Narrowing down the best documentaries of 2017 we’ve seen so far to only a list of 15 movies felt more than difficult—it seemed unnecessary given the glut of vital (we do not use that word lightly) and groundbreaking documentary films this year to come out of a festival like True/False, to name but one.
This list also doesn’t take into account the documentaries we’ve seen which are still without a U.S. release date, such as Matt McCormick’s excellent Buzz One Four, which premiered at the Portland International Film Festival. It tells the story of McCormick’s grandfather, one of the U.S.’s select B-52 bomber pilots burdened with flying world-clearing, 4-megaton nuclear weapons on marathon missions over North America, staying ever-ready to drop them on Russia should the Cold War come to a disastrous head. The film’s strength is its wordless, practically impressionistic sense of gravity when pouring over so much found footage and assorted documents from the time, detailing just how much of the world’s destiny was shaped by human beings as susceptible to error—to the failings of the human body—as any one of us. Scored by Portland ambient artist Eluvium (Matthew Cooper), Buzz One Four will, with hope, make it out of the Pacific Northwest and find some distribution care of its growing number of festival appearances.
Still, the documentaries listed below—unranked, because as titles still find distribution and many of our staff catch up, it still feels like too much of a stretch this early in the year to pick which wins out as most vital—are about as essential as such vessels of truth can get, presented with both breathtaking candor and heartbreaking drama to get to the core of what it means to be a witness in 2017.
Here are the 15 top documentary films of 2017 so far.
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
Director: Viktor Jakovleski
One of the three premieres at this year’s True/False was Brimstone & Glory, a celebration of the Mexican city of Tultepec’s San Juan de Dios festival. Director Viktor Jakovleski’s hour-long film isn’t so much concerned about studying the town, its people or the significance of this annual party—it just wants to show us fireworks. Lots and lots of fireworks. More a sensory experience than a structured portrait, Brimstone & Glory contains more primal, enrapturing images than any documentary since Leviathan. Jakovleski’s cameras take us right onto the street as fireworks detonate all around us, often threatening the revelers who happily put themselves in harm’s way to dance among the explosions. This may be a slight film, but I can’t recall a movie that better demonstrated the thin line between danger and euphoria that’s inherent in such public revelries. Tultepec’s yearly celebration is meant to honor San Juan de Dios, a local hero who famously rescued patients from a burning hospital without getting a mark on him, but the partiers don’t walk away so lucky. (We see people being treated for eye injuries, and some of the event’s organizers have clearly had bad encounters with fireworks by the looks of their mangled hands.) Brimstone & Glory is community as catharsis, and you can’t stop staring in stupefied astonishment. —Tim Grierson
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
Director: Matthew Heineman
There need not be a documentary about the Syrian catastrophe to rally the world around its cause—just as, in Matthew Heineman’s previous film, Cartel Land, there was no need to vilify the world of Mexican cartels or the DEA or the paramilitaristic nationalists patrolling our Southern borders to confirm that murder and drug trafficking are bad. The threats are known and the stakes understood, at least conceptually. And yet, by offering dedicated, deeply intimate portraits of the people caught up in these crises, Heineman complicates them beyond all repair, placing himself in undoubtedly death-defying situations to offer a perspective whose only bias is instinctual. So it is with City of Ghosts, in which he follows members of Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently, a group committed to using citizen-based journalism to expose the otherwise covered-up atrocities committed by ISIS and the Assad regime in Syria. In hiding, in Turkey and Germany and at an event for journalists in the U.S.—in exile—these men, who Heineman characterizes as a very young and even more reluctant resistance, tell of both the increasingly sophisticated multimedia methods of ISIS and their hopes for feeling safe enough to settle and start a family with equal trepidation about what they’ve conditioned themselves to never believe: That perhaps they’ll never be safe. Heineman could have easily bore witness to the atrocities himself, watching these men as they watch, over and over, videos of their loved ones executed by ISIS, a piquant punishment for their crimes of resistance. There is much to be said about the responsibility of seeing in our world today, after all. Instead, while City of Ghosts shares plenty of horrifying images, the director more often that not shields the audience from the graphic details, choosing to focus his up-close camera work on the faces of these men as they take on the responsibility of bearing witness, steeling themselves for a potential lifetime of horror in which everything they know and love will be taken from them. By the time Heineman joins these men as they receive the 2015 International Press Freedom Award for their work, the clapping, beaming journalists in the audience practically indict themselves, unable to see how these Syrian men want to be doing anything but what they feel they must, reinforcing the notion that what seems to count as international reportage anymore is the exact kind of lack of nuance that Heineman so beautifully, empathetically wants to call out. —Dom Sinacola / Full Review
Director: Raoul Peck
Raoul Peck focuses on James Baldwin’s unfinished book Remember This House, a work that would have memorialized three of his friends, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and Medgar Evers. All three black men were assassinated within five years of each other, and we learn in the film that Baldwin was not just concerned about these losses as terrible blows to the Civil Rights movement, but deeply cared for the wives and children of the men who were murdered. Baldwin’s overwhelming pain is as much the subject of the film as his intellect. And so I Am Not Your Negro is not just a portrait of an artist, but a portrait of mourning—what it looks, sounds and feels like to lose friends, and to do so with the whole world watching (and with so much of America refusing to understand how it happened, and why it will keep happening). Peck could have done little else besides give us this feeling, placing us squarely in the presence of Baldwin, and I Am Not Your Negro would have likely still been a success. His decision to steer away from the usual documentary format, where respected minds comment on a subject, creates a sense of intimacy difficult to inspire in films like this. The pleasure of sitting with Baldwin’s words, and his words alone, is exquisite. There’s no interpreter, no one to explain Baldwin but Baldwin—and this is how it should be. —Shannon M. Houston / Full Review
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 / Full Review
Directors: Albert Maysles, Lynn True, David Usui, Nelson Walker III and Benjamin Wu
Albert Maysles’ (Gimme Shelter, Grey Gardens, Salesman) final documentary is an unforced, unsentimental portrait of the American Dream, as witnessed on the rails of Amtrak’s cross-country Empire Builder route. Set between Chicago and Portland and Seattle, the terrifically literal In Transit spans three days and any number of ages, races and socio-economic classes, with tales of new beginnings and last trips out, family and leaps of faith, reconciliations and escapes: It’d be boringly cliché were it not so soft-spokenly authentic. Passengers craft with beads, they sleep, they play with toys and make new friends, they philosophize, they drunk dial, sometimes they even look at the northern oil fields and mountains just outside the train windows. There’s a normalcy, a structure, a comfort to this microcosm, to the contents of the cars as a world that will eventually “stop,” wherein some folks are scared of the near unknown, others fear a return to the all-too-familiar. Maysles and his co-filmmakers echo the meditative rhythms of the rails, rolling into each station as stories board and depart, flies on the wall for overheard and -seen moments of hope and heartache. In Transit is a fitting coda to the groundbreaking career of the legendary documentarian, who died in March of last year and, along with his brother David (who died in 1987), thrived on capturing the human condition, ordinary and otherwise. —Amanda Schurr
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
Directors: Sara Jordenö
With the help of model/activist Twiggy Pucci Garçon (who gets co-screenwriting credit here, in addition to appearing prominently), Sara Jardenö returns to the voguing scene Jennie Livingston so memorably captured in the legendary 1990 documentary Paris is Burning. What she finds is perhaps less immediately revelatory than it was almost 30 years ago, when Livingston first brought the voguing scene to a wider audience through her film. Which is probably to be expected, because much has changed since then, with AIDS no longer the scourge it once was, and with trans people of color becoming more visible. But as Kiki poignantly demonstrates—and as the real world constantly reminds us now in the midst of the Age of Trump—much more work still needs to be done. Thus, Jardenö’s greater focus on personal stories here is welcome, showing us an array of figures, some of whom are in the stages of gender transition, some who are trying to help others in the community and keep the voguing scene a safe space for them to fully express themselves. Kiki may be more of an activist documentary than Paris is Burning was, but it is no less affecting for it. —Kenji Fujishima
Director: Margaret Byrne
Raising Bertie continues Kartemquin’s long tradition of socially conscious vérité documentaries. Shot over the course of six years in Bertie County, North Carolina, the film centers around the growth of three teenage boys—David “Bud” Perry, Reginald “Junior” Askew and Davonte “Dada” Harrell—with the years condensed into a brisk 90 minutes. The audience experiences a developmental panorama of the protagonists, watching them go from dealing with school to seeking good work and fulfillment. No matter their milieu, they’re beset by issues of systemic inequality and poverty. Despite the dry cinematic implications of “issues of systemic inequality and poverty,” Raising Bertie is the kind of movie that understands the intrinsic link between the political and the personal. It resists bombarding the viewer with infographics and statistics, intuiting that the lived experiences of these young men are more than enough to educate. True, interviewed adults speak about social machinations more than one might expect them to organically, but that’s simply because the community leaders and educators of this film have learned these topics as a daily matter of course. The film seems to assert that people who chafe at anything getting “too political” are often speaking from a position in which thinking about politics is a luxury. Many citizens of Bertie County don’t have such a luxury. Knowing this, Raising Bertie is a moving chronicle, and a potent treatise on institutional failings that knows to demonstrate said problems instead of merely preaching them. —Daniel Schindel / Full Review
Director: Theo Anthony
Rat Film started from the simplest of notions: Baltimore resident Theo Anthony decided to film a rat in a trash can that was trying to jump its way to freedom. That image, which starts the documentary, sets in motion a gripping amalgam of history, philosophy, experimentation and personal expression. Anthony traces his hometown’s complicated history with the repellent creature, examining (among other things) how city officials a century ago used the city’s poorest neighborhoods as a pseudo-laboratory for how to exterminate the little varmints. But that’s just one tangent that Rat Film explores, often thrillingly. After one viewing, I can’t say that all the parts cohere as seamlessly as I’d like, but the speed of Anthony’s disparate ideas is intoxicating, as random tangents bounce off each other with impressive zest, creating unexpected thematic links. Not surprisingly, then, Rat Film is hard to pin down—it’s a movie about large cities’ rat problems, but it’s also about racism and the evils of social Darwinism. As such, Rat Film asks us for compassion—not just for rats but, more profoundly, for the marginalized communities that consist of the most vulnerable among us: the poor, minorities, those without any power. This documentary is a nervy, almost punk-rock experiment, but its anger is directed at how often we don’t take care of each other. Those who experienced Rat Film will struggle to put its impact into words, but all of us who watched it are now connected by the experience. We became a community, but we’re not the only one—and maybe we should do more to bridge the gap between them. That’s what Rat Film demands. May it thrive. —Tim Grierson
Director: Laura Poitras
Laura Poitras’s previous documentary Citizenfour hummed with the certainty of the nobility of its subject Edward Snowden’s mission to expose the rights-trampling inner workings of the National Security Agency through the documents he leaked. By all accounts, the original cut of her new film, Risk, which premiered at Cannes last year, was similarly one-sided in its valorization of Julian Assange, who has taken such leakages to a much grander scale through his WikiLeaks platform. The version that’s about to hit theaters, however, is dramatically different, not only from Citizenfour, but from just about anything Poitras has done before. The revelations about Assange’s possible behavior towards women and his potential role in influencing the 2016 U.S. presidential election shifted both the man’s public image and Poitras’s perspective as well. Risk is a film that worryingly explores the contradictions of this aloof and ambiguous figure, making the director’s own ambivalence as much the subject as the man himself. It may be more insular in some ways that her previous films, but it is also much more exploratory, and thus much more dramatically compelling. Sometimes the people on the side of angels aren’t exactly angelic themselves. —Kenji Fujishima
Director: Mehrdad Oskouei
Mehrdad Oskouei, the director of this sobering documentary about young girls in a juvenile-detention facility in Iran, is well-regarded in his home country, but until the Museum of the Moving Image in New York gave this film a theatrical run earlier this year, he was barely known, if at all, by international audiences outside of the festival circuit. Based on Starless Dreams, though—and especially in tandem with two earlier, shorter, similarly themed documentaries of his, It’s Always Late for Freedom (2007) and The Last Days of Winter (2011)—the belated wider attention seems richly deserved. A mix of talking-heads interviews and fly-on-the-wall observational sequences, Starless Dreams couches its critique of a heartless judicial system, and by extension a repressive society, in deeply human terms. The personal stories Oskouei, with his paternal manner, collects are heartbreaking in their evocation of childhood innocence crushed at a prematurely early age, with some of them either fearing returning to their normal lives outside of the facility, and others simply wishing for death. And yet, occasionally these girls are able to find pockets of light, mostly through the bonds they’ve forged with each other. Abbas Kiarostami may have left this earth last year, but his gently inquisitive spirit, at least in the nonfiction realm, finds a successor in Oskouei. —Kenji Fujishima
Director: Amanda Lipitz
Following in the similarly crowd-pleasing Drumline and Stomp the Yard’s foot-stomps is dance documentary Step. This year, especially as the film is set against the backdrop of the Black Lives Matter movement and the death of Baltimore’s Freddie Gray, America seems miles away from something so unabashedly heartwarming, sometimes an uncomfortably innocuous offense in a harsh environment, like candy smuggled into prison. The film is a pleasant (if sweetly facile) reprieve from the real world, though the real world threatens this small joy. That threat comes care of the fact that the documentary isn’t just about stepping, but about the successes and struggles of those in the first class to attend the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women, an all-girls high school with the express goal of having all of its graduating seniors accepted into college. The best parts, then, of this sometimes-sidetracked documentary are those capturing small moments between high schoolers. A hair-styling session buzzes after the question of “MLK Jr. or Malcolm X?” and a buffet date night sours when the boy’s immaturity evolves to selfishness. These moments build relationships with the subjects that render the film’s potentially saccharine story so gently and successfully. Step may stumble over its own hurried pace (cramming months of school into montage after montage), but such a method is almost forgivable once you realize that the film is speeding towards an effective finale that will have you cheering no matter what. —Jacob Oller / Full Review