The 10 Best Documentaries of 2022

Film critic Robert Abele spotlights the year’s best in non-fiction cinema

All the Beauty and the Bloodshed
Venice Film Festival

The documentary form continued to flex its power in 2022, delivering stories and perspectives of astonishing breadth and sometimes granular artistry. What stood out were the movies that didn’t take their issues or subjects at face value, but rather sought something more resonant about the workings of the world, or even told us more about ourselves and what’s possible. Across these brilliant films, the mysterious is interrogated, the accepted is challenged, and the past is reckoned with, but what we’re always left with is the human heart’s resilience to do all that necessary interrogating, challenging and reckoning.

All That Breathes

Rise Films

The year’s most artful documentary operates on two layers: introducing us to the modest hawk-repairing operation of two Muslim brothers in pollution-choked Delhi, where the birds just fall out of the sky, and showing us how to see the world as they do, with compassion for all creatures, and insight into what a changing environment breeds. Shaunak Sen’s intellectual gaze creates some of the most stunning images in modern non-fiction film, all part of a tapestry of interspecies care that redefines what a nature film can be.

All the Beauty and the Bloodshed

All the Beauty and the Bloodshed

Oscar-winner Laura Poitras’ portrait of acclaimed photographer Nan Goldin is a radical harmonizing of art, activism and recovery. Goldin unpacks a lifetime of tragedy, friendship, abuse and rebellion in revealing audio over a wealth of her lives-lived pictures of marginalized souls. At the same time, we see what her experience has bred: the grit and fight needed to take on the powerful in one of the crises of our time. Unflinching and moving, as necessary a chronicle as can exist of how we change and create change.



Margaret Brown follows up the eerie gentility of her segregation doc “The Order of Myths” with another intricately layered mosaic of race, civilization and memory, centering the lives of the Alabamans descended from those on the last slave ship brought into the US, finally discovered by divers in 2019. A submerged history becomes a freed truth, but will it reframe, much less rewrite, lasting color-line inequalities? The humid poetry in Brown’s act of witnessing makes this pivotal moment vibrate.

Fire of Love

National Geographic/Neon

Married French volcanologists Maurice and Katie Krafft lived out their decades-long romance against the dangerous beauty of unsettled earth, always diligent about rolling cameras in these literal hot spots. Years after their deaths (not too hard to guess the circumstance), filmmaker Sara Dosa took the incredible footage of their lava-ffair and, with Miranda July’s narration like a warm accompanying hum, crafted a stunning archival telling of their shared daredevil passion.

My Old School

Magnolia Pictures

By turns whimsical, strange and sad, Jono McLeod’s rummage through the memories and realities of a mysterious classmate at his Glasgow school, bolstered by lively testimony from those who knew him, is like a laugh-filled reunion video with a weird edge. Alan Cumming lip-syncs the audio-only interview of the enigmatic figure at the center of this bizarre story, which made a lot of news in the UK at the time.



Sometimes, you just need a documentary to deliver hard medicine, as directly as possible, and this grippingly reported, emotion-filled dispatch about a neglectful maternal health system — where Black and Brown women are three times more likely to die during childbirth — is just that. Co-directors Tonya Lewis Lee and Paula Eiselt unfold heartbreaking stories, efficiently expose the problem’s institutional origins, then leave us with activism and solutions that point a way forward.

Bad Axe

IFC Films

At the start of the pandemic, New York–based filmmaker David Siev returned to the rural Michigan town of the title, where his Cambodian dad settled after escaping the Khmer Rouge, married Siev’s Mexican-American mother and opened a family restaurant. An imagined chronicle of reunion and resilience became something else when the country’s societal, racial and political fault lines made them a target of hatred and suspicion. A real-time epic of the personal and the sociological: honest, empathetic, scary, and sobering.

2nd Chance

Bleecker Street

Ramin Bahrani (“Man Push Cart”) makes his first feature documentary, about the swaggering inventor of the modern bulletproof vest, whose shooting himself in the chest 192 times over the course of his life is the least crazy element of this Errol Morris–like portrait of an American eccentric. But as this tale of capitalist greed, deceit and copaganda marketing unfolds, something unexpectedly emotional emerges from the gunsmoke: the kind of aftermath missing from police reports and shooting statistics.

Three Minutes: A Lengthening

Super LTD

Before ones and zeros made recorded lives ubiquitous, to film others was to create a fragile physical record, a fact made exquisitely resonant in Bianca Stigter’s forensic examination of unearthed 16mm footage of a Polish town’s Jewish community in 1938. Three minutes of life before it would be wiped away by the Holocaust — faces, signs and details scrutinized in voiceover by historians and the cameraman’s grandson, the frames repeating for us in a temporal loop that suggests trying to caress a ghost.

I Didn’t See You There

Photo by Reid Davenport/Sundance Institute

The essayistic meets the experimental in Reid Davenport’s tour of his daily life as a disabled citizen with cerebral palsy, persevering and invisible. Whether wheelchair-ing through Oakland or navigating public transportation, his camera captures a visual/aural perspective on urban existence rarely expressed on film (often beautifully) while the inescapable sight of a nearby circus tent spurs some pointed voiceover about the terrible legacy of the freak show.

And because ten isn’t enough, but space is limited, these wonderful titles can only be mentioned here: “Beba,” “Mija,” “Turn Every Page,” “Retrograde,” “The Territory,” “Tantura,” “Navalny,” “Moonage Daydream,” “The Return of Tanya Tucker – Featuring Brandi Carlile” and “The Janes.”