Summer is for blockbusters, fall is for prestige movies, but late winter and early spring — whether or not you realize it — is when many of the year’s smaller, more daring, more provocative films start showing up. Festivals in places as far-flung as Berlin and Austin, New York City and Columbia, Missouri, events with names like True/False and First Look, show some of the most exciting and challenging films from around the world.
And often the best of these are nonfiction movies, films that invert and defy what we’ve come to believe a documentary has to be. From dozens of documentaries I saw in this year’s early spring season, I’ve selected 10 to keep an eye on. You won’t want to miss them, whether they show up in a regional festival near you now or in a theater or streaming platform later.
Art for Everybody
When news broke in 2012 that the artist Thomas Kinkade had died of a drug and alcohol overdose, public response was somewhere between disbelief and schadenfreude. The self-dubbed “Painter of Light,” with his cozy landscapes and cottages, had become synonymous with either peace or kitsch, depending on who you talked to; his mass-market paintings and enormously popular branding were widely derided in the art world, and he courted the disdain as a way of bolstering his family-friendly, conservative-focused, faith-forward brand. But the real man was much more complicated, and with the help of Kinkade’s family, admirers, detractors, and skeptics, Miranda Yousef’s excellent documentary explores the real man behind the brand. Even if you think you know Kinkade’s whole deal, this film is remarkable, probing how the cultivation of a public image in conservative Christian America, and the maintenance of that public image, has shifted and exploded since the 1990s.
How to watch it: Art for Everybody premiered at SXSW; watch the film’s Facebook page for updates.
Art Talent Show
It’s a weird time to be in the art world. Like many art schools around the world, Prague’s Academy of Fine Arts employs a rigorous admissions process for young artists who hope to study with its renowned teachers. Art Talent Show, directed by Adéla Komrzý and Tomáš Bojar, is a fly-on-the-wall, wickedly funny peek into that process, focused on the teachers who must evaluate students’ portfolios and interview them for admission and, sometimes, argue with them quite fiercely. Art Talent Show showcases the friction between generations, particularly in their view of what’s important for a career in art. Is it originality? Having provocative ideas? Technical skill? The artist’s identity markers? And who really gets to say?
How to watch it: Art Talent Show made its US premiere at the True/False Film Festival; watch the film’s website for updates.
A Common Sequence
You watch A Common Sequence for a while before you realize what it’s about, but when it hits, it hits hard. Experimental filmmakers Mary Helena Clark and Mike Gibisser start with the achoque, an endangered species of salamander, and the culture of fishing and mysticism around it, then glide gracefully into observing apples on trees in Washington state, then ways in which Indigenous people have been sought after and exploited by modern medical research for their DNA. Eventually, it becomes clear that this is a story about the building blocks of life — our DNA and the DNA of flora and fauna across the globe — and the struggle to keep its sequencing public rather than allowing private interests and corporations to take it for themselves. It’s an engrossing film, one that demands full attention but also, brilliantly, rewards it.
How to watch it: A Common Sequence made its US premiere at Sundance and is currently playing at festivals.
Confessions of a Good Samaritan
Filmmaker Penny Lane is best known as a director of films like Hail, Satan! and Listening to Kenny G, but for Confessions of a Good Samaritan, she puts herself in the frame, too. Lane decides to become an altruistic kidney donor — in other words, to donate her kidney to a stranger — and to document the process while also examining the idea of altruism more broadly. What prompts people to help someone they don’t know? And what does it mean to take that risk? Confessions of a Good Samaritan is a winsome, provocative, and thoughtful exploration of the ethics of selflessness, the twistiness of human nature, and a culture that grapples with both.
How to watch it: Confessions of a Good Samaritan premiered at SXSW and is currently playing at festivals.
Forms of Forgetting
Forms of Forgetting, from director Burak Çevik, keeps shape-shifting beneath the audience. First it’s a film about ... ice fishing, maybe? But then we’re listening in as Nesrin and Erdem, who broke up 14 years earlier, watch and comment upon footage of themselves discussing why they broke up, which in turn was filmed a few years earlier. Then the film spools off in other directions, investigating how our memories, for better or worse, are invested in our bodies, the structures we inhabit, the worlds and narratives we carry around with us. It’s esoteric, sure, but personal and even painful, extending what you can do with a movie and letting time expand and collapse into itself.
How to watch it: Forms of Forgetting premiered at Berlinale; watch Çevik’s website for upcoming screenings.
Silvia Del Carmen Castaños and Estefanía “Beba” Contreras, best friends living in Laredo, Texas, are both stars and directors in Hummingbirds, shot during the summer of 2019. Shot in collaboration with a set of more experienced filmmakers, the film follows the pair as they whirl through a series of adventures: protesting for reproductive rights, playing music and bingo, spending the hot nights exploring the streets of their city. They have serious conversations about their families, their families’ immigration status, and the future — and they sparkle the whole time. It’s often funny and heartbreaking at once, capturing the excitement and anticipation of a moment that flashes by and disappears before you realize how fleeting it is.
How to watch it: Hummingbirds premiered at Berlinale; watch the film’s website for updates.
Elizabeth Mirzaei’s Natalia, shot in black and white, centers on a young woman who is preparing to take her vows as a nun in the Byzantine Catholic tradition. Its subject, who has taken the name Natalia, earned a degree and dated men seriously before entering the order as a novice. Now, she’s sorting through her complex feelings about committing to a life of celibacy and devotion to God; is this really the life God wants for her? And if so, why does she feel pain? Natalia is careful and beautiful, a portrait of spiritual struggle, fear, and the meaning of real peace.
How to watch it: Natalia premiered at the True/False Film Festival and is currently playing at festivals.
Victoria Linares Villegas was intending to make a movie about a pregnant teenager in the Dominican Republic, where teenage pregnancy is common. She’d cast Camilla Santana in the role. But when the pandemic thwarted her plans, the project pivoted and became Ramona, a documentary in which Santana interviews other pregnant girls and young women, both to research her role and to understand better their lives. From there, Santana starts to inhabit the role, trying to fully embody her character; we watch an artist learning what it means to really empathize, or if that’s even possible. Fiction and nonfiction blur in Ramona, which doesn’t shrink from the harsh reality that these girls and women, living in a culture in which abortion is unthinkable, often lack support and stability in their new roles. The cycle perpetuates itself, and the stories they tell explore what it means to be a woman.
How to watch it: Ramona premiered at the True/False Film Festival and is currently playing at festivals.
It is 2019 in the remote Ukrainian village of Stuzhytsya, and the young people are leaving. There’s no opportunity here, and that’s the backdrop against which three older women — a post office clerk, a biologist, and a farmer — are living their lives. Director Maksym Melynk started filming the women, asking them questions about their work and the future, and slowly becomes drawn into their world. What transpires is a darkly funny documentary about a world struggling for survival, a country on the brink, and women making the best of a dying village.
How to watch it: Three Women made its US premiere at the True/False Film Festival and is currently playing at festivals.
Time Bomb Y2K
From where we sit now, the panic around the “Y2K bug” — a code glitch that could have caused mass chaos when the calendar ticked over from 1999 to 2000 — feels like a distant memory, almost quaint. It ended up being a nothingburger, but that was, in part, because people started sounding the alarm years earlier. Time Bomb Y2K uses archival footage from the late 1990s to reconstruct what happened and why, and the results are often comical. But what it establishes, subtly, is something much darker: that while we were all focused on a bug, the seeds of all kinds of today’s plagues were taking root, from radical nationalism and gun fervor to mass inattention to the climate crisis to the undermining of expertise and authority. The movie ends on a positive note, one that looks toward the future, but it’s bittersweet all these years later.
How to watch it: Time Bomb Y2K premiered at the True/False Film Festival and will be distributed by HBO.