What a year for documentaries. I say that almost every year, but usually it’s in a different context. Typically I’d add an exclamation point to express excitement about the quality of the films. This time, the emphasis could be put more on “year” than “documentaries.” As in, what a shitty year, when we might prefer more escapist fare than real portraits of the world and everything else that’s wrong with it. But 2020 has been filled with great documentaries, many of which will be better appreciated in retrospect (it’ll be fitting for hindsight given the numerals in the year). And some have been distractions from our own everyday lives.
Here is a list of my favorite documentary features released in 2020, ranked from good to great.
Note: this list of the best documentaries of 2020 is being published early in the year and will be added to through December and perhaps beyond. That means the rankings could very well change as more titles are seen.
13. Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind
Laurent Bouzereau is the director, but this biographical feature seems more like it’s Natasha Gregson Wagner‘s baby. An actress in her own right for decades, she’s the daughter of the documentary’s subject, Natalie Wood, and both Richard Gregson and Robert Wagner (she explains in the film). And she handles the heavy lifting conducting interviews (mostly family and celebrity friends) and narrating. The intimate format works for a documentary presenting a legacy of a woman whose mysterious death has unfortunately overshadowed the rest of her life and much of her work. Of course, there is some address of the accident that took Wood’s life, but this isn’t the place for new developments. It’s just a warm appreciation of a Hollywood icon and wife and mother.
The latest nature documentary from Disney — under their Disneynature brand — is more of the same, but it’s impossible to deny the work of director Mark Linfield and usual collaborator Alastair Fothergill, this time adding the longtime Planet Earth producer Vanessa Berlowitz as a credited co-director. It’s a shame this entry had to skip theaters (and I don’t recall there ever being a theatrical release planned even before the COVID-19 pandemic closed cinemas) because it’s another breathtaking triumph of cinematography on macro and micro levels. And this time I didn’t need to mute the movie to just take those visuals in. Personally, I don’t always like the anthropomorphizing playfulness of Disneynature voiceover. But Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex, is a wonderfully conservative narrator, making me care about the animals on screen without tugging too hard at the heartstrings.
11. Spaceship Earth
The announcement of Biosphere 2 was the stuff of science fiction dreams. At least that was the case for me as a child, captivated by the idea of a self-contained structure out in the desert in which participants were isolated for two years as a test of how humans could live on the Moon and other planets. But I never knew the whole story, including the hippy-dippy origins that led to its conception as well as all that occurred during and following its controversial and somewhat disastrous operation, until this film arrived from Matt Wolf (Teenage), a master of the archival documentary. Wolf maintains a straight chronicle, never veering into the mocking tone you might expect for the subject that inspired the dumb Hollywood comedy Bio-Dome. Not all amazing stories need to be treated like crazy stories.
10. Welcome to Chechnya
Oscar-nominated director David France (How to Survive a Plague) spotlights a human rights issue concerning the gay population of Chechnya in this ambitious and unprecedented feature. The film employs groundbreaking digital effects — using face-swapping technology a la deepfakes — to maintain its subjects’ anonymity without turning them into faceless non-characters. The effectiveness in the execution of that idea is up for debate (I was distracted by the knowledge that these weren’t their real faces and so wish the technique had been revealed at the end of the film rather than the start). But the intent is definitely admirable and respectful, if not crucial, in the need to bring forth the story of these persons in deeply life-threatening situations and the activists helping them flee to potential asylum elsewhere.
9. Miss Americana
Even before everything went down, 2020 was an important year for celebrities and other major influencers to stop being apolitical. Taylor Swift actually finally ended her silence on politics in the fall of 2018, but the story of that awakening was appropriately revealed in the first big documentary hit of this year. Directed by Lana Wilson (After Tiller), the film more generally profiles the pop singer/songwriter’s struggles with fame and her need for constant acceptance, which of course affected her decision to be quiet about so many subjects for so long. Perfectly set up at Netflix, Miss Americana makes for a perfect double feature with the 2017 doc Gaga: Five Foot Two, which similarly follows Lady Gaga in her own self reevaluation and reinvention tied to a new album.
8. The Rescue List
Plenty of documentaries could look at Ghana’s child labor issue as a call for the sympathetic tear-jerking approach, or they might focus too much on the activists attempting to rescue the young boys from enslavement, but Alyssa Fedele and Zachary Fink‘s The Rescue List is never overly harrowing nor is it exactly a total promotion of Challenging Heights — an educational institution for children plucked from their forced servitude as fishermen on Lake Volta — or its founders. The result might sound like a flat portrayal of kids who were sold off by their families and the formerly trafficked men rehabilitating them, but there are a lot of intense and emotionally powerful moments in the film, which finds its effectiveness in letting the characters drive the narrative. It might not directly end the decades-long issue, but it brings it to our attention affectingly if not urgently, letting us concentrate on the importance of these lives rather than some self-serving film presenting them.
7. Slay the Dragon
This isn’t the first documentary to explain the concept of gerrymandering, particularly as a terrible and ridiculous practice that’s harmful to the democratic process. But it’s much more than just a film about gerrymandering or against it. Directors Barak Goodman and Chris Durrance follow a few story threads, one of them a look at how gerrymandering has become even more rigged in the past decade. The other two threads (both of which wind up going in surprising directions) track current events, with one of them showcasing one of the most memorable nonfiction film characters of the year in Katie Fahey. Slay the Dragon is the kind of doc where you can feel life and reality doing their own thing, sometimes contrary to the expectations of the filmmakers (they really do seem intent on staying nonpartisan), yet appreciate how well those directors manage to hold the reins of the storytelling if not the stories themselves. The battle over the gerrymandering problem has its ups and downs in the film and beyond, but this doc is a complete success.
6. Beastie Boys Story
How much fun could a filmed event — essentially one which was just two people on stage telling the story of their music group to a live audience — really be? As it turns out, in this case at least, a lot. Spike Jonze documents the sold-out two-man show starring surviving Beastie Boys members Michael Diamond and Adam Horovitz, and it’s more of a concert film relay of a live documentary with plenty of supplementary images and clips than a straight tag-team monologue. Our two hosts are unsurprisingly captivating and hilarious as they recount the origins of their group from an NYC hardcore band in the early 1980s through to its end. And it’s not all just fun and games in its nostalgic celebration of themselves. Beastie Boys Story obviously pays tribute to the late Adam Yauch but also provides an outlet for Diamond and Horovitz to reflect on mistakes they’ve made along the way to and through fame.
5. On the Record
Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering have directed our attention to sexual abuse in the US military (The Invisible War), on college campuses (The Hunting Ground), and now in the recording industry with On the Record. This film is more specific in its allegations against two men, Russell Simmons and L.A. Reid, both of whose fame brings a higher degree of notice and scrutiny compared to the subjects of the other two docs. Yet it’s still very much centered on a larger systemic problem. What makes On the Record especially strong compared to some of the other docs out there inspired by the #MeToo movement is Dick and Ziering’s trust in the audience to accept a lot of uninterrupted screentime devoted to its testimonials, the most prominent of which is provided by former music executive Drew Dixon. We don’t need cutaways to photographs and random footage of whatever to stay engaged visually. Of course, it helps that Dixon especially is such a magnetic and well-spoken individual who rarely needs any sort of editing.
4. Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution
Similar to How to Survive a Plague (which shares a producer in Howard Gertler), this chronicle of the disability rights movement uses a bounty of existing footage to offer another highly compelling example of historical verite (or archival verite) in the service of an inspirational story of activism and change. The film reveals that the movement originated, at least in part, at a niche summer camp in the 1970s, attended by Crip Camp co-director James Lebrecht. He and Nicole Newnham and their other collaborators immerse their audience in each moment, especially in the first half set at the camp, making us feel like we’re right there to witness every achievement and setback — if not exactly experience them. The documentary if full of crude and candid comical moments as well as times when you’ll be empathically and happily in tears. If you’re thrown off by the title, don’t be. There’s a point to it. And anyway, you don’t want to miss out on this film.
3. The Infiltrators
The logline of this documentary is the stuff of action movies. The film is about young undocumented activists who intentionally became detained in order to help other immigrants from within. While their story is mostly depicted with dramatizations, that doesn’t make the tension in those sequences feel any less real, and I was still glued to my screen in a way I’m not often with nonfiction works. The reenactments are seamlessly integrated with actual footage of members of the National Immigrant Youth Alliance, but that’s never as difficult to keep track of as you’d expect. Instead, the approach is effective in keeping focus and not feeling interruptive of either of the two techniques while staying transparent without too much pause or distraction. The Infiltrators, which is labeled by its distributor, Oscilloscope Laboratories, as a “docu-thriller,” is definitely one of the more unique films of the year.
2. Athlete A
It’s unfortunate that so many significant docs of late are focused on abuse of some sort, mostly sexual abuse, but it’s also a positive that these stories are finally being made public and that many of the abusers are winding up punished as a result. Athlete A doesn’t just go deep into the despicable case of Larry Nassar’s decades-long misconduct with his underage patients while in service of USA Gymnastics and that institution’s attempted cover-up. The film makes a point of mostly showcasing the survivors and their victory in the whole thing while also shining a deserved spotlight on the journalists at the Indianapolis Star who first broke the story and continued to build upon its revelations. There are a lot of narrative threads in the film, but directors Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk and their regular editor, Don Bernier, structure everything perfectly, resulting in a cohesive yet multifaceted masterwork of its kind.
1. The Painter and the Thief
Five years ago, two massive paintings by Barbora Kysilkova were stolen out of a gallery. The men responsible were quickly apprehended, though the artworks remained missing. Curiously seeking answers and a new subject to paint, Kysilkova began meeting with one of the thieves, Karl-Bertil Nordland. What transpires from there is an unpredictable and immensely fascinating character-driven film depicting a strange friendship and investigation. Lesser filmmakers (and reality series producers) would arrange a confrontation between a criminal and his victim for dramatic tension. Benjamin Ree‘s The Painter and the Thief offers a more natural — even if abnormal — situation and progression, though it’s still full of surprises that subvert expectations and maybe also subvert those subverted expectations.