2015 turned out to be a heck of a film year. On the whole, the films of this year were high energy and contemplative, nostalgic and progressive. While many will remember it for the booming box office and theatrical blockbuster experiences, we would be doing a disservice to the year and the medium if we failed to celebrate the documentary features, which were every bit as impressive as the narrative, fictional counterparts. Below, we’ve listed our ten favorite documentary films of the year (in alphabetical order). Feel free to share yours in the comments:
Director Asif Kapadia constructs Amy from nothing new. The film is a collection of archival footage, home videos, and news reports arranged to tell a biographical story. Kapadia used this same method on his film Senna in 2010. However, this time his subject is more recognizable to North American and UK audiences, embedded just beneath the surface of our pop culture skin and, because of its proximity to the nerve endings, his investigation of pop singer Amy Winehouse is far more felt. Winehouse is often seen as an enigmatic figure, a rock goddess who went the way that rock gods often do. But Kapadia’s treatment humanizes the icon in a way our culture rarely allows, offering perspective to both the individual and the structure of star-adoration-of-product that contributed to her tragic demise.
Finders Keepers follows the bizarre story of John Wood and Shannon Whisnant, two men from small-town North Carolina who engage in a custody battle over Wood’s amputated leg after Whisnant finds the leg in a grill he purchased. It’s tough to believe, but the legal battle over the leg is far from the highlight of Finders Keepers. The zany story is fascinating, but it’s the nuanced and captivating Wood and Whisnant who steal the show. Documentarians Bryan Carberry and J. Clay Tweel embrace the tragedy in this tale and never portray Wood or Whisnant as simple stereotypes. Finders Keepers reminds us of something that is all too easy to forget: There is so much more to people that meets the eye. There are real people and real stories behind even the most eccentric headlines. With a stranger-than-fiction story, deeply compelling interviews, and themes of family, redemption, and forgiveness, Finders Keepers finds the humanity beneath its tabloid premise.
The current decade has seen a number of documentaries that attempted to draw quirky portraits of unconventional individuals, but none of these have moved with the same honesty toward its subject the way that I Am Thor does. Because of his respect of John Mikl Thor, Ryan Wise all but hands his story over to the once failed rock star. For his part, Thor is an endlessly fascinating individual, an artist so devoted to his own vision and definition of success that it almost becomes ruinous in a series of falls so catastrophic that his eventual re-ascent is one of the great film triumphs of 2015.
Between Serial‘s first Season and Netflix’s premiere of Making a Murderer, the world was primed and rabid for more serialized true crime stories, and Andrew Jarecki’s six-part HBO story might stand as the best from the current saturated era. It is certainly the most distinct and interesting. At first, Andrew Jarecki shapes his six part series to follow the standard form of illustrating shortcomings within the justice system, but Robert Durst, alleged murderer and the show’s subject, subconsciously committed to making the series something far more unique than that. Even before the headline-grabbing twist, The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst unfolded into a unique examination of presumed sociopathy. For anyone who watched week-to-week, The Jinx made for a viewing experience that’s likely to never be duplicated.
If you’re a fan of director Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2002 film Punch-Drunk Love but have been turned off by his recent shift into more narratively abstract work, consider yourself urged to check out his new documentary Junun. Quietly released on the streaming video website Mubi earlier this year, the hour-long doc follows the recording process of the titular album by an Indian ensemble, with Anderson composer Jonny Greenwood and his Radiohead compatriot Nigel Godrich also on board. Anderson mostly gets out of the way of the music here, pausing only occasionally to chat with musicians or shoot the surrounding area. The film also sees him experiment with digital filmmaking; one memorable shot is captured with what seems to be an iPhone attached to a drone. Without anyone noticing, Anderson may have made his biggest formal experiment yet this year.
While it’s arguable that both individually stand as the best films of their respective years, The Act of Killing and its follow-up, companion piece, The Look of Silence, combine for undoubtedly the most daring and important film project of the 2000s. Where the first film was devastatingly clear in its portrait of systemic evil, the most complete first-hand engagement of genocidal perpetrators perhaps in the history of the filmic medium, The Look of Silence allows for the emotional bleeding from that academic portrait. Following an optometrist as he interviews the still empowered figures who murdered his brother, The Look of Silence is both transfixing and breathless, heartbreaking and beautiful.
Brett Morgen’s rock-bio offers a candid look into the life of one of the mediums most influential musicians. Part documentary, part artistic mood piece, Montage of Heck captures the raw power and emotion behind Nirvana’s lead singer.
What starts as an environmental cautionary tale and industry takedown whittles down to a much more simple and necessary narrative about progressive compromise. Chad A. Stevens’ first feature premiered at the Full Frame Documentary Festival in a year that saw the tenth anniversary of its central disaster, namely the Upper Big Branch mine collapse, and the felony trial of its incidental villain, Don Blankenship, CEO of Massey Energy. All of that is framed within a sincere and touching interpersonal relationship developed between an environmental activist and a coal company supporter-turned-protester. Overburden is a fierce reminder of humanity and the value of compromise for the sake of progress.
The stakes facing Mes Aynak are high, so much in fact that the archaeological site has the potential to forever change Buddhism and Afghanistan’s culture and place in history. Instead of getting lost in the scale of it, director Brent E. Huffman allows the personal moments to convey the weight of the situation. There’s such a sense of compassion to filmmaking in Saving Mes Aynak; a careful consideration not only for the issue at hand but the people at the heart of it. But this compassion is also met with a sense of urgency as the documentary follows the archaeologists who race against time to protect one of the most important historical and cultural sites in the world from the copper mining of MCC. Deftly exploring the complex effects of everything from government corruption, the Taliban, Corporate China, and U.S. media attention, Saving Mes Aynak presents a compelling story of hope and awareness in the face of seemingly insurmountable adversity.
Tig, the revealing comedy documentary from co-directors Kristina Goolsby and Ashley York, offers an intimate and brutally honest appraisal of its titular subject and star, stand-up comedian Tig Notaro. In a film ostensibly about the comedian’s cancer diagnosis, subsequent double mastectomy, and final decision to adopt a child in order to add meaning to her own life, documentarians Goolsby and York manage the rare feat of telling their story in way that both assuages and confronts the viewer. By offering a captivating narrative that both entertains and preaches, Tig is an important document of a socio-cultural moment in time, and one that offers investigative insight that reaches far beyond the film’s immediate subject.
Contributors: David Shreve Jr., Richard Newby, Schyler Martin, Josh Rosenfield, Diego Crespo, and Sean K. Cureton