This has been an exceptional year for documentaries. Financially, we’ve seen some enormously successful releases such as RBG and Won’t You Be My Neighbor? Artistically, 2018 has been even more bountiful: Some of the most vibrant, inventive filmmaking of the year came from the world of nonfiction. But these works are often underrepresented on year-end top-ten lists — in part due to their limited release patterns. So, what were the year’s best documentaries? Here are my picks — and really, there are about 15 more titles that could easily vie for a spot on here.
Over the course of his career, the great Japanese composer Ryuichi Sakamoto went from pop-jazz-electronica-fusion pioneer to epic film composer to lyrical minimalist. Stephen Nomura Schible’s lovely portrait follows his recent efforts, as he becomes a leader in Japan’s anti-nuclear movement, experiments with new sounds, and deals with a cancer diagnosis. Along the way, we sense that, as both man and musician, Sakamoto is seeking a way of working and living that is closer to the rhythms of nature. The movie is modest and quiet on its surface, but deeply, deeply moving.
The great Morgan Neville is probably headed for at least an Oscar nomination for his charming Mr. Rogers documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor, but this look at Orson Welles’s wild, decade-and-a-half-long efforts to finish The Other Side of the Wind might have been the greater achievement. The story of how Welles’s final film was made (and unmade, and made again) is a great comic epic about artistic vision and folly — which, as it so happens, is also what Wind itself is about. Navigating this hall of mirrors with playful use of archival footage and speedy, ping-ponging montages (à la Welles himself), Neville explores this complex artist and his career from many different points of view, on his way to the sublimely Wellesian conclusion that no person, even one as public as this, can ever be entirely understood.
8. Free Solo
Quite possibly the most nerve-racking film of the year, this expertly edited, breathtakingly shot look at free climber Alex Honnold’s attempt to summit the face of Yosemite’s imposing El Capitan rock formation without any ropes or equipment is more than just a well-made sports doc. In exploring Honnold’s life and psychology, and going into why and how he does what he does, Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin’s movie provides a surprisingly revealing emotional journey as well. It also shows us that, despite the hot-dogging reputation of free climbing, it’s a largely solitary effort, requiring months and years of heavy-duty preparation and practice, as well as a mind-numbing attention to detail.
7. Bisbee ’17
In July 1917, in the copper-mining town of Bisbee, Arizona, the local authorities put down a workers’ strike by deputizing thousands of townspeople to round up the strikers and their supporters — many of them immigrants — and deport them via train out to the desert, where they were left to die. In 2017, director Robert Greene — always a fan of crossing the streams when it comes to fiction and nonfiction — got the townspeople to reenact the event. As Bisbee researches and confronts its troubled past, the film changes shape before our eyes. From straight documentary to Western epic to making-of movie to haunted musical-historical freak-out, it’s a shape-shifting portrait of how the sins of the past never really go away.
In 1992, director Sandi Tan, at the time a film-crazy 19-year-old, set out to write and star in a low-budget, surreal road movie in Singapore along with a group of her closest friends. The whole thing was shot, but it was never edited — their older, supposedly more experienced director made off with the negative and vanished off the face of the Earth. Now having recovered the footage, Tan has turned what might have once been an inventive, possibly even revolutionary indie film from Singapore into the most striking of documentaries. As she recounts her efforts to make the original Shirkers, and investigates what happened to her dream, she also presents a complicated look at friendship and loyalty, as well as the obsessive, all-consuming siren call of movie love.
Following three skater best buds from childhood to adulthood, this is another fascinating example of a movie that starts as one thing and becomes something completely different. Director Bing Liu was an introverted teen skateboarder when he started shooting himself and his friends as they did various tricks and goofed around. The trio even saw themselves as a family of sorts. Over the years, as Bing becomes more of a filmmaker, and as life disrupts these relationships in dramatic ways, the picture gains complexity and resonance. And then, it transforms again — into a poignant, pointed essay about abuse, manhood, and the ways that toxic behavior replicates itself across generations and cultures.
When she was 19, Nadia Murad was imprisoned by ISIS as a sex slave. After her ordeal, she became a public spokesperson for the cause of the Yazidis in Iraq, Turkey, and Syria, a small minority who have been murdered and displaced in catastrophic numbers as a result of war in the region. Alexandria Bombach’s enormously powerful documentary follows this young activist around the world, and we understand how Murad’s campaign to raise awareness for her people — which won her a Nobel Peace Prize this year — also forces her to relive her trauma over and over again. We also see how the Yazidis’ uncertain fate — many are spread out across different nations, in smaller and smaller communities — now calls to question whether they can even survive as a distinct people. Even as it inspires, this riveting, troubling portrait offers no easy answers.
This stunning concert doc/religious experience about Aretha Franklin’s two-night stand recording her legendary album of gospel classics was shot 46 years ago (by the late Sydney Pollack), and was then edited together a few years ago, with Franklin herself twice preventing its being shown. And it is a wonderful, joyous creation that both completes an interrupted story, and also reveals just how little we still understand about the creative act. It’s finally making it to our screens now, but it seems weird to call it a 2018 release — even though, officially speaking, it absolutely is. But maybe that speaks to a common theme in so many of this year’s pictures (both fiction and nonfiction): They were obsessed with reviving and remixing the past — from historical events, to actual films once thought lost. So maybe in that sense, Amazing Grace is the most 2018 movie of them all.
Director Travis Wilkerson’s striking, confessional essay film delves into a murder in 1946, when his great-grandfather shot and killed a black man in his store in Dothan, Alabama. The filmmaker desperately tries to learn more about the event, as well as about his great-grandfather’s victim. Frustratingly, very little documentation exists of the killing — so the investigation becomes instead a journey into the haunted places of the South and into even darker corners of his family’s past. Throughout, Wilkerson’s eclectic and vibrant use of cinematic technique creates the sense of a country doomed to repeat its past, over and over again, like a ghost condemned to walk the earth.
“How do you not frame someone?” A bit of onscreen text asks that at one point in director RaMell Ross’s lyrical, years-in-the-making film about the life of two African-American teens in sleepy, small-town Alabama. It’s an odd question, but Ross’s documentary provides a stirring answer. Though it traverses years, it doesn’t offer easy stories or pat resolutions. Instead, using fragmentary images, and focusing on small, unlikely details and gestures, Ross pulls us into the rhythms and textures of these young men’s lives and their community. In other words, it seeks not to explain, or analyze, or prescribe, but rather, just to evoke and immerse. Through the sheer power of his images, Ross opens our eyes to the breadth and complexity of life as it’s lived — even as he acknowledges the limits of his own vision.