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The 50 Best Documentaries on Netflix

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Here, we’ll point it out before you can: The best documentaries on Netflix are mostly assembled from movies released after 2010. Whether due to licensing fees, a lack of interest or both, Netflix continues, as is the case every single month, to substantially scale back on its pre-Y2K catalog, featuring only 30 documentaries from before the turn of the Millennium, and a whopping 19 docs to be released before 1990. Strangely, though, the service hasn’t purged much of its selection in the past couple months, really only losing a few good titles like Exit in the Gift Shop and Welcome to Leith.

One thing Netflix does well is bring the latest and most groundbreaking in critically lauded documentary films to the service, be it Oscar-nominated Netflix original Strong Island, or their championing of such semi-obscure essentials as Biggie & Tupac and Pumping Iron—not to mention two of our picks for the best movies of 2017, Casting JonBenet and Faces Places. If you’re looking to find new, essential documentaries, there is still plenty to peruse here.

For other genres and types, check out Paste’s many, many Best Movies lists, and then make your way through the following. Can you handle the truth?

Doesn’t matter. There is no truth.

Anyway, here are the 50 best documentaries currently streaming on Netflix:

50. Miss Sharon Jones!
Year: 2016
Director: Barbara Kopple
In 2013, Sharon Jones was diagnosed with Stage 2 pancreatic cancer—in itself a depressing development, but not without a lot of optimism attached to the prognosis. Except for a by-the-book opening segment, in which director Barbara Kopple seems to grind through all of her blandest tendencies to make room for the grist of what’s important, the film filters Jones’s life and career through her illness. We meet Jones’s band, the Dap-Kings, through that lens, getting to know each musician in light of how their friend’s illness has unfortunately affected their livelihoods. They have mortgages and alimony to pay, children to support, a record label to run. That all of this, already precariously balanced due to the nature of the music-making business, is so dependent on Jones’s health becomes a shadow hanging over every interview. When band practices are occupied by 10+ people sitting patiently in a room waiting for Jones to get back into her groove or helping the singer remember the lyrics to her songs, Kopple’s film is heartbreaking, walking that tragic line between hopelessness and optimism, encapsulating so clearly what it’s like to be close to someone who’s so sick.

But the real thrill of Miss Sharon Jones! is in its concert footage, Kopple letting Jones’s performances, old and new, suffice as the best testament to the singer’s power and—unbeknonwst to anyone at the time, though the thought must have crossed their minds incessantly—the most immediate eulogy we’ve got. If you ever had the chance to behold her on stage, then you know how exhilarating she can be. If you hadn’t? Despite recent tragedy, Kopple has some seriously life-affirming stuff you need to see. —Dom Sinacola


49. Mifune: The Last Samurai
Year: 2016
Director: Steven Okazaki
Perhaps the most illuminating passage of Mifune: The Last Samurai—Steven Okazaki’s documentary about legendary Japanese actor Toshiro Mifune—comes early in the film, in the form of a brief history of early Japanese cinema, especially the 1920s. Samurai films had become especially popular among young people, drawn to its nostalgic look at codes of honor in an older time in the wake of World War I and its devastation. With its inclusion of rare footage from some of these films and Keanu Reeves’s soft-spoken recitation of Okazaki and Stuart Galbraith IV’s narration in voiceover, this sequence puts us in the frame of mind not just of a standard talking-heads documentary, but also of a piece of video criticism of the type that film critics like Kevin B. Lee and Matt Zoller Seitz have been pioneering in the past decade-plus. Those who only know Mifune through his screen acting will find the biographical details fascinating: Born to Japanese missionaries in China in 1920, he was drafted into the Japanese army during World War II, where he developed the rebellious streak, distrust of authority and humane empathy he would later bring to his live-wire performances. And some of the interview subjects provide enlightening context. Mifune’s son, Shiro, fills us in on heartbreaking personal details about his father, especially his alcoholism, which led him to turn violent at times. There are colorful anecdotes from Mifune’s collaborators testifying to his intense work ethic and generosity toward other actors. Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg—the latter of whom directed Mifune in his 1979 comedy 1941—pop up to offer their own commentaries on the actor’s work. Mifune: The Last Samurai never quite shakes off a feeling of superficiality in its approach to this famous subject as the man himself remains beyond our grasp, but it should leave us with a greater appreciation of the actor—especially when we learn about the mortal danger Mifune willingly put himself in for his harrowing death scene in Throne of Blood. —Kenji Fujishima


48. The Wolfpack
Year: 2015
Director: Crystal Moselle
Imagine a small, dingy Manhattan apartment; imagine you can’t leave; and imagine: The only contact you have with the outside world is through movies. Growing up like this, anyone could imagine that things could get pretty weird—and the Angulo family, a literal band of brothers raised in isolation by their paranoid parents, are indeed an interesting bunch. Their only outlet for creativity, undertaken as a way to basically stave off boredom, is to recreate their favorite films (like Reservoir Dogs, The Dark Knight and The Grand Budapest Hotel), crafting costumes out of cereal boxes, yoga mats and whatever other resources they can get their pale hands on. In The Wolfpack, director Crystal Moselle has nearly unlimited access to the Angulo brothers; at one point they inform her that she is the only person who has ever been invited over to their home, and is the only guest they’ve ever had. Sad and strange, funny and touching, powerful and unsettling, it is so wholly unusual, The Wolfpack may be like no truth you’ve ever seen before. —Brent McKnight


47. Chasing Coral
Year: 2017
Director: Jeff Orlowski
Folks, I don’t care what you happen to believe. Sure, global climate change events happened in the past, before the Industrial Revolution. We refer to them as the “Great Extinctions.” You might not believe we’re experiencing one now. Coral begs to differ with you. You might say, “OK, it’s happening, but it’s not being generated or accelerated by humans.” Coral begs to differ with you. Coral would like you to know it is time to be terrified. So would the folks who made Chasing Coral. The film tracks a crew of dedicated coral-nerds who are trying to capture a “coral bleaching” event (mass death from overheated water) so they can start making the public pay attention to what’s going on beneath the ocean’s surface. There’s some beautiful underwater photography, both still and moving, of corals—healthy coral reefs look like they were drawn by a Finding Nemo animator at Pixar, and they are stunning. On the whole, the documentary is not a blazing artistic groundbreaker. And it isn’t meant to be. It’s meant to get you tuned in to the fact that while everyone’s talking about the impact of global warming as if it were something still in the future, ocean temperatures are now regularly experiencing what used to be extremely exceptional random events—namely, “fever” temps that cause coral to die. And corals are the foundation species of insanely diverse symbiotic ecosystems, ranking only with rainforests for sheer species diversity. Chasing Coral is not intended to be an artwork, though elements of it are artful enough. It is explicitly a public service announcement, and a call to action. We tend not to spend much time thinking about things like corals, because they live in a place we don’t usually see (unless we’re lucky enough to live near a reef). What goes on under the surface of the ocean might not seem that connected to what’s going on here on land, but that’s an illusion. Corals would like you to know that you and they are connected far more directly than you imagine, and that without them, you face a radically destabilized environment. —Amy Glynn


46. Ballet 422
Year: 2015
Director: Jody Lee Lipes
In Ballet 422, director Jody Lee Lipes (who recently served as DP on Manchester by the Sea) does something remarkable: He cuts himself out of the equation entirely. He’s barely a fly on the wall in his own documentary, which chronicles New York City Ballet soloist and choreographer Justin Peck’s attempt to architect the company’s 422nd production. Lipes’s approach to capturing his subjects is about as modest as humanly possible, though describing his results as “modest” would be totally unfair. Ballet 422 lacks the traditional hallmarks of most standard documentary films, eschewing talking head interviews and recurring streams of title cards crafted to hand-hold the audience through learning, and that’s what makes it such a gem. —Andy Crump


45. Chasing Trane
Year: 2016
Director: John Scheinfeld
Those old and new to John Coltrane will find something to appreciate in this vivid, albeit effusive, tribute to the jazz legend. Family members, former bandmates and famous fans (Kamasi Washington, Wynton Marsalis, John Densmore, Bill Clinton) recount the genius of the sax player’s compositions and evolution of his talents, from his Charlie Parker-mimicking early work to his later, freeform experimentation. Devotees shouldn’t expect much of a deep dive here on any level; via home movies, archival footage and personal diaries read by Denzel Washington, the film takes a linear, survey-style approach to his North Carolina childhood and drug-addled twenties, two marriages, and quick succumbing to liver cancer in 1967 at only 40. Filmmaker John Scheinfeld dips in and out of the music—too much so, it turns out, and with too little insight into the specifics of his gifts. Still, the overarching salvation Trane found in music resonates with such joy. The sequence about his civil rights opus “Alabama,” which took its phrasing cues from the cadence of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., is a stirring illumination of his creative process. As Coltrane’s notes unfold atop King’s words, music and speech flow into and out of each other in a still urgent, impassioned release. Elsewhere, the doc looks at the transformative power of Coltrane’s faith, his relationships and his legacy with iconic works such as “My Favorite Things” and “A Love Supreme.” Midway through the film Dr. Cornel West describes Coltrane as a thermostat, not a thermometer, of the times, an instrument personified that adapted rather than just measured. In its best moments, Chasing Trane succeeds in that as well. —Amanda Schurr


44. Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World
Year: 2016
Director: Werner Herzog 
You didn’t expect a Werner Herzog documentary about the significance of the internet in our daily lives, and how it might alter our future, to fall in the ballpark of “cheerful,” did you? It’s probably too much to hope for the film to be playful, or cheeky, though it is both of these things when not engaged with bleaker affairs, like internet addiction, embodied via obsessive World of Warcraft play, or the incident around Nikki Catsouras’s death. “But who is going to be liable in case of an accident?” Herzog muses on the topic of self-driving cars. “The onboard computer? Its designer? The GPS system? The internet? Or the driver, who eats his breakfast?” Classic Herzog.

Lo and Behold wants you to feel unsafe in your digital habitat, or at least it wants you to reconsider the status of your relative safety. The film suggests terrors on a sliding scale that goes from “no sweat” to “apocalypse” for the purpose of curing us of said terrors. Think of Herzog not as Biblical prophet, hoisting a sign proclaiming the end times, but as the family cat, presenting you with the lifeless form of a slain household pest as a trophy. He’s trying to reassure us, but his reassurances aren’t all that reassuring. But by confronting with his trademark curiosity and intellectual rigor the uncomfortable truths of what disasters might befall a global society grown so accustomed to occupying virtual space, Herzog’s observations are more factual than alarmist. —Andy Crump


43. What Happened, Miss Simone?
Year: 2015
Director: Liz Garbus
Liz Garbus’s What Happened, Miss Simone? probably errs too far towards a thesis that Nina Simone’s mental health was the cause of her genius, rather than a factor that complicated it. But what saves the film, and what makes it engaging, is that I’m not sure Garbus wholly believes that thesis, because many moments in the film betray it. So even though there are times where Garbus elides aspects of Simone’s life and career to represent her decline as inevitable and linear (and even though she problematically chooses to use interviews with Simone’s abusive ex-husband to narrate Simone’s life), the parts of the film where Simone is allowed to speak for herself—from her diary, from interviews, while performing onstage—are utterly compelling. They portray an artist in the late-1960s at the height of her powers and skill, in complete control of her piano and her voice, and brashly embracing radical politics and Black Power in a way that most contemporary popular musicians were far too scared to do. Sure they also portray an artist who was clearly struggling with fame, responsibility, politics, anger, and self-worth—but, especially in performance, the sheer scope of Simone’s technical skill and artistic sensibilities often escape the imposed rise-and-fall narrative. Even footage from late in Simone’s career provides evidence of her insane musical skill: her reinterpretation of early hit “My Baby Just Cares for Me” over a piano arrangement that sounds like one of Bach’s Inventions is astounding in about 30 different ways at once. Though I can only recommend this film with the caveat that it feels overly storyboarded to exploit a tired old idea of the tortured artist in order to answer its titular question—as in, “Q. What happened?; A. The very qualities that made her great also haunted her”—the concert footage alone makes this documentary worth digging into. —Mark Abraham


42. Best of Enemies
Year: 2015
Directors: Robert Gordon, Morgan Neville
William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal’s infamously grueling rhetorical slugfest is the subject of Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville’s Best of Enemies. Neville won the hearts and minds of arthouse audiences (as well as of the AMPAS voting body) in 2013 with 20 Feet from Stardom, a film that peers behind curtains in show biz to showcase the unsung performers responsible for buttressing the careers of our favorite singers. In Best of Enemies, Neville has teamed with Gordon to pull back a different curtain, one concealing the very real ugliness bubbling and boiling off-camera for the length of ABC’s attempt at spicing up the otherwise staid world of political commentary. Best of Enemies deftly contextualizes the debates within the framework of their era, but the film is more concerned about how much they’ve echoed through the years. The tenor of Buckley’s meetings with Vidal is felt in every inch of our society’s contemporary political machine, from the speech of our crop of wannabe commanders-in-chief to the language used by our televised cognoscenti. Our ability to speak the same language has long been fractured, and Best of Enemies tracks the faultlines of that social temblor with remarkable precision. —Andy Crump


41. Sunshine Superman
Year: 2015
Director: Marah Strauch
Sunshine Superman can be a problematic film to love. A thorough, intimate and often beautiful documentary about Carl Boenish and the BASE jumping movement that practically sprang single-mindedly from the endless font of his surreal enthusiasm, Sunshine Superman still can’t grasp the full splendor at the hearts of both the person and the extreme sport that serve as the film’s most plangent concern. And that isn’t necessarily the film’s fault—there is only so much excitement that can be conveyed regarding the freezing of a full-body rush into a small, albeit panoramic and easily gorgeous, picture—but it is something the film can’t get over. First-time filmmaker Marah Strauch spent years crafting something of a perfect eulogy to Carl Boenish—and her dedication to investigating his outsized life is palpable. It’s no real spoiler he dies, because although you don’t discover the details of Carl’s fate until the film’s final 20-minute stretch, his absence is heavy. His ghost is present everywhere else, though—in home recordings, in reel to reel recordings and even in answering machine messages, Boenish’s ebullient voice lives on righteously throughout the film. The way in which Strauch is able to weave the choicest moments from Boenish’s recordings into a larger narrative that neither betrays the freedom of what he was doing nor feels too formless speaks to a film that seems well-crafted beyond its years, despite the ghost that haunts it. —Dom Sinacola


40. Finders Keepers
Year: 2015
Directors: Bryan Carberry, Clay Tweel, Alexander Yellen
Finders Keepers can boast of having one of the better single-sentence synopses of recent memory when it comes to documentaries: “After a man loses a leg in a plane crash and mummifies it himself, an errant storage locker sale deposits it into the hands of an entrepreneur who refuses to return the body part even after the leg’s original owner demands it back.” That’s the “meat” of Finders Keepers, if you will—a custody battle over a severed body part that really took place between leg-loser John Wood and leg-finder Shannon Whisnant in the years following 2007, when the discovery of the leg and resulting feud made national news. The document of this détente is an absurd, rambling, he-said/he-said story that reveals two fascinating personalities residing in rural North Carolina. At times, just as the story seems headed toward an expected conclusion, just as it feels like things should be wrapping up—some new hurdle arises to be overcome, making for a ever-tragic comedy of real life errors. —Jim Vorel


39. Happy Valley
Year: 2014
Director: Amir Bar-Lev
Why do we pledge allegiance to institutions? Why do we assign positive attributes to unfeeling organizations like sports teams, telling ourselves that our virtue is reflected in their greatness? Amir Bar-Lev’s Happy Valley examines the scandal that engulfed the Penn State Nittany Lions after it was determined that assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky had molested children for years—and that the university (and beloved head coach Joe Paterno) had covered it up. Less a portrait of a sick soul than a chronicling of its repercussions among the Penn State faithful, Happy Valley starkly illustrates what happens when people simply refuse to acknowledge the moral rot in their midst. —Tim Grierson


38. I Called Him Morgan
Year: 2016
Director: Kasper Collin
I Called Him Morgan is the story of two troubled people, one of whom killed the other. Documentarian Kasper Collin—who previously made My Name Is Albert Ayler, also about a jazz musician—looks at the difficult, abbreviated life of trumpeter Lee Morgan, who was shot dead in the winter of 1972 in New York. It’s not a mystery who pulled the trigger—it was his common-law wife, Helen, who was more than 10 years his senior—but I Called Him Morgan isn’t about solving a crime, rather, it’s about connecting the dots regarding why the crime happened. Throughout the film, you feel the slow, grim pull of inevitable tragedy set against a lush visual palette. (Oscar-nominated Arrival cinematographer Bradford Young is one of I Called Him Morgan’s credited cameramen.) Talking heads’ tales are crosscut with dreamy images—snowy nights in New York, a hypnotically colorful fish tank—that always feel pertinent to what’s being discussed. And then there are the interview subjects and the milieu. Jazz musicians such as Wayne Shorter and Charli Persip talk about their friend with specificity and insight, and Lee Morgan’s music—as well as the music he played in other people’s bands—fills the soundtrack. The film will be heaven for jazz aficionados, but those who don’t know the difference between bebop and hard bop won’t feel lost. Collin understands that his film is about people, not art, but his deft storytelling—and the endless sadness that comes from his tale—flexes its own nimbleness and beauty. —Tim Grierson


37. For Grace
Year: 2015
Director: Mark Helenowski, Kevin Pang
Those going into For Grace unfamiliar with chef Curtis Duffy might think it another on-trend slice of foodie porn about the latest culinary rockstar—and they’d be right, kind of. Chicago Tribune dining reporter/filmmaker Kevin Pang and filmmaker Mark Helenowski introduce Duffy as a two-Michelin-starred hotshot who sharpened his knives under Charlie Trotter and Grant Achatz before leaving his latest venture (Avenues) to open labor-of-love restaurant Grace. And that’s where the devastating backstory comes into focus. As the even-keeled, hyper-disciplined Duffy describes a troubled upbringing that involves the murder-suicide of his parents, viewers glimpse the moments that shaped the recently divorced father of two young girls. He frets over $1,000-a-pop dining room chairs, but he frets arguably more about an opening night visit from his middle school home-ec teacher, who took on a motherly role following his own mom’s death. Throughout, Duffy holds himself with a quiet dignity and, yes, grace that resonates on the elegant plates he crafts. So too does his staff, helmed by a GM/business partner who understands how important it is to make each diner feel special—Googling and social media searches of that night’s reservations are par for the course. At now $235 per tasting menu, such a personalized experience should go without saying, but the sincerity and gratitude is obvious. And, of course, the food looks nothing short of exquisite. —Amanda Schurr


36. Man vs Snake
Year: 2016
Directors: Andrew Seklir; Tim Kinzy
Like a companion piece to The King of Kong, Man vs Snake patiently tells the story of one mild-mannered man on a relentless quest to utterly dominate one specific classic arcade game. In this case, that means Nibbler, the original “Snake” (whattup, old school Nokia cell phone users) in that the whole point is to grow your snake as much as possible without running into your own ever-lengthening torso. This time, the seemingly insurmountable feat is to reach 1 billion points on Nibbler, accomplishable only through a multi-day “marathon” session, a record first set by a fella named Tim McVey (it is quickly noted that he is not that McVeigh) in 1984. When, 25 years later, Tim learns that an Italian teen named Enrico Zanetti apparently beat his record decades before, he decides to claim back the title, though he is now much older and markedly out of shape. With help from “bad boy” gamer Dwayne Richard and classic gaming stalwarts Walter Day and Billy Mitchell—who people may recognize from King of Kong as the obsessive owner of Twin Galaxies and ersatz villain, respectively—Tim begins to question everything he is, everything he’s ever done, as he tries to regain old glory. With pomp and flair, Man vs Snake does more than make watching a guy play videogames exciting, it makes one seriously consider—I shit you not—what immortality really means. —Dom Sinacola


35. Amanda Knox
Year: 2016
Directors: Rod Blackhurst, Brian McGinn
With the Amanda Knox saga (seemingly) done for good, Netflix recently released a definitive documentary covering it from beginning to end—the murder of Meredith Kercher and subsequent arrest, trials and appeals of Knox and Raffaele Sollecito; the ensuing media frenzy; the quiet, fast-track trial of Rudy Guede, the only party upon whose guilt everyone seems to agree. The film relies mainly on talking head interviews with Knox, Sollecito and two highly entertaining “villains”: boorish prosecutor Giuliano Mignini and smarmy Daily Mail journalist Nick Pisa, the latter wearing a Hugh-Grant-caddishness and a shit-eating grin. While Knox herself is probably the least interesting interview in the film—more fascinating by half are pre-arrest home recordings depicting her as a naïve, giggly teen—Blackhurst and McGinn are clear about where their sympathies lie, and contrasted with the ghastly Mignini and Pisa, it’s hard not to side with these two kids. But still the film feels thoughtful and relatively well-balanced: The media is its true target, and the filmmakers nail the insidious ways that its sensationalism and greed can derail justice and irrevocably ruin lives. —Maura McAndrew


34. Brother’s Keeper
Year: 1992
Directors: Joe Berlinger, Bruce Sinofsky
There’s an alleged crime at the center of Brother’s Keeper: whether or not Delbert Ward, a 59-year-old farmer from Munnsville, New York, is guilty of murdering his older brother William. But that’s not really what Brother’s Keeper is about. Filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky instead focus on the wide fissure between urban and rural American cultures in the late-1980s and early-1990s, examining the way the three remaining Ward brothers, essentially outcasts in their community prior to William’s death, are increasingly embraced by Munnsville as the media descends upon the town to report on Delbert’s trial. The mystery here is not about whether or not William was murdered; the mystery is what lies at the heart of community bonds and national identity, and how allegiances change as communities grow larger. —Mark Abraham


33. Into the Inferno
Year: 2016
Director: Werner Herzog 
Drawing lines from current events or public moods to the documentaries of Werner Herzog wouldn’t make for a constructive use of time. The only lines Herzog draws are carefully through his own work, the people he’s met and spectacles he’s witnessed and subjects he’s buried deep within him on-call should the spirit move him. In the case of Into the Inferno, Herzog enlists the help of volcanologist Clive Oppenheimer—met while in Antarctica for Encounters at the End of the World—to visit and then gaze into the violent hearts of active volcanoes, a subject he once broached 30 years before in La Soufrière. Shot with the same intensity for long takes he once brought to bear on the Amazon River of Aguirre, the camera in awe of the lava flows, Into the Inferno, like most Herzog documentaries, can’t help but follow symbolic hunches down unexpected tangents. This is how Herzog ends up in North Korea, waxing rhapsodically via voice over about autonomy and artificiality, the mythic spectre of a volcano god hovering in the film’s periphery. As was the case with Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World, and Cave of Forgotten Dreams before it, and Grizzly Man before that, Into the Inferno works as moving, majestic, mind-boggling primer on a director who always has one more movie left in him. —Dom Sinacola


32. Vernon, Florida
Year: 1981
Director: Errol Morris 
Errol Morris’s purpose in Vernon, Florida is to let his subjects speak for themselves. The residents of the titular town have a variety of obsessions—turkey hunting, policing, sand growing, philosophizing—and part of the appeal of the film is the way these snapshots of American life feed into one another. But the greater part, I think, is how these specific, precise stories suggest that everyone of us, American or not, construct narratives to explain our interests and identities, and how our enthusiasms for specific things can end up sounding exotic and strange when explained in any detail. In other words, the point of the documentary isn’t that these specific people are strange; the point is to explore, depending on one’s perspective, how all human beings are strange. —Mark Abraham


31. Under the Sun
Year: 2015
Director: Vitaly Mansky
For as long as there have been documentaries, there have been debates about what exactly constitutes “reality” in those films. Labeling these movies as nonfiction has always been misleading—just because you’re capturing “real” people doing “real” things doesn’t mean you’re necessarily presenting an unfiltered representation of real life. The terrific documentary Under the Sun doesn’t just bring these questions to light but makes them part of the film’s central focus. Daring and thought-provoking, director Vitaly Mansky’s film uses one North Korean family to examine how everyone—moviemakers, governments, even individuals—contorts reality to fit specific purposes. And Under the Sun keeps forcing us to ponder why we watch representations of real life and what we think we’re learning about reality in the process—especially when, like in this film, much of it has been scripted for the purpose of advancing a specific agenda. —Tim Grierson


30. The Witness
Year: 2016
Director: James D. Solomon
The Witness begins with a well-known story: that of Kitty Genovese, famous for her 1964 murder in Kew Gardens, Queens, allegedly witnessed by 38 neighbors who stood by and did nothing—one that’s become something of a tall tale, often cited as a tragic indication of selfish urban America at its worst. But Kitty’s brother Bill was never quite satisfied with the story, so he decided to get to the bottom of it. Solomon’s films follows him as he conducts a series of uncomfortable interviews with former Kew Gardens residents and friends of Kitty’s, most of whom vehemently dispute the “38” theory. Armed with their testimony, Genovese plunges deeper into the now-hazy logistics of the story, even tracing its origins to The New York Times. It may all seem too little too late, but The Witness isn’t really about the case so much as it is about Bill Genovese himself, a tenacious Vietnam vet whose entire life was shaped by his sister’s murder. As Bill attempts to understand his obsession, he learns more and more about Kitty, the sister he idolized but never really knew. —Maura McAndrew


29. Peter and the Farm
Year: 2016
Director: Tony Stone
If the success of a character study can be measured purely by the extent to which the character him-/herself draws one’s attention, then Peter and the Farm is surely one of the most successful of recent years. On the surface, beyond his long white beard, there isn’t anything extraordinarily distinctive about Peter Dunning, a solitary farmer who has devoted 35 years of his life to tending his farm in Vermont, and whose lonely existence masks deep psychological scars underneath. Even his traumas are fairly mundane: estrangement from his ex-wives and kids, curdled hippie idealism, a hand accident that ended his artistic dreams. And yet, once you hear Peter speak in his dramatically galvanizing voice, one can’t help but sit up and pay attention to whatever cantankerous, world-weary, brutally candid statements he utters. However you take Peter Dunning, though, there is something admirable to the way Tony Stone and Co. view their subject with a fascination that’s filled with clear-eyed empathy. It’s the kind of unsentimental compassion that animates the best art. —Kenji Fujishima


28. Karl Marx City
Year: 2016
Directors: Petra Epperlein, Michael Tucker
If you didn’t live in East Germany during the decades the Stasi was extending its insidious reach, perhaps your only knowledge of the GDR secret police comes from the 2007 Oscar-winner The Lives of Others. If nothing else, Petra Epperlein and Michael Tucker’s Karl Marx City offers a necessary riposte to Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s film—and not just because one talking-heads expert in the film takes devastatingly direct aim at that film’s bogus sentimentalities. Epperlein and Tucker go deeper into elucidating the inner workings of Stasi authoritarian machinery than most films, exposing a whole society driven by paranoia, one where few people felt they could trust even their closest friends. But perhaps the most noteworthy achievement of Karl Marx City lies in the way it manages to use Epperlein’s own personal story—her quest to discover whether her late father was, in fact, a Stasi informant—as a conduit to explore this harrowing period in German history without coming off as merely solipsistic. Here is a sterling example of a deeply intimate story that successfully opens out into broader historical terrain in genuinely eye-opening ways. —Kenji Fujishima


27. Justin Timberlake + the Tennessee Kids
Year: 2016
Director: Jonathan Demme
It becomes clear after only one song that Jonathan Demme was the perfect person to direct this ebullient performance doc. In Stop Making Sense Demme iconized David Byrne in the Big Suit and demonstrated that the best performances of all time are simply a matter of precision, and he seems to understand not only what kind of performer Justin Timberlake is, but why. Filmed over the final two nights of Timberlake’s 20/20 tour in Las Vegas, JT + the Tennessee Kids is so finely tuned, one might be hard pressed to pinch an ounce of fat on this thing, Demme obviously knowing that Timberlake depends on his enormous tour ensemble (introduced briefly at the beginning of the film) to make sure the whole show is a seamless, clockwork-like amalgam of moving parts. Consummate professionals in thrall to consummate professionals: Each frame, whether it hugs Timberlake’s glowing face close or expands to display the intimidating breadth of the band, breathes with love—for the music, for the audience, for each other. But that doesn’t even touch how flawlessly Demme can capture the essence of each section/song, how during “My Love” the camera is positioned at stage level, condensing our perspective so that the whole stage is layered like a two-dimensional side-scrolling videogame or a diorama of paper dolls, emphasizing the celestial geometry of Timberlake and his pop-and-locking dancers. Later, during “Only When I Walk Away,” Demme has the camera behind the band, facing the audience lit with lasers and lighters, shooting Timberlake as an opaque silhouette, like dark matter amidst a flurry of constellations. Even later, a macroscopic view of the whole stage, set against some retro computer graphics, pans slightly down to reveal a piano, and next to that emerges a much larger Timberlake, perspectives skewed but steered with aplomb and purpose. Just like every single minute of this wonderful film. —Dom Sinacola


26. Pumping Iron
Year: 1977
Directors: Robert Fiore, George Butler
Behold arrogance anthropomorphized: A 28-year-old Arnold Schwarzenegger, competing for his sixth Mr. Olympia title, effortlessly waxes poetic about his overall excellence, his litanies regarding the similarities between orgasming and lifting weights merely fodder between bouts of pumping the titular iron and/or flirting with women he can roll up into his biceps like little flesh burritos. He is both the epitome of the human form and almost tragically inhuman, so corporeally perfect that his physique seems unattainable, his status as a weightlifting wunderkind one of a kind. And yet, in the other corner, a young, nervous Lou Ferrigno primes his equally large body to usurp Arnold’s title, but without the magnanimous bluster and dick-wagging swagger the soon-to-be Hollywood icon makes no attempt to hide. Schwarzenegger understands that weightlifting is a mind game (like in any sport), buttressed best by a healthy sense of vanity and privilege, and directors Fiore and Butler mine Arnold’s past enough to divine where he inherited such self-absorption. Contrast this attitude against Ferrigno’s almost morbid shyness, and Pumping Iron becomes a fascinating glimpse at the kind of sociopathy required of living gods. —Dom Sinacola


25. The Civil War
Year: 1990
Director: Ken Burns
You can’t know Virginia without knowing the Civil War, and Ken Burns’s mammoth, beyond-classic documentary will stuff you so full of detail you’ll be dreaming of muttonchops and mournful fiddle music for weeks. It’s as good an anti-war film as any that’s been made, and you will leave The Civil War overwhelmed, staggered, devastated by the loss of so much blood and innocence, at once glorying in Emancipation and the heroes of the Union cause. Burns has been criticized for letting too much “Lost Cause” mythology seep into the project, but even if you see men like Virginians Robert E. Lee or Stonewall Jackson as morally complex—and morally compromised—figures by the end of the final “episode,” Burns leaves no room for interpretation: The War was fought over slavery, and the South almost burned the country down to ensure that institution’s survival.

As a Virginian, and especially as a white Virginian from a rural family, you have to reckon with this knowledge if you want to achieve anything close to an honest view of yourself and where you come from. I’m unspeakably in love with Virginia, and proud of where I’m from in the abstract and arbitrary way most of us are proud of where we’re from, but I also never shake the unspeakable—or as Burns shows us, speakable—horrors inflicted by my home state upon thousands of dead in the name of, to put it simply, utter evil. That’s what being a Virginian is, in the end: coming right up against the worst of the American character, looking it in the eye, and trying for the rest of your intellectual life to come to grips with that. I’ll take it, if it means I’ll always be able to come home. The Civil War takes that feeling and casts it across the entire nation. If we can’t look at what we’ve done, Burns says, we’ll never forge ahead. —Corey Beasley


24. Tower
Year: 2016
Director: Keith Maitland
The 1966 University of Texas clock tower shooting ought to be a footnote in American history and not a reference point for contemporary national woes. That Tower, documentary filmmaker Keith Maitland’s animated chronicle-cum-reenactment of that massacre, should feel as relevant and of the moment as it does, then, is startling, or perhaps just disheartening. It was 50 years ago this past August that Charles Whitman ascended the university tower with a cache of guns, killed three people inside, and went on to kill another 11 plus an unborn baby over the course of an hour and a half. Back in those days, a public act of violence on this level was an anomaly piercing the veil of our sense of security. Today, it’s just Sunday. Tower wraps the horror Whitman wrought in a rich, rotoscoped blanket, the vibrancy of Maitland’s palette lending urgency and vitality to the horror he and his cast recreate on screen. —Andy Crump


23. Detropia
Year: 2012
Directors: Heidi Ewing, Rachel Grady
Detropia paints a modern likeness of the City of Detroit as the United States’ greatest failure, and perhaps its most representative example of the untenable nature of the so-called American Dream. But the film is rarely as big as it’d like to be. Though there’s something there to dissect about the dissolution of the middle class—how that doesn’t really mean much of anything anymore—directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady can’t seem to get past a melancholic tone and make a serious case about American exceptionalism dooming the rest of the country in the same way. And yet, basic facts are brutal: How in 1955, 1.86 million people lived in the city, but by the time the film was made, there were less than 800,000 people; how there are currently 40 square miles of vacant land within city limits. Detroit is simply too big, and the film struggles underneath that weight. Ewing is from Detroit suburb Farmington Hills, and as someone who also grew up in the area, I recognize sincerity and possessiveness in the way the film chronicles the city’s current plight. Which is maybe why, despite all of the despair and slow-burning nightmares and wreckage it portrays, Detropia ends on a hopeful beat, more of a lullaby than a soundless death throe. It’s quite beautiful. —Dom Sinacola


22. Biggie & Tupac
Year: 2002
Director: Nick Broomfield
From its very first moments, Biggie & Tupac—a sort of truther’s glimpse into the murders of rappers Notorious BIG and 2Pac—is an exceptionally strange film. Director and narrator Nick Broomfield speaks in a clipped cadence, as if English isn’t his first language, and Earth isn’t his home planet. That he is somehow able to waddle his way into the most exclusive (and sometimes terrifying) situations is nearly incomprehensible, until one realizes that, to some extent, all his weirdness probably makes him seem so non-threatening that the folks who spill deeply incriminating confessions probably never figure his footage will ever see the light of day. And yet, Biggie & Tupac is endlessly compelling, far from an actually competent procedural but still ringing with enough sincerity that, buried beneath Broomfield’s weirdness and his very dubious journalistic intentions, there must be something true he’s tapping into. I’ve heard Broomfield referred to, among other epithets, as a “bottom-feeding creep,” and it’s not a stretch to see how his methods and results could be construed as the work of such. Yet, the access the man gets … when it comes to documentary film, do the ends justify the means? Because: the last 10 minutes of the film alone are worth the journey, in which an interview with Suge Knight (whom the film pretty clearly portrays as the orchestrator of both murders) reveals unnerving opinions on socioeconomic and racial realities. —Dom Sinacola


21. Who Took Johnny
Year: 2014
Directors: David Beilinson, Michael Galinsky, Suki Hawley
At first, Who Took Johnny seems like a rather unassuming little documentary, looking back at the case of Johnny Gosch, the twelve-year-old paperboy who disappeared in 1982 without a trace, never to be found. It follows Johnny’s mother, Noreen Gosch, whose efforts after her son’s disappearance contributed to the founding of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Noreen is an eccentric woman, but it’s only about a half hour into the film that it becomes apparent she could be a less-than-reliable narrator. The filmmakers follow Noreen down rabbit holes, pursuing horrifying-yet-surprisingly-plausible theories about what happened to Johnny, told in part by another strange character, convicted sex offender Paul Bonacci, who claims to have been present during the kidnapping. A full 35 years later, Johnny’s case remains staggering in its mystery: How could a boy go missing in a split second on a busy morning, with witnesses present? And how could he never be found? Who Took Johnny can’t find answers, but what it does find is deeply unsettling. —Maura McAndrew


20. The Nightmare
Year: 2015
Director: Rodney Ascher
By my personal estimation, this is one of the most frightening movies on Netflix right now, and one of the most unsettling documentaries I’ve ever seen. Yes, it’s a documentary: from Rodney Asher, director of the similarly horror-themed doc Room 237. The simple structure of The Nightmare involves in-depth interviews with eight people who all suffer from some form of sleep paralysis, allowing them to describe the horrifying visions they encounter on a nightly basis. It’s equal parts tragic and chilling to hear how the condition has made their nighttime hours into a living hell, and legitimately frightening to watch those scenes reenacted. On the other hand, the documentary can frustrating for not asking or answering what seem like fairly obvious questions: Does medication aid with these sleep paralysis episodes? Have any of the subjects of the documentary ever been studied in an overnight sleep study? And so on. This is a fear I’ve always dreaded experiencing, so if you’re anything like me, you’ll agree with the subject who describes the terror as “the kind of horror that is worse than movies.” If you’re going to watch The Nightmare, you don’t want to do it before falling asleep. —Jim Vorel


19. Paris is Burning
Year: 1991
Director: Jennie Livingston
Madonna’s “voguing” phase has nothing on—that is, took everything from—the drag scene of 1980s New York City chronicled in this vibrant doc. Delving into the subculture of fierce, catwalk-styled posing and the clubs in which it thrived, Jennie Livingston depicts the less-than-glamorous realities of life as a drag queen before RuPaul was mainstream: issues of gender and sexual identity, race, bigotry and hate, HIV/AIDS, poverty, crime—theft is a commonplace means by which these would-be “Legends&#8221 seek a desired end: transformation. Named after one of the underground balls in which its subjects find a sense of family—in “houses,” no less—Paris is Burning is a joyous affair, and a curiously meta celebration of what it means “to be real.” —Amanda Schurr


18. Lessons of Darkness
Year: 1992
Director: Werner Herzog 
“The collapse of the stellar universe will occur—like creation—in grandiose splendor.” — Blaise Pascal

With this quote Lessons of Darkness begins, and so it approaches the aftermath of the Gulf War from the perspective of an alien observer—not so much from another world as functionally from a different dimension, removed and slightly off, then suddenly thrust back into a reality, our reality, brimming with violence and fire. The images to which Herzog lays himself interminably bare are able to be viscerally understood, because they are grandiose: towering, apocalyptic and past the point of logistical comprehension. Every Herzog film comes with at least one near iconic image—an infant desperately gripping a doctor’s finger; a marching line of slaves down a mountainside; a dwarf laughing himself to death; an infinite vista of windmills—and Lessons of Darkness is no different. Though, it could be said that the whole film is one of those images, a meditation on the glamor of devastation: It’s the logical sequel to Herzog’s Fata Morgana, but even more gorgeous, because there’s probably no more thrilling and unadulterated vision of the sheer cataclysm of the human condition than an oil field, burning until the end of time. —Dom Sinacola


17. Sonita
Year: 2015
Director: Rokhsareh Ghaemmaghami
Sonita is a documentary of projected moments: a mother buried under lifetimes of religious oppression picking up the phone to soon after hang up on a daughter finally digging herself free; an Iranian teenage girl accepting that she is little more than a commodity to be sold for a reasonable price, collapsing in tears under the weight of futility; a documentarian who can’t help but intervene in the life of her subject, even though she knows to do so would be to breach the duty that gives her purpose. In 18-year-old Afghani refugee Sonita—an aspiring rapper who finds that everything she loves is against the law in her new Tehranian home—everyone discovers inspiration to do more, to be more, to hope for more than their lives have ever ostensibly allowed. But when Sonita turns the camera on its filmmaker, detailing Maghami’s decision to spend the money required to keep Sonita in Iran when her family decides to return to war-torn Afghanistan, the film becomes so much more than a portrait: Like The Look of Silence, Sonita emerges as a testament to the responsibility of seeing. In a world like ours, there is no longer any such thing as an impartial observer. —Dom Sinacola


16. Strong Island
Year: 2017
Director: Yance Ford
African American filmmaker Yance Ford’s Strong Island is a paean to his brother William, who was shot dead in 1992 by a white mechanic during an argument. The shooter never faced trial—it was ruled self-defense—and in the ensuing decades Ford and his family have wrestled with the injustice. Strong Island is Ford’s way of working through the pain and anger that still consume him, mixing interviews with direct addresses to the camera. It’s a slightly unfocused work (Can anyone fault Ford for being unable to marshal his grief into a completely organized treatise?) but its rawness fuels its astounding strength. —Tim Grierson


15. Iris
Year: 2015
Director: Albert Maysles
It’s tempting to view Iris as a vanity project. Iris and director Albert Maysles were chums, and the outside sense one gets when either watching or merely reading about the film is that the latter decided to make a movie about the former for fun. If we accept this perspective then it’s very, very hard to earnestly hold Maysles’ indulgence against him. You would make a movie about Iris Apfel if you were buddy-buddy with her, too. She’s one of a kind. But Iris is about a lot more than one person making a flattering commemoration to another. It’s about observing a life lived (and still being lived) fully, and even that nifty summation doesn’t quite manage to dig out the alternatingly droll and piquant wisdom Iris has to offer every single person with whom she interacts. In one scene, an interviewer praises Iris for stepping outside of the box with her eclectic style. Iris’s reply feels like the lede of her personal manifesto: “If you’re just going to sit there and do the same damn thing all the time, you might as well jump into the box yourself.” —Andy Crump


14. Little Dieter Needs to Fly
Year: 1998
Director: Werner Herzog 
The story of former fighter pilot Dieter Dengler, told in his own words, is one that, while pretty unbelievable, best illustrates the mastery manipulation of the man helping tell it. Werner Herzog makes no apologies for the way he so often bends truth to more snugly serve the grandeur he finds in the subjects he chooses for his documentaries—but he’s never been interested in unadulterated truth anyway. Instead, he’s in the documentary game for the exultation of truth, conveying it in such a way as to focus on the overpowering emotions at its core. And so, in Little Dieter Needs to Fly, Herzog takes Dengler back to Southeast Asia, where, in the early days of the Vietnam War, he was shot down and taken prisoner, tortured and starved—but then, somewhere within him, found the will to escape. Dengler leads us step by step through this harrowing experience, accompanied by locals who Herzog hired to help Dengler “reenact” the events, and in a sense help him remember. That Herzog later went on to make a narrative feature based on Dengler’s story isn’t at all surprising—Rescue Dawn, starring Christian Bale in the lead role, walks a fine line between harsh reality and patriotic melodrama. Because, as Herzog told Paste more than eight years ago: “Rescue Dawn is not a war movie. It’s a film about the test and trial of men … And survival.” It doesn’t necessarily matter how Dengler escaped, but that he was able to at all. Whatever you want to call it, it was that titular “need” that propelled him onward—and that’s the truth Herzog wants to discover. —Dom Sinacola


13. Jiro Dreams of Sushi
Year: 2012
Directors: David Gelb
Jiro Dreams of Sushi is about one of the greatest masters of the culinary world, one of whom casual foodies have never even heard. Although Jiro’s work—literally, the dishes he so effortlessly prepares, and then the act of watching him as he watches his customers eating the dishes—is ostensibly the film’s focus, the story is truly propelled by the chef’s relationship with his two sons: the youngest started his own restaurant, and the oldest, at the age of 50, continues to work with his father, training to one day take over Jiro’s infamous restaurant. Devoid of the typical familial jealousy you may expect (and so devoid, arguably, of much conflict at all), Jiro Dreams of Sushi is only a beautifully filmed documentary about three men who have devoted their lives to the pursuit of perfection. Which in itself is conflict enough, as the film airily asks: Where do style, artistry, practice and perfection meet? —Emily Kirkpatrick


12. The Square
Year: 2013
Director: Jehane Noujaim
Bringing calm insight to an impassioned, still-developing historic event, The Square looks at the 2011 Egyptian Revolution from the perspective of those who were on the frontlines from the very beginning, personalizing the dramatic developments without losing a sense of greater stakes. Director Jehane Noujaim, who previously helmed Control Room and co-directed Startup.com, has delivered a snapshot of a grassroots political movement over its bumpy two-year history, embracing the emotional complexity and logistical obstacles that have made Egyptians’ road to democracy so difficult. Using no voiceover narration and only a handful of intertitles that inform the viewer about the exact time period of events, The Square seeks to create an urgent, immediate experience that tells its story through the reactions of its main participants. In the West, the scenes of peaceful, joyous protest at Tahrir Square were warmly greeted as hopeful signs of a new Middle East. The Square doesn’t throw cold water on those hopes as much as it meticulously demonstrates that systemic change does not come easily. That’s why you care so deeply about the people you see in this movie—it’s not that their quest is easy but that it’s so very hard. —Tim Grierson


11. Abacus: Small Enough to Jail
Year: 2017
Director: Steve James
Imperiled families are popular forms of community in documentaries this year—on the more heartwarming side is Abacus: Small Enough to Jail, the deceptively straightforward new film from Hoop Dreams director Steve James. In it, James details the ordeal of the Sungs, who ran the only bank to face federal prosecution in the aftermath of the 2008 financial collapse. What’s even more surprising is that their bank, Abacus Federal Savings, was a tiny, local institution catering to New York City’s Chinatown residents—hardly one of the massive financial corporations that helped crater the world economy. There is a happy ending to Abacus’s legal nightmare, however, but James uses the court case as a means to explore the Sung family, particularly patriarch Thomas Sung, who even in his late 70s still elicits a strong hold over his adult daughters, who help run the bank with him while jockeying to curry his favor. Abacus is a family portrait mixed with current events, and if it’s less ambitious than Hoop Dreams that doesn’t diminish the warmth and subtlety James brings to this look at an anxious, close-knit clan who rally around one another once the government goes after them. —Tim Grierson


10. Man on Wire
Year: 2008
Directors: James Marsh
In 1974, high-wire walker Philippe Petit fulfilled a longstanding dream by sneaking into New York’s World Trade Center, stringing a cable between the tops of the two towers, and (with almost unfathomable guts and without a net) walking across it, back and forth, for almost an hour. The man is clearly a nut, but he’s also a great storyteller with a heck of a story, and Man on Wire gives him a chance to tell it. Petit’s stunt was both an engineering challenge and a test of, well, a test of something that most of us don’t possess in this much quantity. Filmmaker James Marsh uses standard documentary techniques, combining new interviews, as well as a satisfying pile of footage and photographs, with re-enactments that both build the kind of suspense more suitable to a caper movie and shade the film’s climactic moment with all due respect for (yet, thankfully, no literal mention of) the visceral symbolism of the two buildings that are no longer there. The title comes from the report written by a police officer on the scene; he was more than a little uncertain about how to respond to the audacity on display. —Robert Davis


9. Gates of Heaven
Year: 1978
Director: Errol Morris 
In a recent interview with the Criterion Collection regarding the re-release of Gates of Heaven, Errol Morris responded to a criticism often leveled at his work. He said, “To love the absurdity of people is not to ridicule them, it’s to embrace on some level how desperate life is for each and every one of us—including me. If the thought is for a moment that I see myself on a pedestal, on some kind of elevated position with respect to these people who I put in my films … not so. It’s just not so.” We have to trust him. We just do. The film that famously got Werner Herzog to eat his own shoe, Gates of Heaven is about those who bury their deceased love ones within a pet cemetery, and those who operate it. It’s why Herzog even bet his shoe in the first place: No one ever figured that a film about rich peoples’ dead animals could ever amount to an investigation of mortal purpose.

Morris’s greatest talent is his patience. He’s unwilling, almost down the marrow of his soul, to intrude upon the lives, perspectives and proclamations of the subjects he films. Unlike later entries—like The Fog of War or The Unknown Known—in this, his very first feature, he devotedly keeps himself out of the picture. And so, as his many subjects reflect upon the loyalty of their pets, or the creatures and things they love, or the ways in which their religions account for a dog’s spiritual side, Morris first proves he’s one of cinema’s most vital documentarians: He’s a natural-born listener. —Dom Sinacola


8. Casting JonBenet
Year: 2017
Director: Kitty Green
An unlikely cross-section of humanity also populates Casting JonBenet, which boasts a provocative idea that yields enormous emotional rewards. Filmmaker Kitty Green invited members of the Boulder, Colorado community where JonBenet Ramsey lived to “audition” for a film about her. But in the tradition of Kate Plays Christine or The Machine Which Makes Everything Disappear, that’s actually a feint: Green uses the on-camera interviews with these people to talk about Ramsey’s murder and the still-lingering questions about who committed the crime. She’s not interested in their acting abilities—she’s trying to pinpoint the ways that a 21-year-old incident still resonates. It’s a premise that could seem cruel or exploitative, but Casting JonBenet is actually incredibly compassionate. Green wizardly finds connective tissue between all these actors, who have internalized the little girl’s killing, finding parallels in their own lives to this tragedy. High-profile murders like Ramsey’s often provoke gawking, callous media treatment, turning us all into rubberneckers, but Casting JonBenet vigorously works against that tendency, fascinated by our psychological need to judge other people’s lives, but also deeply mournful, even respectful, of the very human reasons why we do so. —Tim Grierson


7. Cave of Forgotten Dreams
Year: 2010
Director: Werner Herzog 
Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams is the story of humanity’s oldest surviving pieces of artwork: everything they can teach us about ourselves and how we got here. It’s yet another one of those seemingly random yet functionally primordial bits of human minutia that the German director’s imagination so often keys upon, and in this case it yielded one of his most placidly beautiful, intimate films. As Herzog provides minimal narration, drifting with his camera through Chauvet Cave in southern France, the film unfolds rather like an educational movie that one might watch at a museum or informational kiosk at a historical site, except infused with the director’s personal, unflagging sense of wonder. Here, we learn the stories and historical perspective behind the oldest cave paintings on record, estimated at 32,000 years old, the product of some of the first modern human beings in Europe. The walls depict vivid impressions of their surroundings—and in some sense breaches the fabric of their imaginations. The film has that same sleepy, oneiric quality; it’s never in any hurry, and it feels remarkably self-sufficient, thanks to the three-person crew that filmed the entire thing due to French law regarding access to the caves. Herzog himself even worked the lights, in what is also his only 3D film, offering moving, unprecedented, tactile access to a piece of our biological history which the majority of us will never be able to see in even our wildest dreams. —Jim Vorel


6. Fire at Sea
Year: 2016
DIrector: Gianfranco Rosi
Fire at Sea is an imagistic grasp at a few months on the Mediterranean island of Lampedusa, 100 miles south of Sicily and the first glimpse of land for hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing Africa and the Middle East. With no voiceover and little context, Italian director Gianfranco Rosi juxtaposes the lives of men, women and children barely sustaining themselves on the fringes of society, of humanity, with the everyday, mundane existences of the denizens of the island—both those who devote their lives to helping the refugees and those who work or play or eat big mounds of spaghetti without one thought for the deluge of sad souls passing over their home turf. In long takes and cinematography that aches with the need to push beyond the boundaries of the screen, Rosi indulges in the rhythm of that juxtaposition, daring us to move on from one atrocity after another in order to understand what moving on takes: a lot of boring afternoons and silent plates of spaghetti. —Dom Sinacola


5. Faces Places
Year: 2017
Directors: Agnès Varda and JR
The year’s best road movie was this delightful French film from New Wave pioneer Agnès Varda and photographer JR. The odd-couple contrast between co-directors is physically striking—she’s a woman, he’s a man; he’s much taller and younger than she—but they’re aligned in their desire to document the lives of everyday French citizens, taking oversized photos of the people they meet and plastering them on the sides of buildings to commemorate their specialness. Faces Places is very much in the style of Varda’s most recent documentaries, such as The Gleaners and I and The Beaches of Agnès, which chart how art and life weave inextricably together, but at 89, she doesn’t have the same stamina she once did. That fact lends added poignancy to a movie that, in part, is about the fragility of everything: small towns, photographs, loved ones, long friendships fading into disrepair. With JR as her co-conspirator, the Varda we see in Faces Places stands as a model for how to carry oneself through the world: with humor, humility and grace. —Tim Grierson


4. 13th
Year: 2016
Director: Ava DuVernay
Director Ava DuVernay has successfully made a documentary that challenges and even dismantles our collective understanding of one of the most dangerous notions of our time: “progress.” How do we define progress, and who precisely gets to define it? 13th is a captivating argument against those who measure progress with laws that pretend to protect American citizens and amendments, and even to uphold the Constitution. It is a deftly woven and defiant look at how clauses within those amendments (specifically the lauded 13th) and the language of our political system both veil and reveal a profound and devastating truth about America: Slavery was never abolished here, DuVernay and the participants in the film argue. It was simply amended, and it continues to be amended in 2016, with the constant evolution of the criminal justice system. It’s a bold and terrifying statement to make, but in using a documentary instead of, say, a narrative film, DuVernay is able to point directly to that history and to those people who have defined “progress” for black Americans. In doing so, she draws a line directly from the 13th amendment, to today’s America, which has the highest rate of incarceration in the world. —Shannon M. Houston


3. Cartel Land
Year: 2015
Director: Matthew Heineman
Focusing its primary gaze on Michoacán, a Western Mexican state in the grip of the Templar Knights cartel, Cartel Land is a complex, harrowing documentary about drug gangs’ grip on Mexico (and the Mexican-American borderlands) that doubles as a portrait of the difficulties of grassroots revolutionary movements. Director Matthew Heineman’s film centers on Dr. José Mireles, who decided to fight back against the cartels oppressing his community by creating the vigilante group, Autodefensas. Liberating one occupied town after another another, the Autodefensas were a response to both the cartels and to the corrupt government with whom they were in league. Eschewing narration and on-screen text in favor of interviews that serve to keep the story propelled ever-forward—and often taking up residence right beside, or over the shoulder of, its Autodefensas subjects—Cartel Land is the rare nonfiction work that routinely keeps one’s nerves on edge. —Nick Schager


2. The Look of Silence
Year: 2015
Director: Joshua Oppenheimer
Like The Act of Killing, Joshua Oppenheimer’s companion film—the syntactically similar The Look of Silence—asks you to contemplate the literal meaning behind its title. Again returning to Indonesia, a country languishing in the anti-communist genocides of the 1960s, Oppenheimer this time sets his eye on Adi, a middle-aged optician whose brother was murdered by the men who were the focus of the first film, people today treated as local celebrities. Without question, the film is an interrogation of what it means to watch—as those who led the genocides; as those who are loved ones of those who led the genocides; as those who must repress the anger and humiliation of living beside such people every day; and, most palpably of all, as those of us who are distant observers, left with little choice but to witness such horror in the abstract. As in its predecessor, Oppenheimer’s patience and ability to acquaint himself intimately with the film’s subjects make for one gut-scraping scene after another—the sight of Adi’s 100+ year-old father, especially, is harrowing: blind and senile, the man is abjectly terrified as he scoots around on the floor, flailing and screaming that he’s trapped, having no idea where, or when, he is. Yet, moreso than in The Act of Killing, Oppenheimer here demands our undivided attention, forcing us to confront his quiet, sad documentary with the notion that seeing is more than believing—to see is to bear responsibility for the lives we watch. —Dom Sinacola


1. The Thin Blue Line
Year: 1988
Director: Errol Morris 
A little after midnight on Nov. 28, 1976, Dallas police officers Robert Wood and Teresa Turko made a routine traffic stop for a car driving without headlights. When Wood approached the vehicle, the driver pulled a handgun and shot him five times. The car sped off into the night while Turko fired hopelessly in its wake and Wood died at her feet. A cop killer was on the loose in Dallas. Turko’s recollections of the driver were meager, and 50 investigators worked through the sparse clues without a single witness. But less than a month later, on Dec. 21, Dallas police arrested Randall Dale Adams, a 28-year-old itinerant laborer from Ohio. Though Adams claimed his innocence, a jury found him guilty and the judge handed him the death sentence. The man once branded in court as “Charles Manson” was safely locked away. Dallas breathed again. Nine years later, in 1985, a documentarian named Errol Morris drifted into town from New York. Morris had never heard of Randall Dale Adams; he was in Dallas to speak to a doctor. By the time Morris left three years later, he had freed an innocent man, identified a murderer, uncovered widespread corruption and earned death threats, law suits and debt. He had also made one of the finest documentary films of all time—a nimbly stylized and obsessive pursuit of truth; a study in and a shrug to the pitfalls of myopia; the Serial podcast before podcasts ever existed; an epic story of life, death and the misuse of power that has repercussions to this day. He called it The Thin Blue Line. —Neil Forsyth

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