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Some of the best documentaries ever made were projects that turned out radically differently than what was first planned. Capturing the Friedmans (2003) was supposed to be a look at New York City’s birthday party clowns, until one of those clowns told the director about the time his father and brother were accused of terrible crimes. Weiner (2016) was envisioned as a behind-the-scenes chronicle of the triumphant political comeback of the disgraced ex-Congressman, but you know how that turned out, and I don’t even want to get into Dear Zachary (2008)…

Some of the best documentaries ever made were projects that turned out radically differently than what was first planned.

Sometimes these things get away from their original purpose and it’s one of the true beauties of the art form. This was certainly the case with five of the best documentaries of 2017:

Icarus

Icarus started off as a gimmick documentary that was like something out of a Nathan For You episode. Director Bryan Fogel, a comedian by trade, decided to take performance-enhancing drugs and try to win an amateur bike race, all while documenting the experience. This put him in touch with Grigory Rodchenkov, a Russian “anti-doping expert…” who turned out, in fact, to be the architect of Vladimir Putin’s clandestine Olympic doping program. As Rodchenkov turns whistleblower and flees to the U.S., this comical gimmick documentary takes a hard turn into international spy intrigue.

Risk

Speaking of international skullduggery on behalf of Vladimir Putin, Risk is Laura Poitras’ follow-up to the historic, Oscar-winning Citizenfour (2013), and it starts off as a sympathetic portrayal of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, along the lines of the director’s earlier look at Edward Snowden. Filmed over several years, Risk slowly depicts the filmmaker’s disillusionment with and estrangement from her subject, as she, and us, realize that rather than a brave outlaw freedom fighter, Assange is in fact more of an international supervillain – a likely stooge for Putin and/or Trump, a probable sex criminal, and a confirmed scumbag.

Get Me Roger Stone

In line with shadowy, ill-reputed figures who helped make the Trump presidency possible, Get Me Roger Stone comes from the director trio of Dylan Bank, Daniel DiMauro and Morgan Pehme. The filmmakers chronicled the loathsome but unquestionably riveting political fixer for six years, as multiple magazine profiles of Stone over the years made note of the documentary crew constantly following him. It just so happened that four years into the project, a certain friend and client of Stone’s began an unlikely run to the presidency of the United States. Even as Stone drifted into and out of Donald Trump’s inner circle, his influence on the current president was evident.

Let’s Play Two

In much more heartwarming pursuits that have nothing to do with Wikileaks or Russia, Let’s Play Two was conceived originally as a concert film, and live album, chronicling Pearl Jam’s two shows at Chicago’s Wrigley Field in the summer of 2016, as well as frontman Eddie Vedder’s lifelong Chicago Cubs fandom. And then… the Cubs that fall won their first World Series in 108 years. The film, directed by Danny Clinch, provides a dual look at both music and sports fandom, and there were few films of any genre this year that were quite as joyful.

Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent

Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent, directed by Lydia Tenaglia and produced by foodie king Anthony Bourdain, was an intriguing look at the famed chef, who helped pioneer the California Cuisine style in the 1970s. It starts out as a talking-head-filled rampage through Tower’s life and career, until the shocking news that Tower is ending his long exile and taking over the kitchen at Tavern on the Green. The third act, in a huge tonal shift from the film beforehand, is a blow-by-blow of Tower’s ill-fated New York tenure. Even if you know nothing about the history here before seeing the film-and I confess, I did not – it’s totally riveting.

Dawson City Frozen Time

The best documentary of 2017 is one that has even more strange and radical lineage – Dawson City Frozen Time, which came from the 1978 discovery of hundreds of film reels that had been buried under a frozen lake in Canada’s Yukon Territory for more than 50 years. The footage, which includes both classic silent films and footage of the infamous 1919 World Series, was assembled by director Bill Morrison into a mesmerizing montage, set to a beautiful score by Alex Somers, and the resulting film will absolutely blow you away.

Risk slowly depicts the filmmaker’s disillusionment with and estrangement from her subject, as she, and us, realize that rather than a brave outlaw freedom fighter, Assange is in fact more of an international supervillain…

Beyond that, there are multiple, very good docs based on recently discovered or unearthed old footage: Brett Morgan’s Jane, Alexandra Dean’s Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story, and Chris Smith’s Jim and Andy: The Great Beyond, and the documentary short Long Shot, directed by Jacob LaMendola, which told the story of the guy who beat a murder rap after his appearance in a Curb Your Enthusiasm crowd scene at Dodger Stadium provided him an alibi. 

Sure, not every standout doc of 2017 fits that change-on-the-fly template. And I don’t just mean the four separate documentaries about the conflict in Syria, at least three about various aspects of the 2016 presidential election, and two about the 1992 L.A. riots. The best of them, respectively – Last Men in Aleppo, 11/8/16, and LA 92.

…2017 was a documentary year of uncommon depth…

Others of the best docs this year: Amir Bar Lev’s four-hour Grateful Dead history Long Strange Trip, Vanessa Gould’s Obit, Kasper Collin’s I Called Him Morgan, Blake Reigle’s One of Us ,and Jairus McLeary and Gethin Aldous’s The Work.

There wasn’t really a great, transcendent documentary this year, in the tradition of Capturing the Friedmans or this decade’s greatest nonfiction film, Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing. But 2017 was a documentary year of uncommon depth, with most of the major ones available on one streaming service or another.

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