The 16 Best Documentaries of 2016

Nonfics editors share their favorite nonfiction films of the year.

“It’s been a great year for docs” has become a cliché, and that’s a good thing. The merits of individual list-toppers are always up for debate, of course, but it’s been a thrill to observe the across-the-board quality of the last few years. Once again, there are enough strong contenders to double the length of this list — even if the greater mass of critics seems to suggest that only one or two stand out.

That said, every year has its own strengths and trends. 2016 was blessed by a number of outrageous portraits of American life and history, some of which only grew more politically resonant as the months flew by. In the wake of the election, Weiner, Nuts!, Zero Days, 13th, The Other Side and even Tickled seem more darkly prophetic than ever.

A more striking, if perhaps less immediately thrilling trend can be found in the mighty handful of artistically ambitious memoirs. The formal innovations and intimate revelations contained in Cameraperson, No Home Movie and Homeland: Iraq Year Zero will likely stimulate the minds and trouble the hearts of critics and cinephiles for years to come.

One last thing: while the expansion of documentary distribution through TV and streaming is exciting, it’s not the whole story. The list of great, undistributed docs of 2016 is long, and includes such dramatically different films as INAATE/SE/ and All This Panic. And three beautifully crafted documentaries, all directed by Mexican women, are an especially frustrating omission of 2016’s commercial release schedule: Betzabé García’s Kings of Nowhere, Maya Goded’s Plaza de la Soledad and Tatiana Huezo’s Tempestad.

Now, without further ado, the 16 best documentaries of 2016 as compiled by myself and founding editor Christopher Campbell:

16. Rats

Morgan Spurlock is best when he focuses on the passions of others, not his own, and while it may not seem like it, Rats is all about people. Yes, and the pesky, germ-infested scavengers of the title, as well, but it’s the people — the exterminators and scientists and worshippers — who make the film really enjoyable. The rats and Spurlock’s playful craftsmanship also make it one of the few truly effective horror docs. And it’s also one of the best adaptions of the year, being based on Robert Sullivan’s informative 2004 book. — Christopher Campbell

15. Lost and Beautiful

The untimely death of Tommaso Cestrone, a volunteer caretaker of a decaying 18th century mansion, was deeply felt by the Italian village of San Tammaro. It also put a halt to Pietro Marcello, who was making a film about Cestrone. Yet instead of abandoning the project, Marcello used his nonfiction footage as the kernel of a timeless fable. Lost and Beautiful follows a costumed, immortal clown and a talking buffalo as they wander an ancient landscape, tying Cestrone’s legacy to an artistic tradition with roots much deeper than cinema. — Daniel Walber

14. Gleason

I’ve been championing Clay Tweel (Finders Keepers) as the little-known documentarian most in need of recognition for years, and it’s great to see him garnering more and more attention for this film, which follows former pro football player Steve Gleason as his health deteriorates from ALS and as he simultaneously watches his young son grow. It’s one of the saddest films of the year, and yet also one of the funniest. — CC

13. 13th

Ava DuVernay’s primer on the continued mistreatment of African Americans as second-class citizens since the “end of slavery” is a politically and emotionally charged film that uses propaganda-like visual rhetoric and brilliant montage editing for great emphasis on the issues of police brutality, the prison industrial complex and more. It’s not just an affecting doc, however, as it also features well-researched and expert address of the topics, as they relate to an unfortunate loophole in the 13th Amendment stating that slavery is illegal “except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” We would love for 13th to be longer, and that’s more a compliment then a criticism. — CC

12. Nuts!

Penny Lane’s Nuts! is a story of the American Apocrypha, featuring one of those bizarre characters who seems deceptively distant from the nation’s political and cultural life. Of course, the tale of a fabulously successful charlatan whose professional recklessness was only surpassed by his media savvy is as resonant now as it ever was. But Lane doesn’t overstate the case for relevance, instead using animation to underline the cartoonish quality of American life and business. And her frankness regarding the film’s construction has been an immensely helpful proof that no great documentary is precisely true. — DW

11. I Am Not Your Negro

Raoul Peck’s documentary is not a detailed biography of James Baldwin. Rather, it is that rarest of feats, an artistic extrapolation of a deceased thinker’s work. Matching, or perhaps surpassing Goran Olsson’s similar accomplishment with Concerning Violence, I Am Not Your Negro grafts the ideas in an unfinished manuscript onto a contemporary world. Baldwin’s book began as a meditation on the losses of Medgar Evars, Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. In Peck’s hands, it quickly becomes a living memorial to the unfinished business of a entire nation. — DW

10. No Home Movie

No Home Movie will forever be the last film by Chantal Akerman, a distinction with more artistic weight than a lesser work might be able to bear. Yet it is so much more than a signpost of a life. Its lingering image of a tree in the Israeli desert preludes conversations between Akerman and her mother that look back, almost peripherally, at an entire century of Jewish migration. It is an act of concentrated memory, staring at the walls of an apartment in order to delve deep into the recesses of the mind. It is a film that sits shiva for itself, for its subject, for its maker, and for us all. — DW

9. The Other Side

Roberto Minervini has been making films in the American South for a number of years, but none of them have been quite like The Other Side. He has traded the quiet, spiritually tranquil hybridity of Stop the Pounding Heart for the heightened reality of a uniquely American landscape of drugs, sex and guns. This vision of rural Louisiana begins with the errant life of a paroled dealer and ends with a tableau of militiamen that probably sits closer in the Blue State imagination to Hieronymous Bosch than Tennessee Williams. Like last year’s Buffalo Juggalos, The Other Side is a documentary lit aflame by the self-aware posturing of its own subjects. It is a compelling, brutal rejection of a genre’s built-in pity. — DW

8. O.J.: Made in America

There are so many subjects where you wish the filmmakers delivered a doc of seven or eight hours to fully cover it to the fullest. Maybe the success of Ezra Edelman’s history lesson on race, celebrity, Los Angeles, and the legal system will lead to more lengthy features. But it should be noted that O.J.: Made in America is not so much an exhaustive work as an insightfully comprehensive one about a single life and our nation. And although it’s an extraordinary achievement as a whole, every chunk of this doc shows evidence of brilliance at every selection of archival material, every edit and particularly every interview. — CC

‘OJ: Made in America’ Voted the Best Documentary of 2016 in 4th Annual Nonfics Year-End Poll

7. Zero Days

Rats may be the best example of mixing the horror genre with documentary, but Alex Gibney’s Zero Days is actually the scariest doc of 2016. And it’s extra frightening for not being as widely seen as most of the other great docs of the year. This film is dense but also accessible at the same time as it details the story of what will surely prove to be the dawn of cyber warfare. And it’s extra extra terrifying in the wake of the election, because disarming Iran with a computer virus and having Russia hack the DNC both seem tame compared to what could be done by an apparent loose cannon president. Anyway, what it could mean for the future aside, this is also just Gibney’s most impeccably and imaginatively crafted docs in years. — CC

6. Weiner

Not many movies have been accused of throwing national elections, intentionally or otherwise. And while the sentiment that Weiner is somehow at fault for the presidential result is a bit ridiculous. It’s a testament to the incredibly strange year that directors Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg have had. In January it was an epilogue. In August it became a second act. By November, it had become a prop in a much grander narrative. Yet what is most impressive about Weiner is the way that its treatment of the nuts and bolts of politics only gets more compelling. From the constant thrum of media distraction to the choreographed avoidance of already-made mistakes, it is a film in constant motion. And the scene of Weiner yelling at the unseen head of Lawrence O’Donnell will go down as one of American political cinema’s most resonant images. — DW

5. Kate Plays Christine

The most original doc of the year in its conception goes to Robert Greene’s deep dig into the notorious story of TV journalist Christine Chubbuck, who killed herself on air in 1974. Starring actress Kate Lyn Sheil in the part of Chubbuck and in a journalistic role herself, as she investigates the subject’s life and death as professional research, the film always feels deliberate and naturally flowing at the same time. It’s a transfixing work through to the final moment, when a Sheil is to finally reenact Chubbuck’s suicide. What was merely a jarring potentially ill-fit conclusion, though, has become a sort of reflexion of America right now. We tuned in all year to see if the country would blow its own brains out, and it did. — CC

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4. The Illinois Parables

No recent narrative of American history, neither by artist nor pundit, has half the resonance of Deborah Stratman’s The Illinois Parables. The film is a loosely constructed journey through the history of its titular state, making almost exclusively lesser-known stops. Stratman’s Illinois is a land rich in ghostly presences and absences, beginning and ending with the epoch-bridging earthworks of 13th century Mississippians and 20th century post-modernists. It is a place where Manifest Destiny can be recast as an emptying force, in this case driving both the Cherokee and the Mormons through the state. It is a testing ground for a nation’s terrifying arsenals and a focal point for apparitions, tornadoes and poltergeists. With a slow, assured style, Stratman invites us to take a closer look at our records and to contemplate our past anew. — DW

3. Under the Sun

Under the Sun is made of the space between official images, built entirely out of the interstitial material that is removed from real life in order to make propaganda. Director Vitaly Mansky went to North Korea to assist in the production of a film, a government-directed vision of the life of an idealized nuclear family. As they traveled from stage to stage, he kept the camera running. His final product is not, however, a journalistic expose of the lies of North Korean official communication. It is, instead, a quietly chilling document of what is added and subtracted from citizens when they are reshaped into the role models of a totalitarian system. — DW

2. Homeland: Iraq Year Zero

Homeland: Iraq Year Zero is not quite an epic. Despite its 334 minutes, it is monumental within the dimensions of a human life, not beyond it. For what most grand American films miss about war, and the Iraq War in particular, is the prosaic nature of devastating conflict and national destruction. Abbas Fahdel’s film is about the before and after of the 2003 invasion, the way that anxiety changed as the threat of violence becomes less theoretical. The emotional arc of his family’s response was not linear, nor could it be. Homeland about the suddenness of death, even in the most deliberately elongated cinematic context. And it is about memory, of nation and place, of family and society, of commerce and cinema, of the repetitive but still devastating tragedy of war. — DW

1. Cameraperson

There are many ways to watch Kirsten Johnson’s unique memoir. One of them is to play a game. Guess why each of the collected shots ended up in Cameraperson, rather than the film for which it was originally intended. In many cases, it seems to be because of cracks in the already tenuous fourth wall of nonfiction. Dancers make eye contact with the lens. A boxer’s mother tells him to calm down, not to lose his cool in front of those watching.

Other moments don’t just underline the presence of the camera, but of the cameraperson. Perched above Sarajevo, she and her director discuss b-roll of minarets. Halfway across the world, she trips on a concrete median while crossing the street. Jacques Derrida, her subject, stops accordingly to comment.

These scenes get tossed aside because they interrupt the audience’s feeling of “being there,” to borrow a phrase from Richard Leacock. That’s conventional logic, at least. Yet Cameraperson suggests an equal value in making the viewer especially aware of the camera, as well as the woman holding it. After all, the “fly on the wall” is an inherently impossible aspiration.

This interaction, between audience and cameraperson, is only one of many relationships that Johnson complicates and enriches. She also finds new insight into the rapport of cameraperson and subject, filmmaker and mother, editor and footage, handling each relationship with curiosity and care. Cameraperson isn’t just the best film of 2016, it’s the best film about filmmaking in a long time.

Daniel is a freelance critic living in Brooklyn. His writing has appeared at Nonfics, The Film Experience, The Brooklyn Rail, Indiewire, and Dok.Revue.