2016 has been a curious year for documentaries. There has been the ever-widening, varied realm of streaming and VOD distribution. There has been the creeping progression of the new paradigm of episodic as a dominating form; first (at least in this new era) there was The Jinx and Making a Murderer, and now there is O.J.: Made in America. There’s the first year in memory that HBO doesn’t have a film on the Oscar shortlist. Of course, the biggest unknown is the impending presidency of Donald Trump: What changes, adjustments and innovations will filmmakers come up with in response to the new administration?
Along the way, there has been some very fine nonfiction filmmaking hitting the screen. Thanks to my being included in the new Critics Choice documentary award category (really, thanks to the BFCA!), I’ve had the pleasure and duty of even more closely considering all the documentary fare that came down the pike.
Despite it being such a crap year, it’s been a good year for docs and here are the films that most moved me.
10. Life, Animated
No film made me cry more this year (I went into shut-down mode watching Newtown) than this film about an autistic boy who finds his way of functioning in the world through Disney characters. Director Roger Ross Williams hits all the right notes.
It may be a little inside baseball, but ultimately the appeal of cinematographer Kirsten Johnson’s memoir film about being behind the camera is that it’s an impassioned story of the life of a behind-the-scenes artist.
8. Hooligan Sparrow
Putting oneself on the line to give voice to the voiceless and to expose injustice is one of the foundations of the form, and Nanfu Wang’s tale of the titular Chinese activist and a horrific case of systemic child rape is told down and dirty by its valiant, fearful yet intrepid director.
Like Peter and the Farm, this film just surprised me. It starts as a comedy about a curious fetish website but turns into a disturbing investigation. Driven along by its incredulous, winning director, New Zealander David Farrier, the film somehow serves up fun and hard news in equal measure.
6. Audrie & Daisy
Weaving together a film about 21st century sexual assault in the internet age by juxtaposing two very different cases would seem like an unwieldy endeavor but, instead, this film feels disturbingly succinct, universal and a cautionary tale for the future.
What impresses me most about Ava DuVernay’s film is the editing: this exquisitely packaged documentary about our racist criminal justice system is razor sharp and would have been a clarion call for prison reform but considering our upcoming president is still convinced that the Central Park 5 did it, because, you know, his race-based hunch is stronger than evidence, I fear this film will remain in an echo chamber.
4. Zero Days
Alex Gibney is one of the great documentary filmmakers of our time but he churns out so much material, his impeccable and powerful style of storytelling can sometimes feel rote. Not here. By spinning a marvelous tale around an elusive main character — a malicious computer worm, no less — he fashions a vital, relevant and riveting story of our time.
3. O.J.: Made in America
Ezra Edelman’s 7-plus hour exegesis on race in America as seen through the sordid life of O.J. Simpson is the greatest singular documentary achievement of 2016 but, I’m sorry, it still feels like a television documentary series to me and so that brings it down a few pegs. Unfair, I know, but life is full of prejudice, right?
It may be luck or maybe not, but when a filmmaker is at the right place at the right time and knows to keep the camera rolling, he or she can create something magnificent. What else to call the life and times of Anthony Weiner and his wife Huma Abedin, but a magnificent mess?
1. Peter and the Farm
I’ve said it before, sometimes it’s the odd little film hitting you at the right moment that can stick with you the longest. Tony Stone’s cinematically artful depiction of a troubled Vermont farmer isn’t the flashiest or most relevant doc of the year, but it’s the one that most blew me away.