2020 Year-In-Review: The Top Nine Documentaries
2020 has been a great year for documentaries. Here are my nine favorites.
While 2020 may have not given us so many of the feature narrative films we were expecting – Dune, The French Dispatch, or even A Quiet Place Part II – documentaries haven't been quite as affected as narrative films. This is not to say that the documentary genre hasn't gone through changes this year, or that the results of this year will lead to a change in genre, but rather: releasing a documentary in a virtual cinema or on a streaming service is easier than releasing a narrative feature, especially a big feature. Additionally, while any film is better when viewed in a theater with a big audience, documentaries are more versatile, and still hold up when watched at home, whether with family or alone. The genre itself is still criminally underrated, and the following films are so great in my opinion that a good amount of them would have clouded the "Best Narrative Features" list, coming out tomorrow. So, from my ninth favorite to my favorite, here are the documentaries of the year I think are worth watching (honorable mentions are included, at the end of the list).
9. Feels Good Man
Festival back in January, Feels Good Man is an incredibly unique documentary about an incredibly unique subject: internet meme Pepe the Frog. The film bounces back and forth between explaining how the meme rose in popularity so quickly with the alt-right, eventually becoming a hate symbol, and following the meme's creator Matt Furie as he attempts to re-define his comic-book character as a symbol of love and peace, the traits that he meant the character to embody when first drawing him. The film is deeply haunting, frustrating, and one of the most unique and horrifying look at the state of the United States, and how we got to this point. A documentary centered around an internet meme is already an iffy subject that can be seen as a joke, but director Arthur Jones evaluates the idea with precision and class.
Check out my review of Feels Good Man for Under The Radar Magazine here! The film is available for rental now.
8. 76 Days
It's hard to believe that this documentary even exists. It's even harder to comprehend that all of the events explored in this documentary happened this year, back in January through April. Filmed with the help of an anonymous director, Hao Wu's and Weixi Chen's documentary 76 Days is a look inside the lockdown of Wuhan, China earlier this year, one of the strictest lockdowns ever. Using footage from a single hospital in the city, the filmmakers follow the medical workers, some patients, and all of the hospital helpers as they try to save as many people as they can, while making sure everyone is constantly being taken care of. The film is extraordinarily hard to watch, especially given how recent it is, and (without spoilers) opens with a scene that you'll be thinking about long-after the credits have finished rolling. Regardless, it is a must-see, whether that means now or in the future, and documents a moment of history that will be talked about for decades, and centuries, to come.
76 Days is playing in virtual cinemas now.
7. Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets
Bill and Ross Turner's newest documentary, Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets, is like nothing else I've seen before. The premise itself is pretty simple: the film captures one night at a watering hole in Las Vegas, as the bar's loyal customers talk about everything, including the bar's closure happening the next day and the 2016 election that was happening at the time. While the initial plot sounds incredibly underwhelming, the Turner brothers use their years of documentary-making experience to craft a film that is simple, beautiful, and filled with themes about life, compromise, and moving on. It's not for everyone, but for the people who love slice-of-life documentaries, or unique films that fly under the radar, Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets is the perfect film for you.
Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets is available to rent now.
Sasha Joseph Neulinger's Rewind could easily be considered as one of the most underrated films of this year. Based off of Neulinger's own childhood experiences and using restored home video footage, the film follows adult Neulinger as he re-constructs the events of his childhood, and all of the trauma and sexual abuse that he had gone through during childhood and repressed since. At just 86 minutes, the film is incredibly quick paced, and it is a deeply disturbing film to watch, filled with so many twists and turns that connect the dots in horrifying fashion. Rewind is incredibly difficult to watch, but is an extremely important film and a well-made documentary, especially as Neulinger's debut.
Rewind is streaming now on Amazon Prime Video, Kanopy, and Hoopla. It is also available for rental.
5. Other Music
Other Music would perhaps be best fitting as a double-billing with Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets. The big difference, among many, is that while the Turner Brothers' film pretends that the watering hole is closing down the next day, the famed New York record store Other Music actually closes down by the end of this documentary. The week before that, which most of the documentary explores, is filled with so much emotion, for the store's long-time employees, customers, and even the audience members (regardless if you've had a connection to the store, or even new about it). Other Music uses the record store, and its unfortunate fate in 2016, to provide keen insight on the idea of time, the change of industry, and what gets lost as we move so quickly from one product to the next. In the world of Amazon and e-shopping as well, it also serves as an important, and often horrifying, look at the struggle that small businesses, especially physical ones, face every day. While also providing a significant amount of history about the store and about the music and record industry itself, the film is a deeply personal look at the New York institution, and a memory of a place that has been lost, and will be lost forever.
Other Music is streaming now on Amazon Prime Video.
4. City Hall
If the idea of a four-and-a-half hour documentary sounds unbearable to you, I would skip to the next title. If not, Frederick Wiseman is back! The king of vérité documentary filmmaking has returned, with a film that is even longer than his normal standards (for reference, his last film was only two-and-a-half hours). City Hall is a look at the government, but not in a way that you would expect. Instead, the 272 minutes are spent analyzing the city government of Boston from the ground up, and looking in on every level, from sanitation workers all the way to the city's current mayor, Marty Walsh. It's an interesting film throughout, even if it can be a little tiring due to how insanely long it is. It also serves as important commentary on the role of government and just how much they do – showcasing both what happens when a government cares about its citizens, and what happens when they don't care as much. Wiseman may not move the camera often, but that doesn't stop City Hall from being incredibly engrossing and one of the auteur's best works yet.
City Hall is playing at virtual cinemas now.
There have been very few movies this year as affecting as Garrett Bradley's debut documentary, Time. In just 81 minutes, the film follows of Sibil Fox Richardson as she raises her six children, works as a modern day abolitionist, and fights to free her husband from an undeserved sentence of 60 years. Filmed entirely in black and white, and using select moments of the 100+ hours of mini-DV home video tapes that Sibil Fox filmed, Time is one of the most impactful looks at the horrors and cruelties of the prison-industrial complex. The film's events span 21 years, and by doing so, Time asks a question that will stick with viewers long after the 81 minutes are over: how do you even begin to comprehend the amount of time lost? Garrett Bradley's film is one of the best documentaries of the year, and there is simply no other documentary like this one. It is a must watch.
Check out my interview with director Garrett Bradley for Under The Radar Magazine here! Time is streaming now on Amazon Prime Video.
2. Boys State
I've been saying this a lot, but I'll say it again: there is simply nothing like Boys State. The documentary genre may be filled with a lot of films centered around politics, but there are none that explore our current place in American democracy like Jesse Moss' and Amanda McBaine's documentary. Filmed in vérité style, the film follows four participants at the 2018 Texas Boys State, an annual one-week-long program that separates 1000 kids into two parties, Federalists and Nationalists, and tasks them with building a government up from nothing, coming to an end once a winner of the mock gubernatorial election is declared. As expected, the film serves as a great metaphor for how politics works, and showcases the lies, corruption, and deceit that is synonymous with politics in the modern day through the eyes of teenagers.
Check out my review of Boys State for Under The Radar Magazine here! The film is streaming now on Apple TV+.
1. David Byrne's American Utopia
Spike Lee and David Byrne. A collaboration for the ages. A simple filmed adaptation of the Talking Heads frontman's acclaimed Broadway show, which had a sold-out run at New York's Hudson Theater, there's not much new content that David Byrne's American Utopia offers. But for those who haven't seen the Broadway show, myself included, Lee's film plays like a pretty spot-on interpretation of the sense of community, and the good vibes, that David Byrne is able to foster during the nearly two-hour performance. The music is amazing, the ensemble involved is awesome, and the choreography is spectacular. Lee does make his presence known throughout the film, most commonly through smooth shots of the performance and a lot of great visuals. David Byrne's American Utopia is a must-watch, and a great time.
Check out my review of David Byrne's American Utopia for Under The Radar Magazine here! The film is streaming now on HBO and HBO Max.
That about wraps up my main list! Here are some honorable mentions: Dick Johnson Is Dead, On The Record, The Truffle Hunters, All In: The Fight For Democracy, Totally Under Control, and Gunda. All are streaming now, or are coming soon. Happy film watching!
For the top movies list that was originally supposed to release tomorrow, I am now writing the list for Under The Radar Magazine. The list will be released on their website later this year.