Every year I do the best I can to see as many of the year’s biggest documentaries as I can and I think I kind of outdid myself this year. I watched 21 docs, which isn’t a particularly high number but thanks to wide distribution on formats like Netflix and HBO I think I hit most of the major title with only a couple exceptions like Listen to Me Marlon and In Jackson Heights. Also it should be noted that this is limited to feature length documentaries, so I won’t be including any extended made-for-TV docs like “The Jinx” or “Making a Murderer.”
- Cartel Land: You’d think that the drug wars in Mexico would be an even bigger story than they are given that there’s mass violence going on right beneath the U.S. border and I think part of the reason people don’t talk about it more is that no one on either end of the political spectrum has much of anything in the way of solutions for the problem. Fortunately there are documentaries like this coming along that at least lays out the problem. Cartel Land specifically focuses on the a Mexican vigilante group and their mixed legacy and is one of the better shot current events docs in recent memory.
- Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck: The film Amy is one of the most celebrated documentaries of the year but my “look back on a musician who died young” documentary of choice this year was Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck. This film succeed in part because it is laser focused on one thing: painting a portrait of Kurt Cobain’s personality and way of thinking, and it does this through a number of clever ways like digging into his backlog of art projects and home movies.
- The Look of Silence: The Look of Silence is the second film that Joshua Oppenheimer has made about the mass killings that occurred in Indonesia in 1965, and while it lacks the initial shock value that 2013’s The Act of Killing Had it perhaps has a deeper goal: to examine why Indonesian society has engaged in a sort of conspiracy of silence regarding these killings. Oppenheimer once again uses a fairly minimalist style in order to let people hang themselves with their own words, but this time he allows an interviewer confront them and watch them squirm.
- Meru: There have been a lot of documentaries about mountain climbing and I haven’t seen a lot of them so I’m not exactly sure how this one stacks up but I definitely liked it a lot. The film is about two attempts to climb what was thought to be an unclimbable peak and while it does have some good footage of mountaineering shot by the participants, what really drew me in was the film’s unsensational depiction of what it’s like to be a professional mountain climber and plan out one of the ascents.
- The Nightmare: It’s always a little tricky to try to weigh documentaries that use extensive reenactments against documentaries that stick strictly to unscripted footage, but there’s little doubt that The Nightmare is a very cool use of the non-fiction form. Using the language of horror cinema, the film brings various real people’s descriptions of their experiences of sleep paralysis to life while also using their research to look into what this condition is all about and what it’s like to live with.