2017 will be remembered for a number of events and seismic shifts in societal behavior. It will also be known as the year that Netflix broke out as genuine creative competition to second-tier studios like A24, Fox Searchlight, Magnolia, and Focus, after doing the same to TV. Their narrative slate ranged from some of the year’s best movies (The Meyerowitz Stories) and very worst (Bright), but just as important was their expanded documentary slate. Indeed, it’s unclear who would have picked up Yance Ford’s shattering Strong Island or Chris Smith’s Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond if not for Netflix. Would that the streaming giant could find a better way to give their visionary films a chance to be seen on the big screen as well as on their platform.
Strong Island, like most great documentaries, confronts a tragic event – in this case, the murder of the director’s brother – from a number of perspectives, and Ford reflects the loamy mix of memories and stories in his interviews and confessions in the texture of his images. There’s a similar attack plan in Theo Anthony’s radical Rat Film, an essay film that utilizes Baltimore’s rat infestation problem as the less-than-ideal metaphor for the city’s history of geographically caging their black population. In these films, as well as Behemoth and Dawson City: Frozen Time, political and philosophical truths trickled down from a hash of personal visuals, including the use of tattered, burned, and decaying nitrate film. There’s nothing wrong with more straightforward fare – Trophy fits that bill and remains profound – but as facts become more slippery and empathy becomes more elusive, the best documentaries must strike out into bolder directions to sift through the noise and find something wholly relatable, convincing, and intimate to hold onto.