2017 was a year much of the elemental social frameworks we’d taken for granted as indestructible took a sucker punch, but we learned two valuable things on the mat: those supports may not be unbreakable, but they’re enduring enough to hold—for now, at least—and that after a hit, something novel sometimes gets shaken loose. That was the case with the field of documentary films this year as filmmakers toyed with narrative, Netflix took a few risks that paid off, and the anger and the laughter felt so good in equal measures. These were some of our favorites that managed to cut through the numbness:
Like NPR voice or that weird cadence local reporters use to sign off from their live shots, there’s been a real sameyness to the production of documentaries in recent years that for better (there’s a reason people use formulas) or worse (please go away, Morgan Spurlock), defined a decade or so of documentaries. So thank God for American Vandal, the ‘mockumentary’ paced and structured like a true crime story that managed to both spoof and flatter its blueprint. Of course, Christopher Guest has been working in this arena (well) for years, but he’s never seemed as infatuated by form as by character. American Vandal gave us the chance to have fun with both. And also dick jokes. – Samantha Sanders
I Am Not Your Negro
I Called Him Morgan
The life story of Helen Morgan, and the love story between her and her common-law husband, the trumpeter Lee Morgan—a man she ultimately murdered—made for riveting viewing. The film’s existence is all the more remarkable, too, given the tenuousness of its source material; all of Helen’s narration is courtesy of a found trove of interviews on cassette loaned to the filmmaker by the writer who spoke with Helen just a month before her death. This gem of a film is a must-see for jazz fans since it’s packed with the sights and sounds of many of the genre’s greats. –Samantha Sanders
Icarus doesn’t seem real at first. There’s too much tension, too many twists, too unlikely a scheme employed early on to reveal the film’s central truth. And yet, here we are, moving into 2018 after the announcement of the major Olympic ban resulting from the events incidentally captured in Netflix’s latest contribution to the forum of documentary filmmaking. Cyclist and filmmaker Bryan Fogel’s work, from his initial plan to his circumstantial positioning against on of the most significant athletic scandals of the modern age, renders one of the most intense and unreal experiences in 2017 cinema. –David Shreve, Jr.
Expectations were high for this Netflix series that was bound to be compared to the network’s runaway hit, Making a Murderer. But whereas that series was very much a stylized procedural about a crime, this was more a personal look at the lingering effects of a crime on its victims. For a genre often too preoccupied in the solving of a crime, The Keepers proved that a film about the puzzle of putting one’s life back in order—or in finding justice for someone else—can be just as compelling. –Samantha Sanders
I did the math and discovered something disturbing: 1992 was 25 years ago. Before a man corrects me, yes that was a joke, but also not really, in that something I remember so vividly from my childhood may just be a blip of history for someone not much younger than me. For this reason, LA 92 earns a spot on my Best Of list as a kind of service journalism entry. Does it tread new ground? Not particularly, but it doesn’t need to. Comprised entirely of archival footage, this is a straightforward overview of not just those 6 days, but the years of systemic kindling laid down by LA leadership that directly fed the fire. –Samantha Sanders
Maybe it would have been easier to compile a list of films that deal diagnostically with social injustices in 2017. In a year of unprecedented social and political unrest, we almost certainly could have filled the slate of documentary releases with problem statements. But Raising Bertie, a film from Margaret Byrne, offers so much more than that. A poetic and empathetic exploration of life and social compassion, Byrne’s documentary, the story of three young black men coming of age in an impoverished North Carolina region, dares heart and sympathy and hope where it would have been excused for skipping all three, establishing one of the more beautiful and human documentary exercises of the year. –David Shreve, Jr.
In this roundup last year, editor David Shreve referred to Ava Duvernay’s 13th , glowingly, as “emotional journalism” and whereas Duvernay was telling a story much larger in scope, in Strong Island, filmmaker Yance Ford does much the same work, just with a much more personal scope—the murder of his brother and his family’s unending search for justice. What is the value of a human life, who gets to quantify it, and why? Here Ford can’t answer these questions—no filmmaker could—but its immense value is in its fearless way of asking the questions. –Samantha Sanders
Thank You for Coming
Thank You for Coming is filmmaker Sara Lamm’s candid and emotional recounting of her search for her biological father after finding out at 29 that she’d been conceived via sperm donor (yes, the title is a reference to that). But it’s also a meditation on what it means to be a part of a family—or to be just outside of one, as both Sara and her “real” dad, the one who raised her, struggle to come to terms with at various points in the story. Come for the surprisingly riveting genealogical detective work, stay for the emotional payoff. Then just enjoy the way the story lingers on your mind. –Samantha Sanders
Uncertain stands out as one of the best documentaries of the year due to its brilliance in finding poetry and transcendent truths in the lives and thoughts of people many would consider not worth paying attention to—felons, addicts, and the poor—living in a town whose name describes its own future: uncertain. There is no narrator in this film, no talking heads—instead, a few residents of Uncertain, Texas describe their pasts, their futures, and their intersection with this dying tourist town, whose main attraction, a lake, is being overgrown by an invasive weed. Uncertain, for some, offers a place to start anew—past misdeeds unknown or forgiven. For others, Uncertain is a pit from which they must escape, else die. For one biologist, Uncertain is an environmental challenge, and a place worth saving. Though the filmmaker’s hand is not obvious, the end result shows an attention to detail and a respect for its subject that cannot but leave the viewer changed. Certainly, this was a gem of 2017.- Katherine Shelor