Healing from past trauma, film preservation, ISIS, libraries, chimps, rats, and cats — these were just a few of the subjects and stories that this year’s documentary offerings brought us. With 2017 wrapping up, we’ve selected 21 features in the field that left us most impressed, so check out our list below and, in the comments, let us know your favorites.
Abacus: Small Enough to Jail (Steve James)
Steve James’ filmography has long been about finding entry into larger conversations through intimate portraits. The director’s landmark debut, Hoop Dreams, and latter-day efforts like 2014’s monument to critic Roger Ebert, Life Itself, don’t have much in common on the surface, but they both use their central characters to tell larger stories about big picture topics like structural dysfunction and the purpose of film criticism. That double purpose is the quiet genius of James’ latest documentary, Abacus: Small Enough to Jail. The central story recounts the stranger-than-fiction courtroom saga of Abacus Federal Savings Bank, a family-owned Chinatown bank that is still the only bank indicted in the aftermath of the 2008 American financial crisis. But James’ priorities are less about the courtroom minutiae than the case’s reverberations through the owner Thomas Sung, his family, and their misunderstood immigrant community. – Michael S. (full review)
All These Sleepless Nights (Michal Marczak)
Blurring the line between documentary and fiction like few films before it, Michal Marczak’s All These Sleepless Nights is a music-filled ode to the ever-shifting bliss and angst of youth set mostly in the wee hours of the day in Warsaw, Poland. Marczak himself, who also plays cinematographer, is wary to delineate the line between narrative and nonfiction, and part of the film’s joy is forgoing one’s grasp on this altering perspective, rather simply getting wrapped up in the immaculately-shot allure of its location. Read my full review. – Jordan R.
Behemoth (Zhao Liang)
There’s just one thing missing from Zhao Liang’s visually masterful documentary Behemoth: a before image of what this wasteland of coal and rock used to be before God’s beast was unleashed. That creature — as represented by the industrial machine — devours the mountains of Mongolia, exploding large formations into rubble to be separated by the Sichaun people acting as minions. These citizens become the cause and effect, each job necessary to aid in their survival also proving to be the root of their demise. All this land destroyed; all these innocents dead amongst the ash. What was once a haven of gorgeous landscapes has slowly devolved into a blight of dust and fire, its inhabitants’ purgatorial existence consumed as Hell rises from beneath. – Jared M. (full review)
City of Ghosts (Matthew Heineman)
Cut together with gut-wrenching intensity and packed with footage that feels equal parts remarkable and horrifying, Cartel Land director Matthew Heineman returns to Sundance with City of Ghosts, a 90-minute documentary chronicling the lives of the head members of Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS). A campaign made up of activists based in the Syrian city of Raqqa and around the world, these young men risk their lives to garner intel on and about ISIS, what they’re doing and what they plan to do. As the Arab Spring brought revolution to countries like Syria, the vacuum of potential democracy was filled by a militant group calling themselves the Islamic State (ISIS). – Dan M. (full review)
The Challenge (Yuri Ancarani)
What do you do when you have everything? When you can do literally more than any human being could ever hope to fit into one life? This film Qatari sheikhs suggests that you get a sports car or two… and then put your pet cheetah in the passenger seat… on your way to bid more than most people ever make in their lifetime on a falcon… as a start. Yuri Ancarani’s dispassionate, almost anthropological survey continually lays bare the obscenity of the wealth. It’s bad enough that these assholes hog all the money, but they don’t even have the decency to pretend to enjoy any of the ridiculous activities they spend it on. – Dan S.
Contemporary Color (Bill Ross IV and Turner Ross)
Contemporary Color often plays as a snapshot of one moment in time — brief footage of an empty room’s TV broadcasting news of marriage equality passing in the U.S. is one quiet moment of the world passing by that’s later externalized in a performance from host David Byrne and guest St. Vincent — as much as an apotheosis of effort for its young participants, for whom this may have passed as quickly as it began. But just as none of the involved players are likely to forget that moment for the rest of their lives, Bill Ross IV and Turner Ross’ film, in its displays and occasional transcendence, ensures their efforts and passions live forever. – Nick N.
Dawson City: Frozen Time (Bill Morrison)
There is a scholarly theory that proposes films are always telling the story of their creation, singing an endless song about their own history. That seemed to have been literally the case in 1978 when Frank Barrett, a construction worker in Dawson City in the northern Yukon, discovered strips of nitrate film poking out of the earth in the site of a new recreation center — like stubborn blossoms trying to defeat the harshness of winter. Children had taken to lighting the visible strips on fire unaware that in the joy of the pyrotechnic display they were erasing history. Barrett’s unique discovery led to the unearthing of over 500 reels containing films made in the 1910s and 1920s, and considering that it is believed that 75% of all silent films were lost, this might have been the most important finding in the archaeology of film. Taking clips from these reels and solving the mystery of how they ended up buried in the Yukon, director Bill Morrison made Dawson City: Frozen Time which might just be the ultimate found footage film. – Jose S. (full review)
Escapes (Michael Almereyda)
Though 2017 was the year when Blade Runner 2049 reigned in film culture, another movie related to Ridley Scott’s sci-fi classic was even better and more insightful. Escapes, directed by Michael Almereyda, tells the story – or more accurately some of the many stories – of Blade Runner scribe, sometime actor, and all-around raconteur Hampton Fancher, who carved his own wild path through the landscape of New Hollywood. With a restless, constantly changing energy, no amount of self-reflection, and the best use of archival footage in conjunction with the weathered faces of the present this side of Twin Peaks: The Return, Escapes becomes a remarkably thrilling and moving experience. – Ryan S.
Ex Libris – The New York Public Library (Frederick Wiseman)
Frederick Wiseman’s latest masterful dissection Ex Libris couldn’t be more blunt in its intentions. And yet, it still repeatedly finds generous new ways to reaffirm its central thesis. Over a Wiseman-standard three and a half hours, the genius octogenarian and a team of operators with exceptional instincts skim through a dizzying number of branches of the New York Public Library, touching on everything the system of libraries offer from expected civic resources like educational tools for unprivileged communities to the wealth of authors, musicians, and artists who speak nearly daily at its nearly hundred parts. But true to Wiseman’s style, the genius of the film is less its scope than its consistently rewarding patience. Sections are patience-testing – and become bizarrely funny when the camera moves to audience members falling asleep listening to the same speech – but they all accumulate into something larger than its parts. By the end, Ex Libris is less an argument for the library as a necessary public institution than an inherent reminder of its place in society as an essential hub for knowledge and human potential. – Mike S.
Faces Places (Agnès Varda and JR)
A humble film sitting in the crossroads of age and youth, of fine art and a populist spirit. Co-directors and main subjects Agnès Varda and JR make for the most winning cinematic duo of the year as they embark on their road trip to learn people’s stories, and then capture slices of them to post on their places of work and life. It’s both a way for Varda to look back and a snapshot of modern France, a gently funny journey that accrues weight and significance as it goes on. – Dan S.
I Called Him Morgan (Kasper Collin)
Jazz trumpeter Lee Morgan was known for creatively challenging the likes of Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis on stage with his style and intensity, a youthful performer who surprised audiences by playing with utter confidence and maturity. For a time, he was considered one of the most important jazz musicians alive. His wife, Helen Morgan, was a forceful woman, who attracted attention with her good looks and delectable cooking. Her home became a hang out spot for struggling New York musicians who needed a warm meal after a rough night performing in the clubs. Morgan and Helen fell in love, becoming quick partners. When Morgan fell into heroin addiction, Helen saved him, pushing her man into rehabilitation. And later, she killed him, shooting him in the chest as he stood on stage, clutching his trumpet. – Tony H. (full review)
In Transit (Albert Maysles, Lynn True, David Usui, Nelson Walker III, and Benjamin Wu)
Ripe with rich source material each worthy of their own feature films, In Transit provides a glance into various lives and narratives. Some intersect and interact with each other, if only for a brief moment, others are singular: they opt to tell their story to us directly as we share an aural overview of a whole life, relationships, connections, missed opportunities and narratives yet to be written, each in transit. The final film by master vérité filmmaker Albert Maysles, the filmmaker and team (including co-directors Lynn True, Nelson Walker, David Usui, and Ben Wu) spend a few days aboard the Empire Builder, Amtrak’s long-distance line carrying passengers from the Midwest to the Northwest en route to Portland. – John F. (full review)
Jane (Brett Morgen)
Even though now it’s almost impossible to think of a world in which Jane Goodall isn’t the preeminent primatologist, her notorious career could’ve been thwarted due to sexism. As a 27-year-old secretary with no college education, she “struck gold” when paleontologist Louis Leakey chose her to conduct research on chimpanzees in Tanzania. Leakey was looking for a fresh mind, unbiased by scientific knowledge, and Jane happened to be at the right place at the right time. More than five decades have passed since Goodall left for Africa and revolutionized the study of primates, and while her astonishing career and scientific breakthroughs are rightfully celebrated in Brett Morgen’s documentary Jane, more than being a standard biographical doc, the film serves as a cautionary tale against the perils of male chauvinism. – Jose S. (full review)
Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond – Featuring a Very Special, Contractually Obligated Mention of Tony Clifton (Chris Smith)
I wouldn’t argue Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond is a great documentary, but it’s certainly an engrossing and mesmerizing ride. With a narrative consisting largely of footage shot on the set of Milos Forman’s Man on the Moon, which reveal Jim Carrey’s process of inhabiting comedian Andy Kaufman, whom he portrays in the 1999 film, those morbidly fascinating clips are intercut with contemporary interviews with Carrey, reflecting back on the era. According to Carrey, he was “not really on the planet” during shooting, always remaining in character as Kaufman or Tony Clifton, the abusive and foul-mouthed lounge club singer alter ego of the infamous comedian. Whether he’s testing Forman’s patience or hurling insults at pro wrestler/ co-star Jerry Lawler, Carrey is at his most wildly passionate and aggressively antisocial. The same could be said of the interviews with an older, bearded Carrey. While the majority of the documentary feels frustratingly one-sided and utterly circumspect, offering no contemporary perspective beyond the eccentric star’s own, it is impossible to look away from the ensuing chaos. Perhaps it’s no Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse, but Jim and Andy: The Great Beyond is a spellbinding portrait of the joys and horrors of filmmaking. – Tony H.
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?