By Eric Kohn
This year's non-fiction highlights pushed boundaries and captures a world at odds with itself.
It’s an understatement to say that real life is more shocking than the movies these days, but documentary filmmakers have always known this to be true. As the nonfiction medium continues to churn through the most popular moment in its history, this year’s documentary highlights met their moment and then some, with a wide range of purposeful work tackling major issues of the moment through ambitious approaches that often transcended formal conventions. Sure, 2020 brought us “Tiger King” and a gazillion election season specials, but the best documentaries of the year didn’t just thrill or enlighten us; they did it in fresh and exciting ways that went beyond the call of duty. Here are the highlights.
David Ehrlich, Kate Erbland, and Kristen Lopez contributed to this report.
“All In: The Fight for Democracy”
A lot of movies about the political process tend to be reductive adventures in talking heads. “All In: The Fight for Democracy” doesn’t attempt to reinvent that formula; instead, it’s a paragon of the form. Liz Garbus and Lisa Cortés’ illuminating documentary tracks Stacey Abrams’ battle against voter suppression with such precision that it may as well have been made in the aftermath of the 2020 election to explain how things turned out the way they did. Instead, it’s a downright prophetic illustration of the way Abrams, furious by the way her Georgia gubernatorial bid was sunk by illegal efforts by her competition, fired up her base and pushed for an educated approach to the voting process that turned the state into the centerpiece of the presidential election. And it continues to capture the narrative as it unfolds, with the Georgia runoffs just around the corner. Abrams is a natural-born storyteller, and the movie uses her dynamic screen presence to turn “All In” into a galvanizing educational journey into the essence of U.S. citizenship, the corruption involved in pushing back on fundamental rights, and what it takes to fix the equation. Anyone who cares about the future of democracy should see it. —EK
Ostensibly focused on the case against convicted sex offender Larry Nassar — a longtime USAG doctor and convicted sex offender who was accused of abusing over 250 young gymnasts during his decades of employment by USAG and Michigan State — Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk’s documentary eventually blossoms into something much bigger. “Athlete A” works as both a meticulous unpacking of the case against Nassar, as kicked off by the reporting of the IndyStar journalists who investigated it, and an emotional unburdening for his many victims. By its end, however, its revelations demand nothing short of the full-scale dismantling of every facet of USA Gymnastics.
Cohen and Shenk, longtime documentary producers and directors, have previously tried to use personal stories to examine larger tragedies before, with mixed results. No such issues with the meticulous “Athlete A,” however, easily the pair’s best work yet. Through even-handed reporting and a series of emotional first-person accounts, “Athlete A” excavates one of modern sports’ most horrific abusers and systems. It doesn’t do that by being preachy or shrill, instead working from one key belief: It must have started somewhere, and Cohen and Shenk don’t stop until they find out exactly where. —KE
“Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets”
At first glance, “Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets” unfolds as a brilliant work of cinéma vérité. Bill and Turner Ross’ boozy hangout movie captures the last raucous night at the Roaring Twenties, a grimy bar on the outskirts of the Vegas strip where various inebriated outcasts bury their sorrows in a blur of anger and poetic laments. It’s late 2016, and with the presidential election about to change the world, the pub serves as a fascinating microcosm of America’s fractured, browbeaten underbelly on the verge of self-destruction. But here’s the thing. The Roaring Twenties is in New Orleans, not Vegas, and the characters populating its interior didn’t just wander in. Though nothing in the movie acknowledges as much, the Ross brothers cast people to populate the bar, recording the drunken antics of their chosen performers throughout an actual debaucherous night. The result is both a grand cinematic deception and a bold filmmaking experiment. “Bloody Nose” was a wonderful cinematic provocation at the start of the year, but at its end, this blurry narrative of a business closing its doors after one last shindig has a whole new layer of bittersweet connotations. Documentary? Narrative in disguise? Who cares! It’s great cinema, full stop. —EK
Co-directors Jesse Moss (“The Overnighters”) and Amanda McBaine have made a fascinating window into the future of American politics. A sprawling look at the eponymous weeklong Texas event, where 17-year-old boys create their own representational government, this poignant survey provides a revealing look at the cutthroat instincts that can inform the campaigning process, even without the future of the republic at stake.
The veterans association American Legion has assembled the eponymous gathering at states around the country since 1935, during which time alumni have included Dick Cheney and Cory Booker. That spectrum of famous leaders might suggest that Boys State embraces a bipartisan approach, but the Texas event — at least as the filmmakers’ sprawling cameras find it — unfolds more LIKE a battlefield. The 1,100 participants are left to their own devices as they assemble campaigns for a range of leadership positions, with a few ambitious kids eyeing the top role of governor.
Moss and McBaine follow four of these enterprising characters as they assemble campaign strategies and argue through ideologies. Its true hero is gubernatorial candidate Steven Garza, a kid born to immigrant parents who faces xenophobic negative campaigning designed to steamroll his ambition. The movie takes on a striking new resonance in the aftermath of the 2020 election: While it previously bemoaned the tragic of exploitive campaign tactics that can ruin the nation, it now salutes the resilience of those committed to fixing it. Steven Garza for president … in a couple of decades.
“Boys State” is a fundamentally different movie in the aftermath of the 2020 election: Before, it was a reminder of how easily political campaigns can be manipulated by crude, power-hungry forces. It now illustrates the sheer intensity of working to make a difference. —EK
Every Frederick Wiseman movie starts like a dare. Though the 90-year-old documentary legend has been chronicling social institutions ever since 1967’s “Titicut Follies,” many of his projects casually drift through three or four hours of dense, layered portraits following the people behind vast organizational forces. Ironically, this has actually made his work even more valuable with time, and “City Hall,” which clocks in at four hours and 32 minutes, is no exception. As attention spans dwindle and the complex mess of American governance grows murkier than ever, Wiseman’s immersive dive into Boston’s city services ignores the pressure to dumb things down and marvels at the complexity of a system designed to make the world run right.
Subtext: Take that, Trump! Just as Wiseman’s 2018 portrait “Ex Libris — The New York Public Library” served as a de facto repudiation of leaders who reject intellectual discernment, “City Hall” assails the corruption of American democracy by hovering within the sophisticated efforts on the other end of the equation. It’s an understatement to say that Wiseman — who edits his own material — doesn’t suffer fools gladly. Exhilarating and exasperating in equal measures, “City Hall” coheres into a rich tapestry of Boston in argument with itself. —EK
“Collective” starts as one of the greatest journalism movies of all time, and then it goes one step further, exposing democracy at war with itself. Romanian director Alexander Nanau’s bracing, relentless documentary tracks the aftermath of the 2015 fire that killed 64 people, hovering at the center of a system on the verge of collapse. And then it does, much like the flames that engulfed Bucharest’s Colectiv nightclub and sent the nation into a tailspin. “Collective” plays like a gripping real-time thriller, merging the reportorial intensity of “Spotlight” with the paranoid uncertainty of “The Manchurian Candidate” as it explores the national fallout of a tragedy that won’t let up.
Its initial hero emerges from an unlikely place: Sports Gazette reporter Catalin Tolontan and colleague Mirela Nega run the phones with an aggressive work ethic that would leave Woodward and Bernstein in awe, but it’s not just their story; Nanau makes the bold decision later on to switch focus to new minister of health Vlad Voiculescu, who’s tasked with leading a transparent overhaul of Romania’s dysfunctional medical system, even as he faces pushback at every turn. Juggling this dense assemblage of strategy sessions under the looming cloud of a national election, the movie provides a sobering window into the nature of democratic ideals within the swirling machine of systemic corruption. But it’s too fast-paced and too complex to feel like a pity party. “Collective” demonstrates the potential for moral courage to endure, under even the most dire efforts to snuff it out. No matter who runs the show, the work goes on. Let’s not forget that. —EK
The history of the disabled rights movement is so marginalized as to be completely unknown to the majority of people. That’s why James LeBrecht and Nicole Newnham’s documentary “Crip Camp” is so vital. Their story starts by focusing on a group of disabled renegades attending a summer camp in the 1960s and transitions into showing how that community took to the streets to advocate for equal rights. Outside of the history lesson, LeBrecht and Newnham portray disability in a wholly different way. The subjects are wacky, hilarious, sexually active, normal teenagers and, if you’ve watched any disability narrative in Hollywood, you know disabled people aren’t generally portrayed that way. —KL
“Dick Johnson Is Dead”
Dick Johnson dies many times in his daughter Kirsten’s poignant and personal documentary, starting with the opening credits. But of course he’s alive the whole time, playacting through an elaborate form of cinematic therapy with his filmmaker offspring as she wrestles with the anxiety of losing him. That concept could easily devolve into a navel-gazing exercise, but Kirsten Johnson (the veteran nonfiction cinematographer who directed 2016’s wondrous collage film “Cameraperson”) enacts a touching and funny meditation on embracing life and fearing death at the same time. Oscillating from intimate father-daughter exchanges to surreal meta-fictional tangents, the movie lives within its riveting paradox, reflecting the queasy uncertainty surrounding its subject’s fate — and, by extension, everyone’s. Alternately hilarious, moving, and revelatory, “Dick Johnson Is Dead” manages to commune with a universal fear of death by transforming it into a celebration of life. —EK
More experience than movie, “Gunda” is a visionary case for veganism in black-and-white. Russian filmmaker Viktor Kossakovsky’s mesmerizing achievement removes humans from the picture to magnify the small moments in the lives of various farm animals, with his eponymous pig at its center. Over the course of 90 hypnotic minutes, his roving camera observes Gunda and her piglets, a handful of chickens, and a smattering of cows simply going about their lives on an unspecified farmland.
Devoid of music or any other obvious artifice, “Gunda” neither aims to document animal consciousness or anthropomorphize it. Instead, Kossakovsky’s fascinating non-narrative experiment burrows into the center of his subject’s nervous system, meeting the creatures on their own terms in a remarkable plea for empathy that only implores carnivores to think twice by implication. —EK
David Osit’s thrilling and perceptive documentary provides a remarkable snapshot of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from the inside. Ramallah is only 10 miles north of Jerusalem, but for Palestinians living under occupation, the distance feels much longer. Osit trains his camera on Musa Hadid, the overworked protagonist at the center of an operatic vérité drama that often dips into bureaucratic black comedy and unnerving suspense, as Hadid’s exasperated attempts to keep the peace dissolve into a constant swirl of frustration. The movie doesn’t exactly dwell on the hardships of Hadid’s job so much as get inside his headspace to illuminate the vanity of the world around him. It’s gripping, sad, and essential viewing for anyone looking to understand the nature of this ongoing crisis, and why it keeps moving in the wrong direction. —EK
“The Mole Agent”
There’s a certain immersive thrill that comes from documentaries that hide themselves, and “The Mole Agent” epitomizes that appeal. Chilean director Maite Alberdi’s delightful character study unfolds as an intricate spy thriller, with a sweet-natured 83-year-old widower infiltrating a nursing home at the behest of a private detective. The plan goes awry with all kinds of comical and touching results, so well assembled within a framework of fictional tropes that it begs for an American remake. But as much as such a product might appeal to companies hungry for content, it would be redundant from the outset, because “The Mole Agent” is already one of the most heartwarming spy movies of all time — a rare combination of genres that only works so well because it sneaks up on you. —EK
On January 23, 2020, the city of Wuhan, China, was placed under lockdown in an effort to choke out the coronavirus that had already made the densely populated capital of Hubei Province synonymous with of the worst pandemic in more than a century. During the 76 days that elapsed until the lockdown was lifted, Weixi Chen and an anonymous co-worker embedded themselves in the frontlines of history, as their footage was guided and edited by “The People’s Republic of Desire” filmmaker Hao Wu in New York.
Discretely shot across four Wuhan hospitals without government approval, and premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival just a few months later, this fly-in-the-trenches look inside the outbreak is scattered and structureless in a way that can make it seem as if it’s simply taking notes for the history books of the future. But if “76 Days” is more valuable as a time capsule than it is as a piece of cinéma vérité, it still puts a human face on an epochal horror that some people have refused to acknowledge even as it rages around them. It offers a bracingly immediate view from the vanguard of history — at the trauma and disequilibrium of being ambushed by a crisis dire enough to define its century — and the world needs to have that burned into the collective unconscious as soon as possible. —DE
“The Social Dilemma”
Perhaps the single most lucid, succinct, and terrifying analysis of social media ever created for mass consumption, Jeff Orlowski’s “The Social Dilemma” does for Facebook what his previous documentaries “Chasing Ice” and “Chasing Coral” did for climate change: Namely, it brings compelling new insight to a familiar topic while also scaring the absolute shit out of you. Constructed from interviews with the very concerned people who designed these platforms, and laced with scripted (if somewhat canned) segments that illustrate the effects of social media on a more life-sized scale, Orlowski’s well-argued documentary breaks down how a free-to-use business model has become an existential crisis for all civilization, and why logging off might be the only way to save us from ourselves.
While “The Social Dilemma” is relevant to every person on the planet, and should be legible enough to even the most technologically oblivious types (the Amish, the U.S. Senate, and so forth), its target demographic is very online types who think they understand the information age too well to be taken advantage of — zoomers, millennials, and screen junkies of any stripe who wouldn’t have the faintest interest in a finger-wagging documentary about how they should spend more time outside. The irony of this movie being released on Netflix is richer than some of its billionaire subjects. —DE
It takes a matter of seconds for “Time” to become something special: a stirring piano score surveys years of resilience in a Black family, director Garrett Bradley’s radiant first feature merges form with function to brilliant effect. The movie unfolds as an operatic black-and-white elegy stretched across the decades, merging the intimacy of its design with a stirring sense of purpose. The plight of Sibyl Fox Richardson, a determined mother of six battling her husband’s 60-year prison sentence, avoids every obvious opportunity to take the conventional route. There are no talking heads or explanatory titles cards; instead, the elegance of each poetic exchange underscores the emotional weight of Fox’s struggle, and the clarity she has found in rebuilding her life. By the time she chants a familiar mantra in the closing minutes — “Success is the best revenge!” — the movie reinvented the concept form the ground up.
Rather than digging into the pileup of legal hurdles involved in navigating her husband’s early release, Bradley trusts each lyrical image to convey the stakes at hand. “Time” encompasses a wide canvas, from institutionalized racism to Black excellence as a profound state of mind, and every face deepens the nature of its drama. It’s a riveting sociological exploration in pure cinematic terms, and one of a few 2020 highlights that challenge documentary filmmaking to think big, even when it comes to small stories. —EK
“The Truffle Hunters”
Foodies may delight at the prospects of fresh truffles on their pasta, but few know the sheer labor involved in bringing them to the table. Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw’s illuminating documentary helps change that, as the filmmakers manage to capture the clandestine truffle hunts in the Piedmont region of Northern Italy undertaken by elderly men and their faithful dogs. While it’s fascinating to watch that process unfold in extraordinary cinematic detail (including a canine cam that is very much appreciated), the surprise of this gentle, poetic movie is how much emotion in packs into a story that doesn’t demand it from the outset.
As much a window into the aging process and the struggle of the agriculture industry in the 21st century as it is a culinary behind-the-scenes peek, “Truffle Hunters” has a transformative quality to its lyricism as it moves along. By the time one of its subjects tears up over a lost pet, you’re right there with him. By then, it’s clear that “Truffle Hunters” has a lot more on its mind than mushrooms. But it doesn’t pretend that they’re the real star of the show, either: This movie reinvents the notion of “food porn” by giving it a whole new sense of elegance and purpose. —EK