There have been some fantastic, nonfiction filmmaking jewels to choose from in 2017, a year in which we so desperately have needed real truth, whether it’s political or emotional, spoken. It’s hard not feeling like everything is unstable when it’s so clear that our president is propagating falsehoods, but the best films this year gave me solid ground to stand on. As always, I make my top ten list not necessarily based on the best cinematic films or the most admirable to complete or the most urgent cause. I pick the films that may embody each of those elements but that primarily tell the best story and that provide the most engaging experience.
Without further throat clearing, here they are:
10. Strong Island
Like many, I had been looking forward to Yance Ford’s directorial debut for a long time. It is indeed breathtakingly shot and poignantly told.
Is it just me or does each Laura Poitras film now feel loaded with the weight of her war with the surveillance state? Bless her for taking one for the team and lord knows she’s a great filmmaker, but I fondly recall when she was just another awesome filmmaker making awesome films. That all said, I was captivated by Risk and her delicate dance with Julian Assange.
8. Abacus: Small Enough to Jail
Nothing fancy here, just a powerful, revealing film about how a Chinese family-run bank in Chinatown became the only U.S. bank to face criminal charges after the 2008 financial crisis. Director Steve James knows how to follow the dots, reveal the injustice and keep the human drama in focus.
Click, bang, shoosh, click, bang, shoosh. We watch as an enormous textile factory in India drones on. The observational mode is turned on and, yeah, things can get dull here, but that’s part of the trip.
6. Faces Places
The rare, feel-good documentary that doesn’t feel saccharine, Faces Places is a collaboration between the old and young, Agnès Varda and JR. I’m so relieved I can still be charmed by a film—and the credit goes to the chemistry between the filmmakers.
5. The Work
The prison doc genre meets the self-help one in this visceral film that portrays a program at Folsom Prison where inmates are paired with civilians in heavy group therapy. Sometimes being in the right place and the right time and letting your subjects let it all hang out is what you need to do. Man, oh, man, it works here.
4. One of Us
I dreaded watching this film. I had low expectations about this film that portrays the Hasidic Jewish community. Whoops, my bad, I didn’t take the time to see that it’s about the brave few people who break away from the fold and go up against harrowing situations to create lives for themselves outside of the cloak and yoke of their religion.
3. Last Men in Aleppo
There were three excellent documentaries that shed a light on the horrific situation in Syria this year—this one, Cries from Syria and City of Ghosts. They’re all great and important but, to be honest, they’ve all blended into my memory as one harrowing, if vital, experience. Perhaps, that’s unfair, but this is the one that stands out most.
2. Long Strange Trip
One of the greatest nonfiction treats for me was to have the time to indulge in watching all of Amir Bar-Lev’s opus on the Grateful Dead in one sitting. I never liked the Dead much, but now I see the light. The film is fun, revelatory and totally groovy.
Director Brett Morgen has made what I consider to be two of the best documentaries of the past 20 years, The Kid Stays in the Picture (with Nanette Burstein) and Montage of Heck. Both of those films are about controversial, Big Stars, who lived on the edge; none such here as he portrays a woman whom many consider to be a virtual saint. But Morgen manages to depict his subject, Jane Goodall, with all of the same archival finesse, letting her shine as a brilliant innovator, scientist, naturalist and fully realized human being. Plus, he tells a damn good love story.