Given all the hardships of the year just past, it’s certainly understandable that some viewers eschewed 2020’s tougher non-fiction storytelling in favor of escapism. But even with — and sometimes because of — everything else going on, the last 12 months delivered some extraordinary documentaries, and whether or not they were directly about aspects of the pandemic, they all had a lot to say about the current state of the world.
10. “Push” As the recent furor over water being traded as a commodity reminds us, it’s never a good idea to let Wall Street collide with Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Director Fredrik Gertten takes viewers through a global crisis in which poor people are kicked out of neighborhoods so that luxury high-rise apartments can be constructed — but never occupied — purely for investment purposes. Thankfully, we also get to meet the people fighting to end this practice.
9. “American Utopia” It can’t be easy to make a David Byrne concert film in the shadow of one of the greatest performance documentaries ever made, 1984’s “Stop Making Sense.” But Spike Lee rose to the challenge, and the results were right up there with “Hamilton” among the year’s most notable stage-to-screen adaptations.
8. “Feels Good Man” In tracking how artist Matt Furie’s “Pepe the Frog” character went from indie-comics icon to alt-right symbol, director Arthur Jones traces the internet’s insidious power in promulgating white supremacy and also details the way that creators can regain control over their work even when the context around it completely changes. Also Read: 10 Best Films of 2020, from ‘On the Rocks’ to ‘First Cow’ (Photos)
7. “Dick Johnson Is Dead” For filmmaker Kirsten Johnson (“Cameraperson”), the best way to address the impending death of her octogenarian father was to make a movie about it — with him as the star, undergoing a variety of “deaths,” as well as a visit to the afterlife, with the help of special effects. The results are a shattering but inspiring look at how we process grief and deal with the loss of those closest to us.
6. “Disclosure” People move the culture forward, and vice versa, and this captivating mix of interviews and film and TV clips from director Sam Feder shows the ways in which the trans community has helped the media improve its portrayals of that community, and how media representation has changed the lives of individuals and their families. (Netflix, incidentally, did a great job with LGBT documentaries in 2020: “Circus of Books,” “Mucho Mucho Amor” and “A Secret Love” all came close to making this list.)
5. “Totally Under Control” An incomplete documentary about COVID-19 by virtue of being made and released during the pandemic — right after production wrapped, President Trump tested positive for the virus — this blistering piece of journalism shows the many ways in which some countries responded promptly and effectively to this global health crisis, while others (notably, the USA) did not.
4. “Welcome to Chechnya” David France’s look at LGBT human rights violations in Chechnya was both gut-wrenching – it includes footage of beatings and an alleged “honor killing” – and nail-biting, as he tracks real-life escapees trying to make it out of the country and into Europe. It’s a film that generates suspense not only for the people attempting to flee oppression but also for the filmmakers themselves, who join their subjects in these perilous flights to freedom.
3. “Crip Camp” Like Steve McQueen’s “Small Axe,” this stirring portrait of a historical moment celebrates the power of people united to overcome oppression. Nicole Newnham and James Lebrecht’s film traces a political movement from its origins at a New York state summer camp for the disabled to a sit-in in the late 1970s that forced changes in laws governing access and opportunities.
2. “City Hall” Legendary director Frederick Wiseman explores the inner workings of the city of Boston (and the apparent omnipresence of the city’s charismatic mayor, Marty Walsh) as a way to celebrate the efficacy and usefulness of government and of community interaction, be that on a neighborhood level or a national one.
1. “Collective” Alexander Nanau’s blistering look at a corrupt health care system and the power of media to expose hypocrisy or to hide it with propaganda may take place in Romania (it’s that country’s Oscar entry), but it speaks to broken systems around the world, with a combination of Frederick Wiseman-esque detachment and white-knuckle editing.