Top Twenty Documentary Films of the Decade (2010-19)

Picking the best of a decade is, let’s face it, mostly an impossible task. This is made all the more ridiculous when choosing among all genres. So to make it somehwat manageable, I’ve decided to break it up in to top twenty foreign, domestic features, docs and television. Now, listen, it’s just me here. I don’t have a team of writers. And, since this is not my profession, I only see about 100-125 films a year – so you will undoubtedly have films you would have chosen that I haven’t seen. I welcome the disagreements and hope in the comments you’ll tell me I’m an idiot for leaving off your faves. There’s a chance I haven’t seen it so it might be a welcome introduction for me. But I’ll save you the trouble of asking me about one film that seems to be on every other site’s Best of the Decade. I simply hated “Toni Erdmann”. It gave me a migraine. Sorry. As for my actual picks…

20. “Tower” – USA (2016)
Directed by Keith Maitland,0,182,268_AL_.jpgOne of the more original presentations of a classic historical documentary you are likely to see, “Tower” is a phenomenal film. These event in question is the first random, mass school shooting in American history at the University of Texas, when on a hot August day, in 1966 a lone gunman, occupying a perch at the school’s tower, killed sixteen people and injured thirty-six more. By utilizing animation and voice over performance, the story loses the “historical doc” distance that mere talking heads and news footage would have created. Instead, the subjects become characters you care about, real people, with real everyday lives, interrupted by the heinous actions of one person…and the power of a gun. And, best of all, and with gratitude from this viewer, the shooter is NEVER the subject…only the victims and the heroes.

Trailer here, currently available Kanopy or for rent.

19. “Best of Enemies” – USA (2015)
Directed by Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville,0,182,268_AL_.jpgBuckley v. Vidal. The origins of political silo building as entertainment. Taking only the best of their interchanges, and always keeping it in proper context, Gordon and Neville have made one of the better time capsules of the decade. The soul of the film lies in the adversarial relationship between these two intellectual giants. Their usage of the English language as weapons (instead of just screaming over each other, as is the current choice for on-camera opinion mongers), is lyrically magnificent, each phrase acting as a swing of the sword, only to be parried and blocked by an even more precise missive.It moves at an engaging clip and is never remotely dull, as you’d think a doc about two talking heads might be. The usage of ’68 Convention news footage, home movies, television appearances and interviews of the subjects fill in the all the contextual spaces. And, lastingly, the film serves as your GPS to how our news sadly navigated from their to here.

Trailer here, currently not available to stream.

18. “Amazing Grace” – USA (2018)
Directed by Alan Elliott, Sydney Pollack,0,182,268_AL_.jpgFull disclosure: producer and co-director Alan Elliott was a close friend of mine at college. That said, you don’t need me to say anything. It’s Aretha. At her prime. Singing in a church. With Pollack running around trying to make a film with some sort of narrative. Brilliant. Amazing. Grace.

Trailer here, currently available on Amazon Prime.

17. “Apollo 11” – USA (2019)
Directed by Todd Douglas Miller,0,182,268_AL_.jpgUsing nothing but home videos, television broadcasts, and, amazingly, tons of audio recordings between Houston and the Apollo crew, Miller’s “Apollo 11” is, without a doubt, the most definitive, intense, and emotional record of what happened fifty years ago. I was enthralled, hypnotized and lulled in to a different time. In fact, it pulled me in more than any of the dozens of fictionalizations of the Apollo program, “First Man” and “Apollo 13” included. Add to that the inscribed notion of a collective and unified moment in our country’s history that didn’t involve tragedy, and you have a touchstone of a film.  An incredible experience.

Trailer here, currently available on Hulu.

16. “Minding the Gap” – USA (2018)
Directed by Bing Liu,0,182,268_AL_.jpg

This lovely film is little more than a collection of interviews, observed moments and seated talking head interviews with his two best friends/skating buddies and family members over the course of several years. But this film is much more about the weight of parental, familial and societal influences felt in a depressed, small midwestern city, then it is about life decisions. It’s about PTSD, hope, expectation, what passes for love, and, of course, escape. And the manner with which Liu captures these elements is alluring and hypnotic. His editing skills, where the real storytelling of a documentary occurs, are terrific. In spite of what must have been thousands of hours of footage from a five year span to sift through, the film somehow speeds by without ever leaving you short-changed. In short, he has assembled a document that is, in essence, the film you wish “Boyhood” had been.

Trailer here, currently available on Hulu.

15. “David Crosby: Remember My Name” – USA (2019)
Directed by A.J Eaton,0,182,268_AL_.jpgI have been trying to avoid recency bias throughout this process, and I might be a little guilty here, but I believe this to be the best music bio doc of the decade. It’s a film that engages on numerous levels – historically, musically, artistically, and psychologically. If you’re a fan of CSN, than, obviously it’s for you. But I am not particularly fond of that music or the genre of that era and I, nonetheless, found it absolutely fascinating to observe this deeply flawed, inward looking soul, relay his story with such a profound sense of regret and appreciation. An elegy of a life fully lived, context for the obit, and a pre-cursor to a eulogy.

Trailer here, currently available for rent only.

14. “Red Army” – USA (2014)
Directed by Gabe Polsky,0,182,268_AL_.jpgWithout a doubt, the best sports doc of the decade…and certainly  the best non-sports sports documentary I have ever seen. Using the Red Army National Hockey Team of the Soviet regime as a jumping off point, Polsky has managed to craft an insightful, hilarious, and human documentary. Don’t let the hockey aspect keep you away if you are not a sports fan because it has far less to do with hockey than it does with looking behind the Red Curtain during the most tense of times during the Cold War. But what brings me back is the Polsky’s interviewing acumen – copping an almost Errol Morris style, with none of the intellectualism but all the irreverence. A great film.

Trailer here, currently available for rent only.

13. “For Sama” – U.K./Syria (2019)
Directed by Waad El-Kateab & Edward Watts,0,182,268_AL_.jpg

It seems we, necessarily, have two or three docs about the experiences of those facing the hell that comes from living in Aleppo. Almost all are harrowing and so very sad. “For Sama” takes a slightly different tack. While many show us the consequences for the children, none of have, thus far, focused on the bond between a mother and child in this environment. Until now. A sure bet for an Oscar nod…and probable win…it can be screened for free on YouTube and I highly recommend you do so. If you have avoided “Last Man In Aleppo”, “The White Helmets” or “Watani” because of the overwhelm that comes from non-fiction examinations of such misery, I suggest you make the effort here. Will be talked about for decades.

Trailer here, currently available on Kanopy (and for free on YouTube).

12. “A Film Unfinished” – Germany/Israel (2010)
Directed by Yael Hersonski,0,182,268_AL_.jpgFascinating on so many levels, this close examination of the only surviving footage of the Warsaw Ghetto, shot just weeks before the extermination of its inhabitants, illustrates just how efficient the Nazi propaganda machine was. It has the same hypnotic effect as  watching ghosts interacting in front of a cmera with unseen guns pointed at their heads. Hersonski, utilizing incredible research and interviews with surviving cameramen, weaves a succinct tale of how the Holocaust was hidden in plain sight and sold to the world at large.

Trailer here, currently only available to rent.

11. “They Shall Not Grow Old” – U.K./New Zealand (2018)
Directed by Peter Jackson,0,182,268_AL_.jpgTasked by the Imperial War Museum to make a film that honors the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War (aka The Great War), Peter Jackson has done something incredible. Using modern technology, and creating some new tech along the way, he and his crew have taken hundreds of hours of the old silent footage from that conflict, the same footage we’ve seen a million times, cleaned it up, brightened it, and most importantly, slowed it down to 24 frames per second. He’s also lovingly colored them, zoomed in to give them more focus, added the background sounds of war, and looped in VO whenever someone on screen is speaking. The narration consists solely of audio recordings made in the sixties of those who actually fought. The result is nothing short of miraculous. It is not a word I use often, but if anything in cinema can be called that, this is it. The moment we switch from that which was old to that which is newly seen will make you gasp out loud.

Trailer here, currently available on HBO.

10. “Pina (3D)” – Germany (2011)
Directed by Wim Wenders,0,182,268_AL_.jpgIn sole possession of the title of best use of 3D in a documentary, “Pina” is a dance concert taken out of the constraints of the stage and, thanks to 3D technology, the screen. These are brilliant works of dance craft placed in the environments that they were written for. It’s joyful, hilarious, shocking and, occasionally,  oh so sad. It is also a Wenders film which means you can practically hear him giggling with glee at every single frame. It’s the best dance film I’ve ever seen. Now, I’m sure it’s worth watching in 2D, but if you have a 3D television, this (and, I suppose, “Gravity”) is the best reason to spend the dough on a 3D bluray disc set.

Trailer here, currently available on Criterion Channel (but if you have a 3D TV, find the discs!).

9. “O.J: Made In America” – USA (2016)
Directed by Ezra Edelman,0,182,268_AL_.jpg

I know, I know. It ended the possibility of the long form documentary to ever be nominated again since it was really made for TV. We can argue all day about the merits of its inclusion on this list, but, as far as I’m concerned, it belongs. Putting OJ’s life and trials in the context of race and celebrity in the actual space of Los Angeles, and in the ether of “America”, Edelman has made a riveting, illuminating, and damning account of all of the above. Well worth a weekend or week of your viewing life. In fact, the only multi-episodic doc I’d begin to put in the same sphere of execution is Ric Burns’, “New York: A Documentary Film”.

Trailer here, currently available on Sling and ESPN+.

8. “The Stories We Tell” – Canada (2013)
Directed by Sarah Polley

Stories We Tell PosterAlmost acting as a companion piece to Denis Villeneuve’s Canadian fictional masterpiece made a year earlier, “Incendies”, “Stories We Tell,” is an amazingly well-structured yet seemingly out-of-control dive down the rabbit-hole of oral genetics tracing. Alternately very funny and very tough, this is what family history feels, looks and sounds like – if we all took the time to be this open to it all. A wonderful film.

Trailer here, currently only available on AmazonPrime.

7. “I Am Not Your Negro” – USA (2015)
Directed by Raoul Peck,0,182,268_AL_.jpgVery…VERY… rarely does a documentary about a well known posthumous subject make you feel like you learned something intimate about the workings of their brains when they were alive. This tremendous exploration of the primal force that was James Baldwin does so much more than that. It forces you to examine your experiences, history, and culpability in the creation of a world that made Baldwin who he was. It is easily the most important American bio-doc of the decade, and one of the most beautifully crafted. It also possesses one of the great doc VO performances ever, with the unrecognizable, subdued, and magnetic work of Samuel L. Jackson.

Trailer here, currently available on AmazonPrime.

6. “Finding Vivian Maier” – USA (2018)
Directed by John Maloof & Charlie Siskel,0,182,268_AL_.jpgEqually difficult is a successful film that pushes the unknown in to the iconic. “Searching For Sugarman” is perhaps the other best known version of this type of doc. But in that film, people were seeking out someone whose work had touched them. This was an accidental discovery of the work of someone who had no interest in sharing their work to begin with. It’s fascinating. Combined with the times in which she lived and, most importantly, the work she created, it’s simply impossible to turn away. A film I come back to again and again.

Trailer here, currently available for rent only.

5. “Marwencol” – USA (2010)
Directed by Jeff Malmberg,0,182,268_AL_.jpgLet’s for a moment, pretend that the horrendous feature based on this documentary (and starring Steve Carrell) never happened. Please. Because anything that takes away from Malmberg’s brilliant profile of a man who so profoundly uses the power of imagination to combat the massive effects of both traumatic brain injury and PTSD, should be a crime. One of the first docs of the decade was also one of its most unique, most well told, and very, very best.

Trailer here, currently available on Kanopy and Mubi.

4. “Three Identical Strangers” – USA (2018)
Directed by Tim Wardle

Three Identical Strangers PosterSo, most documentarions go in to a subject knowing the story they want to tell. In fact, many eschew items that stray too far from that story. My favorite thing about Wardle’s “Strangers” is his willingness to change the narrative of his film at least four different times…not because he decided to, but because he simply let the story do the footwork. This film could have easily been number two or three for me. Full disclosure, the original story (and hype that followed) occurred within miles from my house while I was in high school so it is very much a part of my direct memories. Regardless, it is one of the few films I have seen in a very long time where I could not control my vocal reactions whenever the story turned, twisted, or simply left the station altogether. And, not for nothing, it ultimately is a film that puts the ethics of science and emotional study on trial. Amazing. Amazing. Amazing.

Trailer here, currently available Hulu.

3. “Dawson City Frozen Time” – USA (2016)
Directed by Bill Morrison,0,182,268_AL_.jpg

A poo-poo platter of “Cinema Paradiso” apex and dream-like travelogue of a time both gone by, and for the vast majority of human beings, never was. To be sure, this is a slightly sleepy film, but not in its story telling or imagery. It is sleepy because it is hypnotic…it draws you in. It makes you wonder and imagine about the people who set out to make a life in that remote land with no guarantee of anything other than hope…about the ghost-like presence of the actors in these ancient films…and about the men and women who first un-spooled these reels and how strange it must have felt to behold such an important modern archaeological find…a find that is emotive, NOT static. All of which is aided by Alex Somers ethereal and gorgeous score.

Trailer here, currently available on Kanopy.

2. “In the Intense Now” – Brazil (2017)
Directed by João Moreira Salles,0,182,268_AL_.jpg

Historical docs very rarely stray from the tried and true formula – identify the main players, and chronologically take us through the events that shaped the story. Every once in a blue moon, someone will figure out a new way to communicate their ideas and stories, the most notable of which would be Ross McElwee’s epic 1985 doc, “Sherman’s March”. Another such rarity, granted, without any of the irreverence, but much more passion, is João Moreira Soles’ “In the Intense Now”. A personal essay on his experiences and remembrances of his mother than anything else, he manages to enlighten and comment, with extraordinary intellect, on the nature of governmental power versus improvised protest, and more importantly, the way in which we look at the evidence of these events. Focusing on 1968 Paris, Prague, Rio and Beijing, and with an understated yet connected voice-over underneath, we bear witness to ninety minutes of found footage, news footage, and home movies. If this sounds like it might become boring, it is not. Sleepy, perhaps, but only in the lullaby nature of his voice, certainly not the words, which have been chosen with such sincerity and clarity, and placed perfectly with the well-edited footage that must have taken him months to sift through and piece together. He has a very specific point-of-view, but the film never feels preachy. It’s a remarkable juggling act. And one of my most wonderful cinematic experiences.

Trailer here, currently only available to rent from Apple iTunes.

1. “The Act of Killing” – U.K/Denmark/Norway (2012)
Directed by Joshua Oppenheimer/Anonymous,0,182,268_AL_.jpgSo, not surprisingly, “The Act of Killing” is my choice for the greatest doc of the decade. I’m not alone in declaring it as such. In fact, almost every other critic who made such a list has this elegy – this exploration, this trial, this look in the mirror by the main players of a different time and place, when horrible and heinous acts were considered necessary, in their top two. While it is incredibly difficult to watch, it is also impossible not to. Watching these men revel and recoil is…well…there aren’t really words…only noise. Many put its follow up, “The Look of Silence”, on their lists as well. And, while that film is incredible on its own merits, it never has the emotional delivery of this lasting work of art.

Trailer here, currently available on AmazonPrime.

The Rest (click on titles for trailers):

21. “Cameraperson” – USA (2016)
Directed by Kirsten Johnson (Criterion Channel)

22. “Amy” – U.K. (2015)
Directed by Asif Kapadia (Netflix)

23. “GasLand” – USA (2010)
Directed by Josh Fox (Vudu [free] and Hoopla)

24. “Leviathan” – France (2012)
Directed by Lucien Castaing-Taylor, Verena Paravel (Fandor)

25. “The Gatekeepers” – Israel (2016)
Directed by Dror Moreh (for rent only)

26. “Older Than Ireland” – Ireland (2015)
Directed by Alex Fegan (AmazonPrime)

27. “20 Feet From Stardom” – USA (2013)
Directed by Morgan Neville (Netflix)

28. “The Eagle Huntress” – U.K./Mongolia (2016)
Directed by Otto Bell (rent only)

29. “Eat That Question: Frank Zappa In His Own Words” – France/Germany (2016)
Directed by Thorsten Schütte (rent only)

30. “A Moon of Nickel and Ice” – Canada/Russia (2017)
Directed by François Jacob (AmazonPrime)

31. “The Last Laugh” – USA (2016)
Directed by Ferne Pearlstein (Kanopy)

32. “United Skates” – USA (2018)
Directed by Tina Brown and Diana Winkler (HBO)

33. “The Invisible War” – USA/France (2012)
Directed by Kirby Dick (AmazonPrime)

34. “We Were Here” – USA (2012)
Directed by David Weissman, Bill Weber (AmazonPrime)

35. “Citizenfour” – USA/Germay/U.K. (2014)
Directed by Laura Poitras (AmazonPrime)

3 thoughts on “Top Twenty Documentary Films of the Decade (2010-19)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s