frederick Wiseman)
The threat of gentrification looms over In Jackson Heights, but Frederick Wiseman’s documentary about the vibrant, endlessly diverse New York neighborhood isn’t only about the diffusion of class. The de facto corrupters of these cultures exist out-of-frame, orchestrating the demise of a community through budget cuts, gerrymandering, and starving a community of its capacity for change. It pervades every crevice of the documentary as the remaining ruins of generations are pushed out, only to become the seed of a new world. But even as the vast amount of marginalized cultures bleed, Wiseman is hopelessly idealistic about the future. This is a monument to the power of community — not only as a method of advocacy, but as a tapestry of specificity. And this isn’t simply a tourist’s view. The camera episodically combs through every intersection of the neighborhood, taking time for corner convenience stores as often as it delves into transgender advocacy groups, and it really does completely immerse itself in these moments. And even as these peeks into others’ lives could never quite communicate the totality of these people, Wiseman often sinks into these conversations without context and to the point of exhaustion. These are generous and demanding exchanges that recognize that a community can’t only be distilled to the moments of movement. It’s a celebration of the whole picture. – Michael S.
Listen to Me Marlon (Stevan Riley)
Some iconic talents of cinema rarely gave an interview, while others were relegated to the routine press circus. Regardless of where one falls on the spectrum, the bite-sized, often pre-packaged tidbits of one’s career do little to paint an accurate portrait of a life, and it’s effectively unfeasible to get such a look apart from the talent itself. However, the new documentary Listen to Me Marlon provides something vastly more extensive and intimate than a standard interview. Given access to hundreds of hours worth of previously-concealed audio interviews/musings with Marlon Brando, director Stevan Riley magnificently produces one of the best documentaries about a legendary figure — all without a single talking head. Ahead of his time, we begin with Brando predicting the future of filmmaking: actors will soon be motion-captured and their essence created in a computer screen for projection. We then witness the man resurrected through such a digital form, incorporating the audio from his interviews, giving an ethereal effect interspersed throughout the film. – Jordan R. (full review)
The Look of Silence (Joshua Oppenheimer)
In his previous masterpiece, The Act of Killing, filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer explored the contemporary aftermath of the Indonesian communist genocide of the late 1960’s. Once again, Oppenheimer returns to that same region to look deeper into this secretly festering wound, this black mark on the history of Indonesia. As gripping as it is socially relevant, the film explores the ground level consequences of these crimes as entire generations of families are left shattered beyond repair. Oppenheimer focuses his camera on the political architects of this misery, many of whom are still unjustly in power today. Employing these men to discuss and even recreate their horrific acts of cruelty, Oppenheimer finds admissions of guilt in some and threats of violence from others. Disturbing, yet hypnotically composed, The Look of Silence is arguably the most important documentary of the year. – Tony H.
The Pearl Button (Patricio Guzmán)
Fitting more ideas into 80-or-so minutes than many films could even hope in twice that runtime, Patricio Guzmán’s The Pearl Button is alternately dense and breezy, an examination of the most common pices of existence — from water to crime to pontificating the possibilities of outer space — that doesn’t pretend to have the answers. Guzmán instead “settles” for a mix and match of visual and aural materials, at once creating a unified vision of a world out of order while hoping (even reaching) for something better in the cosmos. What can be learned is up to you. – Nick N.
The Russian Woodpecker (Chad Gracia)
A collaboration between US-based filmmaker Chad Gracia and Ukrainian artist Fedor Alexandrovich, The Russian Woodpecker crosses the boundaries of artist documentation as both filmmaker and subject search for meaning. This requires exhilarating undercover journalism as Alexandrovich’s findings in Chernobyl uncover secrets the state would rather not reveal. A stand-out, winning the grand jury documentary prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, The Russian Woodpecker is a masterful white-knuckle political thriller that starts as an exploration of national identity — a timely bombshell that inspired a standing ovation earlier this year when we caught up with the film at the Montclair Film Festival. – John F.
The Salt of the Earth (Wim Wenders and Juliano Ribeiro Salgado)
Devoting a lifetime to the pursuit of such harrowing aspects of the human condition would take its toll on even the most stoic of individuals, and Sebastiao Salgado is no exception. Many of the photographs in The Salt of the Earth are challenging to look at, to say the least. That anyone could spend years looking at nothing but images of this nature is remarkable, and somehow even the platitudes that Wim Wenders often uses in narration seem appropriate. The most inspiring turn comes when the film shows how a man that has witnessed so much devastation could ultimately be so hopeful about the future of the planet. The Salt of the Earth is a thoughtful, reverential examination of one artist by another, both equally deserving of such admiration. While some may find its pacing too slow, or its imagery too bleak, this film is a must for fans of either Salgado or Wenders. – Brian P. (full review)
Stray Dog (Debra Granik)
Five years after writer/director Debra Granik‘s sophomore effort Winter’s Bone earned four Oscars nominations including Best Picture, she returns to the big screen with a documentary spawned from her experience filming in Missouri. Far from a novice to the genre — she lensed a documentary called Thunder in Guyana before making her feature length debut Down to the Bone — it may still seem strange she’d follow an acclaimed work of fiction with an uncensored look at an old Vietnam War vet. But as she’d explain it, her craft as a filmmaker comes from documentary observation and to see Ronnie Hall isn’t to forget him. Nicknamed “stray dog,” this aging biker readjusting a solitary life to include a new wife is intriguing enough. Adding his tales of what came before makes it a must-see. – Jared M. (full review)
We Come as Friends (Hubert Sauper)
We Come as Friends is a collection of narratives assembled from over six years of footage taken by Hubert Sauper as he piloted his two-man plane over South Sudan. These short glimpse in the lives of the South Sudanese people paint a clear depiction of the warring forces between the country’s desire for independence and freedom with that of the West’s colonial forces exploiting the resources of the country. Instead of laying out the political climate and regional history, Sauper invites audiences to view the conflict through his context-free cinema verite style. At times this choice can seem aimless, but Sauper’s anti-colonial narrative becomes clear as the countless images of despair and stone-faced indifference pile up. – Dan G. (full review)
Welcome to Leith (Michael Beach Nichols and Christopher K. Walker)
Welcome to Leith is a true horror film, chronicling the arrival of Craig Cobb, an unwelcome white supremacist who intends to make the rural town of Leith, North Dakota his own Aryan hamlet. Directors Michael Beach Nichols and Christopher K. Walker have unprecedented access to Cobb, as well as terrorized town residents during and after an episode that grows stranger and more terrifying. Told in a mix of talking-head interviews, newly shot footage, and documentation by Cobb (a frequent live streamer), Welcome to Leith is a critical portrait of a place that seems to lack identity, but certainly not character. – John F.
What Happened Miss Simone? (Liz Garbus)
Borrowing its title from Maya Angelou’s poem Nina Simone: High Priestess of Soul, Liz Garbus‘ What Happened, Miss Simone?, akin to her previous works, incorporates new interviews with archival material. Like another great film about a luminary, Tupac: Resurrection — also about a philosopher infusing politics into their music and iconography — What Happened, Miss Simone? is a rich and complex tapestry chronicling Simone from her early years struggling to break in. Denied entry into a classical piano program, she flocks to Atlantic City where she’s encouraged to sing. Here is where she finds her voice, gaining tracking and in invite to perform at the Newport Jazz Festival mixing folk and jazz. Through the use of archival materials, Garbus allows Simone to speak by highlighting interviews and performance with bulk of the footage chronicling her work during the Civil Rights era. Identifying with its more militant figures, her daughter Lisa Simone Kelly became best friends with the daughter of Malcolm X, we learn through Lisa’s interview, making for an interesting portrait of the era thought the eyes of children. – John F. (full review)
The Wolfpack (Crystal Moselle)
Growing up, one can often feel sheltered from the outside world, whether its through parental restrictions, lack of a social life, or the location of one’s upbringing. The Wolfpack, a captivating new documentary from director Crystal Moselle shot over five years, captures an environment in which that idea is taken to the outright extreme. Raised in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, or rather a single apartment in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, the six Angulo brothers (and one sister) live an exceedingly sheltered life. Since they were born, they’ve only left their home for at most nine times a year, and in some years, never. To keep busy, they have a collection of thousands of films in which they repeatedly watch TV, transcribing them frame by frame and creating lavish scripts that they will then extravagantly (and frugally) bring to life in their own creative way. As a modern update on Grey Gardens with an added tribute to the love for filmmaking, The Wolfpack is an endlessly fascinating documentary, even if it’s not quite a great one. – Jordan R. (full review)
What was your favorite documentary of the year?