This was not a poor year for nonfiction cinema, though it may have seemed that way because of what was most popular. Not everyone likes to see so many music documentaries flooding the market, even if those films include some of the most exceptional and affecting artist profiles we’ve ever seen. This was a more centralized year for docs in terms of recognition, also, as evidenced by this website’s four primary critics (myself, Daniel Walber, Dan Schindel and Landon Palmer) being more uniform in our individual best-of lists than usual. Years where we’re more scattered on our favorites tend to imply there was a broader range of great work.
But perhaps 2015 simply gave us more first-rate films we could agree on as being above and beyond the rest. This year brought new releases by Frederick Wiseman, Joshua Oppenheimer, Hubert Sauper, Wim Wenders, Asif Kapadia and even the late Les Blank, so it wasn’t surprising that we’d be so coordinated in our picks. Plus, newcomers such as Chad Gracia, Amanda Wilder and Debra Granik (new to nonfiction anyway) delivered such extraordinary debuts that none of us could dismiss. At least half of the films listed below were found on three out of the four critics’ own lists, while the rest represent two critics each. None of them are too obscure.
That means you should be able to find them, and you really should seek them out.
15. Evaporating Borders
Cyprus is in flux. Wedged between the nations of Greece and Turkey, the continents of Africa, Asia and Europe, political extremes and international organizations, it is now much more than simply a trouble spot. Iva Radivojevic, rather than targeting a single issue, has instead made a poetic essay that captures the many moods of the island. Fascist demonstrations in public squares, immigrants living in refugee camps, fed by money from the European Union, flocks of flamingoes on the coast and the towering residences of Russian millionaires all pass across the screen like the increasingly treacherous tides of the Mediterranean. Insightful and frequently quite beautiful, Evaporating Borders is among the strongest debut features of the year. — Daniel Walber
14. Best of Enemies
A few years ago, a documentary titled Evocateur positioned Morton Downey, Jr.’s firebrand 1980s talk show as the paradigm for today’s pervasive industry of media demagoguery. The film’s thesis seemed tacked-on at best, a last-minute big-picture justification overreaching its case for historical import. More readily answering a call for putting our toxic media landscape into context, Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville’s enthralling Best of Enemies chronicled what is essential to any diagnosis of political polarization via television history: the transient but emotionally intoxicating joy of seeing your ideological stand-in rhetorically pummel the opposition. This masterfully assembled recounting of William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal’s ten oral sparring matches during the 1968 Republican and Democratic National Conventions and their surrounding events is appropriately bittersweet: it both revels in the party and observes its consequential hangover. — Landon Palmer
13. Finders Keepers
One of the best things about Finders Keepers is how its filmmakers, directors J. Clay Tweel and Bryan Carberry and producers Ed Cunningham and Seth Gordon, show improvement with each new nonfiction work. This is the most directly evolved from their most well-known (save for Carberry who wasn’t part of the team then), the Gordon-helmed The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters. There are two men in a conflict, and there’s a lot of humor due to the absurd premise of one guy finding another guy’s amputated leg in a grill he’d bought at auction and the custody battle that ensued. However, this is a mature work of documentary, not just some stranger-than-fiction lark where the crazy story and unbelievable characters are depended on to drive the film. It’s as sad as it is funny, and it’s respectful and considerate of the men as human beings, not sensational subjects, and their lives as more than what’s easily mediated on screen, from reality shows to this very feature. Ultimately, it is a deep and sensitive take on fame, fortune, class, capitalism, justice and grief, rather than the yokel folk tale it appears to be. — Christopher Campbell
12. The Nightmare
Rodney Ascher’s Room 237 divided audiences in its unencumbered investigation into the myriad theories surrounding Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining from … well, “enthusiasts” seems too tame a word. The director doubled down on his interest in faithfully re-creating the subjective experiences of his subjects with The Nightmare, which brings the uncanny experiences of those who suffer from sleep paralysis to terrifying life. There’s something radical in Ascher’s commitment to following his subjects down the rabbit hole of individual experience and the strange revelations that this journey often brings, eschewing an authoritative tradition of documentary “expertise” in the process. But it’s even more surprising that such a unique approach to nonfiction could be so entertaining. And fiction or nonfiction, it’s the scariest movie of the year. — LP
11. In the Basement
Ulrich Seidl edits with a vengeance. This documentary, which takes place in the many and varied basements of Austria, is both a loving portrait and a brutal evisceration of the many things people hide beneath their homes. Underground portals are a major visual motif, as Seidl returns again and again to shots of his subjects closing their doors behind him before cutting to the scene inside. As the film progresses from doll collectors and hunting enthusiasts to BDSM and Nazi nostalgia, Seidl cuts ever more confrontationally between increasingly disparate subjects, demanding that we re-examine our own taboos. — DW.
10. The Iron Ministry
The latest project of the Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab explores not a location but a vehicle — a train, one of many traversing the rails of China. An opening sequence consisting only of the sights and sounds of machinery in motion makes the train feel like a living being. The various passengers we then meet over the course of the film thus seem like lesser organisms temporarily thriving off a host. They’re juvenile remora attached to a whale. The sense of time and place is subsuming, and the various vignettes of humanity collectively feel like an effective microcosm of contemporary China. — Dan Schindel
9. Stray Dog
Debra Granik set Jennifer Lawrence on the road to superstardom and earned massive accolades with Winter’s Bone. If she were a man, she probably would have been handed the reins of The Hunger Games or some other franchise after that. Instead, she continues to explore rural America on a minuscule budget, this time in nonfiction form. Vietnam veteran turned biker Ron Hall doesn’t seem on paper like one of the most compelling documentary protagonists of the year. Hell, he might not even seem it while you’re watching the film. But Granik’s casual disregard for convention and easy naturalism flesh out Hall’s many nuances, making his pain wholly sympathetic and his little triumphs into tremendous crowd-pleasers. — DS
8. Approaching the Elephant
As much as I like to champion innovative takes on nonfiction film, it’s also great to see something so nearly unmistakable from the direct cinema of the 1960s and 1970s, especially if it can still feel fresh as this. Amanda Wilder (who, full disclosure, has written for this site) still pushes the envelope in her partly old-fashioned observational record of the first year of a communal free school in New Jersey. She’s hands off as the experiment (theirs not hers) plays out, and it’s a thrill to never know what she’ll show us next — even if it often seems like a kid may become seriously hurt. There’s a level of chaos to the content, controlled for us through careful storytelling, much of it achieved in the editing (by Actress director Robert Greene, also a former Nonfics contributor). But all of it was first collected by an entrusted, nonintrusive camera capturing unforgettable characters, young and grown, in a time and place and situation that needed to be documented. The result is like a love child of Frederick Wiseman and Werner Herzog, as impossible as that conception may sound. Approaching the Elephant is the sort of documentary where you leave thinking how tragic it would have been had all these images not been recorded. — CC
7. The Salt of the Earth
Wim Wenders’s plunge into photographer Sebastião Salgado’s work is an arresting experience, an intimate look into difficult histories of exploitation, tragedy and struggle told through its subject’s documentation of global social life from labor in Brazilian gold mines to the Rwandan genocide. But the power of Salgado’s photography alone is not what makes The Salt of the Earth a great documentary. As with Wenders’s portrayal of dance in Pina, his use of art to examine the work of artists merges the moving image and still photography into something that neither could have achieved on their own. By juxtaposing black-and-white close-ups of Salgado detailing an oral history of his work against the black-and-white byproducts of said work, Wenders weaves these photographs through a fluid narrative that constantly confronts the audience with the profound contexts of such beautiful, terrible images. — LP
6. We Come as Friends
Hubert Sauper has carved out an unlikely niche as an observer of the hell that exists on the bad end of globalization. Here, he embarks on a nightmare travelogue of how political, corporate and religious interests from more powerful entities have already sunk their claws into the world’s newest country. The establishment of South Sudan was meant as a fresh start for its people. But from missionaries swindling people out of their land to factories poisoning nearby soil, it’s seems that renewal isn’t feasible under runaway capitalism. It’s a sobering, almost helpless portrait. — DS
On the one hand, Asif Kapadia (Senna) has constructed a portrait of duality in the fame of Amy Winehouse, who died of alcohol poisoning four years ago at the age of 27. It’s an emotionally affecting work, accomplished visually in the compilation of preexisting footage. On the other hand, the film is a product of duality in the documentary image, each piece of that footage telling us two different things. Structured precisely so that Winehouse is depicted as a more closed-off character as her story progresses and as her representation on camera evolves and then devolves, Amy doesn’t just ask us to consider what and whom we’re watching but how we’re watching it. Kapadia had to make an ethically complicated choice in order to make such a brilliant film, but a great documentarian shouldn’t avoid using dirty tools when they’re the only ones that can get the job done. — CC
4. In Jackson Heights
In Jackson Heights is not a utopian film, but it occasionally brushes up against a remarkably hopeful message. Frederick Wiseman’s portrait of Jackson Heights, Queens, doesn’t hide the neighborhood’s biggest problems. Gentrification and the collapse of local businesses, police brutality, discrimination and the struggles of the immigrant community are at the forefront of this kaleidoscopic, epic work. Yet Wiseman approaches the spirit of the American dream by profiling the activists and organizations confronting these issues, with a particular eye for how all of these communities intersect. In Jackson Heights shows the hard work of driving this country towards its boldly stated but never achieved goals of equality and understanding, one conversation at a time. — DW
3. The Russian Woodpecker
Some documentaries attempt to be everything, and almost always they fail in their excessive scope. In his stunning debut, Chad Gracia has tried for a work of political and artistic importance and triumphantly succeeds with a constantly surprising mix of history, humor, drama, character study, journalistic odyssey, global intrigue and terror and what looks like a bit of sci-fi and fantasy but is all too real. The Russian Woodpecker follows an investigation down a rabbit hole beginning with a preposterous yet plausible conspiracy theory and winds up in the middle of the Ukrainian Revolution. This is a paranoid thriller with levels of dread both intimate and wide-reaching. It’s quite possibly the best nonfiction detective film since The Thin Blue Line and without a doubt the best spy film of the year. — CC
2. A Poem is a Naked Person
Les Blank was a hungry filmmaker. That comes across in his many lighter, shorter features about both cooking and mouths, from Yum Yum Yum and Garlic Is As Good As Ten Mothers to Gap Toothed Women. Yet this discourse of taste, hunger and occasionally violent consumption had never been quite so viscerally articulated as it is in A Poem Is a Naked Person, the posthumously released feature that Blank began in 1972. Ostensibly a portrait of musician Leon Russell, the final product is much grander. Using Russell and his music as more of a structural tool than a subject, Blank captured the soul of America and found his masterpiece. — DW
1. The Look of Silence
It’s unfair to just label The Look of Silence as a sequel to or companion piece of The Act of Killing, because then we treat it like something that couldn’t or doesn’t exist or succeed on its own. Joshua Oppenheimer’s latest film exposing and confronting the horrendous mass killings in Indonesia in the mid 1960s is possibly even a stronger work. This time he focuses on a brave and stoic main character, an optometrist who uses his profession as a way into the homes and company of men responsible for murdering countless “communists,” including his own brother, in order for him interrogate them. It’s a more personal film, and yet the optometrist was born after the death of his sibling so there’s also a kind of detachment there, which informs his and relates to our impossibility to totally understand such intimate as well as such extensive tragedy. Oppenheimer, too, was born after many of his own ancestors fell victim to the Holocaust — not that this fact provides any context within the film, but knowing it provides some external insight into his interests here, especially with the optometrist’s parents.
The astounding aspect of what Oppenheimer is showing through The Act of Killing and now The Look of Silence is how the murderers in Indonesia remain on the winning side of their history and therefore have never otherwise been held accountable, unlike those we encounter in docs on the Nazi, Khmer Rouge, Sudanese and most other genocidal war criminals of the past century. The most striking aspect of this film alone, though, is in the specific reactions of the killers and their loved ones, since there’s a concentration on family and the effects the killings have on those related to both victim and perpetrator. Because as we see in the film, those closest to the events are starting to pass on, and it’s memories of secondhand perspectives that carry forth. So it’s necessary to keep that next generation, let alone any following generations, from wrongly remembering their nation’s past. The Look of Silence is a record and a tool for changing the world. — CC
Honorable Mentions (from our critics’ individual lists): 3 1/2 Minutes, Ten Bullets; 1971; Almost There; Bitter Lake, Costa da Morte; Democrats; Dior and I; Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten: Cambodia’s Lost Rock ’n’ Roll; Farewell, Herr Schwarz; Field Niggas; Guidelines; Iris; The Jinx; Junun; Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck; Listen to Me Marlon; Mala Mala; Night Will Fall; Of Men and War; Peace Officer; The Pearl Button; The Redemption of the Devil; The Royal Road; Song from the Forest; Sunshine Superman; Those Who Feel the Fire Burning; Twinsters; The Visit; Western and What Happened, Nina Simone?
This list was originally published on December 22, 2015.