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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection (Julien Faraut)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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.
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 Soft, and ¡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?.