2018 was a boom year for documentaries. This summer, nonfiction movies like RBG, Three Identical Strangers, and Won’t You Be My Neighbor were surprise hits at the box office, bringing in record revenues and delighting audiences with stories that intrigued and inspired.
And streaming giants like Netflix and Hulu bought up some of the year’s buzziest documentaries, bringing them to a wide audience. With interest in nonfiction storytelling high in other mediums as well — such as podcasts and TV — some industry observers went so far as to describe this year as a “golden era” for documentaries.
So 2018 has been great for people who love on-screen nonfiction. And the wide variety of films among the year’s best show the richness the medium has to offer — from biography to social commentary to memoir to a “live” musical film, and one that tries to redefine the vocabulary of filmmaking altogether.
Here are the 11 best documentaries of 2018, and how to watch them.
Generations of children grew up loving Fred Rogers and his slow, whimsical TV show, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Somewhere between a playmate, an affable uncle or grandpa, and a fairy godfather, Rogers’s slow and compassionate approach to children’s television ran counter to what we typically expect of TV shows for kids. There were no bright, flashy, fast-moving cartoons or slapstick humor in his neighborhood; just simple, direct conversation and storytelling. You got the feeling he cared.
Those same qualities might seem to disqualify Rogers from being a very good subject for a documentary, unless it’s the kind that “exposes” a public figure. But Morgan Neville’s documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor centers on him anyway, and comes to the benign conclusion that Fred Rogers was, in fact, the guy he appeared to be.
The main goal of Won’t You Be My Neighbor is to convince us that kindness and empathy need not be in as short supply as they are today. And the film resonated with audiences this year, who flocked to the theater and made it the top-grossing biographical documentary of all time.
10) Free Solo
National Geographic Documentary Films is the distributor behind Free Solo, and the pairing makes sense: It’s a film about free climber Alex Honnold, who’s planning to scale the 3,000-foot vertical rock face at Yosemite known as El Capitan ... without ropes.
The resulting story is both beautiful and harrowing. It’s also a thoughtful look at what drives people like Honnold to attempt feats like this, the high stakes they willingly embrace, and the effect their risk-taking has on their lives and relationships. Those prone to vertigo should be ready to cover their eyes.
Free Solo is currently in theaters.
For his 41st feature film, celebrated documentarian Frederick Wiseman selected the agricultural town of Monrovia, Indiana, as a setting through which he could explore small-town America. Wiseman has often trained his camera on American institutions, frequently in large cities, to wryly and wisely show how we live with one another; Monrovia, Indiana is a vital addition to his canon at a time when many Americans are thinking and talking about “real America.”
The film gently and humorously observes Monrovia residents as they go about their everyday lives, doing everything from attending town council meetings, Freemason meetings, and middle school band performances to shopping for groceries, going to weddings and funerals, and hanging out at the local diner. The result is a nuanced portrait of small-town America by one of the most important figures in documentary filmmaking working today.
Monrovia, Indiana is playing in select theaters.
It might seem incredible to imagine that one of the year’s best documentaries is about one man in the Congo and a load of charcoal that he’s made. But director Emmanuel Gras has pulled off that feat with Makala, which focuses on a man named Kasongo as he goes about chopping down a tree, turning it into charcoal, and hauling it to the market 30 kilometers from his home. He hopes to use the proceeds from selling it to build a house for his family.
The deliberate attention that Gras pays to Kasongo’s every move, and the slow pacing of the film, transform what might sound like banality into something mesmerizing and ultimately heartwrenching. Kasongo encounters challenges along the way, and we encounter them too. We start to share in his desire to make a better life for his family as we journey alongside him. There’s no simple conclusion to Makala — instead, it prompts viewers to step into another man’s shoes and understand him a little better.
Makala is available to digitally rent or purchase on Amazon.
7) A Thousand Thoughts
A Thousand Thoughts won’t be available to add to your Netflix queue anytime soon, nor can it compete at the 2019 Oscars, as it hasn’t met the eligibility requirement of screening for at least one week in both New York and Los Angeles. But there’s a good reason it may not have played in any theaters near you — and one that makes it worthy of recognition as one of 2018’s best documentaries, despite its extremely limited engagement.
Sam Green has been experimenting with the “live documentary” format for a while, combining live performance with footage and narration. And with A Thousand Thoughts, he and co-director Joe Bini have pulled off a minor miracle. The project is a documentary about the history of the famed Kronos Quartet, during which the Quartet itself performs live on a stage below the screen, playing music to accompany the footage.
Seeing A Thousand Thoughts was a highlight of Sundance for the few hundred people lucky enough to attend one of two performances at the festival, and for those who caught one of its handful of other engagements in the US and abroad in 2018, too. Its very ephemerality is part of its effectiveness; overflowing with joy and gratitude, it’s a testament to what kind of art a long love between collaborators creates.
A Thousand Thoughts is playing in selected engagements.
6) America to Me
From Steve James, director of Hoop Dreams and the Oscar-nominated Abacus: Small Enough to Jail, comes this 10-part documentary series about the challenges of achieving true racial integration in one of Chicago’s most progressive public schools, Oak Park and River Forest High School, located in the city’s suburban Oak Park neighborhood.
America to Me introduces us to a number of students and teachers at Oak Park as they begin the school year. All of them are charismatic and fascinating, and James is careful to reveal his hand early, exploring why he chose these particular subjects and noting the resistance his project faced from some members of the school’s administration. But the characters themselves are compulsively watchable, and as an expertly constructed docuseries, America to Me feels like a high school drama, except one where the stakes are real.
America to Me is available in full on Starz’s streaming platforms.
As teenagers in 1992, Sandi Tan and her friends Jasmine and Sophie made Singapore’s first indie movie, a scripted film called Shirkers — and then their American mentor absconded with the footage.
This documentary, also called Shirkers, is Tan’s personal exploration into what happened with her film, produced decades after George Cardona, the mysterious man twice her age who shot the movie with them, then disappeared with the footage in tow. Using a variety of media — including 16mm, animation, handwritten letters, tapes, digital, Hi8, and Super8 — Tan reconstructs the making of Shirkers and its aftermath, working through the story, sussing out what exactly went down and how it affected the path that she and her friends took in their lives. It’s a mesmerizing, fascinating story that also feels like an attempt, on Tan’s part, to reclaim the film from Cardona, putting it back in the hands of its rightful owners.
In that way, the new Shirkers is a kind of punk feminist project — a deeply personal, fabulously engrossing, visually assured bit of first-person creative nonfiction filmmaking. And that resonates especially well in 2018, a year in which women’s roles in the film industry have been the source of conversation and activism.
Shirkers is streaming on Netflix.
As much a poem as a documentary, RaMell Ross’s Hale County This Morning, This Evening is the sort of film for which the word “lyrical” was invented. Ross, who started his career as a large-format photographer, carefully assembles hours of footage he shot while living in Hale County, Alabama — of water droplets on a baby’s skin, of kids goofing off in a parking lot, church congregants singing during mass, of old houses, of insects, and more. Together, they act as brushstrokes to create a portrait of a community, capturing a way of life in a place burdened by history.
Ross’s goal is to redefine the cinematic “vocabulary” that’s often used when black Americans are shown on screen, so he purposely chose to shoot and edit the film in ways that suspend judgment and resist the narratives that we often bring to films as viewers. And in the few instances where Ross uses text on screen, the sentences are as carefully, elegantly structured as the images, carrying narrative and emotional weight that’s deeply affecting. Hale County This Morning, This Evening is a major work, and a richly rewarding one.
Hale County This Morning, This Evening opened in theaters earlier this year and is awaiting digital release.
3) Amazing Grace
Kept under a bushel for more than four decades while it was held up by both technical issues and lawsuits, it seemed like Amazing Grace — which Sydney Pollack filmed in 1972, as Aretha Franklin recorded the live album of the same name that would become one of her most acclaimed — would never see the light of day. But this year, it was finally finished and released, just months after the singer’s show-stopping funeral.
The result is a concert documentary, one of the most electrifying ever made, that captures Franklin at her peak, backed by the Southern California Community Choir over two nights at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles. And for its 87-minute runtime, those of us in the audience aren’t an audience at all. We’re bearing witness to one of the greatest performances of all time. We get to be part of a ritual of remembrance, a cry for mercy, and a long plea for justice. If we’re just sitting there watching other people make music — instead of participating in it ourselves as engaged audience members — we’re doing it wrong.
Amazing Grace premiered at the DOC NYC festival in November and will play limited engagements before a theatrical release planned for March 2019.
2) Bisbee ‘17
Directed by unconventional documentarian Robert Greene, Bisbee ’17 is a fierce, lyrical probe into the soul of a town haunted by a history it would rather forget. It’s also an unsettling cipher for America, at a time when the ghosts of our past have revealed themselves in frightening ways.
Greene ventured to Bisbee, Arizona, for the centennial of a 1917 incident in which 1,200 striking miners were illegally deported to New Mexico. By stitching together interviews with locals, quiet shots of the town and the stunning landscape that surrounds it, and footage of Bisbee’s preparations to reenact what happened, the film gently blows the dust of accumulated history of the past and, in the process, exposes some of the town’s still-tender wounds.
Bisbee ‘17 is currently playing in limited engagements around the country.
One of the most extraordinary films of the year is Minding the Gap, which starts out as an engrossing documentary about a group of young people in Rockford, Illinois, as they skateboard and grow up together. But as the film unfolds, it expands from being a skate movie into something much bigger.
Minding the Gap is particularly concerned with domestic violence — Rockford has some of the highest rates of domestic abuse in the state of Illinois and the country at large — and how generational patterns of abuse repeat themselves. It isn’t an easy movie to watch, but it’s an important dive into a reality that many young Americans face, with a resolutely subjective viewpoint that lends it credence and heft. It’s one of the best documentaries of 2018, and one of the best films of the year.
Minding the Gap is streaming on Hulu.