Without any throat clearing about how this was yet another great year for docs — which it was, by the way — I present my favorite nonfiction films of 2014:
11. Concerning Violence
This one goes to 11! This archival documentary is like a semiotics textbook come to life. Swedish director Göran Hugo Olsson blends an early 1960s anti-colonial text of Frantz Fanon with striking visual imagery in a pastiche essay on the plight of the third world. Not everyone’s cup of tea but it hit the spot for me.
10. The Great Invisible
What I love about this film about the Deepwater Horizon spill is that it does everything a good documentary should. It’s got a well-crafted storyline, compelling characters, solid editing, riveting cinematography and, at its core, there is an intricate story of injustice and humanity.
This funny little art film that places a camera in a gondola in Nepal and just passively shows various riders taking the journey back and forth has stuck with me all year. It’s more of an installation piece than doc, and I appreciate the fact that the documentary world has expanded enough to give it some play so that sheep, or goats (see the movie and you’ll understand), like me can take a different kind of ride for a change.
8. 20,000 Days on Earth
I stand by the label of the hybrid documentary for those nonfiction films that have so many narrative feature elements that they just can’t simply be called documentaries. This depiction of a day in the life of Nick Cave, an Australian singer whom I’ve never really appreciated, is a performance piece. But it’s also very real. It changed my view of Cave, and that’s something I can really appreciate.
7. 112 Weddings
There’s a deceptive ease to this HBO documentary directed by Doug Block, in which he revisits couples whose weddings he shot as a videographer. But don’t be fooled, Block is a master of the family dynamic — he gets to what makes a marriage work and not work, like few others have.
6. Ne Me Quitte Pas
This may be a controversial pick for some, a no-brainer for others. This Belgian tale of two messed up drunks has an inevitable voyeuristic quality that can be discomfiting — the two subjects, Bob and Marcel, desperately need help and we, along with the filmmakers, just watch them puke their way toward oblivion — but I was engrossed and moved.
5. Particle Fever
A scintillating documentary about science? And not just that, but about the obscure realm of particle physics? This underappreciated film achieves the nearly impossible with great storytelling and top-notch animation.
4. Life Itself
There aren’t many documentary subjects whom I can say I’ve known, but Roger Ebert, whose story is told here, is one. I spoke with the film critic over the years and enjoyed bumping into him at film festivals. To see his story well told, with particularly choice moments, like that outtake of Ebert and Siskel sniping at each other, left me alternating between misty eyes and laughter. Now that’s entertainment.
3. The Roosevelts: An Intimate History
What was the most watched documentary of 2014? Was it Disney’s Bears or D’Souza’s America? No, with 33 million viewers, it was Ken Burns’s latest series on PBS. Popularity, of course, doesn’t mean quality, but in this case, the ability to spin an unprecedented yarn between three Roosevelts for 14 hours of entertaining and incisive viewing is an unparalleled achievement.
You don’t know Snowden — that’s Ed Snowden who leaked classified information and is now hiding out on Russia — until you’ve seen this film. It’s no accident that Snowden turned to director Laura Poitras for an assist in revealing his story to the world. He wanted someone he thought would be responsible, fearless and who could weave a good narrative. He chose wisely.
It’s a terrible personality quirk on my part that I choose this triumphant moment to rain on what should be a coronation, but a second viewing of this film revealed some flaws to me in a way that could take it off this perch. I still think it’s a fabulous achievement but it would be more accurate to take it down at least one notch. But I can’t help honor my enthralling first viewing of this film, in which Orlando von Einsiedel’s kinetic, well-polished direction tells the story of a beautiful, remote forest, the gorillas who live there, and the people who defend it against corporate greed and government corruption.