The good news for documentaries? Non-fiction storytelling was very popular in 2020. The bad news? The documentaries that drew the most public attention were more likely to be television series Tiger King and The vowwhich brought the spread and sensation of podcasts to the small screen. These types of documents can certainly be insightful and entertaining, but they are not really representative of the art form at its best.
The following films address some of the same issues as the new wave of podcast-like television: scandals, politics, addiction, sex, and death. But the filmmakers behind them fine-tuned their stories and found just the right images and characters to say something artful and relevant about our world. Here are some of the highlights from an excellent year for documentaries.
10. Town Hall
Each new Frederick Wiseman film is a major event for documentary filmmakers as he is both the godfather and master of the “fly on the wall” observational style, watching life unfold. The town hall was especially relevant this year of all years when citizens became more attuned to the intricacies of bourgeois governance. Wiseman’s latest edition follows the day-to-day business of the Boston Mayor’s office, where appointed and elected officials interact with their constituents and address issues as mundane as holiday celebrations and as important as safety and justice. Too often these days “the government” is dismissed as ineffective or malicious, but over the course of more than four hours The town hall shows how difficult but indispensable the daily process of leading a church is.
The town hall flows through virtual theater programs nationwide.
Here is another excellent film about what it takes to run a city. Director David Osit shadows Musa Hadid, the mayor of Ramallah, one of the political and cultural centers of Palestine, where a troubled relationship with neighboring Israel is an inseparable part of everyday life for citizens. mayor covers the West Bank dispute, but it’s also about Hadid tackling seemingly insignificant issues like Ramallah’s slogan for the tourism campaign or his public beautification projects. The subtle, poignant message of Osit’s film is that mayors everywhere should have the luxury of being more concerned with designating a well than preventing explosions and shootings.
mayor flows through virtual theater programs until January 30th.
8. I am Greta
The prospect of seeing a film about the passionate, extremely serious teenage environmental activist Greta Thunberg might seem a little too much like homework to some potential viewers. But while Nathan Grossman I am greta Ignoring Thunberg’s urgent message on climate change or the controversies surrounding her cause, this tense, moving film is more of a behind-the-scenes look at how a unique youth with the adoration and following of his followers circumvents the empty promises of world leaders while simultaneously becoming an autistic spectrum disorder cope with which sometimes manifests as crippling social anxiety.
I am greta will continue to be streamed Hulu.
7. Lots of love: the legend of Walter Mercado
Before the strikingly dressed TV astrologer Walter Mercado died last year, filmmakers Alex Fumero, Cristina Costantini and Kareem Tabsch persuaded the reclusive entertainer to speak at length about his almost 40-year career in Spanish-language media. Between the 1970s and 2010, mercado became a popular ingredient in millions of households, although (or maybe because) its flamboyant style marked it as possibly gay. Much Much Love never definitely answers the questions many Mercado fans have long had about his personal life, but it does explain the importance of having a non-apologetic nonconformist build such a permanent presence on people’s television.
Much Much Love will continue to be streamed Netflix.
6. The Go-Go’s
This was an excellent year for documentaries about music and musicians, and this slot could easily have been occupied by Frank Marshalls The Bee Gees: How Can You Heal a Broken Heart?, Julien Temple Crock of Gold: A few rounds with Shane MacGowanor Alex Winters Zappa. But Alison Ellwoods The go-go’s belongs here for several reasons. Ellwood is a professional at telling such stories behind the music. She was already celebrated for her 2013 film Story of the eagle, and awarded for this year Laurel Canyon Documentary series. Here her in-depth look at a phenomenal but ephemeral pop-punk band from the ’80s LA engages openly and engagingly with the drug abuse and sexism in the industry that these women have had to overcome to – however short they may be – to make some of the catchiest pieces of music of their music era.
The go-go’s will continue to be streamed FuboTV and show time.
5. You are not Nomi
Notice Showgirls? That cheesy erotic melodrama from 1995, which was called one of the worst films of all time at the time? In Jeffrey McHale’s documentary You not NomiSome cinephiles who love the picture very much – and some who still think it sucks – step behind the scenes and analyze the details of what brought accomplished filmmaker Paul Verhoeven to this very strange project. Watching this movie is like making the most of it Showgirls without suffering any of its scratchier elements. And during You not Nomi Perhaps this won’t change the naysayers’ minds, but it will provoke some fun conversations about what makes a movie “good”.
You not Nomi is available for digital rental or purchase on Amazon, Vuduand o ther platforms.
A kind of documentary process, collective Two parallel stories follow in Romania: a group of crusade journalists trying to get to the bottom of the rampant mismanagement of state hospitals, and a well-meaning bureaucrat trying to bring about real institutional change in the healthcare system. Equally gripping and desperate, both stories show how even loud reform demands can be silenced by wealthy crooks who have a vested interest in confusing the public.
collective is available for digital rental on Amazon, Vuduand other platforms.
3. Welcome to Chechnya
Journalist and filmmaker David France makes amazing use of digital effects in his intense documentary Welcome to ChechnyaUsing an innovative visual trick to replace the faces of people who prefer to remain anonymous with the faces of actors ready to be their “masks”. The gimmick is necessary because this film follows LGBTQ + citizens who have been persecuted and threatened by the authorities in the Chechen Republic of Russia. This film is partly about the efforts to help these activists escape, but it’s more about the ridiculous hoops some people have to jump through to find a way to be themselves.
Welcome to Chechnya will continue to be streamed HBO max.
2. Bloody nose, empty pockets
There is some disagreement about whether the latest Bill and Turner Ross film is a documentary at all, as almost everything in it was directed. The brothers brought together an unequal group of actors and barflies – most of whom had never met before – and asked them to pretend they were longtime acquaintances who had one last drunk night at their favorite Las Vegas bar, before it was finally closed. But while the scenario is fictional, the alcohol is real and the dialogue is scriptless. What the Rosses capture beautifully and skillfully at the end is the casual wit and drunk honesty of the right dive on the right night.
Bloody nose, empty pockets is available for digital rental or purchase on Amazon, Vuduand other platforms.
1. Dick Johnson is dead
It might sound strange to describe a movie about a woman’s dying father as a crowd puller, but that’s exactly what it is Dick Johnson is dead is. When filmmaker Kirsten Johnson noticed that her charming, kind father was quickly weakening both physically and mentally, she asked him to live with her so they could spend as much time together as possible, sharing memories, and pondering his mortality. They also had fun staging and filming elaborate death scenarios to demystify the process of saying goodbye. The emotional blow of the end of this documentary – and especially the last line and take – hits hard. But when the convulsive sobbing subsides, what remains is a beautiful and profound film about family, aging and the too short time in which we can all be human.
Dick Johnson is dead will continue to be streamed Netflix.