Recently, Next Best Picture ran a poll to see what was the film community’s favorite documentary of the decade, and the shortlist consisted of some very good documentaries but not every documentary could make the top ten. The top ten list covers a range of topics and subjects from the pressures of celebrity stardom to the mistreatment of animals in captivity. Some documentaries were recognized and awarded by the Academy, and some were painfully ignored. In our recap of the decade we’ve also conducted polls with the NBP Film Community which resulted in lists for the best black and white, horror, biopic and animated films (Next up is best youth performance).
So, without further ado, here’s our rundown of the top ten documentaries as chosen by you.
For a short few years, Amy Winehouse dominated the music scene. She was truly a force of nature with her unique vocals and her tragic haunting lyrics. Sadly, her private life was very troubled and this would slowly bleed into the public eye in the most devastating and catastrophic manner. Director Asif Kapadia takes a different approach to tell the truth behind the sensationalized headlines by using a mosaic of unseen home video, news reports, TV interviews and exclusive behind the scenes footage to construct the real story of Amy Winehouse and her genius. “Amy” became the highest-grossing British documentary film of all time when it opened with a box office of £3 million on its first weekend. It would later win Best Documentary Feature at the Oscars, proving that the legend of Amy Winehouse still lives on.
The tagline for “Blackfish” is a grave warning to us all: “Never Capture What You Can’t Control.” This documentary shows us exactly what occurs if man tries to control nature, and it doesn’t make for pretty viewing, but this is a necessary documentary that you must seek out if you haven’t done so already. The documentary concerns Tilikum, an orca held at SeaWorld, and the controversy over captive killer whales. Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s documentary isn’t for the faint of heart and will reduce you to a sobbing mess by the end. It’s almost impossible to shake off after you’ve seen it. The impact of the film’s reception by the public led to SeaWorld finally getting the message; they could never control what they had captured. And in 2016, they finally announced that they would be ending the orca breeding program.
8. “The Act Of Killing”
From the period of 1965-66, large-scale killings and civil unrest took place across Indonesia. An accurate number of those who lost their lives has never been revealed, the truth being that the number has been lost to history. We may never know the exact death toll, but “The Act of Killing” does a fine job at piecing together the aftermath of what occurred, while also addressing the disturbing truth about what compels certain people to commit such hideous crimes against their fellow man. The film focuses on the perpetrators of the genocide, who are now old men living their lives carefree without being held accountable for their actions. One of these men is Anwar Congo, a gangster who became the leader of his own death squad and claims to have personally killed 1,000 people. Congo’s recounts of what occurred play out like scenes from Hollywood films, but then he takes on the role of a victim which affects him in such a way that we never see coming. “The Act of Killing” is a unique, raw and compelling documentary like you’ve never seen before.
7. “Three Identical Strangers”
To describe “Three Identical Strangers” as a thriller may seem odd at first because it starts off like a comedy rather than a straightforward thriller. The story of “Three Identical Strangers” is stranger than fiction, and honestly, it seems so larger than life that it feels like it has to be made up by some Hollywood screenwriter. It examines a set of American identical triplets, Edward Galland, David Kellman, and Robert Shafran, who were born in 1961 and adopted as six-month-old infants by separate families, unaware that each child had brothers. By chance, the brothers become aware of their existence and become instant celebrities overnight, their stunning story captivating the nation. However, the story takes a dramatic, dark turn when they uncover the truth about why they were separated. Director Tim Wardle blends together archival footage, re-enacted scenes, and present-day interviews to create a remarkable documentary that has some genuine on-the-edge-of-your-seat moments. The triplets’ story is set to be made into a feature film, but it seems a shame to wait until the feature adaptation is released. This is a must-see documentary and has to be seen to be believed.
6. “O.J.: Made In America”
It’s hard to imagine a time before the trial of O.J. Simpson. Before O.J. put on that pair of gloves. A time before he led the entire Los Angeles police force on a car chase and a time before the tragic deaths of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman. Ezra Edelman’s epic documentary (over seven hours total runtime) manages to rewind the clock before O.J. was O.J., before the celebrity football and film career, and before the events of 1994. The documentary almost never came to be as Edelman initially declined to take on the job, as he felt “there was nothing left to say about [O.J. Simpson].” But Edelman quickly found that there was much to say about O.J. The documentary doesn’t just chronicle the rise and fall of an American icon but also explores the cult of celebrity, the corruption of the LA police force, the rising tensions and conflict between the black community and the police, and toxic masculinity. And while this is by far the longest documentary on this list, it never feels like it’s over seven hours. It’s such a compelling and absorbing piece that’s truly eye-opening in every sense. The Washington Post called it “nothing short of a towering achievement” and I’m inclined to agree. “O.J.: Made in America” is worth every second of your time.
5. “Apollo 11”
What better way to celebrate the 50th anniversary of man’s greatest achievement than watching “Apollo 11”? As you can probably guess, “Apollo 11” focuses on the 1969 Apollo 11 mission, and consists solely of archival footage, including 70 mm film previously unreleased to the public. What makes the documentary stand out is the fact that it doesn’t feature narration, interviews or modern recreations. Todd Douglas Miller and his team completed their own epic journey by sifting through 11,000 hours of uncatalogued audio and restored reams of original film, including hyper-detail 70mm footage that languished in the archives, boxed up and forgotten, since 1969. The end result is one of 2019’s best films. Even the most die-hard tin foil hat wearing conspiracy nuts will be left awestruck by Miller’s documentary, especially when it comes to the moon landing sequence which really transports you into the mindset of the astronauts and the crew left back on Earth. Of course, we all know how the story unfolds, we have all learned about it at school and have been subjected to all sorts of Hollywood reenactments, but Miller manages to make it all seem so fresh and innovative.
4. “Minding The Gap”
“Minding the Gap” is an astonishing debut from director Bing Liu. At first glance, you may be quick to dismiss it as just a documentary about skateboarding, but it’s so much more than that. The film chronicles the lives and friendships of three young men (Keire Johnson, Zack Mulligan, and Liu) growing up in Rockford, Illinois, united by their love of skateboarding. “Minding the Gap” tackles a range of subjects: the transgression from childhood to adulthood, the haunting effects of growing up in an unstable household, the crippling damage of toxic masculinity, the stigma of a lower economic background, and the power of friendship. This may be Liu’s debut film, but his maturity speaks volumes. Each story could easily be its own standalone feature, but Liu manages to successfully weave together all of the strands without ever losing the importance of these individual narratives. “Minding the Gap” feels so personal yet universal in its subject matter, and regardless of your own background, you can still connect to the men in the film. Ultimately, “Minding the Gap” is about confronting one’s past and dealing with trauma. You may fall off the board from time to time, but the greatest trick is learning to brush yourself off and getting back on.
Ava DuVernay is one of the best directors currently working, and even at her most ambitious with the likes of “A Wrinkle in Time,” her passion and enthusiasm shine through. However, it’s with films like “Selma” and the TV series “When They See Us” where her passion truly shines. With her 2016 documentary, “13th,” DuVernay investigates the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution and the history of slavery, as well as the post-Civil War racist legislation and practices that replaced it. The documentary ultimately shows us that slavery may have been abolished, but a loophole in the law meant that involuntary servitude could be used as a punishment for crime. To say that this documentary is a true eye-opener feels a little cliche, but honestly, “13th” cuts deep and presents the viewer with some very disturbing, and frankly, alarming truths. The film opens with an audio clip of Barack Obama stating that the U.S. has less than 5% of the world’s population and almost 25% of the world’s prisoners. It’s an insane statistic to wrap one’s head around. It’s hard not to be moved by “13th” and by the end of the film you will struggle not to be in floods of tears.
2. “Free Solo”
Last year’s most thrilling and gripping film wasn’t the latest Marvel, but Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi documentary, “Free Solo.” This award-winning documentary follows professional rock climber, Alex Honnold, as he attempts to conquer the first free solo climb of famed El Capitan’s 900-meter vertical rock face at Yosemite National Park. Watching Alex’s climb is truly jaw-dropping stuff, and it’s brilliantly captured by Chin, Clair Popkin, and Mikey Schaefer’s stunning cinematography. “Free Solo” is a love song to obsession and passion. Just like Honnold, we have all had that one challenge that has haunted us. He is a loner, and someone so set on his journey that it’s hard to picture him settling down, but then Sanni McCandless enters his life and love becomes a new adventure in itself. Honnold’s achievement is amazing, and by having it captured on film, the viewer becomes part of this extraordinary journey. There are moments where you find yourself literally holding your breath as your palms become sweaty and your heart beats so fast that you feel like it’s going to burst out of your chest. Yet, we can never peel our eyes away from the screen as we absorb every last detail in. “Free Solo” went on to make $28 million at the box office and earned the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature in a year where so many great documentaries were released. “Free Solo” is a story of man’s determination to tackle any task, even if it’s something as epic in scale as solo climbing a 900-meter rock face. Watch it on the biggest screen available.
1. “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”
Although it was a delight to see “Free Solo” win the Oscar for Best Documentary, the snub of Morgan Neville’s “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” still stings. Before Tom Hanks donned the red cardigan, Neville’s documentary took on the task of tackling the myth that is Mr. Rogers. To those who grew up with “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” this documentary is a beautiful look back on the impact that the children’s TV show had on shaping multiple generations. Neville interviews those who were close to Mr. Rogers, from his colleagues who worked on the show, to his wife and children, and they all paint the same picture: This was a man who truly believed in helping children. Mr. Rogers was truly revolutionary and ahead of his time. For example, when he heard of the racist clashes over desegregated swimming pools in the south, he insisted on making a segment for his show in which he and Mr. Clemmons, the series’ black neighborhood policeman, bathe their feet together. Even for those like myself who didn’t grow up with Mr. Rogers, you can still find much enjoyment from this well-crafted documentary. Fred Rogers’ simple but effective philosophy is something that we should all take in and practice especially in these troubled times. We can all take away Mr. Rogers’ message: “You’ve made this day a special day, by just your being you. There’s no person in the whole world like you, and I like you just the way you are.”
So what do you think? What are your favorite documentary films of the decade? Be sure to check out the polls page for more weekly and end of the decade polls. Let us know your thoughts in the comments section below or on our Twitter account.
You can follow Bianca and hear more of her thoughts on the Oscars and Film on Twitter at @ThefilmB