'Dick Johnson' Voted Best Documentary of 2020 in 8th Annual Nonfics Year-End Poll

We've ranked 100 films based on votes from documentary critics and filmmakers.

Dick Johnson best documentaries 2020

It almost didn’t happen, but welcome to the eighth annual year-end Nonfics poll results. Once again, we surveyed a select group of documentary critics and filmmakers for their favorite nonfiction films of the past year. This year’s group might have been smaller than usual since we couldn’t make a greater effort to invite and prod people, but we still wound up with a large selection representing the best documentaries of 2020.

In fact, I’m pretty surprised by some of the high-ranking titles, including a number of films I’d never even heard of that were popular with our contributors nonetheless. Last year was a weird year for film distribution, yet we still saw hundreds of documentaries released in 2020. Enough that I had to make the call that unlike awards organizations out there, I made the end of the year a definite endpoint for qualification.

If a film did wind up with an official release, even if it was an Oscar-qualifying one (like Gunda), then it was allowed in the ranking. If it didn’t (like The Truffle Hunters) then it wasn’t. And that went for shorts, as well. There are enough online outlets for shorts now that I’m no longer inclined to allow festival-run short docs even though that might be enough for the Academy’s consideration for a nomination.

Below I’ve separated the top fifty with a ranked list. The number one isn’t a surprise given all its accolades so far. After that, instead of ranking the next fifty, I’ve listed that back half alphabetically. Each year, those titles tend to be mostly found in tied groups, and a lot of them are great films that are only ranked so low because fewer contributors have seen them. No sense in putting them in a rather meaningless order. And finally, there’s the list of favorite docs that haven’t officially come out just yet.

You can find some contributors’ submissions, including my own favorite docs here. Below are the best documentaries we saw last year and where you can watch them now.

The 50 Best Documentaries of 2020:

1. Dick Johnson is Dead (Kirsten Johnson) – Netflix

2. Time (Garrett Bradley) – Amazon Prime Video

3. Collective (Alexander Nanau) – VOD

4. City Hall (Frederick Wiseman) – PBS

5. Boys State (Amanda McBaineJesse Moss) – AppleTV+

6. David Byrne’s American Utopia (Spike Lee) – HBO Max

7. Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets (Bill Ross IV and Turner Ross) – VOD

8. The Painter and the Thief (Benjamin Ree) – Hulu

9. The History of the Seattle Mariners (Jon Bois and Alex Rubenstein) – YouTube

10. Gunda (Victor Kossakovsky)

The Way I See It best documentaries 2020

The Way I See It

11. The Way I See It (Dawn Porter)Peacock
12. Athlete A (Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk) Netflix
13. Crip Camp (James Lebrecht and Nicole Newnham)Netflix
14. Totally Under Control (Alex Gibney, Ophelia Harutyunyan, and Suzanne Hillinger) Hulu
15. The Social Dilemma (Jeff Orlowski) Netflix
16. Assassins (Ryan White)
17. Beastie Boys Story (Spike Jonze) AppleTV+
18. The Last Dance (Jason Hehir)Netflix
19. The Go-Go’s (Alison Ellwood) Showtime
20. A Secret Love (Chris Bolan) Netflix

The Fight

21. The Fight (Eli B. Despres, Josh Kriegman, and Elyse Steinberg)Hulu
22. Feels Good Man (Arthur Joes) PBS
23. Through the Night (Loira Limbal)Virtual Cinemas
24. Be Water (Bao Nguyen) ESPN
25. Father Soldier Son (Leslye Davis and Catrin Einhorn) Netflix
26. Welcome to Chechnya (David France) HBO Max
27. Mayor (David Osit)
–    Mr. Soul! (Melissa Haizlip)
29. The Grand Bizarre (Jodie Mack) Vudu
–   The Mole Agent (Maite Alberdi) Hulu

40 Years a Prisoner

31. 40 Years a Prisoner (Tommy Oliver) HBO Max
32. All In: The Fight for Democracy (Lisa Cortes and Liz Garbus) Amazon Prime Video
–    Spaceship Earth (Matt Wolf) Hulu
34. City So Real (Steve James)Hulu
35. 76 Days (Weixi Chen, Hao Wu, and Anonymous) Virtual Cinema
–    The Dissident (Bryan Fogel)
–    Miss Americana (Lana Wilson) Netflix
38. Circus of Books (Rachel Mason) Netflix
–    You Don’t Nomi (Jeffrey McHale) – VOD

My Octopus Teacher

40. My Octopus Teacher (Pippa Ehrlich and James Reed) Netflix
41. Disclosure (Sam Feder) Netflix
–  I Am Greta (Nathan Grossman) Hulu
–  The Infiltrators  (Cristina Ibarra and Alex Rivera) Kanopy
44. The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend a Broken Heart (Frank Marshall) HBO Max
–  John Lewis: Good Trouble (Dawn Porter) HBO Max
46. Fireball: Visitors from Darker Worlds (Werner Herzog and Clive Oppenheimer) AppleTV+
47. On the Record (Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering) HBO Max
48. Belushi (R.J. Cutler) Showtime
49. Coup 53 (Taghi Amirani) Virtual Cinemas
50. My First Film (Zia Anger)

‘Alabama Snake’

50 more favorites of 2020:

Alabama Snake (Theo Love) HBO Max
All I Can Say (Danny Clinch, Taryn Gould, Colleen Hennessy, and Shannon Hoon) Kanopy
American Murder: The Family Next Door (Jenny Popplewell) Netflix
Becoming (Nadia Hallgren) 
Borat Subsequent Film (Jason Woliner) Amazon Prime Video
Building the American Dream (Chelsea Hernandez)
Class Action Park (Seth Porges and Chris Charles Scott III) HBO Max
The Claudia Kishi Club (Sue Ding) Netflix
Console Wars (Blake J. Harris and Jonah Tulis) CBS All Access
The Cordillera of Dreams (Patricio Guzmán) OVID.tv

Cursed Films

Cursed Films (Jay Cheel) Shudder
Dear Santa (Dana Nachman) – VOD
Desert One (Barbara Kopple) Kanopy
Donald Trump Is President and You’re Not: A Portrait of Donald J. Trump (Vic Berger IV) YouTube
The Donut King (Alice Gu) – VOD
Finding Yingying (Jiayan ‘Jenny’ Shi) Virtual Cinemas
Folklore: The Long Pond Studio Sessions (Taylor Swift) Disney+
Forensickness (Chloé Galibert-Laîné) Vimeo
Heimat Is a Space in Time (Thomas Heise) OVID.tv
Howard (Don Hahn)Disney+

Huntsville Station (Chris Filippone and Jamie Meltzer) New York Times Op-Docs
I Wish I Knew – Director’s Cut (Jia Zhangke)
Inventing the Future (Isiah Medina) YouTube
I’ve Been Afraid (Cecelia Condit) YouTube
Jasper Mall (Bradford Thomason and Brett Whitcomb)
Jimmy Carter: Rock & Roll President (Mary Wharton) – VOD
The Last Ice (Scott Ressler) National Geographic
Midnight in Paris (James Blagden and Roni Moore)
A Most Beautiful Thing (Mary Mazzio) Amazon Prime Video

Best Documentaires on Netflix Mucho Mucho Amor

Mucho Mucho Amor

Mucho Mucho Amor: The Legend of Walter Mercado (Cristina   Costantini and Kareem Tabsch) Netflix
The Mystery of D.B. Cooper (John Dower)
Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and the Band (Daniel Roher)
Other Music (Puloma Basu and Rob Hatch-Miller) Amazon Prime Video
Our Time Machine (S. Leo Chiang and Yang Sun)
Outcry (Pat Kondelis)
The Pharmacist (Jenner Furst and Julia Willoughby Nason)
The Pushback (Kevin Ford)
Rebuilding Paradise (Ron Howard)
The Rescue List (Alyssa Fedele, Zachary Fink) PBS

Rewind Best Documentaries 2020


Rewind (Sasha Joseph Neulinger) Amazon Prime Video
Rising Phoenix (Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui)
Santiago, Italia (Nanni Moretti)
DVD, soon on OVID.tv
Slay the Dragon (Chris Durrance and Barak Goodman)
Sunless Shadows (Mehrdad Oskouei)
This is Paris (Alexandra Dean)
A Thousand Cuts (Ramona S. Diaz)
Transhood (Sharon Liese)
The Weight of Gold (Brett Rapkin)
White Noise (Daniel Lombroso)
Zappa (Alex Winter)

143 Sahara Street best documentaries 2020

‘143 Sahara Street’

22 favorites for the future:

143 Sahara Street (Hassen Ferhani)
All Cats Are Grey in the Dark (Lasse Linder)
Citizen Penn (Don Hardy)
Derek DelGaudio’s In & Of Itself (Frank Oz) on Hulu 1/22
Expedition Content (Ernst Karel and Veronika Kusumaryati)
The Giverny Document (Single Channel) (Ja’Tovia Gary)
Her Socialist Smile (John Gianvito)
Inventing the Future (Isiah Medina)
The Last City (Heinz Emigholz)
The Lobby (Heinz Emigholz)
The Metamorphosis of Birds (Catarina Vasconcelos)
MLK/FBI (Sam Pollard) – in theaters and on VOD on 1/15
My Mexican Bretzel (Nuria Giménez)
Notturno (Gianfranco Rosi)
The Place That Makes Us (Karla Murthy)
Red Heaven (Lauren DeFilippo and Katherine Gorringe)
Some Kind of Heaven (Lance Oppenheim) – available on 1/15
Still Processing (Sophy Romvari)
Swimming Till the Sea Turns Blue (Jia Zhangke)
T (Keisha Rae Witherspoon)
The Truffle Hunters (Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw) – out in theaters on 3/12
Work or To Whom Does the World Belong (Elisa Cepedal)

(Editor in Chief)

Christopher Campbell is the founding editor of Nonfics.