Looking at the 20 best docs of the year, which was the best for nonfiction films in memory
There are a whole lot of reasons to complain about the current structure of the movie business. It seems like every movie that reaches theaters is either really expensive or really cheap. The world revolves around superhero movies, with a new one arriving just about every month, and you can add to that the money coming from nontraditional places – from Silicon Valley to China to even Saudi Arabia.
But oddly enough, the realignment of the business has had an unexpected side effect: A whole bunch of really great documentaries. Entities like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon have each pushed a slate of documentaries, joining incumbents like HBO, CNN, and PBS. Various independent distributors have gotten in the act too, and it seems like more screens at art house theaters have docs on them these days than in the past.
According to The Numbers, documentaries grossed a total of $95 million domestically in 2018, more than doubling last year’s total of $44 million.
While a whole generation is growing up with “Netflix documentary” as a genre, docs are cleaning up at the box office, too. According to The Numbers, documentaries grossed a total of $95 million domestically in 2018, more than doubling last year’s total of $44 million. Four 2018 docs: Won’t You Be Neighbor, RBG, Three Identical Strangers, and Free Solo, made more than $10 million at the box office.
A big factor in that is that there were a lot of really great documentary films this year. Here’s a look at the 20 best, and how you can see them:
The best doc of the year comes from director Robert Greene (of Actress and Kate Plays Christine), who shows us a pageant to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Bisbee Deportation, when over a thousand striking mine workers were loaded into cattle cars and shipped out of Bisbee, Ariz., to be left for dead. It's an amazing look at American history and myth, and how it still affects us today. (Not streaming yet)
Sandra Tan's film tells the story of the film she made with her friends as a teenager in Singapore, her quest to discover the missing footage, and the search for the man who stole it. Looks like nothing else on screens this year. (Now streaming on Netflix)
Bathtubs Over Broadway
Directed by Dava Whisenant, 'Bathtubs' dives into the world of 20th century "industrial musicals," when top-notch talent would produce promotional musicals for corporations. It's told through the eyes of Steve Young, the longtime David Letterman, and his introduction into the world's most ultra-specific fandom. (Now in theaters)
Won't You Be My Neighbor
Morgan Neville's look at the life of Fred Rogers is a definitive portrait of the man who meant a whole lot to just about every American of a certain age, and probably caused the most in-theater tears of any 2018 film. (Now streaming on iTunes/Amazon/Google Play)
Owned: A Tale of Two Americas
I only know about this film because MSNBC's Chris Hayes interviewed the director, Giorgio Angelini, on this podcast, but it's an absolutely illuminating look at the history of U.S. housing policy and how it's so largely to blame for so much of the inequality we see today. This is illustrated in various ways, including clips from the old sitcom Good Times. (Still on the festival/screening circuit and not streaming yet)
Three Identical Strangers
A fascinating story, in its first half, of three men who met each other and discovered they were long-lost identical triplets, going on to become minor New York celebrities in the Studio 54 era. But then the second half goes off in a whole other wild direction that I won't dream of spoiling. (Now streaming on iTunes/Amazon/Google Play, coming to CNN in January)
Minding The Gap
There were a bunch of movies this year about skateboarding, but Bing Liu's documentary about the friends in his hometown and their years of struggles was the best by far, and vastly superior to whatever Jonah Hill was trying to do with Mid90s. (Now streaming on Hulu)
Divide and Conquer: The Story of Roger Ailes
Masterfully weaving together decades of archival footage, Alexis Bloom's film expertly tells the 50-year story of how the late Fox News chief created the world we now live in. So many political documentaries this year were didactic and didn't care about filmmaking, but this one did it right. (Now in theaters)
I'm enough of a Watergate buff that I would watch a 20-hour documentary about it and still want more, but Charles Ferguson's look at Nixon's downfall got the job done in four hours. Debuting on the festival circuit and then hitting the History Channel, Watergate was just subtle enough about its echoes of the present day. (Now on The History Channel)
Directed by Amy Scott, Hal is a great dive into the life and career of Hal Ashby, the most unheralded of 1970s directors, who directed Harold and Maude, Shampoo, Being There, Coming Home, and The Last Detail, but not much else once the calendar flipped to the '80s. (Now streaming on Amazon Prime and Vudu)
The Fourth Estate
The third major documentary about the New York Times in the last ten years, this one looks at how the Times' New York and Washington newsrooms covered the early days of the Trump era. Earlier doc, Page One: A Year Inside The New York Times had David Carr for a hero, and this one has Maggie Haberman, whose bound to be played in a feature someday by Mary-Louise Parker. (Now streaming on Showtime)
John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection
A totally out-there sports documentary, looking at a year of tennis star John McEnroe, accented with punk rock and French-accented narration by actor Mathieu Amalric. A really great swing by director Julien Faraut. (Now streaming on Google Play, Amazon Prime and Vudu)
Love Means Zero
The year's other standout tennis documentary consists mostly of interviews with longtime tennis coach Nick Bollettieri about his tough-love style and broken relationship with former star student Andre Agassi. What's great is that director Jason Kohn gets fascinating stuff out of his subject, mostly by challenging him. (Now streaming on Showtime, as well as Amazon Prime and Vudu)
In a year of resurfacing for a lot of long-lost movies, this one finally shows us a famous, church-based recording session by Aretha Franklin from 1972. If you can get over the ick factor of the film being released over the Queen of Soul's decades-held objections just a few months after her death, it's a beautiful experience. (Now in theaters)
From directors Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin comes one of those fascinating docs about a world you had no idea about. This one, through subject Alex Honnold, shows us free solo rock climbing (those people who climb up mountains alone), and without equipment, and we get the perhaps inevitable montage of past free solo climbing legends, all of whom died when they fell off mountains. (Now in theaters)
Hale County, This Morning This Evening
RaMell Ross' film takes a deep and fascinating look at a year in the life of a community in Hale County, Alabama. (Coming to PBS in February)
Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun?
Another fascinating look at race, justice and history, this film has director Travis Wilkerson looking back at the story of his white great-grandfather, who was said to have killed a black man and gotten away with it, more than 70 years ago. (Now available on iTunes)
What Haunts Us
In the age of #MeToo, Paige Tolmach's documentary looks back at a molestation case from the late 1970s and the effect it had on the people involved. An illuminating look at a sad story. (Streaming on Amazon Prime)
Teddy Pendergrass: If You Don't Know Me
Directed by Olivia Lichtenstein, it's a complete look back at the life of the late musician, through interviews with his family and bandmates, the Pendergrass film closed out the Philadelphia Film Festival back in October. (Coming to Showtime in 2019)
Did you know a bunch of Apple veterans created an iPhone-like product, 15 years before the iPhone? This doc, directed by Sarah Kerruish and Matt Maude, shows how they did it, and how they ultimately failed. In a year of Silicon Valley doing bad things, it's nice to see idealistic people with a vision they believe in. (Still on the festival circuit)
And that’s to say nothing of the doc that’s probably going to win the Oscar – RBG – as well as entire movies of above-average quality about Gilda Radner, Quincy Jones, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Itzhak Perlman, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Studio 54, the creators of the Muppets, the people who censor Facebook of porn and beheadings in real time, and the Nazi film industry.
There was also the Orson Welles film about the other Orson Welles film, and films that included a defense of hillbilly culture against discrimination, the singer of Imagine Dragons coming to terms with the Mormon church’s homophobia, ultra-orthodox Jews in Brooklyn starting an all-female EMS service, a young prodigy chef clashing with his overbearing mom, and a 90-minute thesis that Gilligan’s Island was actually about communism.
…Dinesh D’Souza became the first documentary filmmaker in history to have his felony conviction pardoned by a president, while a whole other doc argued that Trump’s presidency was the result of a divine prophecy.
Of the films on my list, Free Solo, Hale County, Minding the Gap, Shirkers, Three Identical Strangers, and Won’t You Be My Neighbor were named Monday to the Academy’s documentary feature shortlist, while the others did not.
Sure, there were plenty of docs this year that I didn’t like. Michael Moore resurfaced, to demonstrate once again how little he means to documentary filmmaking these days, while roughly a dozen nonfiction films (led by the shortlisted Dark Money) combined left-liberal sentiments to which I’m sympathetic with, with ominous music and tiresome talking heads. On the other side, Dinesh D’Souza became the first documentary filmmaker in history to have his felony conviction pardoned by a president, while a whole other doc argued that Trump’s presidency was the result of a divine prophecy.
But nobody said they all had to be good. And one thing we learned in the movie year 2018 is that documentary filmmaking is incredibly healthy.