10 Best Documentaries of the Year (So Far)
Documentaries almost never make for big blockbusters or get written up in the headlines, but often some of the most compelling stories being told in cinema come from documentaries about true events. While docs will never get the attention of a blockbuster, they have the ability to teach the audience something new about the world in a way that fictional films don’t.
If you feel like learning something new on movie night, here’s a list of the 10 best documentaries of the year so far, according to reviews aggregated by Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic. These 10 films explore a huge variety of subjects, from musicians to film critics, from a classic film to a movie that never got made, from a gorilla sanctuary to an art museum.
Of course, one of the most talked-about documentaries this year was Laura Poitras’s film about NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, Citizenfour. You might think to yourself, I’ll just wait for one of the biopics to come out, but Poitras’s film was praised for giving the feel of a spy thriller while staying true to Snowden’s story and presenting him as a normal person faced with an extraordinary decision. Poitras was one of the original journalists who Snowden leaked the documents about the NSA’s surveillance to, as she’s a multiple award-winning filmmaker who had been in the process of making a film about post-9/11 surveillance when she began receiving anonymous emails from him under the pseudonym “Citizen Four.” The documentary got a 97 percent Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes and an 88 Metascore from Metacritic.
2. No-No: A Dockumentary
This film is probably the most rock-and-roll documentary ever made about baseball, discussing the infamous no-hitter pitched by Dock Ellis for the Pittsburg Pirates in 1970 while tripping on LSD, the only instance of such a thing happening in the recorded history of baseball. Ellis was a controversial figure in the baseball world for more than just his rock-and-roll lifestyle, as the baseball community was a bit wary of his black power attitude, as well. Ellis was both a civil rights trailblazer and one of the biggest rock stars in baseball history. While Ellis has become a bit of a folk hero for accomplishing such a task while tripping, he later went on to get sober from his multiple substance addictions and treat his counseling on addition with the same passion as he had civil rights issues decades before. The documentary has a 100 percent Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes and a 68 Metascore.
3. 20,000 Days on Earth
This documentary about rock icon Nick Cave takes on the conceit of exploring one day in the artist’s life while recording his recent critically acclaimed album with the Bad Seeds, Push the Sky Away, which received numerous accolades and would go on to become Cave’s first No. 1 album in his native country of Australia. The movie doesn’t disguise its fakery and is much more a look into the myth-making behind Cave than an attempt to show viewers who he really is. Cave drives around Brighton while ghosts from his past, including Kylie Minogue and Ray Winstone, mysteriously appear in the backseat of his car to talk to him about his life and art. While the more you love Cave, the more you’ll love this movie, it’s accessible to anyone interested in exploring the creative process and what the drive to create means as one ages. The film has a 97 percent on Rotten Tomatoes and an 83 Metascore.
4. Life Itself
Life Itself looks at the cinematic legacy of one of the world’s best-known film critics, the late Roger Ebert. The movie is based on Ebert’s memoir of the same name and gives a heartfelt look into the life of the critic as he went from a journalist to a Pulitzer Prize winner to his struggles with cancer of the thyroid and salivary glands that left him unable to speak. Ebert still wrote, though, and continued to publish film criticism up until his death in 2013. Life Itself has a 98 percent Fresh rating and an 87 Metascore.
5. The Battered Bastards of Baseball
Another great baseball doc that came out this year, this one is about the formation of the Portland Mavericks, who were founded in 1973 as the first independent baseball team in America. The establishment was skeptical, but the team went on to break attendance records, create the bubblegum Big League Chew, hire the first female general manager in baseball history, and revive the career of the controversial athlete Jim Bouton, among other accomplishments. This is the perfect documentary to watch if you’re looking for a true underdog story. The film has a 100 percent Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes and a 75 Metascore.
6. The Dog
The Dog goes into the real-life inspiration behind Al Pacino’s character Sonny in the classic Dog Day Afternoon. John Wojtowicz came of age in the 1960s era of sexual liberation and took pride in his voracious sexual appetite for both men and women. In August 1972, he held up a Brooklyn bank for the cash to fund the sex-reassignment surgery of one of his lovers and the failed attempt resulted in a long hostage situation that was broadcast on live TV. Later, Pacino committed the crime on the big screen in one of the most iconic movies ever made about New York City. The documentary examines Wojtowicz’s life not only before and immediately in the wake of his infamous crime, but also years later, when he got out of prison, and how the film came to affect his life and earn him the nickname “the Dog.” The film has a 94 percent on Rotten Tomatoes and a 76 Metascore.
This documentary examines the Virunga National Park wildlife preserve in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where the last remaining wild mountain gorillas reside and are protected by some dedicated park rangers from a variety of threats, in particular related to civil unrest in the country. The park contains one of the most biodiverse regions in the world that must be guarded from poachers and members of various militia groups. The movie looks at the micro- and macrocosm through the lens of this place while watching the park’s employees deal with a new militia threat when the M23 rebels declared war in May 2012. The movie has a 100 percent Fresh rating from critics on Rotten Tomatoes and a 96 Metascore.
8. National Gallery
Frederick Wiseman is famous for making richly detailed but also slow-paced documentaries about modern institutions. In his latest film, which critics are calling one of his best, the director goes to the National Gallery in London, which is considered to be one of the greatest art museums in the world. The museum itself becomes a work of art as Wiseman films it, and a variety of art experts and museum staff discuss the museum’s most iconic paintings, restore priceless works of art, and argue in staff meetings over the direction of the museum’s future. Watching this film is like taking an extremely in-depth visit to the museum and having a personal tour from a panel of experts discussing works by Rembrandt and Da Vinci, without having to buy a plane ticket to London. The movie has a 100 percent Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes and an 89 Metascore.
9. The Overnighters
The Overnighters tells the mostly unknown story of a modern-day Grapes of Wrath situation that occurred in small-town North Dakota. When the tiny town of Williston became an oil boom town with zero infrastructure for all the people who migrated there looking for jobs, the town’s pastor began something he called the “overnighters” program, in which he allowed those without a place to stay to sleep at the church. This program was met by much resistance from the local community, and the documentary shows the struggles of the pastor, the migrants, and the locals to paint a picture of some of the most pressing issues facing contemporary American society. The movie has a 98 percent Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes and a 90 Metascore.
10. Jodorowsky’s Dune
This documentary is about one of the most infamous and ambitious films that never got made. Chilean director Alejandro Jodorowsky is known for movies including El Topo and The Holy Mountain. In 1975, he set out to adapt the classic science fiction novel Dune with a cast that featured Orson Welles, Mick Jagger, David Carradine, and Salvador Dali, with a musical score from Pink Floyd. The movie was never completed. The doc tells the story of what happened and leaves the audience pondering the question of what could have been. It has a 98 percent Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes and a 79 Metascore.
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