A lot happened this year. Cultural shifts, global tragedies, history-shaping elections in major industrial nations. All of this at a time in which the Western World was just starting to get a handle on some of its intricately sewn flaws and historical missteps. One could argue that this year elevated the necessity for good, quality documentary filmmaking higher than it has ever been. Luckily, the call has already been answered by the year’s documentary filmmakers. 2016 proved to be a watermark year for documentaries, and compiling a list of the ten best was no easy task, but we managed. Below, you can read our picks of the best documentaries we saw in this busy year.
What’s strange about Ava Duvernay’s 13th, her Netflix-released follow-up to the Oscar-snubbed Selma, is that the documentary functions better as emotional journalism than informational documentary– that is, while the film does contain information, it is more important that it contains voices. The central discussion is the racist motivation of America’s industrial prison complex, which, Duvernay’s film contends, is an extension to the industrial slave complex, allowed by the “except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted” stipulation of the 13th Amendment. This discussion is lead, finally, by voices of color, and as such, the filmic conversation is righteous and emotional, which allows a secondary examination of the human element of those political calculations which seek to manipulate common sense legislation to continue oppression and dehumanization. Illustrated with the unblinking historical footage, clips that might be left out to appeal to more a sensitive and whiter viewership in other films, 13th is can’t miss stuff. – David Shreve, Jr.
Rod Blackhurst and Brian McGinn’s retrospective documentary on former murder suspect Amanda Knox’s accusation, conviction, and eventual release is a compelling look at how a cultural divide between morals, law enforcement, and freedom of the press led to one of the aughts’ most over-blown and mishandled cases. Admittedly, there’s a lot of Amanda Knox that has been covered in other places (given the media-coverage, it would have been impossible not to repeat some of the elements) and the docs’ hour-thirty runtime doesn’t create an all-encompassing and expansive look, a la O.J.: Made in America, that the story really deserves, but it does create a lasting impression, especially for those who didn’t follow along at the time of these events. Blackhurst, who’s worked within the horror genre and directed the impressive short, Night Swim, adds a compelling horror element to the doc, making it easy to identify with Knox and the nightmare scenario she finds herself. While the documentary, which features Knox and co-suspect Sollecito, along with others involved in the case, raises some questions of bias, it more interestingly raises questions about the treatment of women in the eyes of a law that is fixed by rigid moralities of Catholicism. The key takeaway from Amanda Knox is that the pre-marital sexual relationship of a young American woman was more concerning to police, media, and lawyers than the handling of supported evidence. Amanda Knox is frightening in its revelations because Knox’s horror story isn’t simply about being a murder suspect, but about being a woman in masculine-dominated world that’s still looking at that’s still looking to pin sins on the opposing gender. -Richard Newby
As the last person on Earth to listen to Hamilton, it seems as though I’m making up for it by going Hamilton mad. I finished listening to the Broadway recording and then ordered the Ron Chernow biography of Hamilton, added Lin-Manuel Miranda’s making of Hamilton book to my Christmas list, and tracked down and watched PBS’s Hamilton’s America. The documentary follows the creation of the play from its original form as a concept album right up to it becoming a cultural phenomenon and machine for winning Tonys. Video of Miranda writing the songs is interspersed with them being performed to sell-out crowds and interviews with historians and political figures like George W. Bush, Elizabeth Warren, Paul Ryan, and President Barack Obama. Lovers of the musical will obviously get what they want, but for those people like myself who are obsessed with the creative process this is a fantastic documenting of how a small idea, with the right nourishment and work ethic, can become something life changing. – Sean Fallon
Memories of a Penitent Heart
Quietly released with no fanfare at this past Tribeca Film Festival, Cecilia Aldarondo’s Memories of a Penitent Heart flew under the radar of almost every movie critic and film site. Despite being featured at dozens of other film festivals across North America, almost nobody has heard of it, let alone covered it. That’s a damn shame; it’s one of the most viscerally effective and emotionally devastating documentaries of 2016. The film sees Aldarondo discover and reconstruct the tragic fate of her uncle Miguel Deppa, a gay man who fled his native Puerto Rico only to vanish in New York City in the midst of the AIDS crisis. What follows is a chilling piece of investigative journalism as Aldarondo delves into newspaper archives, photo albums, and interviews with survivors of the AIDS epidemic, slowly revealing a story as morbidly twisted and infuriating as the one featured in David Farrier’s Tickled. Some of the revelations wouldn’t pass muster on the most sensationalist Telenovela, but the evidence is as irrefutable as it is unbelievable. I’ve read that the film might finally get a wide release next year as part of PBS’s documentary series POV. I encourage all of you to seek it out. – Nathanael Hood
O.J.: Made in America
It shouldn’t have felt this new, informative, unexplored. Even those born after the events of June 17, 1994, when football star O.J. Simpson took the LAPD on a low-speed police chase in his famous white bronco, are familiar enough with the ensuing court case and its cultural impact. There shouldn’t, one would think, be much left to say about O.J. Simpson. But Ezra Edelman’s epic seven hour documentary feature, premiering first at Sundance and then as a five-part series on ESPN, makes the subject not just fresh and relevant, but academically essential. Both narrative and journalistic, full of characters and essays, O.J.: Made in America is peak documentary filmmaking, the new ceiling for using the form to understand our nation and society. – David Shreve, Jr.
Perhaps the most unique film on the entire list in narrative measure, David Farrier and Dylan Reeve’s part mystery, part exposé, part comedy, part horror documentary Tickled is an unshakable experience. A lot of buzz is building about the film, but Tickled is best watched in the blind, given its insane premise and the insane twists that occur in pursuit of investigation. So, for the sake of preserving the experience for those who missed it, Tickled starts as Farrier’s attempt to understand the strange world of underground tickling competitions that are filmed and placed on YouTube and spirals into something totally different. I wrote about the film earlier in the year in a review I’d recommend after a first watch, but you’re going to want to fall into that spiral unwittingly. Trust us on this. – David Shreve, Jr.
Nothing about Keith Maitland’s documentary Tower should work. The film seeks to tell the story of the 1966 mass shooting at the University of Texas at Austin—widely considered to be the first modern day mass shooting in America—through rotoscope animation of actors re-enacting actual interviews with survivors of the massacre. That’s such an arbitrary, unnecessarily complicated method of filmmaking I’m amazed the producers didn’t laugh it out of the board room when it was pitched. But here’s the crazy thing: it actually works. The animation counter-intuitively forges an emotional connection between the survivors and the audience that most documentaries merely dream of. And when, late in the film, Mailand starts to cut between the animated reconstructions and the actual interview subjects, one can’t help but feel awe at Mailand’s artistic audacity. – Nathanael Hood
There was a lot of political hubris this year. The much-discussed element of narcissism in those with political aspirations was on display in our year’s winners and losers. It’s long been said that one would have to be somewhat of a sociopath to want to run for high office. This year may have reinforced that notion but, really, Anthony Weiner had already taught us that better than anyone. As such, Weiner, the documentary from Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg capturing Anthony Weiner’s doomed comeback campaign for Mayor of New York City, is as useful and realized a portrait of a political figure as we have ever seen on film. The secondhand embarrassment of this film is unparalleled, but so is the awareness of just how much a part self-absorption plays in large scale political ambitions and campaigns. – David Shreve, Jr.
The White Helmets
Following a handful of volunteer rescue workers from the Syrian Civil Defense in Aleppo, The White Helmets is a fly-on-the-bomb-blasted-wall look at true, altruistic heroism. While not the easiest watch, in a year in which the devastation in Aleppo will be seen as perhaps our great contemporary humanitarian failure, Orlando Von Einsiedel’s film is one that should be viewed by all. Short and to the point, unshaped by cinematic trick or narrative conceit, The White Helmets is inspiring, heartbreaking, and sobering. – David Shreve, Jr.
Had she lived, Kitty Genovese, would be 81 years old now. Elderly of course, but a contemporary of her siblings, many of whom are still alive. Still a person and not a symbol. Instead, in March of 1964, when Kitty was just 28, she was fatally stabbed walking home to her Queens apartment. The murder, while brutal, is remembered mainly for what came to light afterward, during the investigation and subsequent press coverage. It was reported that as many as 38 people saw or heard parts of the attack and instead of coming to Kitty’s aid, closed curtains, locked doors, turned backs. The question of how that could happen has lingered in the public consciousness for years, but haunted one man in particular—Kitty’s younger brother, Bill. The Witness is his searing documentary on the subject, and it’s a surprising look not so much into the darkest corners of our humanity, but instead into our fallible memory and failed imagination. In short, what we think we know about that night—what Bill spent years believing, ultimately to his own peril—is very wrong. The Witness is yet another gutting true crime story that exposes lackluster police work and sensationalist journalism, but that’s not ultimately what this documentary is about. Instead, it’s a look at the enduring bonds of family, how they shape our perception of the world, and a clear-eyed look at what the consequences are of the stories we tell ourselves. At its heart, it’s a love story, a brother saying to his sister, I remember. We remember. – Samantha Sanders
Featured Image: ESPN
Editor’s Note (2/22/17): An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Miguel Deppa was from Costa Rica. The article has been edited to reflect that Miguel is originally from Puerto Rico.