These Are the 10 Best Documentaries of 2016
By Julia Fellsenthal
This past summer, I spoke to the documentarian Joe Berlinger about his Netflix film "Tony Robbins: I Am Not Your Guru, "which dropped in on the self-help star during his annual "Date With Destiny" lecture series. Berlinger's film didn't quite rise to best-of-year status, but its director had some interesting thoughts to share regarding the value of nonfiction filmmaking. In an age of media consolidation, Berlinger asserted, a time when the line between entertainment and news is fuzzy and getting fuzzier, documentaries become all the more important.
"A lot of investigative reporting in traditional media has gone away," he said. "Into that void, for the last 10 years, has stepped the independent documentary, which is doing much of the social-ills reporting of the day." It's fair to assume in the coming years that documentaries — particularly those that take a hard-nosed, clear-eyed approach to reporting on the problems of our times — will feel all the more urgently necessary.
But in 2016, even as real life started to feel pretty damn real, many of the most interesting documentaries (with a couple very notable exceptions) were historical, formally experimental, or even downright escapist. So take a look at the slideshow for my 10 favorites of the year (with the caveat that there are several reportedly excellent films — among them, "The Eagle Huntress"; "Life, Animated"; and "Those Who Jump" — that I didn't see and therefore didn't consider).
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Photo Credit: Vogue
"13th," directed by Ava DuVernay I’ll start with the obvious exception to the generalization above: DuVernay's "13th" rereads the past 150 years of United States history to highlight how our current prison industrial complex is the result of a systematic effort on the part of white America to control and profit off of black America. Mass incarceration, she convincingly argues, is the direct descendant of slavery. Her film should be required viewing for every American as we enter this tenuous next era in our democracy. Photo Credit: Vogue
"Tower," directed by Keith Maitland Maitland's look at one of America’s first major school shootings in recent memory — at the University of Texas at Austin, in 1966 — brings a grisly, half-century-old event back to life, setting audio from interviews with on-the-ground witnesses against the visuals of colorfully animated reenactments. The effect is surreal, evocative, and gripping. Photo Credit: Vogue
"Tickled," directed by David Farrier and Dylan Reeve Farrier was casually perusing Facebook when his curiosity was piqued by an advertisement for an "endurance tickling competition." His quest to find out more eventually led him to a shadowy figure who has made a decades-long sport of wrangling young men to participate in fetishistic “tickling” videos, then harassing and humiliating them for doing just that. You couldn't make up the many true twists and turns of Tickled if you tried. It's a disturbing, thought-provoking film about the lawlessness of the Internet's darkest corners. Photo Credit: Vogue
"O.J.: Made in America," directed by Ezra Edelman In the aftermath of The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, Ryan Murphy's spectacular, fictionalized FX retelling of the most sensational trial of the 20th century, it was hard to feel we needed any more O.J. But Edelman’s five-part docuseries for ESPN's "30 for 30" franchise offered a totally different, totally revelatory take: a thorough exploration of the sociological and historical context that made Simpson’s not-guilty verdict—though a painful, blatant miscarriage of justice — nonetheless a civil rights victory for black Angelenos long terrorized by both the police and the courts. Photo Credit: Vogue
"Weiner," directed by Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg This summer and fall brought so many new chapters to the never-ending Anthony Weiner saga that Kriegman and Steinberg's film — about the politician's scuttled 2013 mayoral run amid revelations of more, shall we say, epistolary romances — remains as relevant as ever. Weiner’s compulsive, reckless desire to be seen no doubt worked in the filmmakers' favor. Their documentary is an uncomfortably zoomed-in, warts-and-all portrait of a man as compulsively, recklessly addicted to politics as he is to sexting with strangers. Photo Credit: Vogue
"Miss Sharon Jones!," directed by Barbara Kopple Jones, the onetime wedding singer who fronted the neo-soul act Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, passed away last month at 60 from pancreatic cancer. Her death may (understandably) make it difficult to watch Kopple's film about the singer’s triumph over the cancer that would eventually come back to kill her. It's worth getting over that: "Miss Sharon Jones!" is the perfect tribute to a woman who showed an incredible will to live and remarkable grace under pressure. Her story’s sad coda ought not detract from the beauty, intimacy, and vibrancy of this portrait. Photo Credit: Getty Images
"City of Gold," directed by Laura Gabbert "City of Gold" is about both Gold — as in Jonathan Gold, the renowned Los Angeles Times food critic — and about his city, as in Los Angeles, the place where he was born and raised, and where he has spent most of his career chronicling all things culinary. His palate is discerning but decidedly unpretentious; he’s as likely, or more, to write about an immigrant-run hole-in-the-wall as the latest chichi foodie hot spot (and it's likely his coverage of the former that garnered him a Pulitzer Prize). Gabbert trails her subject as he makes his way across L.A. in search of novel flavors and rare delicacies. It's a delight to spend a couple hours in his company. Photo Credit: Vogue
"The Witness," directed by James D. Solomon The 1964 murder of 28-year-old Kitty Genovese outside her Queens apartment building — reportedly as many neighbors watched and did nothing — spurred a national reaction against the perceived decline of American social responsibility. It’s a myth we peddle to this day, but The Witness debunks it, following Genovese's now middle-aged brother as he searches for the truth of his sister’s last moments and finds a version of events far more complex than the anxiety-mongering headlines. Photo Credit: Vogue
"Kate Plays Christine," directed by Robert Greene A film that only tenuously belongs in the documentary category, Kate Plays Christine is nominally about Christine Chubbuck, the 29-year-old Sarasota, Florida, news anchor who in 1974 shot and killed herself on air. But it's actually more about actress Kate Lyn Sheil as she undergoes preparations to play Chubbuck in a never-to-be-made biopic. Sheil's efforts to enter Chubbuck’s skin take her — and us — down a rabbit hole of her character’s real-life psychology. It’s a fascinating, genre-defying, incredibly inventive examination of performance on several levels. Photo Credit: Vogue
"Cameraperson," directed by Kirsten Johnson "Cameraperson" is the work of a documentary cinematographer — Johnson, who has collaborated with the likes of Laura Poitras and Michael Moore — but it's more a memoir than a straight-up documentary. Using footage from the various films she's shot for others, plus home videos of her mother mid-decline from Alzheimer's and of her twin toddlers, Johnson collages together an artful portrait of her life behind the camera. It’s a deeply personal, moving film that asks provocative, important questions about the power and responsibility of documenting the lives of others. Photo Credit: Vogue