Documentaries managed to find an even broader audience this year, with streaming services like Netflix and Hulu doubling down on non-fiction, both as producers and distributors of new unscripted films and TV shows. But whether they screened in theaters, at home or at film festivals, these documentaries were the best of the best:
10. “Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood”:
Matt Tyrnauer’s portrait of legendary Tinseltown “procurer” Scotty Bowers had plenty of vintage show-biz dish, but it also raised interesting questions about who decides when and how LGBTQ history is “appropriate” to share with the masses.
9. “Hale County This Morning, This Evening”:
Equal parts visual poem and ethnographic documentary, RaMell Ross’ debut film examines a handful of residents of the titular Alabama county as his camera turns quotidian moments into something breathtaking and magical.
8. “Bathtubs Over Broadway”:
Besides providing a fascinating glimpse into the industrial musical -- elaborate song-and-dance extravaganzas mounted by companies like Xerox or Purina to excite their sales teams -- this film follows one collector’s journey from snarky outside observer to fan, champion, and archivist.
7. “Monrovia, Indiana”:
Frederick Wiseman, arguably our greatest living documentarian, takes his camera to the Midwest and reveals more truths about the American heartland than a dozen New York Times let’s-talk-to-Trump’s-base think-pieces.
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6. “That Way Madness Lies”:
Sandra Luckow’s portrait of her brother Duanne’s battles with mental health issues -- and the impact they have had on their entire family -- feels almost painfully intimate at times, focusing on the helplessness that people can feel as they watch a loved one disappear into disorder and exposing the shortcomings of the public health system to deal with such crises.
5. “Jane Fonda in Five Acts”:
The on-screen and off-screen life of this iconic actress and activist sweeps through a fascinating chunk of modern American history in this compelling documentary from director Susan Lacy (working with the blueprint laid out by Fonda’s 2006 memoir).
4. “Three Identical Strangers”:
The tale of triplets separated at birth and reunited as adults is a fascinating enough story, but it’s just the first act of a family saga so bizarre and tragic that no novelist could ever invent it. Tim Wardle recounts this yarn with grace.
3. (tie) “They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead”/ “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”:
The great Morgan Neville (“20 Feet From Stardom,” “Best of Enemies”) scored two of the year’s best docs with looks at two exceedingly different cultural figures: the cantankerous Orson Welles and the thoroughly kind and empathetic Fred Rogers.
Sandi Tan retraces the path to her own lost indie feature film from decades ago, discovering uncomfortable truths about her collaborators and herself along the way. She pulls no punches as she confronts both her own work and her own past.
1. “Minding the Gap”:
Bing Liu turns the camera on himself and his lifelong friends (all avid skateboarders) to uncover the pain in their childhoods and to explore new directions toward healing themselves and each other as adults. It’s an emotional knockout that offers a much-needed jolt of hope.