The struggle for racial equality in America, the careers of cinematographers, directors, and photographers, the immigration crisis, music as celebration and grief, and strange conspiracies — these were just a few of the places and stories that this year’s documentary offerings brought us. With 2016 wrapping up, we’ve selected 20 features in the field that most impressed, so check out our list below and, in the comments, let us know your favorites.
13th (Ava DuVernay)
Following the stunning Selma, which conveyed a present-tense urgency sorely lacking in many biopics and radically distributed screen-time away from Dr. King to communicate the collectivity inherent to any reform movement, Ava DuVernay has shifted her rhetorical approach, but her anger remains. Whereas Selma was emotive and explosive, 13th is lucid and level-headed, gradually and methodically making a case that black incarceration is actually just a reconfigured and rebranded form of slavery. Sticking to conventional but effective documentary tactics that maximize the clarity of her message, DuVernay crafts a shockingly compelling argument that swells in power with each additional interviewee and statistic. As everything from D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation to Nixon’s War on Drugs to the prison system’s economic incentive is implicated in the perpetuation of the new slavery, 13th transcends its journalistic ethos to become a call to action as well as indisputable proof that DuVernay is one of the most important filmmakers working today. – Jonah J.
Author: The JT Leroy Story (Jeff Feuerzeig)
Author: The JT LeRoy Story relives the literary hoax of the early aughts, the truly weird and out-of-control tale of JT LeRoy. An allegedly gender-fluid HIV-positive son of a West Virginia truck stop hooker, he rose to the heights of indie stardom befriending the likes of Courtney Love, Shirley Manson, Lou Reed, Michael Pitt, Billy Corgan, and filmmakers Gus Van Saint and Asia Argento (both would “adapt” works by LeRoy). An anonymous experiment originally conducted by Laura Albert, the myth grows out of control when she hires Savannah Knoop, her sister-in-law, as an avatar. The real Laura Albert had been described by media accounts as a Brooklyn housewife, but here director Jeff Feuerzeig dives deeper. – John F. (full review)
Cameraperson (Kirsten Johnson)
A travelogue through one artist’s subconscious, Cameraperson is perhaps the most plural film of 2016 – a formal, tonal, situational, and pacing exercise that lulls viewers into thinking it’s set on one thing before turning towards seemingly new territory. And it never feels out-of-balance because director Kirsten Johnson has, by building this film around moments that “marked” her, granted such an intimate experience that it almost feels wrong to intellectualize much of anything that’s going on here, no matter how much the treatment may be deserved. So I say to you: see Cameraperson. Nowhere else this year are you more likely to find something relatable, funny, sad, upsetting, and life-affirming in one package. – Nick N.
De Palma (Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow)
Write what you know. Then maybe talk about what you know. Or, better yet, ask someone who knows better to talk about what you know. Like any of the best longform-interview docs, Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow’s De Palma — a career-spanning, film-by-film dissection of the great movie brat’s work, told by the man himself — feels more like a meeting of minds than a Q&A session; like a chat between colleagues, or even friends. We never get to see Baumbach or Paltrow, but the manner in which Brian De Palma opens up to them on screen says a lot. He’s talking shop, of course, not offering his life story, but it’s a side of filmmaking we don’t hear about often enough. Shot over the course of five years, but staged to look like one session, De Palma talks candidly about the business, its peaks and troughs, its constant difficulties, occasional wonders, and the apparent freak nature of each failure or success — plus casting a young De Niro; directing Orson Welles; his debt to Hitchcock; then Carrie, The Untouchables, Scarface, Tom Cruise, etc. It might be the most succinct, informative, and entertaining look at the filmmaking process since Making Movies, Sidney Lumet’s peerless 1996 directorial guidebook. – Rory O.C.
Don’t Blink – Robert Frank (Laura Israel)
Few people are living embodiments of their style. Now that David Bowie and Prince have left us in the same year, even fewer are. Robert Frank, the subject of Laura Israel‘s documentary Don’t Blink – Robert Frank, and his art — striking photographs and film of Americana — reflect one another like those collages of dog owners and their pets. Rather than both having droopy ears or a snooty nose, they crunch like shards of glass beneath boots. Frank and his creations grind against good taste while still being sharp and beautiful. His is an imperfect America, as if Norman Rockwell subjects stepped out of frame for a few drinks and a game of dice, then got lost on their way back home. – Jacob O. (full review)
The Eagle Huntress (Otto Bell)
For seven generations, the men of Nurgaiv’s family have mastered the art of eagle-hunting, a tradition in western Mongolia that goes back some 2,000 years. For the Kazakh people of the Altai region, it is a practice that is not only crucial to their survival in the remote area, but also a badge of honor and expertise in the long-held tradition. Inspired by her father, Nurgaiv’s daughter Aisholpan has taken an avid interest in the craft with hopes of tearing down the boundaries of cultural sexism and becoming the titular, first-ever The Eagle Huntress. In capturing her passion, her family’s encouragement, and the societal roadblocks ahead of her to overcome, director Otto Bell has created an empowering, gorgeously shot documentary. – Jordan R. (full review)
Fire at Sea (Gianfranco Rosi)
The migrant crisis leads the news agenda in almost every European country, but its crucible is not the EU capitals that’ve been sites of terrorist incidents, nor the UK, which recklessly voted for a Brexit led by anti-immigration candidates. No, its fulcrums are Mediterranean islands like the setting of Gianfranco Rosi’s Golden Bear-winning documentary Fire at Sea: Lampedusa, a craggy eight-square-mile island between Sicily and Tunisia. Tens of thousands of African immigrants have landed there hoping to gain entry to Europe, and many others died trying. Without voiceover or music, Rosi observes the island’s residents who continue to go about their normal life while horrors occur just off Lampedusa’s cliffs. But death just beyond the periphery can only be intellectualized in the “that’s life” vein for so long. When Rosi does eventually travel alongside migrants on boats in the film’s final third, we see charred skin burned from leaked fuel, and the dead brought ashore — victims of heat exposure, dehydration, and, of course, a system of cruel exploitation. As haunting as those images are, it’s the helplessness of the island’s residents – like a doctor bursting into tears describing what he has seen – that endure as emblems of how we in the so-called “first world” have failed to deal with this age-defining crisis. Without giving answers, Rosi’s film does what the best docs do: it encourages to not close our eyes to what is happening in our society, or indeed our world. In that way, it’s a defining movie of 2016. – Ed F.
I Am Not Your Negro (Raoul Peck)
After decades of delay, James Baldwin’s last book has finally come out — as a movie. Director Raoul Peck has combined the manuscript for Baldwin’s unfinished Remember This House, his interviews and correspondences, and historical and contemporary news footage to create a sobering treatise on America’s endless war against its black citizens. Baldwin’s thoughts on popular culture and the murders of his activist friends haven’t lost an ounce of relevance. Peck’s balletic editing collapses the boundaries between the past, Baldwin’s present, and the time after his death, allowing him to speak to us now with grim, clear-eyed insight. – Dan S.
Into the Inferno (Werner Herzog)
This is Werner Herzog doing what Werner Herzog does best: exploring people and things that exist at the edge of the world. In this case, Herzog and volcanologist Clive Oppenheimer travel all over, filming active volcanoes around the globe and interviewing those who study, worship, and fear them. As with all of his best documentaries, the details are the difference. The joy of a UC Berkeley professor digging for fossils in the Afar Region in Ethiopia, or the thrill Oppenheimer gets in discussing theories that come from past eruptions, linked to everything from human evolution to climate change. Herzog feeds off the excitement, and that energy fuels the film. – Dan M.
Justin Timberlake + The Tennessee Kids (Jonathan Demme)
The risk of filming a concert is that cinema might become subordinated to the stage, with the camera being reduced to its function as a recording apparatus. Legendary music documentarian Jonathan Demme brushes aside such concerns in Justin Timberlake + The Tennessee Kids, an exuberant experience that unites live concert with cinematic sleights of hand, thus creating a hybrid work of art that showcases the best of both mediums. Through agile camerawork that weaves among the onstage performers, bringing us closer to the moment-to-moment blossoming of spectacle than live attendance would have allowed, the film does something remarkable: it turns the vast, ostensibly impersonal space of a massive stadium venue into a zone of intimacy and community. Rather than showcasing superstar JT and leaving everyone else in his shadow, the film makes it a point to emphasize the contributions of all the musicians, dancers, and backup singers, as well as the crowd whose ecstatic showerings of affection are what constitute Timberlake’s celebrity status. “It takes a village to make a pop superstar,” Keith Uhlich wrote in his review of the film, and this spot-on description encapsulates Justin Timberlake + The Tennessee Kids, a film that celebrates not just a pop star but the pop experience, which, in its ideal form, is a collective labor of love. – Jonah J.
Kate Plays Christine (Robert Greene)
Actors put themselves in others’ skins — or they put others’ heads inside their own. Television journalists adopt a persona and try to deliver important information. Women erect calculated fronts to navigate environments not built for them. Many people suffering mental illness do their best to maintain a semblance of “nothing’s wrong.” Film directors orchestrate elaborate works of emotional manipulation. Documentary film directors do so with factual material. Such performances often overlap in the course of life and work; all of them intersect in Kate Plays Christine. – Dan S. (full review)
No Home Movie (Chantal Akerman)
Forever marked, for better and for worse, as Chantal Akerman‘s final endeavor, No Home Movie offers no option but introspection on the fragile balance in which life and its many components always hang. Not that she, one of the greatest filmmakers who ever lived, ever let it play so easy. (Well, all right – A Couch in New York, maybe.) A dual portrait of Akerman and her mother in their final days, it can be difficult to break through without the context of at least a few prior features, but this is not solely for the faithful: as an implication-heavy history lesson and hushed relationship drama between generations with seemingly irreparable gaps (Akerman’s mother is herself a Holocaust survivor), No Home Movie is more observant than nearly any feature this year, documentary or otherwise, and, in its first shot alone, offers one of the greatest visual expressions of grief I’ve ever seen. – Nick N.
Nuts! (Penny Lane)
A story so absurd it requires animation to be told, Nuts!, directed by Penny Lane, continues the filmmaker’s interest in personal histories, following her 16mm found-footage documentary Our Nixon. Collaborating with writer Thom Stylinski, Lane’s entry into the material is initially her subject, John Romulus Brinkley. He crafted an impotence cure, grafting a thin piece of a goat testical gland onto a human male phallus. This is a starting point of folksy curiosity, born from the kind of training one gets at the Kansas City Eclectic Medical University. – John F. (full review)
One More Time With Feeling 3D (Andrew Dominik)
Is control a myth? Are accidents? Are our actions another variable in the randomness of the cosmos or are they preordained, at the mercy of the gods? These are just some of the questions swirling inNick Cave’s head. Andrew Dominik’s devastating new documentary is, in essence, a 3D black-and-white, behind-the-scenes look at Cave and his Bad Seeds recording their new album (the excellent-sounding Skeleton Tree), but it also offers space for grief and reflection as the veteran avant-garde rocker struggles to come to terms with the death of his child. – Rory O. (full review)
O.J.: Made in America (Ezra Edelman)
Incrementally sprawling over eight hours, Ezra Edelman’s O.J.: Made In America begins comparatively small as a well-made 30 for 30 style sports documentary before gradually revealing the scope of its national interests through a microscopic regional context. This chronicle of O.J. Simpson transforms into a decade spanning examination of our own willful blindness about racial assumption, class perception, and exceptionalism. Overflowing with information, context, and perspectives, Edelman avoids all chances to simplify the story for neatness sake, presenting O.J. with all of his contradictions intact – political and personal – and folding in every social context from the Rodney King riots’ repercussions to the impact of Simpson’s visibility as a black man in the 70s and 80s. – Michael S.
Peter and the Farm (Tony Stone)
If documentary is some form of truth — not necessarily conventional documented truth, but perhaps vital and elemental human truth — then Tony Stone’s Peter and the Farm is a blistering achievement of documentary filmmaking. As a singular portrait of a man both bewitchingly charismatic and challengingly repugnant, viewers are given a window into the grime and beauty of a soul at odds with itself. Made with care and thought, no judgement is passed on this figure at its center — farmer Peter Dunning, sole proprietor of a farm in Vermont — which gives the sensation of an almost-unfiltered exploration of a life. This can never really be true, of course, but Peter and the Farm still feels crushingly open and raw, lensed with a striking poeticism that steeps you in the tactile experiences of Dunning’s world. Viewers are forced to watch the slaughter of a lamb in all its gut-soaked minutiae, just as they are granted the first promising sunlight of spring with Peter and his faithful pup. This duality feels like a happenstance of Peter’s broken life as much as it does a filmmaker’s artistic construction. When the credits roll, one might feel that’s all they can ask of a film: some form of truth, whether precisely unwoven from a narrative yarn, or ripped straight from a person’s chest. – Mike M.
Tickled (David Farrier and Dylan Reeve)
One of the most compellingly weird films of the year, Tickled redefines the notion of “stranger than fiction.” Initially begun by New Zealand-based TV personality David Farrier as a lighthearted novelty segment on the online world of “competitive endurance tickling,” the project – and the film – rockets farther and farther into the twilight zone as Farrier digs into the tickling fetish video “scene” to find out who calls the shots in this niche corner of the World Wide Web. Where it ends up can only be described as resembling HBO’s The Jinx, if it had emerged from the pen of the most twisted postmodern satirist (Pynchon, Vonnegut, take your pick). And yet, unless Farrier and his crew are guilty of some major fabrications, it’s all mind-boggling nonfiction. As the diligent film crew continues to uncover one layer of bizarre online conspiracies after the next, the film crosses the threshold of absurdity so many different times that it ultimately becomes too outlandish NOT to believe. More than just a freakish kink-shaming novelty, however, Tickled ultimately makes a deeply disturbing case for the sheer destructive power our newborn world of constant global connection and information overflow can grant to an endlessly resourceful and truly sick individual. – Eli F.
Tower (Keith Maitland)
An engrossing panoramic portrait of the bystanders caught in the crossfire of the 1966 University of Texas shooting, Keith Maitland’s Tower is the rare documentary that values chaos over clarity in storytelling. Presented in a rotoscoped form, and with a careful attention to tone through aesthetic mood, color, and repetition, the film uses little more than the turning dial of an FM radio to teleport into the perspectives of dozens of witnesses. Some of them were instrumental in stopping the shooter, and others are little more than passerby stranded by the shots, but Tower knows that they were all permanently changed by those few short hours. – Michael S.
Voyage of Time: The IMAX Experience (Terrence Malick)
Although I haven’t seen the 90-minute Life’s Journey version yet, which will arrive next year, there’s a lot to admire in this 45-minute cut. Aside from being stunned by every shot, Terrence Malick‘s framing device is deeply affecting. The introductory text is omniscient and Brad Pitt‘s narration is inquisitive, then Malick’s recurring cuts to a child place the entire journey as if we’re seeing it through their eyes. It’s a humbling perspective to behold as we elegantly glide through, well, everything, strengthened by the staggering clarity in each frame. Malick’s entire career has been showing the beauty all around us, but Voyage of Time is his most direct plea that we don’t take it for granted. Ultimately, it strikes the difficult balance of making one feel infinitesimal and integral at the same time. – Jordan R.
Weiner (Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg)
A tentatively sympathetic, cautiously optimistic portrait of the notorious ex-Congressman and the partisan forces that surround him, Weiner might hold some kind of record for the shortest length of time it’s taken a documentary film to become perversely dated. Which isn’t to say it’s not also one of the best documentaries of 2016. Filmmaker Josh Kriegman‘s near-total access to Anthony Weiner during his failed New York City mayoral bid in 2013 is quite possibly without precedent in the history of political video journalism. As a dedicated fly on the wall in the constant presence of a politician without filters, Kriegman (with the help of co-director Elyse Steinberg) seizes disarmingly candid moments of a man, a family, and a political system in turmoil. Weiner is equal parts funny, eye-opening, tragic, and cringeworthy — qualities all magnified now, in the lens of hindsight, in ways the filmmakers likely never foresaw. – Eli F.
These twenty films only scratched the surface of the documentary offerings as we were also impressed by a handful that didn’t make the cut. Newtown works better than just a tear-extractor; Werner Herzog‘s other documentary this year, Lo and Behold was a compelling, scary look at the future; Dark Horse was perhaps the most inspiring documentary of the year; fans of the band will be pleased by Oasis: Supersonic; City of Gold will please your taste buds; Zero Days is Alex Gibney‘s best movie in years; there’s been great praise for The Other Side, but we were a little cooler on it; Miss Sharon Jones! honors a late icon; National Bird is a vital film about the true cost of war; the Jim Jarmusch-produced Uncle Howard is a touching eulogy; and Notes on Blindness has stylistic panache.
What was your favorite documentary this year?