clock menu more-arrow no yes

8 of the year’s best documentaries are coming out soon. Here’s where to see them.

Ronald Reagan, rats, and the New York Public Library all get compelling close-ups.

Strong Island launches on Netflix on September 15
Strong Island launches on Netflix on September 15
Netflix

In an era when “fake news” and “post-truth” have become buzzwords, documentary film seems poignantly important, a force for chronicling the world — even through a filmmaker’s eyes — that we share in common.

In the next few weeks, eight terrific documentaries that have recently screened at festivals around the world are finally releasing to the public, some in theaters and some via streaming platforms. None of them could be called “preachy” or classified as conventional “issue documentaries” — they’re more interested in showing you the world than telling you what to think about it. All eight will richly reward viewers’ attention. Some may even be life-changing.

The Reagan Show deconstructs a presidency structured like a TV series

Premieres on CNN on September 4 at 9:00 pm and September 5 at 12:30 am, with encores on September 9 at 10 pm and September 10 at 2:30 am.

Was Ronald Reagan the consummate performer? The Reagan Show makes the case that the former actor’s onscreen experience was a perfect training ground for his presidency, chronicling the Reagan administration entirely through news reports and footage shot by the administration itself. It uses Reagan’s work as an actor and one of his common nicknames — “the Great Communicator” — as its jumping-off point, opening with a very prescient-seeming clip of Reagan telling newscaster David Brinkley, at the end of his time in office, that “there have been times in this office when I wonder how you could do the job without having been an actor.”

School Life studies life in an Irish boarding school

Opens in limited theatrical release on September 8.

School Life chronicles a year at Headfort, the only boarding school in Ireland that hosts students in the primary grades. The film primarily follows two teachers who have taught at the school for decades as they near the end of their careers. (The film was originally titled In Loco Parentis, meaning “in the place of the parents.”) The pair, who are married to one another, mentor and care for their students while the film sits back and lets everyone go through their daily activities — playing football, reading books, doing homework, starting a band. By the end, it’s a sweet, and bittersweet, rumination on aging and childhood.

Trophy reveals how big game hunting shapes people, animals, and the planet

Opens in limited theatrical release on September 8.

After its Sundance debut earlier this year, Trophy was praised with adjectives like “shocking” and “complex.” The film looks at the sport of big game hunting and the people who participate in it. Combining jaw-dropping visuals with a disturbing exposé, the film doesn’t take a single black-and-white stance on the practice or its implications for both humans and animals. It prefers to dwell in the gray areas.

Ex Libris observes the library’s function as a hub for much more than books

Opens in limited theatrical release on September 13.

The main branch of the New York Public Library, the subject of Ex Libris
The main branch of the New York Public Library, the subject of Ex Libris

Frederick Wiseman is one of the towering giants of nonfiction film, a keen observer of American institutions — ranging from prisons to dance companies to welfare offices — for the last half-century. Ex Libris is his mesmerizing look at the New York Public Library and the many functions it fills, which go far beyond the books. (“Ex libris” is Latin for “out of the books.”) Wiseman works in the observational mode, which means his films contain no captions, dates, or talking-head interviews: We just see what his camera captured, which in this case includes community meetings, benefit dinners, after-school programs, readings with authors and scholars (including Richard Dawkins and Ta-Nehisi Coates), and NYPL patrons going about their business in the library’s branches all over the city. The result is almost hypnotic, and, perhaps surprisingly, deeply moving.

Strong Island tries to understand an unjust family tragedy

Debuts on Netflix on September 15.

More memoir than “documentary,” Strong Island is a searing personal account of filmmaker Yance Ford’s grief, frustration, and struggle in the wake of his brother’s murder. The film, which premiered to strong reviews at Sundance, is both emotional and pointed, with Ford attempting, on camera, to determine what really happened and determine what that means for self, family, and country when justice is so frequently crossed with prejudice.

Rat Film explores “redlining,” eugenics, and Baltimore’s racial history through the lens of the city’s most notorious rodent

Opens in limited theatrical release on September 15.

Rat Film is a about rats, yes — and rat poison experts and rat hunters and people who keep rats as pets. But it’s also about the history of eugenics, dubious science, “redlining,” and segregated housing in Baltimore. All these pieces come together to form one big essay, where the meaning of each vignette only becomes more clear in light of the whole.

The Force shows the nearly insurmountable challenges of reforming a corrupt police force

Opens in San Francisco on September 15; New York and Los Angeles on September 22; and in limited additional cities after that.

For The Force, documentarian Peter Nicks spends two years following the embattled Oakland Police Department, which was put under federal supervision in 2003 after a wave of officer misconduct and other offenses. The film starts out seeming hopeful, but it soon becomes clear that the Oakland PD’s situation is extraordinarily complicated, and that any possible solutions will be wildly complex. It makes a clear and devastating case that broken institutions can’t only be reformed from within — they also require a difficult counterbalancing culture shift from the outside.

The Work sits in on group therapy at Folsom Prison, with men from both sides of the walls

Opens in New York on October 20 and Los Angeles on October 27, with national rollout to follow.

The Work might be the best documentary you see this year. At Folsom Prison in California, incarcerated men regularly participate in group therapy, and each year other men from the “outside” apply to participate in an intense four-day period of group therapy alongside Folsom’s inmates. The Work spends almost all of its time inside the room where that therapy happens, observing the strong, visceral, and sometimes violent emotions the men feel as they expose the hurt and raw nerves that have shaped how they encounter the world. Watching is not always easy, but by letting us peek in, the film invites us to become part of the experience — as if we, too, are being asked to let go.

Updated to reflect shift in premiere times for The Reagan Show and The Work.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for The Weeds

Get our essential policy newsletter delivered Fridays.