2015 has been a pretty good year for documentaries but I wouldn’t call it great. And the best films hardly made a crack at the box office. That’s partly due to transitions in the industry, but also a result of the caliber of films that came out. I don’t want to be a downer — there’s still plenty to celebrate — but I like to keep things in perspective. My list of best documentaries of 2015 is a reflection of the films that captivated me the most, sometimes intellectually or politically, but mostly cinematically and emotionally.
10. Hunting Ground
Accusations of impartiality and inaccuracy have dogged this film. But, ultimately, I have to give the benefit of the doubt to the alleged survivors of rape featured here. And if this film’s crime is that it’s propaganda that makes people more aware of the dangers of campus rape, maybe that’s a compliment. From the opening sequence, which shows young people deliriously happy about being accepted to colleges, you know director Kirby Dick is a skilled and effective storyteller.
9. Listen to Me Marlon
This film could well have been displaced by other documentaries, like Alex Gibney’s audacious Going Clear or the sweeping and surprising Journey of a Thousand Miles, but I rank this list based on that primary, movie-going experience. I was enthralled by Marlon, which I stumbled into in a grand theater at the Full Frame festival, where it swept me away into Marlon Brando’s world.
8. The Wolfpack
This documentary about six brothers and one sister confined to a Lower East Side apartment by a paranoid and controlling father is flawed. There are questions that go unanswered (what role did the mother really have in all this?) and there’s misdirection (the film suggests the family always lived in the apartment). But it’s such an incredible story with such rich characters, it’s still a remarkable achievement.
Good documentaries about the movies are hard to come by but this one nails its subject; the book Hitchcock by then-young-gun director Francois Truffaut. It is an exhilarating exploration into the artistry of both men. It re-inspired my interest in Hitch and made me really regret not pilfering from the office library the dog-eared copy of Truffaut’s book I used to thumb when I was a younger editor.
6. Almost There
This funny, sad little film about outsider artist Peter Anton follows a great tradition of documentaries about creative people who work and live outside of the margins. It spins a good yarn and goes further by revealing the filmmakers’ intimate and conflicted relationship to their subject, adding an intriguing, self-aware dose of Documentary Ethics 101.
5. Winter on Fire
Netflix is building a powerful track record for identifying the must-see documentaries of the year (see The Square, Virunga); these movies are sophisticated filmmaking, urgent issues and necessary documents of what’s happening in our world. The incredible events of Ukraine may have receded from our front page headlines but Winter on Fire will permanently lodge them in our memories.
4. Stand By for Tape Playback
What?? You say a crazy Brit reflecting on his life, rapping and riffing over a VHS tape of old recordings of Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and Jaws and commercials isn’t a documentary? Sure, maybe it’s more video art. Either way, Ross Sutherland’s brilliant, funny, touching film is a head trip I loved going on.
3. Montage of Heck
This movie about Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain rocks so hard, I’d had to put it on the list. Brett Morgen’s dynamic fusion of Cobain’s art, doodles, audio recordings, music and archival footage is an astounding mixtape. Admittedly, I worry about some of the manipulations made to tell such a powerful narrative, but it’s the product of an auteur at his best. Juxtapose Asif Kapadia’s VH1 treatment with Amy Winehouse’s story in Amy, a film I still actually liked a lot, and you’ll see what I mean. I am one of the lucky 1% who saw Heck on a big screen which proceeded to shake and melt before my eyes.
2. Cartel Land
No other film put its claws into me from the first moment on more than Matthew Heineman’s story of vigilante justice on both sides of the US – Mexican border. The film is utterly thrilling in its riding-shotgun look inside the drug wars. But it is in its intimate and jaw=-dropping portrait of the El Doctor character—look for the Hollywood adaption coming to a theater near you—that shoots Cartel Land toward the top of my list.
1. The Look of Silence
As much as I was in awe of Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing, about the perpetrators’ of genocide in Indonesia in the 1960s, the film is so unsettling in how it puts us in the shoes of those evil doers that it has always been hard for me to say I “love” it. Silence is different; it shifts us to the point of view of the victims. It tells the other side of a chilling narrative that is now complete.