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:

 

Abacus: Small Enough to Jail
Abacus

PBS

In just around 90 minutes, Steve James packs so much into Abacus: Small Enough to Jail, the story of Abacus Federal Savings Bank, which was the only bank prosecuted for fraud in response to the financial crisis at the end of last decade. Without zeroing in on any of the major banks—who were the real culprits—Abacus reveals an under-scrutinized perk of their power: primarily, how having that power doesn’t just shield you from consequences, but squeezes the little guy below you even tighter. The film also offers a very strong look about what it means to be part of an immigrant minority family and community. – Chris Celletti

American Vandal 

Netflix

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

Casting JonBenet

The Case of: JonBénet Ramsey

CBS


Since the breakout success of the Serial podcast, there’s been a resurgence in public interest in true crime stories. So it makes sense that another high-profile murder case from the 90s would re-emerge—the mysterious murder of JonBenet Ramsey. Enter Casting JonBenet, where director Kitty Green uses an unsolved murder case to sneak in a fascinating story of ordinary people whose town was upended, who lived through and were affected by proximity to a real-life urban legend. By casting locals in the key roles for a “re-telling” of the story and showing us auditions and recreations of major scenes, Green taps into the power and pull of mythology, rumor and small-town dynamics.-Chris Celletti
Finding Frances, from Nathan For You

Comedy Central

The final episode of the latest season of Comedy Central’s hit show Nathan For You may also be the final episode of the entire show. If that’s the case, then the lightning-in-a-bottle, Andy Kaufman-inspired weekly program, which saw Nathan Fielder’s awkward extraordinaire character provide poorly thought advice to struggling businesses in exercises of electric social commentary, will have ended with one of the great conclusive notes in television history. Finding Frances sees, in the most superficial sense, Nathan helping a former guest find a love that was lost decades prior, while layers of sub-text investigate the nature of the entire show’s history and the broader idea of modern performative life versus sincere human connectivity in a strange and unruly essay as important as any film released this year.-David Shreve, Jr.

I Am Not Your Negro

Amazon Studios


I Am Not Your Negro works in so many ways. It’s a celebration of sorts of James Baldwin, particularly his words and captivating grasp of language with some real visual flair, and it’s a portrait of the lasting power of white supremacy. But primarily, Raoul Peck’s film is a story about how the more things change, the more they stay the same. Though you’ll watch the film and nod along at Baldwin’s prescience, what really hits you is how the film shows how America has not only refused to wrestle with the injustices Baldwin spoke to, but continues to keep moving the goalposts. –Chris Celletti

I Called Him Morgan 

I Called Him Morgan

FilmRise

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 

Netflix

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.

The Keepers 

The Keepers

Netflix

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

LA 92  

National Geographic Channel

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

Raising Bertie

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.

Strong Island

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

Reckon So Productions

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 

Uncertain

Lucid

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