For a while people have been saying that we’re in a golden age of documentaries, and that’s probably true in the grand scheme of things, but it felt like we had a bit of a dip in that department this year. There have certainly been a lot of good documentaries this year and I’m happy to have nominated each of the below films, but the number of truly great non-fiction films this year seemed a little lower than in previous years. But that’s alright, there are still a lot more worthy contenders this year than there would have been two decades ago or so.
- The Act of Killing: Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentary The Act of Killing brings attention to an under-documented moment in world history and does it in a way that is rather novel. The film is able to tell the audience pretty much everything they need to know about the Indonesian purges of the 60s through interviews conducted with the people who perpetrated them. The only thing more disturbing than their stories are their attitudes, which are boastful rather than morose.
- The Crash Reel: The Crash Reel is a documentary that is ostensibly about snowboarding but which is actually about people. Specifically it’s about Kevin Pearce and Shaun White, two people who seemed to be going down a very similar path until a bad wipeout forced Pearce to give up pretty much everything he’d worked towards up to that point. It’s a film about a young man forced to reconsider his life, and the time it takes him to realize that.
- Cutie and the Boxer: This account of a pair of married Japanese artists who’ve been living in New York for decades is probably the best “quirky person profile” documentary of the year. It finds a pair of interesting people and successfully gives you a pretty good idea of where they’ve been and what they’re like now. I might have preferred the film if it had managed to capture them at a more exciting moment, but it makes up for that with a cool technique in which it delivers exposition through an animated version of the wife’s artwork.
- Room 237: Admittedly “documentary” is a bit of an odd label to give to a movie whose visual component largely consists of clips from a Hollywood movie, but deep down this movie is very much a non-fiction work about the people who narrate it. Room 237 is a movie about art and about the obsession thereof. It’s about the ways in which a film can so tantalize its audience that they find themselves making borderline insane theories in order to try to untangle its web.
- We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks: We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks is the kind of documentary that can go a little bit under-appreciated these days: one that simply explains an important news story in long form without resorting to any kind of high concept or gimmickry. Director Alex Gibney has assembled a large roster of informed interview subjects in order to delve into Wikileaks and its creator Julian Assange. There’s not a whole lot in the movie that can’t be found in alternate news reports, but it’s pretty nice to have it all in one concrete and professionally put together package like this.