Of the 160 movies I watched in 2015, 44 of them were documentaries. That means that roughly one third (28%) of the hours of film I absorbed were factual accounts of the world around us. From finally watching 1990’s groundbreaking Paris is Burning to cramming in as many of the Oscar Documentary shortlist films, I managed to see films about religion, culture, crime, history and more. I didn’t see some of the most talked about docs of the year, including Michael Moore’s latest Where to Invade Next, Laurie Anderson’s Heart of a Dog, or Josh Oppenheimer’s follow up to The Act of Killing, The Look of Silence among them.
That said, I feel like I’ve seen enough to have a separate review of the best of what I was able to check out. Of the nearly fifty films I watched, I culled out my top ten (and a couple honorable mentions) below. If you count yourself among us fans of documentary films, these are the ones to check out any way you can. If you’re not a documentary fan, pick just one of the movies on this list and you may just find yourself changing your tune.
He Named Me Malala – I find so much inspiration in Malala Yousefzai, and I know I am not alone in this; her unwavering belief in humanity despite the horrific things she’s suffered is an example to us all. Unfortunately, the film about her family, the attack and her humanitarian work doesn’t quiet do this wise old soul justice, which is a bummer coming from documentarian Davis Guggenheim. Flaws aside, it’s still a touching tribute to a young woman who hopefully has her most influential days ahead of her. Watch the trailer
Dior & I – If you happen to be one of the handful of people who see me (and my wardrobe) on a daily basis, you know full well that a fashionista I am not. Dior & I is just the kind of vicarious insight into high fashion a plebeian like me gobbles up. Attics full of seamstresses hand-sewing a couture piece for weeks, events as meticulously planned and executed as the royal wedding and the dedication and vision of Raf Simons to see it all through. Quite interesting stuff. Watch the trailer
Now on to my top ten, ranked in order from bottom to top (so yes, if you’re dying to know what my favorite doc of the year is, scroll down).
What Happened, Miss Simone? – Can I be honest here? I am so sheltered, I had no idea who Nina Simone even was until I flipped on this Netflix original doc. I’m ashamed to admit it, given how influential the artist was on the music of the ’60s and ’70s. Documentaries on the life of a single subject are sometimes difficult to keep interesting for a healthy 90 minutes; Simone’s life and career was so varied and, for lack of a better word, dramatic that it’s recounting here, complete with riveting archival performance footage, is captivating. Watch the trailer
Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief – You guys. Scientologists are legit crazy. Like, not OK, totally lost it, can’t be serious, 100% crazy. Alex Gibney (The Armstrong Lie, Taxi to the Dark Side, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room) wins again with a doc that pulls no punches in exposing the truth, this time about a crack-pot and the “religion” he created and how it dupes people out of their money and worse, their freedom. Watch the trailer
Best of Enemies – I love a documentary that can illuminate an era I only know through pop-culture references and a passing awareness (I’m thinking also of the podcast series You Must Remember This did on Charles Manson – go look that up!). Best of Enemies colors in the cultural context of the 1968 presidential election with all the nuance of a firehose watering a rose garden, so fierce and frenetic are the debates between Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley central to the film. If ever you wonder where the current news culture of barbs and soundbites was born, look no further than here. Not without a heart, the film graciously sticks around long enough to show us what happened after the heated debates, too – even pundits have feelings. Watch the trailer
Cobain: Montage of Heck – I wasn’t even 12 yet when Kurt Cobain took his own life, but I was old enough to know who he was and how is music was defining a generation – my generation. Over 20 years later, the first major documentary to revisit his life and attempt to get inside the mind of this troubled, talented man makes a rather impressive go of it. I’m drawn to docs that can find a new way to visualize their subject matter, and the unique way the film balances interviews, archival footage and new insights into Cobain’s own journals is new – and impressive – to me. Watch the trailer
Seymour: An Introduction – I remember seeing a poster for this one at IFC Center this Spring before I moved back home, and I thought, hmmm…wonder what that’s about? And over the course of the next several months, it would pop up every now and then as a film so and so loved, or that person put on a list of recommendations and this person mentioned should be seen this year. So when I saw it pop up on Netflix last month, I hit play. And the rest, as they say…there are so few truly, genuinely warm people in this world, we may be lucky to know just one or two in our lifetime. Ethan Hawke met his in Seymour Bernstein, an entirely huggable piano teacher void of any cynicism or pessimism or bad vibe whatsoever. If you are not won over by Seymour by the end of this charming doc (100% on Rotten Tomatoes!), you, my friend, are doing it wrong. Watch the trailer
Listen To Me Marlon – Like a few other docs on this list (Montage of Heck, What Happened Miss Simone?), Listen To Me Marlon is a look at just one person’s life; here, it’s the enigmatic Marlon Brando who was Johnny Depp and Leonardo DiCaprio and [insert moody, brooding actor here] before any of them were even a gleam in their mother’s eye. Told entirely through his own copious recordings, a picture of the legend begins to form unlike any you think you know of Stanley, Terry Malloy or Don Vito. Watch the trailer
Meru – Have you ever climbed a mountain? Have you ever climbed a mountain and lived in a tent hanging off the side of said mountain for days during a blizzard? Have you ever climbed a mountain and filmed the whole damn thing? Twice?? Meru follows three incredible athletes as they attempt to summit the titular peak in the Himalayas, a first for that particular route. For many, many reasons this film is really at the top of my list, no questions asked. It just feels too weird to put a film I know so intimately at the very, very top of this particular list. But make no mistake – there was no film like this made this year, or ever. Watch the trailer
Pausing here to interject: my top three documentaries of the year all affected me significantly. Not in the sense that I am heading out to pick up a protest sign or fight a battle – they’re not those kinds of films. They affected me as movies, each harnessing a type of visual storytelling that for one is not at all easy to do; these filmmakers are talented to no end. More than that, though, each film digs into you at the gut and works its magic so that by the end of it you’re not quite the same, and you certainly won’t soon forget what you’ve seen.
Winter on Fire – A film I hadn’t heard much about before the Oscars shortlist, I looked up this Netflix original (the second of two on this list, for those of you keeping track at home) shortly after that list was announced. Surely it had to be some kind of accomplishment to go relatively unnoticed, then land one of 15 spots on the shortlist? And indeed it is. If you know little to nothing about the national turmoil Ukraine has suffered the last few years – heck, if you know everything about it – this doc is a must. The filmmakers balance political context and implications alongside visceral on-the-ground footage of the battle waging over a population’s insistence on being heard. Watch that crowd gather again and again and try not to be moved. Watch the trailer
Cartel Land – If I ever make a documentary, it will be about something totally harmless like the history of Iceland or Kate Middleton’s bangs. It will not see me traipsing into an actual gunfight between Mexican drug cartels, which makes me a lesser person than Matthew Heineman, who did just that for his documentary about the current state of said cartels south of the border. I picked this one up on iTunes to essentially check out the competition – Meru and Cartel Land have popped up in a lot of the same conversations this year. When I was crying 20 minutes into the damn thing, I knew I was watching something exceptional. Heineman tells two parallel stories over the course of the film, chronicling an American and a Mexican with one shared interest – stopping the cartels – and two very different approaches to doing so. Watch the trailer
Amy – Five years ago, I kept hearing about this documentary Senna, how it was a must see, like nothing the documentary space had really seen before. When I finally got around to seeing it, I was blown away. Filmmaker Asif Kapadia triumphs again with his heartfelt and heart-wrenching take on the rise and tragic fall of Amy Winehouse. Kapadia’s trademark in both films is telling the story without the over-done documentary trope of relying on talking heads to tell the story. Where I was somewhat removed from the loss of Kurt Cobain, I remember clearly Winehouse’s meteoric rise to stardom, the success of her album (I think I may even have it around here somewhere) and her untimely and unnecessary death. Recounted with haunting and masterful attention to detail, Amy is a filmmaking accomplishment, documentary or otherwise. Read my full write-up here; watch the trailer