What’s Up, Docs? A Year of Groundbreaking Nonfiction Movies

Dick Johnson Is Dead, Time, MLK/FBI, and more redefine what a documentary can be.

By David Ansen

After a year in which reality grotesquely surpassed our fictions and large portions of the populace thought fiction was reality, it’s not surprising that for many of us, documentary filmmaking seemed more compelling, more urgent, more necessary than the tales concocted in moviemakers’ imaginations.

Even the narrative films often mentioned as Oscar contenders blur the line between documentary and fiction: Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland places its star, Frances McDormand, amid the real-life nomads roaming an economically strafed American West. Aaron Sorkin mixes documentary footage of the real 1968 clashes between police and anti-war demonstrators with staged re-creations in The Trial of the Chicago 7, and anyone watching was bound to feel the echoes of the millions of protesters who took to the streets in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. What movie could compete with that spectacle of righteous anger?

There was a time, mercifully long past, when the word documentary conjured a whiff of the medicinal. Swallow this, it’s good for you. But documentaries come in as many shapes and styles as there are genres of feature films, from the flights of fancy of Werner Herzog to the observational vérité of Fred Wiseman and the Maysles brothers, from the archive-heavy talking heads of Ken Burns to the headily playful Errol Morris, from the socially conscious Barbara Kopple and Alex Gibney to the first-person essayistic ruminations of Agnès Varda or Ross McElwee. We’ve been living in a golden age of nonfiction filmmaking for some time now, and, increasingly, it’s been the one area where women are as likely to be the prime movers as men. This year the Academy is going to have a hard time narrowing the field.

I could easily name 30 must-see docs this year—and I’m sure there are gems I haven’t gotten around to yet. No doubt I’ll grumble about omissions in the Academy’s short list of 15. (What are the Oscars for if not complaining?) But in recent years the documentary branch has gotten savvier and more sophisticated, less prone to such embarrassing scandals as when they failed to even nominate Hoop Dreams for best documentary feature. Last year, when the marvelous Honeyland was nominated for both best documentary feature and best international feature, it seems to have confirmed a new trend. So far this year, seven countries have actually submitted documentaries as their entries in the international feature film category, including Romania (Collective), Italy (Notturno), and Chile (The Mole Agent).

Historically, the Oscars have had a tendency to favor subject matter over form. Hot-button social issues, Holocaust stories, and musical bios have dominated the winners list: movies in which the filmmakers disappear inside the tales they are telling. There are great ones in that mode this year, but the following six take a different route, pushing the documentary envelope, playing with the form, finding a distinctive cinematic language to suit their subjects. They might not be the most obvious Oscar front-runners—but they ought to be.

In Oslo, two paintings by the Czech artist Barbora Kysilkova are stolen from a gallery. Thanks to surveillance video, one of the thieves, Karl-Bertil Nordland, is quickly apprehended. But the story doesn’t end there—in fact, it’s only just begun. Curious to understand Bertil’s motives, Kysilkova seeks him out at his trial and asks him to pose for her. Thus begins an astonishing relationship between the artist, who’s fled an abusive boyfriend but still finds herself drawn to danger, and the thief, a soulful drug addict who was too zonked out when he committed his crime to remember what he did with the paintings. The twists and turns their lives take produce scenes of jaw-dropping intimacy. The brilliance of director Benjamin Ree’s film is in the way he structures the story, first from her point of view, then his, circling back in time to revisit a scene from a fresh perspective, uncovering ever deeper layers of psychological complexity. The viewer is kept in a state of exhilarating uncertainty. This is inspired storytelling. The Painter and the Thief takes us places we’d never foresee and ends with a visual snap a Hollywood director would envy.

Amazon Studios
The heroine of Garrett Bradley’s stunning film is Sibil Fox Richardson, whose husband was sentenced to 60 years at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola for robbing a credit union. (She was her husband’s driver and served three and a half years for their desperate, youthful crime.) Richardson fought for his release for 21 years while raising six children, running a car dealership, and speaking out about prison abolition and the racial bias in our justice system. One can imagine the straightforward doc another filmmaker might have made. But Bradley, given access to a trove of home videos, pays tribute to this remarkable woman and her family with a black-and-white tone poem that moves backward and forward. It’s a love story, a testament to perseverance, a political essay, and a rumination on time itself. While her husband served time, Richardson used time to serve. Essential to the movie’s tidal, dreamlike flow is the piano music of Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou, an Ethiopian nun who wrote most of these pieces in the 1960s.

Kino Lorber
This film takes its title and its inspiration from a game-changing memoir written by a 13-year-old autistic Japanese boy, Naoki Higashida, that shook up old prejudices about autism. (It was co-translated into English by the novelist David Mitchell, who appears in the film.) British director Jerry Rothwell, however, doesn’t try to illustrate Higashida’s story. He focuses on five other nonspeaking autistic young people around the world: a girl in India who expresses herself through her art; an aggressive English boy unable to separate past and present; American best friends Emma and Ben, who don’t have the motor abilities to form words but eloquently communicate by letter board; and a girl in Sierra Leone, where her disability is liable to be stigmatized as a case of possession or the work of the devil. Rothwell uses his images and soundtrack to convey what it feels like to see the world through the eyes of someone with autism, where time, space, and memory are radically rearranged, where a child gets lost in the tiniest details, unable to see the whole picture. By putting us, however fleetingly, in these kids’ shoes, this revelatory, deeply humane film makes an eye-opening plea for neurodiversity.

Sony Pictures Classics
We are transported to a vanishing world: the forests of Piedmont in northern Italy. There, accompanied by their beloved canines, elderly hunters forage, often at night, for coveted white Alba truffles. These delicacies fetch exorbitant prices from restaurateurs and gourmands. But they are also attracting a new breed of hunters who are interested only in money and not above poisoning dogs to get what they want. Filmmakers Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw have obviously earned the trust of the crusty traditionalists, who prize their customs and their privacy, and they honor their community in a series of beautifully composed tableaux. The camera only hurries when it’s attached to a hunting dog. The painterly formality of the filmmaking, its slightly staged quality, fits like an old leather glove. Watching an 84-year-old man, perfectly content to have led a life with neither spouse nor children, mount a candlelit birthday celebration for his dog Birba, we feel like privileged guests, given a glimpse into an arcane world whose days may be numbered by greed and climate change. The movie casts a spell you don’t want to shake.

The personal documentary takes a novel turn in what is hands down the year’s most unexpected movie about mortality, and the funniest. Filmmaker Kirsten Johnson, whose father is suffering from dementia, proposes that they make a film together in which he will enact his death over and over—getting crushed by a falling air conditioner on the streets of New York, tumbling down the stairs, and so on. Richard Johnson, a retired shrink and widower with a sense of humor to match his gifted daughter’s, is up for the challenge. It’s a chance for them to be together, to deepen their bond, and it results in a movie as touching and joyful as it is sobering and elegiac. The film bounces confidently from the mundane to the surreal, its hairpin tonal shifts expertly judged. What could have felt exploitative comes off as an act of love.

A mesmerizing meditation on the life of farm animals—the creatures we humans raise to be eaten—this documentary has no need of words, or a music score, or even color, to cast its spell. Russian filmmaker Victor Kossakovsky would have thrived in the silent movie era: His images tell the whole story. His last film, Aquarela, was a magnificent exploration of water and climate. Here, more intimately, his title character is a large, mud-seeking sow. We meet her after she has given birth in a barn to a litter of adorable piglets, who soon follow her out into the open air, prancing tentatively around their mom. Over the course of the film, we watch her brood grow, scramble to suckle on her teats, and begin to independently explore their world. In supporting roles we meet chickens—the standout is a one-legged bird who seems perfectly oblivious to her disability—and cattle, who stand immobile in pairs, swatting the flies off each other’s bodies with tails constantly in motion. This is not a movie you can watch impatiently: You have to give yourself over to its contemplative rhythm. There is no “story,” but there is drama and a climax that packs a surprising and devastating emotional punch. You can revel in Gunda for the pure poetry of its black-and-white images, but its aestheticism is in the service of an unspoken thesis about the value of all living creatures.

Two young women were captured on videotape in Malaysia’s Kuala Lumpur airport poisoning the half brother of dictator Kim Jong Un. Were they killers or pawns? This astonishing account tells the girls’ stories with edge-of-your-seat finesse.

Born to Be
A quietly moving, wonderfully intimate film that explores the transgender experience through the eyes of New York surgeon Jess Ting, a pioneer in gender-affirming surgery, and his hopeful patients, who come to him to align their bodies with true identities.

This scorching Romanian documentary trails Bucharest journalists as they uncover layer after mind-boggling layer of corruption in the aftermath of a lethal 2015 fire in a nightclub, a tragedy that toppled a government.

Coup 53
Investigating the hidden history of the MI6- and CIA-directed coup that toppled Iran’s prime minister Mohammed Mossadegh in 1953, this twisty, eye-opening thriller shows us how the U.S. created its most reliable enemy in the Middle East.

Crip Camp
A revelatory movie about liberation, this rousing doc takes us back to a funky, utopian summer camp in the Catskills, where seeds of the Disability Rights Movement were sowed in the early ’70s.

John Lewis: Good Trouble
A stirring, archive-rich homage to the civil rights activist who never gave up the fight. Lewis’s unflagging commitment to the cause inspired generations of disciples, who turn out to pay eloquent tribute.

Wiretaps and blackmail were just some of the dirty methods J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI used against Martin Luther King Jr., whose following they believed rife with Communists. This double portrait (V.F.’s David Friend executive produced) unspools with chilling lucidity.

My Octopus Teacher
The year’s most unexpected tearjerker, this underwater sort-of-love-story between a South African diver and an elusive, eight-limbed mollusk is a seductively mind- and heart-expanding adventure.

Welcome to Chechnya
An exposé of the Chechen government’s torture and suspected murder of its LGBTQ+ population, this harrowing, heroic film, shot in secret, follows activists who smuggle their endangered comrades out of the country.

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