There has never been a more varied and productive year for the documentary. As filmmaking becomes increasingly democratized, cameras are in the hands of the people. And they are shooting their own truths. From that wellspring of access comes a cavalcade of fantastic documentaries. In a year where mega blockbuster releases were slim and it became harder than ever to coordinate a proper film shoot, grappling with our own reality took precedence. 2020 has not always felt kind or bearable to live through, but it will be remembered as a period of great social change, unrest, and consciousness. The year’s documentaries are early indicators of what this period of film is really good at doing, which is amplifying diverse voices and telling new stories that have never been told on screens before. Our screens may be a hell of a lot smaller this year, but the scope of our stories are global and emotionally charged. This is a selection of the year’s best works in the outstanding field of documentaries.
David Byrne’s American Utopia
David Byrne has a replica of a brain. He explains to the audience, we are born with all these pathways for expansive thought, and as we age, our opportunities for these avenues close up. His presentation with American Utopia is about reopening the closed off segments of our brain. With a diverse band, the classics of Talking Heads, some of the greatest songs ever written, are redrawn as inclusive anthems. The premise of the show is to create compassion and inclusion and nothing has reduced me to a pool of tears quite like it. When Byrne and his wonderful band dipped into Janelle Monáe’s “Hell You Talmbout”, he explains that he wrote its author asking if it was all right for a white guy to perform the song. It was music for everyone, she said. Byrne has reinvigorated his own library with that same thesis. This is music for everyone. A documentary that brings us together and shows, as art proves time and time again, that the defining art of America is compiled by immigrants. Directed by Spike Lee, it has more direction than the greatest-of-all-time concert film Stop Making Sense (1984), but is also detached from the peak of a group’s output, and the electric energy of that time. American Utopia is hands-down the best documentary of the year, and also, one of the year’s greatest films. Read our review here.
In 2020, our living rooms became the room where it happened. Everything. We spent so much time inside, that documentaries of live performances became the bread-and-butter of streaming services. It’s a testament to the current issues of the last year, that Hamilton, a play that refigures our relationships to historical figures, would become what our staff most collectively celebrated. It hit at just the right moment. When we most needed and desired to see Black faces on the screen. When the world’s most globally connected Civil Rights moment in history was underway and Black Lives Matter was not just a slogan, but written large on every building in our towns. Hamilton also saw a shift for its home of Disney+, making it a real player in the market. It’s such a damn good play and captures all of our social energy, with the brilliant writing of Lin-Manuel Miranda. There is a crucial point here, where in a year where we could hardly get out and engage in social events, that having one beautifully captured within our homes, would be the crux of our film conversations. It didn’t just come and go. Hamilton has stayed with us and will continue to be played, a hallmark of the arts, and beyond just the power of the screen. It captures something more profound, about the human experience, and our relation to American history during a pivotal year of social change. Read our review here.
What could possibly be more valuable than Boys State in an election year? Apple rightly decided that absolutely nothing was, making it the largest-value documentary pickup ever done at Sundance. And culturally, it has prime value, landing in an election year, where we’re not just curious about the overarching process and how it has manifested itself in the country’s youths, but how their own faux-election cycle so cynically and perfected mirrors our own. The directors of Boys State struck gold with their subjects. They found just the right boys participating in a fake Texas Gubernatorial race, and closely followed their stories. The outcomes are both shocking and obvious. The young men performatively copied exactly what they’ve been exposed to in real elections. It brings a fascinating and focused lens to a competition that has formally hosted many prominent US politicians and celebrities, and we are so sure that it is not the last we will hear of the heroes of the story. For Steven Garza, it is the perfect platform to skyrocket his promising future, one of the year’s true cinematic heroes. For anyone even loosely interested in the year’s political discourse, and there has been a lot of it, Boys State is the most essential film of the year. Read our review here.
Feels Good Man
One of the year’s greatest surprises, Feels Good Man is the story none of us knew we needed. Matt Furie became an accidental internet celebrity, as all internet celebrities do. He drew a simple comic called Boy’s Club, about a frog — a cartoonish representation of himself as a person, with a frog face, and his girlfriend’s body. Far beyond his intentions, the now-infamous Pepe the Frog took on new life, as an alt-right symbol of hate. In Feels Good Man, Arthur Jones illustrates the hot-button issue of authorship in a digital age. Can Matt Furie ever reclaim his beloved frog? We follow Pepe’s path, from creation, to ugly appropriation, to the battle to save him from the internet. It’s perhaps our best example yet of digital culture met with a serious and thorough lens of analysis. Wide-reaching and sharply edited, it sports high production values, and the song of the year, in any movie. Not only is Feels Good Man a great and fascinating watch, it’s credible and deeply researched, an important curation of information about the internet. Read our review here.
If 2020 revealed anything else, it’s that we must fix our relationship to the environment, and must do it right now. An early-year release by Neon, who are becoming great proponents of important documentaries, Spaceship Earth was exactly the counterculture response to the problem we wanted to see. The story is about an experimental theater/science community, who built their own biosphere, and attempted to live within it, independent of the Earth’s atmosphere. The important part of the process, is that it created a conversation. It was vital performance art. In line with many of the year’s successes, the ongoing theme is that we’re capturing the spirit of performance on-screen. There is an urgent message at the heart of this, one we’ve all come around to, but most importantly, it’s a well-constructed and perfectly enjoyable watch. Because we all want to see real-world Silent Running (1972), that most perfect of environmental sci-fis. Read our review here.
The Painter and the Thief
The story of The Painter and the Thief is the kind that can only happen in documentaries. A writer wouldn’t construct such a perfect relationship, an audience would think it’s unrealistic. What happens in the story is that artist Barbora Kysilkova’s most valuable paintings are stolen. When they find who did it, and go through the court proceedings, she just wants to ask the thief why. Then she realizes they are a complicated figure, with provocative body art, and the best outcome would be for her to paint his portrait. They become fast friends. They are able to repair the losses of the paintings, through a lovely relationship, that is a perfect redemption story for cinema. That isn’t the end of the story, as their friendship leads to a startling discovery. While the documentarian can never help for anything as clean and human as this work to come about naturally, it’s truly all we can hope for as an audience. Read our review here.
The Docs of Werner Herzog — Fireball: Visitors From Darker Worlds & Nomad: In the Footsteps of Bruce Chatwin
A shared ranking for the year’s two late-career Herzog documentaries. While Nomad explores what it means to travel the world by foot, Fireball is cosmically concerned with meteorites falling from space. The grand and immense differences here only serve to catalogue Herzog’s increasingly prolific contributions to the format and the great range of human experience that are inherent in his films. While both reveal a late-career distance — both from subject and from being front-and-center in the frame — Herzog now lets other people tell his stories. What they both reveal is the Expert Interviewer at work. He can get people to tell us the whole story. Of their friends, of humanity, and in turn, we learn so much about ourselves. Neither approach his previous peaks but both are worthwhile outings, just to be in Herzog’s company again, and experience the illumination he provides.
Following a tragic fire at the Colectiv nightclub in Bucharest, Romania, Collective fiercely examines a crooked government and its faulty health care systems. In a time where nothing could be so globally important, as every nation’s health care has been given the ultimate stress test, Alexander Nanau’s documentary is like Spotlight (2015) come to life. It takes one team of journalists, at a prominent Romanian sports paper, Gazeta Sporturilor, to uncover a web of lies and deceit that tragically cost many lives. As a friend has perfectly put it, Collective is a necessary kind of cinema. It is not the most pleasant watch of the year, it is just the most necessary. After a showing, where I felt astounded with its journalistic power and integrity as a documentary, I got to sit in for a brief conversation between Alexander Nanau and Joshua Oppenheimer (The Act of Killing, 2013). What their conversation revealed is exactly why the documentary works tremendously well. It’s able to hook onto exactly the right people, and then deftly, and in the middle of it all, change subjects and highlight yet another part of the story. Collective is vitally important and speaks to global issues, when we ought to be evaluating our healthcare systems under a microscope.
Acasa, My Home
Romania proves a hot spot for documentaries with another socioeconomic tale of people getting left behind. In the beautifully photographed Acasa, My Home, the Enache family lives in a shanty by a water reservoir, living outside the confines of normalized society, and all of the rules that come with. The patriarch of the family has kept them there for as long as he could. Eventually, city planning determines that social services must intervene, and that the pack of children must receive proper schooling. What happens is a fascinating study of gentrification and social upheaval, as the family reacclimates, and doesn’t, to an entirely different way of life. Watch for: the most beautiful cinematography in a documentary this year and a worthwhile story of displacement about a family left behind. Read our review here.
How does the modern independent filmmaker survive in the modern film industry? Justin McConnell’s self-examining documentary follows his personal path through the film industry. It is a great struggle of collecting resources and trying to break into a culture that’s meant to keep outsiders out. What’s most interesting, for the viewer, is seeing the internal mechanics of the film industry. We join McConnell through every step of developing his career. Its biggest breakthrough is leading the viewer through the dense festival market. We only see one side of Cannes and fantastic local markets like Fantasia Festival, but Clapboard Jungle gives us the inside scoop. Read the review here.
Evgeny Afineevsky approaches the documentation of Pope Francis with a hagiographic lens. He wants, most of all, to show how a devout man of God can also be a man of the people and of Earth. The documentary follows Pope Francis and the trail of his public perception, painting the figure as a true saint of modern times. Given its subject matter and perspective, it may only pertain to a very specific audience, but is included here with gratitude and admiration for its simple and moral purpose. The documentary is about Pope Francis’ empathy for immigration and the environment. It reminds us that figureheads do not have to be evil by necessity and can aspire to great compassion and empathy for their fellow man. Best known for his Emmy and Academy nominated documentary Winter on Fire (2016), Afineevsky does another good job at creating a well organized and moving portrait of the Pope.
A film about the women within the sex profession, Lovemobil is about the waiting between clients. Along the side of a German roadway are a series of caravans strung with chintzy holiday lights. Women live inside of them and sometimes have sex with their clients. Mostly, they sit in wait. And they pontificate about how they’ve gotten there. For some it’s a choice, for others, the only obvious path toward money, and temporary security. Lovemobil follows a few of their stories, and we sit with them, and wait, and wait. Until one of the women is murdered. And then they all have to reflect on the outcomes of their work. It’s a smart and patient documentary, one of the earliest finds of the year, the first entry that made it clear it would be worth doing yet another such list. Read our review here.
Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets
The Ross brothers are buzzy figureheads in the world of docu-fiction. They have created a series of startling portraits, each blurring the line between reality and fiction. It is entirely unclear where one classification might end and another begins. Within Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets, it explores real-ish people drinking their sorrows away on the eve of the apocalypse, that is, the imminent closing of their neighborhood watering hole, juxtaposed against the incoming election of Donald Trump. It is a heady and reality-bending premise, that pays off well. Of everything on the list, Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets has consistently expanded within my mind, and especially gained novel value and admiration, as I’ve explored the other works of the Ross brothers. It’s certainly singular within the year and lives up to the bold reputation of its directors. We do not have to love the movie but it deserves our respect and a firm placement here, as the film most willfully breaking all of the rules, and inventing its own playbook. Read our review here.
Beastie Boys Story
Back in the heady days of April, Beastie Boys Story unwittingly set the tenor for a different kind of documentary release that would come to define the COVID-inflicted release schedule of 2020. The stage show has become an important part of the release schedule. With longtime music video collaborator Spike Jonze, Ad-Rock and Mike D pay tribute to the legacy of their band in a relaxed stage show. It feels personal and direct. While it does not capture the entire sense of the band’s storied experience and only comes from their curated first-hand experience, it also creates a new avenue for music storytelling. Beyond the value of a direct line of contact between artist and audience, it’s fascinating to listen to the Boys describe their evolving views and feminism and their regrets for some of their early lyrics. For lifelong Beastie Boys like myself, it’s unsurprising and mostly glosses over details of the recent Beastie Boys Book (that’s the title), but is also appointment watching, because we’re always going to consume anything these guys do with admiration.
Pretending I’m a Superman
“So here I am, doing everything I can / Holding onto what I am / Pretending I’m Superman,” goes the instantly recognizable Goldfinger song. So fixated within ’90s skate culture and the outcomes of the Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater franchise, that it would be nearly impossible to associate with anything else. That’s the gist of the documentary, remembering a moment in time where skateboarding videogames were king. And indeed, anything at all that you could’ve been interested in, in the ’90s, had it’s own videogame component. Few topics ever fit the medium like a glove quite like skateboarding. For one, skateboarding is difficult. Even Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater is difficult. But it allows a more accessible barrier of entry — first, to do things that are impossible on a skateboard, and second, to then create a drive for players to get on a skateboard and make those things possible. No game had ever so radically changed the popularity of a sport. This year saw the release of an amazing remake of those first two culture-changing games. It’s a slight documentary, and all common knowledge to series fans, but is perfectly competent at capturing exactly why those games were a revelation. The best anecdote is when the team at Neversoft designed a prototype to show to their publishers at Activision, they designed the main character as Bruce Willis, holding a very large gun on a skateboard. Thankfully, the mechanics justified themselves immediately, and the rest is gaming history.
After months of hemming and hawing about whether Tiger King ought to make it onto the list, it feels like a mere inevitability. It earned its placement through popularity. There was a moment, as COVID-19 took hold in America, that we all stayed home and were watching the same show. It became, almost instantly, the most watched documentary product of all time. It is gross and manipulative but is a part of our social fabric. Tiger King memes ruled the roost this year. It was the go-to ironic Halloween costume. One of the great moments of my year was trying an experiment on my phone. I sent a text to the number closest to mind and asked whether or not they thought Carol Baskin was guilty. We exchanged Tiger King memes for the next few days. I’ve thought often of the show, and not entirely in the negative light with which I would criticize it, but in the way it was our one monolithic release, in lieu of major event movies. Those early days of quarantine are defined by Netflix’s Tiger King. Just remember that it’s only here for popularity and it’s unrivaled power as a meme generator. What the show represents, at its worst, is our inability to look away. In a year full of escalating traumas, it found us all tuned to the same program, not by virtue of its qualities, but by the show’s manipulation of the viewer. It utilized the reality / documentary format effectively, to captivate an audience, but for all the wrong reasons. Without artistic merit or documentary ethics, it’s the basest of 2020’s releases. The worst program that all of us watched and joked about, but internally, showed the rot of American minds, through its awful brand of entertainment and the mass uncritical consumption of its contents.
The Last Dance
Tiger King would only be the world’s most watched documentary for a very short period of time. Netflix are the true benefactors of our imposed quarantine. Suddenly, they were on top of the documentary world with a one-two punch of populist content. The Last Dance landed like so many dunks, shattering the backboard of documentary records. It captures the most intense and highly competitive dynasty of American sports history, tracing the run of Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls. It follows the team after they’ve done it all, to see if they could do it again. The tension is the same, if not greater, then having initially watched these events. It’s a huge credit to the structure here, playing into every formula to keep us watching and glued to the screen. The Last Dance will have a long-lasting and valuable cultural impact upon the sports documentary. It is all the passion and detail of an ESPN 30 for 30 (2009) episode, drawn out into a fantastically edited series. Top marks all around and there’s no better option to relive any sports memories than this one, that puts you right inside the moment, and burns with the excitement and passion of the greatest athlete to ever do it. It’s not only a perfect document of MJ, or the most effective use of our quarantine downtime, but is also the most dialed-in and comprehensive idea of what makes a Netflix show so compelling and instantly watchable. A victory on all fronts, just like that dynamic Bulls team that ruled the world.