Imagine how weird it must have been to work as a documentary filmmaker this decade.
On the one hand, we’re swimming in a sea of nonfiction, now that everyone has a camera in their pocket and can edit and upload footage to the internet in moments. In the years since 2010, we’ve all become documentarians of our own lives.
On the other hand, during the same period, the very concepts of “truth” and “fiction” have grown fuzzy or slipped away altogether. The whirlwind of images that surrounds us every day, and the ease with which they can be manipulated, has made it harder and harder for people to distinguish between reality and fantasy, truth and fabrication, nonfiction filmmaking and Instagram-filtered façade. And the powerful know how to harness this confusion to their own advantage, with real-life consequences.
But documentarians have always known that part of their job is to fashion the “real” world into something that is, on some level, fictional — to craft a story out of the material of life. (Frederick Wiseman, probably the greatest living American documentarian, told me in an interview in 2018 that his observational documentaries are, in essence, fiction.)
And so the 2010s’ complications have birthed some truly great works of nonfiction filmmaking, as documentarians have struggled to articulate — and sometimes question — the divide between truth and fiction. They’ve used traditional filmmaking methods and radically experimental ones to explore vital, risky questions. What’s real, and what’s make-believe? How is our perception of ourselves changed by visiting worlds other than our own? And how does the act of filming something change the thing itself?
That’s what the greatest documentaries have explored this decade. Here the 20 best feature-length documentaries of the decade, and how you can watch them.
The year listed for each film reflects its US release date.
20. Dawson City: Frozen Time (2017)
To make Dawson City: Frozen Time, director Bill Morrison — who often works with old footage — reused hundreds of reels of nitrate film shot in the 1910s and 1920s and unearthed in 1978 in Dawson, a town on the Yukon River in northwestern Canada. The reels had been presumed lost, and Morrison stitches them together to reconstruct the history of the town, which is loaded with wild stories of fortunes made and lost, with twists and turns as exciting as any fictional film. It plays like a silent film, at times, but one with an eye toward the present, and toward the way old stories shape the future.
19. This Is Not a Film (2012)
Jafar Panahi’s ironically titled This Is Not a Film would be notable if only for the fact that it was smuggled out of Iran in a cake — while Panahi was under house arrest there — so that it could premiere at the Cannes Film Festival. Panahi, who had been charged by Iran with making propaganda against the government and banned from making movies, has been restricted from moving freely for much of the 2010s. But that hasn’t slowed him down, and in This Is Not a Film, he documents his life under house arrest. It’s a radical act of protest, one that shows what it’s like to live when your country views you as the enemy.
How to watch it: This Is Not a Film is not currently available to stream on any major streaming services. But if your library system has a Kanopy subscription, you can stream it for free.
18. Fire at Sea (2016)
During the 2010s, hundreds of African and Middle Eastern migrants began arriving on the Italian island of Lampedusa every week. In Fire at Sea, documentarian Gianfranco Rosi follows the island’s residents and the rescue crews, cutting between scenes of life on the island (which center on a young boy whose predominant interests are his slingshots and spaghetti) and the people who help receive and treat migrants. Beautifully shot and highly lauded, Fire at Sea is a humane exploration of the human cost of the crisis, and how people live in the midst of it.
17. Citizenfour (2014)
Whistleblower Edward Snowden is the focus of Citizenfour, and also, in a way, its instigator. In 2013, the film’s director, Laura Poitras, began receiving communications about illegal wiretapping at the NSA and other US intelligence agencies from a source who would only identify himself as “Citizenfour.” She flew to Hong Kong to meet the source, accompanied by journalists, and discovered it was Snowden. The film she subsequently made in concert with Snowden, who speaks extensively about his findings, won an Oscar and further exposed the US government’s covert surveillance operations. It’s a masterpiece of tension and foreboding.
16. Pina (2011)
Choreographer Pina Bausch died in 2009, and two years later Wim Wenders and her company of dancers expanded Bausch’s work into something truly groundbreaking. Pina is a 3D documentary that preserves and furthers Bausch’s legacy, setting some of her most famous pieces in unlikely places (streets, forests, the tops of old buildings) and helping show why she was so important to the history of art and dance. And the film itself is a perfect marriage of form and function, showcasing a range of possibilities for capturing fine art on camera.
15. Amazing Grace (2018)
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 became one of her most acclaimed — would never see the light of day. But in 2018, it was finally finished and released, just months after the singer’s show-stopping funeral. The result is one of the most electrifying concert documentaries ever made, with Franklin 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.
14. Quest (2017)
Jonathan Olshefski’s Quest, a portrait of a North Philadelphia family, was shot over a decade and finally released in 2017. The film is a cinéma vérité look at the Rainey family, who operate a recording studio. But life doesn’t always go as planned, and when tragedy hits the family, the documentary takes an unexpected turn. It’s vital viewing that somehow captures the hope and pain of the 2010s — including life in the city as well as the broader political and social situation in America — better than either the Raineys or Olshefski could have ever imagined.
How to watch it: Quest is available to digitally rent on iTunes.
13. The Work (2017)
When I first watched The Work, it made me feel as if I were vibrating. 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 this film is not easy, but by letting us peek in on its subjects in therapy, The Work invites us to become part of the experience — as if we, too, are being asked to let go.
12. In Transit (2015)
Documentarian Albert Maysles died in 2015; he is best known for rocking the documentary landscape with his brother David (who passed away in 1987) in films like Grey Gardens and Gimme Shelter. Maysles’s final work, In Transit, profiles our long-haul train transportation system as Maysles travels on it, through the stories of people who are headed to one place or another and willing to talk about their lives. It’s meditative and generous, a snapshot of a mundane experience and a rumination on the meaning of living in a community.
How to watch it: Due to rights issues, In Transit has struggled to secure release, and it isn’t currently available to stream, though it sometimes shows up in repertory theaters.
11. Shirkers (2018)
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, chronicles Tan’s personal investigation into what happened with her film, decades after George Cardona, the mysterious man twice her age who shot the original movie with them, disappeared with the footage in tow. Using a variety of media, Tan reconstructs the making of Shirkers and its aftermath, working through the story and 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 Shirkers from Cardona, putting it back in the hands of its rightful owners.
How to watch it: Shirkers is streaming on Netflix.
10. Actress (2014)
Robert Greene was one of the most innovative American filmmakers of the 2010s, with films like Kate Plays Christine (2016) and Bisbee ‘17 (2017) sparking debates about the way history shapes the present. But Actress may be his best. Greene collaborated with his neighbor, actress Brandy Burre, to explore the line between performance and reality as well as the ways we try to escape broken dreams. At times drawing on the visual language of suburban melodramas, Actress is a startling, challenging movie that doesn’t believe in simple answers.
9. No Home Movie (2016)
Filmmaker Chantal Akerman died by suicide halfway through the decade, in 2015. Her final film, No Home Movie, is a series of conversations between herself and her mother, filmed with handheld cameras and even her Blackberry months before her mother died. It’s a subtle echo of her 1977 documentary News From Home, which juxtaposed letters from her mother with scenes of New York, as well as her 1975 fiction masterpiece Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, which coaxes the audience into watching the mundane activities that make up a life. The result is moving and disquieting, a fitting and haunting cap to Akerman’s boundary-breaking career.
8. Stories We Tell (2013)
Sarah Polley’s cinematic dip into her own family history is among the most lauded of the decade’s documentaries, partly for the way it plays with conventions to question the way we tell stories about our lives. The film was a five-year journey for Polley, ending with the revelation that her biological father was not the man who raised her. Mixing interviews with recreations of family events made to look like home movies, Polley tells a bold story with implications that go far beyond her own family.
7. I Am Not Your Negro (2017)
The stunning documentary I Am Not Your Negro was directed by Raoul Peck, but it was written by author and social critic James Baldwin, who died in 1987. All of the film’s narration (by Samuel L. Jackson) was written by Baldwin, mostly drawn from letters he sent and notes he made for a novel called Remember This House that was never published, as well as other books and essays. By pulling together Baldwin’s own words with a variety of footage — both images Baldwin would have known well and clips of Baldwin himself, talking with interviewers, politely tearing them to shreds — I Am Not Your Negro creates a document of a country through a portrait of a keen observer and unsparing thinker. It is a cinematic essay-memoir, and a vital, uncomfortable one.
6. The Prison in 12 Landscapes (2016)
Brett Story’s documentary about the way prison systems reshape the landscapes around them is remarkable for many reasons, but one of them is the simple fact that we don’t see a prison until the end of the film. Instead, The Prison in 12 Landscapes captures a series of vignettes in communities that are shaped in some way by a nearby prison, from conversations with people at historical societies to narration from prisoners who fight fires for a few bucks a day. It’s both poetry and a negative-space portrait — what’s left unsaid is just as important as what’s said out loud.
How to watch it: The Prison in 12 Landscapes is available to digitally rent or purchase from Amazon.
5. In Jackson Heights (2015)
Frederick Wiseman is a legend among filmmakers, a documentarian who’s been chronicling American life and institutions with an astute eye for more than 50 years. He made several outstanding movies this decade, but In Jackson Heights may be the most significant. Turning to the ethnically and culturally varied communities that make up the Queens neighborhood of New York City, Wiseman depicts all kinds of elements of life there: the city council office, a local Muslim school, a Jewish Center, an LGBTQ meeting, and more.
The film portrays the matters at the heart of urban living — immigration, tolerance, pluralism, and gentrification among them — through a series of human faces and interactions that show how the things that often get relegated to the realm of politics are actually about people.
How to watch it: In Jackson Heights, like all of Wiseman’s films, is difficult to find outside of repertory programming at theaters. But if your library system has a Kanopy subscription, you can stream it for free.
4. Minding the Gap (2018)
One of the most extraordinary films of the decade 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 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.
How to watch it: Minding the Gap is streaming on Hulu.
3. Hale County This Morning, This Evening (2018)
As much a poem as a documentary, RaMell Ross’s Hale County This Morning, This Evening is best described as “lyrical.” 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, of churchgoers 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 was 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.
2. The Act of Killing (2013)
“Chilling” is not a sufficient descriptor for The Act of Killing, which pound for pound is probably the most influential documentary of the decade. In this film and its 2014 companion film The Look of Silence, director Joshua Oppenheimer focuses on the people responsible for the 1965-66 genocide in Indonesia. Nearly a million people died, ostensibly for being communists. Oppenheimer explores the depth and heart of the evil by working with the perpetrators themselves to create scenes that explore their feelings about the killings in the style of various movie genres — gangsters, Westerns, and musicals. It’s both horrifying and absolutely stunning.
1. Cameraperson (2016)
Cameraperson is the kind of movie the term “tour de force” ought to be reserved for, both memoir and meditation on the ethics of seeing. Director Kirsten Johnson, who’s worked as a cameraperson for some of the most well-known documentarians in the world (including Michael Moore, Laura Poitras, and Kirby Dick), used discarded footage she’d previously shot, mostly for other people’s projects, to create an extraordinarily poetic and confessional film that explores what it means to film others and how what she’s seen has shaped her own soul. Never didactic, but nonetheless provocative, it’s an exceptional work of nonfiction.