The critics have spoken. And they’re saying… a lot of different things, but when it comes to picking the best documentary films of the year there is plenty of common ground. We’ve surveyed a wide variety of critics and publications to gather the documentaries they thought were the best of 2014 [highlighting Independent Lens films in brackets]. We’ll add to this list, too, as more critics release their favorites into January.

First, since we all love meta-summaries, here’s IndieWire‘s handy-dandy summary of the best reviewed documentaries of 2014, using their “Criticwire” system: 

  1. Life Itself
  2. Tim’s Vermeer
  3. Citizenfour
  4. The Missing Picture
  5. The Overnighters
  6. Manakanama
  7. 20,000 Days on Earth
  8. Rich Hill [Independent Lens, January 5]
  9. The Kill Team [Independent Lens, January 19]
  10. Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me
  11. WHITEY: United States of America v. James J. Bulger
  12. National Gallery (dir Frederick Wiseman)
  13. Actress
  14. Last Days in Vietnam
  15. maidentrip
  16. Code Black

Indiewire’s poll of critics on their favorite documentaries yielded slightly different results and order but mentioned many of the same films.

And Indiewire should be credited as well for this list of “The Best Women-Directed Documentaries of 2014 (That We Managed to See),” which included the Independent Lens film The New Black, by Yoruba Richen.

From Manakamana

From Manakamana

‘s Susan Gerhard polled critics all over for their picks for the Top Ten Documentaries of 2014 and this was the result:

  1. Manakamana (Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez)
  2. Citizenfour (Laura Poitras)
  3. National Gallery
  4. Actress (Robert Greene)
  5. What Now? Remind Me (Joaquim Pinto)
  6. Life Itself (Steve James)
  7. A Spell to Ward off the Darkness (Ben Rivers and Ben Russell)
  8. The Overnighters (Jesse Moss)
  9. The Missing Picture (Rithy Panh)
  10. Happy Valley (Amir Bar-Lev)

The Village Voice‘s poll of 85 critics came out thusly:

1. Citizenfour
2. Life Itself
3. Manakamana
4. Jodorowsky’s Dune
5. National Gallery
6. The Overnighters
7. The Missing Picture
8. Actress
9. 20,000 Days on Earth
10. Last Days in Vietnam
11. Mistaken for Strangers
12. The Last of the Unjust
13. What Now? Remind Me
14. Harmontown
15. I Am Big Bird
16. Kids for Cash
17. Maidan
18. Maidentrip
19 Northern Light
20. Tales of the Grim Sleeper
21. The Dog
22. The Naked Room
23. Tim’s Vermeer
24. Watermark
25. Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger

Individual Critics

Anthony Kaufman, a critic who’s written for the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Slate, Utne Reader, and the Village Voice, shares his own favorite documentaries of the year on IndieWire: (in no particular order)

  • Concerning Violence 
  • Tales of the Grim Sleeper
  • Citizenfour
  • The Missing Picture
  • The Overnighters
  • The Kill Team
  • Big Men
  • The Great Invisible [Independent Lens, April 20]
  • Actress
  • Captivated: The Trials of Pamela Smart
  • E-Team
  • Return to Homs

Richard Brody’s list of the Best Movies of 2014 in The New Yorker, which mixes documentaries with other films (something we’re glad to see, frankly), includes Evolution of a Criminal, which airs on Independent Lens in January.

Paste Magazine‘s Geoff Berkshire, Andy Crump, Michael Dunaway, Tim Grierson, Jeremy Mathews & Tom Meek list their picks for the 12 best documentaries of 2014:

  1. The Overnighters
  2. National Gallery 
  3. The Unknown Known 
  4. The Green Prince
  5. Last Days of Vietnam  
  6. Rich Hill
  7. Finding Vivian Maier
  8. Actress
  9. Citizenfour
  10. Virunga
  11. Death Metal Angola
  12. Happy Valley

[Update, 12/22:] Tom Roston from our friends at POV selected his own Top 10 [actually 11] Documentaries of 2014:

  1. Virunga
  2. Citizenfour
  3. The Roosevelts: An Intimate History
  4. Life Itself
  5. Particle Fever
  6. Ne Me Quitte Pas
  7. 112 Weddings
  8. 20,000 Days on Earth
  9. Manakamana
  10. The Great Invisible
  11. Concerning Violence

The Online Film Critics Society selected Life Itself as the year’s best doc.

What have been your own favorite documentaries released (or at least that you saw) in 2014?