Our 25 Most Anticipated Documentaries of 2020

Our guide to the best-sounding nonfiction films we've heard about coming out this year.

Dick Johnson is Dead

Will Werner Herzog‘s space documentary, Fireball, arrive in 2020? That’s the biggest question I have about this year in film and regarding what to do with a guide to the most anticipated nonfiction works of these next 12 months. Documentary releases are difficult to foresee because documentary production is so different from narrative film production. Also, release dates are rarely known in advance while most notable docs debut at film festivals.

That’s why it was best to hold this year’s list until the SXSW program was announced, confirming that another of last year’s list entries that didn’t come out in 2019, Alex Winter‘s Zappa, was indeed arriving in 2020. Perhaps we’ll hear about Fireball come TIFF time, but for now, I’m leaving it alone. We’ll likely hear of other surprises in later months, too (we didn’t even know about The Cave, Rolling Thunder Revue, or The Kingmaker this time a year ago).

The following titles, including features, shorts, and series, come only from what we’re sure is at least premiering at Sundance and SXSW. Hopefully, they all see distribution in 2020 as well. And hopefully, all of them live up to my expectations.

25. Miss Americana

While it’s undoubtedly the most-anticipated film on this list for a general audience, Miss Americana lands at the bottom for me because I’m not that intrigued about its subject, Taylor Swift. In fact, it wouldn’t have even made my list at all if not for some trusted talent on board behind the camera. Miss Americana is produced by Morgan Neville, who has overseen and helmed a number of great music docs and even won the Oscar for the surprisingly deep 20 Feet from Stardom. He also directed Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, which is one of the best biographical docs in recent years. At the helm of Miss Americana is Lana Wilson, co-director of the remarkably sensitive and humane abortion doc After Tiller. Surely Miss Americana won’t be anywhere near as serious as that, but I do trust that this isn’t going to be just a fluffy profile on Swift either.

Premieres at Sundance on January 23rd before going to Netflix on January 31st.

24. McMillion$

Now here’s a subject and story I’m very much interested in, but I don’t know the filmmakers from a quarter pounder with cheese. But if HBO trusts James Lee Hernandez and Brian Lazarte with what might be a slam dunk anyway, so shall I. The six-part limited series McMillion$ looks back at the popular Monopoly game promotion that McDonald’s ran from the late 1980s through part the last decade. Specifically, it focuses on the notorious case of fraud and internal corruption that scammed the fast-food company out of most of its big prizes.

The first three episodes premiere at Sundance on January 28th before the series debuts on HBO beginning February 3rd.

23. The Deepest Hole

I’m not familiar with the director of this film either. But The Deepest Hole is only 12 minutes long and merely documents the little-known Cold War race between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. to drill the furthest into the Earth (I won’t spoil who won). It’s screening as a midnight movie, so that’s promising since documentaries not about obvious scary or horror subject matter are rarely allowed in that arena. So, it better be good stuff, Matt McCormick!

Premieres at Sundance on January 24th.

22. Cursed Films

I’m not a big horror movie guy, but I am into weird stories about filmmaking, so Cursed Films could still be right up my alley. The five-part documentary series is by Jay Cheel, whom you should know for such genre-fan-appropriate nonfiction films as How to Build a Time Machine and Helltown. Here, he looks at notoriously “cursed” productions of horror movies — namely, Poltergeist (which I do actually love), The Omen, The Exorcist, The Crow, and Twilight Zone: The Movie.

Premieres at SXSW in March before streaming on Shudder later this year.

21. Leap of Faith: William Friedkin on ‘The Exorcist’

Typically I exclude documentaries from my most-anticipated list if they’ve already premiered, as this one did at the Venice Film Festival last fall, but it’s not something I’m anticipating just because of festival buzz. Leap of Faith is the latest essay film from Alexandre O. Phillippe, director of such cineaste necessities as 78/52: Hitchcock’s Shower Scene and Memory: The Origins of Alien. This time he’s looking at the horror classic The Exorcist and discussing the film in-depth with its director, William Friedkin.

I’m not positive that it’s the American premiere, and there doesn’t seem to be an official US release date yet, but Leap of Faith plays at Sundance on January 30th and (in Salt Lake City) on February 2nd.

20. And We Go Green

Okay, here’s another doc that’s already been out and about at festivals, namely Cannes and Toronto. While it received mixed reviews, among what few write-ups it garnered at all, I’m still hopeful based on what I have read. Plus one of its directors is Fisher Stevens, who’ll always be tops with me thanks to such underrated films as Crazy Love and Mission Blue. He’s again joined by his Before the Flood producer Leonardo DiCaprio for a different sort of environmentalism documentary. And We Go Green, which is also directed by Malcolm Venville and written by the indispensable Mark Monroe, spotlights Formula One-like electric race cars.

Plays at SXSW in March.

19. The Truffle Hunters

Another racing film, The Last Race, was one of the most underseen and underrated documentaries of 2018. Perhaps The Truffle Hunters will do a better job of breaking out its director, Michael Dweck, who is now joined by the film’s cinematographer, Gregory Kershaw, at the helm. Their new film definitely sounds more intriguing — if not more beautiful (but maybe that, too) — than their last as it follows, with great access, an exclusive group of Italian elders who know how to locate a rare truffle coveted by the wealthiest people in the world.

Premieres at Sundance on January 26th.

18. A Thousand Cuts

I don’t appreciate the claims that Lauren Greenfield‘s The Kingmaker is a remake or a dismissal of Ramona S. Diaz‘s own film about Imelda Marcos. There’s room for both and room for more films about the Phillippines, especially right now (see the recent feature On the President’s Orders and the Oscar-shortlisted short The Nightcrawlers). Fortunately, the Filipino-American Diaz, who also helmed the musical fairy tale doc Don’t Stop Believin’: Everyman’s Journey and Motherland, does also have another Imelda film in the works. And before that’s done, here’s another political doc involving the country. A Thousand Cuts focuses on current Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte, the violence his campaign and now leadership position has inspired, and his disinformation efforts to squash coverage of that violence.

Premieres at Sundance on January 25th.

17. Crazy, Not Insane

Alex Gibney will probably have a few films out this year. Perhaps Crazy, Not Insane won’t be the best of them. Or it’ll be somewhere in the middle. But what little I know of it sounds good, kind of like Gibney’s own version of Into the Abyss. Meets Mindhunter? It’s about a psychiatrist who works with violent murderers. Gibney doesn’t tend to tackle criminals of the killing kind, so I’m curious.

Premieres at SXSW in March.

16. In & Of Itself

I don’t know anything about Derek DelGaudio, and maybe that’ll be a plus for when I go in fairly blind to this film of the hit one-man show. Frank Oz, who directed DelGuadio’s stage production of In & Of Itself, also helmed this document, which I assume will be like a concert film but for a magician-storyteller. I heard the live version was great, so seeing it captured on the big screen should be great, too.

Premieres at SXSW in March.

15.  Bad Trip

I love movies like this that combine documentary and narrative comedy and I’m not even going to apologize. They’re a pleasure, and not guiltily so. It’s appropriate that producer/star Eric Andre screened Bad Trip for Borat creator Sacha Baron Cohen and consulted with Nathan Fielder and Jackass co-creator Jeff Tremaine to get this prank-based project just right. I don’t know about the scripted stuff, but the reactions from real people just in the trailer look hilarious.

Premieres at SXSW in March before opening on April 24th. 

14. Vivos

I didn’t expect Ai Weiwei to be such an incredible documentary filmmaker. Not that I doubted the Chinese activist artist’s genius, but I would have assumed he’d be more of an “artsy” director. Or more narrowly focused on problems in his own country, a la much of the New Chinese Documentary Film Movement. But he’s proven to be, while certainly poetic in his filmmaking, also straightforward enough as a globally political documentary journalist. His breakout doc, Human Flow, manages to be a more enlightening look at the worldwide refugee crisis than any specifically tuned doc. Now he’s made Vivos, which is more centered in its storytelling as it sheds light on the deaths and disappearance of students in Mexico. I don’t know anything about this story otherwise, but when Ai Weiwei addresses something, I pay attention.

Premieres at Sundance on January 24th.

13. Love Fraud

Just when I thought we weren’t getting another Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady documentary for a while since Ewing was making her narrative feature debut with I Carry You with Me (also out this year, firstly at Sundance), here’s actually an extra-long documentary from the duo. Thank you, Showtime, for giving these ladies a limited docuseries! Love Fraud is a work of true-crime that shares the stories of victims of a romantic swindler who is still at large. It also follows a woman bounty hunter on the scumbag’s trail.

The first four episodes premiere at Sundance on January 23rd then debuts on Showtime beginning May 8th.

12. Church and the Fourth Estate

Brian Knappenberger, who always does a great job communicating complex stories, usually involving the internet, is now tackling an Idaho pack of the Boy Scouts of America and the Mormon church with Church and the Fourth Estate. It’s only 40 minutes, just making the cut as a “short” documentary, and I figure that’s all the time Knappenberger needs considering his talent for concise storytelling.

Premieres at Sundance on January 26th.

11. Spaceship Earth

Ever since I first read about it in a small article in 3-2-1 Contact magazine when I was a kid, I’ve been intrigued about Biosphere 2, the closed-system research facility out in the Arizona desert initially intended as an experiment in how we might colonize the Moon or other planets. Then the movie Biodome made a mockery of it and I thought that was the last we’d hear, at least on a pop culture level. Finally, someone has made a documentary about this giant vivarium. And not just any someone. Spaceship Earth is by Matt Wolf, director of such unique and underrated films as Teenage and last year’s Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project. I’ll be honest, though: even if this isn’t a great film, I’m looking forward to learning about what happened — according to the synopsis, what went wrong, really. I also want to note that I’m curious about another doc, Red Heaven, which is debuting in competition at SXSW and is about a NASA experiment in which people were isolated for a year in a simulation of Mars life.

Premieres at Sundance on January 26th.

10. Zappa

I’m keeping this film at the same number as I had it last year. I’m also just going to keep the rest of the entry the same: I’ve never been a fan of Frank Zappa, so I don’t know much about him. Here’s hoping that actor-turned-filmmaker Alex Winter (Deep Web, The Panama Papers), who has so far focused on tech and journalism subject matter in his documentary work, either turns me on to the iconoclastic music legend or at least gets me to appreciate his work.

Premieres at SXSW in March.

9. Wolfgang

There are certain filmmakers you want at the helm of certain documentary subjects. Brian Knappenberger or Alex Winter for films involving the internet, Gary Hustwit for films about design, Ramona S. Diaz for films involving the Philippines, Kirby Dick with Amy Ziering for films about endemic rape and sexual assault, David Gelb for films about chefs. Gelb is best known as the director of the very popular foodie doc Jiro Dreams of Sushi, about Jiro Ono, and he also created the Netflix foodie series Chef’s Table and Street Food. Now he’s making Wolfgang, a documentary about the original “celebrity chef,” Wolfgang Puck.

The exact release date is TBD, but it’s expected to hit the new streaming service Disney+ this year.

8. Boys State

The work and interests of Jesse Moss are harder to pinpoint, but after such varied efforts as Full Battle Rattle, The Overnighters, The Bandit, and the recent hybrid series The Family, I believe this journeyman documentary director can do no wrong no matter what kind of film he’s giving us. Boys State, which brings The Overnighters and The Bandit producer Amanda McBaine into the directing circle alongside Moss, sounds like it fits in well with Full Battle Rattle and The Overnighters in following a microcosm of political activity. The film looks at the Texas Boys State, a program for high school students to experience all levels of a representational government. If you’re not already sick enough of real American politics this year, this film is sure to be essential viewing.

Premieres at Sundance on January 25th.

7. Beastie Boys Story

Who better to direct a documentary about the Beastie Boys than Spike Jonze, who became famous as a director helming music videos, including the one for their song “Sabotage”? Jonze has never flown solo on a feature documentary before, but I can’t help but be excited by the prospects. The description of Beastie Boys Story is that it’s a “live documentary” of a nature that can’t be explained and will just have to be understood when the trailer arrives. But it’ll apparently involve a mix of live concert and documentary story of the legendary hip hop group.

Premieres at SXSW in March followed by a “special IMAX cut” in theaters on April 3rd then streaming debut on Apple TV+ on April 24th.

6. Welcome to Chechnya

David France, who earned an Oscar nomination for his AIDS activism film How to Survive a Plague, has found a new threat to the LGBTQ+ community to document. This time the plague he’s concerned about — hate and attempted genocide — should be more easily defeated than a bloodborne infectious disease, but it’s not. Welcome to Chechnya is about LGBTQ+ Chechens and the activists fighting for and alongside them against the Russian republic’s mission to “cleanse the blood” of its population. I’m curious about France’s approach to sharing this cause and story since I figure it’s not going to be another archival verite film like How to Survive a Plague is.

Premieres at Sundance on January 26th.

5. 9to5: The Story of A Movement

After American Factory (probably) wins the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature in February, fans of its directors, Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert will have a chance to see what’s next from them almost immediately. Will it be as good? Who knows, but right now the duo is in such high regard that their future can’t be anything but highly anticipated. Anyway, this next doc has ties to the 1980 comedy 9 to 5 (and its theme song by Dolly Parton), which I love, so there’s that. Little is known about 9to5: The Story of a Movement other than it’s about secretaries protesting the abuses they encountered on the job in the 1970s.

Premieres at SXSW in March.

4. City So Real

Steve James is back with another docuseries following his acclaimed 2018 effort America to Me. This time the filmmaker, who is synonymous with Chicago and best known for helming Hoop Dreams and The Interrupters takes a broad and multifaceted look at politics in the Windy City.

The first two episodes premiere at Sundance on January 27th.

3. Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets

Brothers Bill and Turner Ross have taken us on tours of Anytown USA, the Big Easy, and the border of Texas and Mexico, and they’ve documented a distinctly national display as part of a concert by one of our country’s greatest living music icons. Now they’re continuing their work as chroniclers of American life with Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets, which brings us to a dive bar in Las Vegas in its final days. Described as having a mosaic structure, I assume we’ll get to meet a number of characters throughout the film but this will be more of a portrait of the place, both specifically and as representative of something greater.

Premieres at Sundance on January 24th.

2. Epicentro

A geopolitical film from Hubert Sauper, Oscar-nominated director Darwin’s Nightmare and We Come as Friends? Of course, Epicentro is going high on our list of anticipated documentaries. This time he’s out of Africa and focused on Cuba, though to be focused on Cuba means also being focused on the world outside of Cuba and how the island country has been influenced by the waves of imperialism crashing upon its shores.

Premieres at Sundance on January 24th.

1. Dick Johnson is Dead

Four years ago, Kirsten Johnson ascended from her place as one of the best documentary cinematographers to a new status as one of the most exciting documentary directors working today. Still, Cameraperson could have been an isolated endeavor and achievement. How could Johnson top or even replicate a feature comprised of mostly B-roll footage from films she worked on compiled as a unique sort of personal memoir? Well, we’re not certain what is to be expected of the content of her follow-up, Dick Johnson is Dead, but the subject matter sure does sound as intimate and reminds me of the parts of Cameraperson focused on her mother. The film, about the death of Johnson’s titular father, promises another profound product of editing (with Cameraperson‘s Nels Bangerter collaborating again here) as it plays with time and life and cinema’s ability to immortalize.

Premieres at Sundance on January 25th before going to Netflix later this year. 

(Editor in Chief)

Christopher Campbell is the founding editor of Nonfics.