By Noel Murray
Between Netflix, PBS, and premium pay cable channels like HBO and Showtime, the market for documentaries has become much more robust over the past decade, giving filmmakers genuine hope that their movies might find an audience. But something unusual happened in 2018: A lot of people actually went to see documentaries in theaters… and not just at film festivals, but in arthouses and multiplexes. Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, Three Identical Strangers, RBG, and Free Solo have all made more than $10 million at the U.S. box office, which are blockbuster-level numbers for a documentary. Meanwhile, Shirkers on Netflix and Minding the Gap on Hulu drew almost as much attention from critics as the service’s scripted shows.
In short, 2018 has been a phenomenal year for non-fiction cinema, in both the quality of the work and the excitement it’s generated. The films on the list below run the gamut from “strange but true” stories to impressionistic portraits of a forgotten America, with approaches that range from arty and elliptical to punchy and direct. There are movies here about crime, poverty, racism, and neglect, but also honest explorations of family ties, and poignant contemplations about what it means to be a good person. There’s a doc here for almost everybody, in other words — and this year, judging by the box-office receipts, everybody has been finding one to watch.
BISBEE ’17 - Experimental documentarian Robert Greene (director of Actress and Kate Plays Christine) tends to treat the barrier between “real” and “fake” in non-fiction as permeable. He’s found just the right subject to match his methods in Bisbee ’17, which was shot during one Arizona town’s commemoration of an infamous early 20th-century labor dispute. Greene shifts back and forth between re-enactments of a deadly miners’ strike and unscripted pontificating about politics from some of the locals. As these people don the costumes of warring workers and capitalists from 100 years ago, Bisbee ’17 notes how little has changed about the divisions with this country, while also raising subtle questions about how much of political grandstanding is really about playing a role.
DID YOU WONDER WHO FIRED THE GUN? - Because Travis Wilkerson’s family doesn’t like to talk about the time his great-grandfather killed a black man in cold blood, the docu-essayist traveled back to the tiny Alabama town where the Wilkersons were once pillars of the community, and began digging through archives and asking questions, trying to find out what really happened. Did You Wonder Who Fired The Gun? is simultaneously a compelling true-crime murder-mystery and an uncomfortable (but vital) self-examination, as Wilkerson weighs the responsibility he bears for his ancestors’ racism.
FREE SOLO - Digital effects have advanced to the point where just about anything a filmmaker can imagine can be believably faked on-screen. One big reason Free Solo has been such a hit is that its every astonishing moment actually happened, in front of cameras held by co-directors Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Vasarhelyi. Rock-climber Alex Honnold really scaled Yosemite’s towering El Capitan formation without ropes, while his friends watched from down below and his girlfriend waited nervously at home. And everyone was aware that a momentary slip or lapse in concentration would send him plummeting to his death, again in front of those cameras. Knowing Honnold will be okay doesn’t make this documentary any less awe-inspiring, or nerve-wracking.
HALE COUNTY THIS MORNING, THIS EVENING - With Hale County, visual artist and basketball coach RaMell Ross has created a powerful hybrid of personal diary, fly-on-the-wall journalism, and abstract collage. While working at a rural school in Alabama, Ross started filming a few of his players on and off the court, and he later combined his home-movie-like footage of their daily lives with more experimental, off-kilter images of the area — from the pretty countryside to the crumbling small towns. The resulting movie presents a rare inside perspective on the American South’s black underclass, sharing the celebrations and stresses of a tight-knit but desperately poor community.
THE LAST RACE - Accomplished photographer Michael Dweck converted a decade-long obsession with a dying Long Island stock-car track into an eerily beautiful documentary — like one of his art-museum exhibitions, but with moving pictures. Unlike the massive, sleek NASCAR arenas, the Riverhead Raceway is more a home for weekend hobbyists, competing in cars they modified themselves. Dweck assembles poetic footage of these people and their races into a mostly plotless series of vignettes. The Last Race puts across the filmmaker’s affectionate impressions of the track, through overhead conversations between foul-mouthed old-timers and dreamy shots of beat-up old automobiles roaring across the weary asphalt.
MINDING THE GAP - Like a lot of the documentaries produced by Chicago’s Kartemquin Films (best-known for Steve James’ Hoop Dreams), Bing Liu’s Minding the Gap spends a long stretch of time with a small group of ordinary people, allowing the audience’s understanding of who they are and why they matter to evolve. For this film, Liu returns to his hometown of Rockford, Illinois, where not so long ago, he discovered his love of filmmaking while making skateboarding videos with his two best friends. Now all well into their 20s, these guys are still trying to party like teenagers, even as they struggle to find fulfilling jobs, maintain healthy relationships, and be good parents. Minding the Gap considers the social conditions and personality traits that have pushed these three men in different directions, but Liu doesn’t use statistics or social commentary, he just casually hangs around his friends — and carefully, incisively asks the right questions at the right times.
SHIRKERS - Some of the year’s best documentaries wedded rich themes to unusually twisty stories, hooking viewers with a narrative before doubling back to contemplate its meaning. Sandi Tan’s Shirkers is initially about the shaggy little indie movie she and her fellow punky cinephile teens made in their native Singapore in the early 1990s. But then it becomes more about the older man who became their mentor, their facilitator, and the reason their project never went anywhere. As Tan plays detective, investigating the mysteries of her youth, she also reconnects with her old friends, and has some frank conversations about the people they once were, what became of their relationships, and whether their disillusioning experience as amateur movie producers changed them for better or worse.
306 HOLLYWOOD - When Elan and Jonathan Bogarin’s grandmother died, the artsy siblings decided to approach her cluttered old house like museum archivists would, turning decades’ worth of canceled checks, hand-sewn clothes, knickknacks, and junk-drawers into miniature exhibits, all as a way of better understanding this woman who meant so much to them. Some may initially find 306 Hollywood’s earnestness and tweeness off-putting, but the movie develops more depth with each segment, as the Bogarins reassemble old tapes and piles of junk into the shape of someone who’s no longer there, and they mournfully try to reanimate her soul.
THREE IDENTICAL STRANGERS - The first half of this Tim Wardle documentary is a wild ride, especially for anyone who’s forgotten — or never heard about — the crazy story from the early 1980s about identical triplets who were separated at birth, then found each other again by accident. What starts as a fun look back at three young New Yorkers who became overnight celebrities takes a darker turn, once the boys learn the truth about why they were split up. It’s best not to spoil the surprises for those who still don’t know, but suffice to say that Three Identical Strangers becomes fascinating for entirely different reasons, as it digs deep into the questions of “nature vs. nurture,” and whether the basic outline of someone’s life is sketched-in from the moment of birth.
WON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR? - Morgan Neville’s portrait of beloved children’s show host and moral philosopher Fred Rogers is 2018’s highest-grossing documentary for good reasons. As a movie, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is an emotionally wrenching experience, with one scene after another in which people who knew “Mister Rogers” are moved to tears by their memories of his superhuman compassion. Audiences have also been drawn to the film because of Neville’s craftily constructed argument for decency. Without naming names or criticizing anyone directly, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? reminds viewers that what they were taught in kindergarten and Sunday school — to share, to be honest, to care about others — is still the best way to make a lasting difference in the world.
Honorable mentions: Gabriel and the Mountain, The Judge, King Cohen, On Her Shoulders, Quincy