The 14 Best Documentaries of 2014

2014 is the year documentaries began to take over. At least this seemed to be the case. The most acclaimed fiction film of the year, Boyhood, has primarily been praised for its nonfictional element of showing the actual 12-year growth of its cast. Another critical favorite is Under the Skin, a sci-fi/horror film that prominently features non-actors interacting with its protagonist, unknowingly captured with hidden cameras. Then there’s the footage from The Dust Bowl in Interstellar, the footage from Baraka and Samsara in Lucy and documentary material in Selma, Godzilla and Foxcatcher.

Meanwhile, some of the best nonfiction films of 2014 veer into fiction film territory. Although this kind of blurring of real and scripted isn’t new, docs like Robert Greene’s Actress and Roberto Minervini’s Stop the Pounding Heart continue to find creative new ways of mixing up modes of storytelling as the most appropriate way of exploring and presenting certain subjects. More and more docs are playing like cinema rather than term papers, giving us works that are thrilling, beautiful, funny, frightening — entertaining as well as enlightening. Even issue films are tending to focus on character study over arguments and data from so-called “experts.”

Documentary in 2014 saw few mainstream standouts, but it seems to have delivered more knockouts for those of us who love nonfiction cinema. There were few simple trends, more variety of styles and genres, overall a broad range of exceptional works that made it terribly difficult to determine an ordered ranking of only 14 titles released this year. The following list was compiled democratically from four Nonfics critics — Christopher Campbell, Daniel Walber, Dan Schindel and Landon Palmer — and it’s a representation of our admittedly unaligned personal top 20s (which will be posted next week). Documentary fandom and appreciation takes all kinds, and as such we’re happy to have all favored different films this year.

14. Maidentrip

First Run Features

Boyhood is quite a cinematic achievement, but for the honor of the best coming-of-age story of the year, it has some strong competition from this documentary by Jillian Schlesinger. The film chronicles the 2010–2012 solo round-the-world sailing trip of Laura Dekker, who broke the record for youngest person to circumnavigate the globe alone. She began her voyage at the age of 14 and grew up a lot over the next year and a half at sea, making this as much a personal journey to discover herself as a physical adventure across the oceans. And we get to witness both firsthand, most of the footage in the doc having been shot by her along the way. Maidentrip is as metaphorical a tale as any about seafaring characters (“she heads out into the uncertain waters of her own existence,” I wrote in my review), but even greater here is the shining presence of the character herself. Dekker is the sort of documentary star you wish had signed a multi-picture deal. — Christopher Campbell

13. Captivated: The Trials of Pamela Smart

HBO Documentary Films

Jeremiah Zagar’s detailed overview of the media frenzy that covered the trial of Pamela Smart, who was convicted in 1991 for her involvement in the murder of her husband, explores the overlap between the justice system and the court of public opinion in the age of 24-hour news media. Arguing that Smart’s case was a turning point in an infotainment age that has only grown worse in knee-jerk sensationalism, Captivated revisits the trial as a means to gain wisdom and insight into a contemporary commercial news industry without ever didactically filling in the dots. The film’s sober yet enthralling examination of Smart’s intersecting “trials” does not so much constitute a revisitation of a famous case but instead carefully constructs a portrait of the ways that public interests converge to the point that a news story explodes with a life all its own. Take that, Gone Girl. — Landon Palmer

12. Concerning Violence

Kino Lorber

Concerning Violence isn’t as immediately, on-its-face socially relevant as the likes of Citizenfour or Tales of the Grim Sleeper. But in surveying the European withdrawal from African colonization in the ’60s and ’70s through the lens of Frantz Fanon’s thoughts on the effectiveness of violence as a means of affecting social change, the film speaks deeply to the current debate over what forms of protest against injustice are deemed “appropriate.” The truth is that racist power structures don’t change without radical action, and Concerning Violence makes a case for such action with vivid, never-before-seen primary footage. It’s a masterpiece of editing and the documentary as an essay. — Dan Schindel

11. The Last of the Unjust

Cohen Media Group

Claude Lanzmann’s The Last of the Unjust is perhaps the longest, weightiest epilogue in all of nonfiction cinema. Built from unused interview footage that the French documentarian shot in 1975 of Benjamin Murmelstein, the Nazi-appointed Jewish elder of the concentration camp at Theresienstadt, it plays like a deleted scene from the 20th century. This is true not only of its relationship with Lanzmann’s 1985 landmark Shoah, but also in the way that Murmelstein’s befuddling and occasionally quite uncomfortable testimony complicates our most common narratives of the Holocaust. Is he a hero for what he did to help others survive, or a villain through the means of his own survival? Is he right when he insists Adolf Eichmann was, contrary to Hannah Arendt’s famous assertion, far from banal? It is a troubling film, a grand assertion that history and its most awkward details can never really be banished. — Daniel Walber

10. The Internet’s Own Boy


More than simply “that other documentary about a persecuted whistleblower,” Brian Knappenberger’s portrait of the short but impactful life and tragic death of fair use advocate Aaron Swartz is a sincere, informative and deeply moving piece of cinematic activism. The key to this film is that it focuses as much if not more on the greater activist milieu associated with Swartz’s life’s work — and the network of people seeking to realize it — as it does the personality at its center. So while The Internet’s Own Boy is indeed an important biography of an essential figure in 21st century Internet history, it is equally a powerful work of open-information agit-prop, and the rare example of a documentary biography whose tone, content and emotional register operates in perfect harmony with the lessons it draws from its subject. — LP

9. Expedition to the End of the World

Haslund Film

Expedition to the End of the World is a nonfiction adventure story, a surreal Scandinavian journey to the top of the world. Director Daniel Dencik followed a group of artists and scientists to the newly melted coast of Greenland, on a mission to discover both knowledge and inspiration. Many of them are defiantly optimistic, insistent that Global Climate Change is but another challenge for human ingenuity. It is also, however, why their dream of encountering a polar bear on the ice is perhaps not the most realistic. Dencik structures the film around these conflicting themes, balancing the spirit of adventure with the accompanying sense of loss. The resulting film is a heavy metal question mark, sailing into the future with an eye on the throbbing beauty of the natural world in tumult. — DW

8. The Unknown Known


Because The Unknown Known was largely seen as a sequel to Errol Morris’s previous feature interview with a Secretary of Defense, The Fog of War, there was a general (and unmet) expectation that the documentarian’s discussion with Donald Rumsfeld would produce a similar level of reckoning, insight and coming-to-terms to his Oscar-winning portrait of Robert McNamara. Instead, The Unknown Known produced something more cynical, ugly and ironic that we perhaps haven’t seen in nonfiction before: direct, feature-length access to the self-justifying logic of a person who possesses unfathomable political power. Morris’s career has been devoted to exploring the complex ways that knowledge and perception are interminably tangled. So, instead of providing new insight into the Bush era (an administration that has been given infinite hours of documentary investigation), The Unknown Known explores the logistical processes of one of its principle members, and in so doing reveals how the specious, interchangeable wielding of knowledge and truth can become its own weapon of mass destruction. — LP

7. Life Itself

Magnolia Pictures

This is one of the most difficult documentaries for people to approach objectively, and that’s not just for fellow film critics who either knew or were influenced by or simply related to subject Roger Ebert. He was the most famous person in his field, and just about everyone has an opinion of the man whose own opinions were his bread and butter. Or at least on the importance or lack thereof of criticism in general. Life Itself may as well be a political doc for all the easy love or hesitancy I’ve seen from others regarding the film. But as a film it’s a masterpiece of biographical adaptation (it’s based on Ebert’s memoir of the same name) and documentary portraiture from director Steve James. It’s a work that aligns the making of a film about a life to reviewing a movie (or other artform) in a fair and balanced way, enough that a documentary subject or scrutinized artist (such as Martin Scorsese, who executive produced and appears in the film) respects the product even when it’s negative. Above the meta themes, though, is also the most emotional story on film this year. Never mind your subjective feelings about Ebert, you can’t not be choked up about his death by the end, for the sake of the heartbreak it causes his loved ones on screen, particularly his wife, Chaz Ebert. One last thing: the brassy score by Joshua Abrams is a wonderful extra layer of bittersweetness, far and away the best doc soundtrack of the year. — CC

6. Actress

The Cinema Guild

Several critic groups have cited Actress subject Brandy Burre in their “best actress” year-end polling. It’s an exceedingly unusual move that makes total sense if you see the film. In one scene, Burre, in the middle of a soliloquy for the camera, pauses and repeats a line several times. The movie explores how much of life is performance by layering purposeful artifice into everything that happens within it. Whereas most docs incorporate some fakery (reenactments of events, actions performed for the camera rather than naturally), they usually attempt to conceal it. Actress does the opposite, stylizing itself shamelessly. The result is one of the most beautifully shot and edited docs of recent memory and one of the most thought-provoking as well. — DS

5. Rich Hill

The Orchard

Small town America, to the extent that it even exists anymore, is not in good shape. Rich Hill, Missouri, is one of those troubled places, where the Fourth of July parade still marches strong but 19% of the population lives below the poverty line. Filmmakers Andrew Droz Palermo and Tracy Droz Tragos filmed three local teenage boys, all of them forced by circumstance to grow up much too fast. As each grows into his own, a multidimensional portrait of 21st century America emerges. In these young lives caught between the financial crisis, drug addiction, family and faith there is a sad but hopeful manifestation of the state of the union. — DW

4. National Gallery

Zipporah Films

Including the latest Frederick Wiseman film on our best-of list every year is admittedly our equivalent of the Academy seemingly giving an obligatory annual Oscar nomination to Meryl Streep. But he’s that great, and frankly his 2014 release is his greatest in years, a rare reflective work from a filmmaker whose personal experience is always an implicit component of his documentaries but whose professional identity is never so prominent. National Gallery, a three-hour tour of the ins and outs and the public and private areas of the eponymous London museum, is all about the contexts of art and the different ways its viewed, physically and intellectually, and that extends externally to our experience watching the film. I won’t go so far as to say National Gallery is ultimately about itself, but it is an extra bonus layer on top of the usual observational brilliance found in Wiseman. — CC

3. Tales of the Grim Sleeper

courtesy of Barney Broomfield

I’ve always believed Nick Broomfield to be an acquired taste, ignoring the fact that for most people that taste is unobtainable due to his on-screen persona being hard to swallow. He surprised me with his latest, though, following up his mostly obnoxious Sarah Palin: You Betcha! with a film so reserved in its subjectivity that it’s near unrecognizable as being one of his docs. He’s still front and center as he this time investigates a story about a serial killer in South Central Los Angeles, but for the most part he respectfully takes a back seat in the narrative to allow for a very timely expose dealing with racism in the LAPD and American society, among other things. He also seems to genuinely like his subjects in this film, particularly the unforgettable Pamela Brooks, a lively woman found in the neighborhood who becomes a sort of a guide for him and his son (Barney Broomfield, the film’s cameraman) as they navigate the area and the local community. As a longtime fan, I’m impressed that Broomfield finally found his most accessible film in the form of a gripping nonfiction noir, in which his role as hardboiled detective is fortuitously toned down. — CC

2. The Overnighters

Drafthouse Films

If The Overnighters was a play or a novel, it’d already be considered a classic. You wouldn’t be able to get away from it. But it’s a documentary, so it’s relegated to the background noise of most culture discussion. Every year brings us movies that try to make a capital-S Statement on “The Way Things Are,” but The Overnighters gets at that better than Foxcatcher, Birdman and Nightcrawler combined. It’s a dire story of a conflict between basic human decency and the relentless gears of capitalism, and it captures the American spirit of the moment with harrowing intensity. — DS

1. Citizenfour


Citizenfour is a landmark film for a number of reasons, not least of which being director Laura Poitras’s role in the Edward Snowden saga. As a document of our time and one of the most globally significant events of the last few years, it is hard to undervalue. Yet it is also an extraordinary work of nonfiction cinema, which is the real reason it tops this particular list. Poitras is interested in the information brought by Snowden to the now-infamous Hong Kong hotel room, of course, but she is also interested in the implications of this knowledge on character and psychology. This means not just Glenn Greenwald, but the entire community of activists pushing back on government spying. Her eye is as powerful on the forbidding landscapes of the American West, where massive data centers are being collected, as it is sensitive to the tender moments of Greenwald and his husband reunited in Brazil after an absurd detainment by the British government. It is a riveting, groundbreaking portrait of lives lived in truth. — DW

This list was originally published on December 19, 2014.

(Editor in Chief)

Christopher Campbell is the founding editor of Nonfics.