The Best Documentaries of 2017
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.
10) 'Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond'
Chris Smith’s latest study of creative obsession vaults between extensive footage shot behind the scenes of Milos Forman’s Man on the Moon and a present-day interview with Jim Carrey. The most remarkable element of Forman’s amiable biopic of Andy Kaufman is Carrey’s performance as the legendary Taxi actor and avant-garde comedian, and his process for getting into character is the main subject of Smith’s fascination. As an older man, having long ago made all the money he’ll ever need, Carrey looks back at his performance or, as he recollects, the period in which Andy took over his body with fondness but also a full knowledge that he made life difficult for those working around him. For those with any interest whatsoever in acting for film or the life of an active movie set, Jim & Andy will be something of a treasure trove of insights and hard-won wisdom.
9) 'I Called Him Morgan'
What drives Kasper Collin’s rapturous documentary about the brilliant jazz trumpeter Lee Morgan is a single interview with his common-law wife, Helen, from inside prison. In February, 1972, Helen shot Lee dead in a Manhattan club, after years of physical abuse and drug addiction that rotted away their already troubled relationship. Hearing her side of the story, in the year when we heard so many horror stories about women’s interactions with famous and talented men, comes on like a revelation and gets at the same dark heart of jazz and performance in general that Clint Eastwood plumbed in Bird, his cinematic portrait of Charlie Parker. Only now, it’s starkly clear that the damage that they did to themselves wasn’t quite as poetic when they took it out on the one’s they purported to love.
Those who erupted in anger over the dentist who shot the lion or Donald Trump Jr.’s psychotic grin when he was pictured holding up a severed elephant’s tail will likely not leave Trophy happy. Christina Clusiau and Shaul Schwarz’s tough-minded documentary came out of Sundance with a notorious reputation, thanks largely to its even-handed study of the global big-game hunting industry. What the director’s lack in discernible style they make up for in insight, as it becomes clear that to keep certain breeds of animals alive, the breeders at the big-game hunting ranches must continue to do their work. In other words, for the good of the overall breed, we must continue to murder animals en masse, or wipe those breeds out and end what is a gruesome industry that is difficult to defend in any serious manner.
Of course, the directors include interviews with those who do defend the “sport” outside of its usefulness in breeding and in that, they reveal the troubling truth of why game hunting remains so popular in certain corners of this country and the world at large. Trophy doesn’t offer easy answers for either these so-called hunters or the animal rights crowd, who come off as arrogant and dismissive when one breeder attempts to openly discuss the issue. Few movies this year, or any year, felt so honest about the state of the commodification of living animals while also fully confronting the complexity inherent in doing anything to reverse it.
7) 'The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman's Portrait Photography'
Elsa Dorfman does not get name-checked in the same breath as Richard Avedon or Anna Leibowitz, and that’s kind of the point for Errol Morris. Dorfman was known primarily for large-scale Polaraid portraits, done with a camera that can handle her chosen format. She also shot with smaller Polaroid cameras, and with one, she snapped iconic images of Allen Ginsburg, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, and many more in the 1960s and 70s. Morris doesn’t follow her to get those celebrity stories, though we do get a few snippets of her life as a popular photographer amongst pop culture’s ruffians. Instead, Morris looks for Dorfman’s own connection to the equipment, the format, and her own style, and the woe of seeing the distinct art forms and machines that helped you find your identity go out of style. It’s an endearing and funny movie about being a working artist with a name, just not a big enough one to discard the hardships of the everyday, and for Morris, it acts as a kind of self-portrait.
The title says it all in Zhao Liang’s bleak vision of modern China. Each one of the director’s images are centered largely on China’s iron mines and the workers that toil within its deadly catacombs. On the big screen, the size of the people and their equipment, as well as the noise, is overwhelming, and that’s not even getting into the factory conditions or the outcome of this deadly work. To that point, the filmmaker also visits one of China’s famous “ghost cities,” where empty high-rises built with that same iron line the streets in the hopes that investors will flock there eventually but also to keep up the reputation of President Xi Jinping. Few documentaries need to be seen on the big screen to fully understand the magnitude of the forces at work as Behemoth. Even fewer are laced with such undiluted political rage and sadness for one’s home.
5) 'Strong Island'
The killing of William Ford Jr. in 1992 is the focal point of Yance Ford’s viscerally personal documentary but it’s white society’s disrespect and seeming indifference to his family’s need for closure that comes ringing out most loudly. Ford introduces the facts of the murder of her older brother early on and interweaves the studying of the crime scene, where mechanic Mark Reilly shot Ford dead after a disagreement over work done to the victim’s family vehicle. More importantly, the director follows her own search for answers that prove unsatisfactory and traces the history of not-so-subtle disrespect that plagued her parents when they made the move to Long Island. Ford even goes as far to tape his own confessions about his brother, the case, and the aftermath that shook the family unit. What emerges is a searing portrait of white ambivalence to black suffering, only mitigated by the stirring intimacy of Ford’s memories of family and self-discovery. It also happens to be the best movie Netflix has put its weight behind since 13th.
4) 'Rat Film'
Theo Anthony’s essay film constantly cuts from the denizens of Baltimore’s black neighborhoods to the film’s composer, Dan Deacon, sculpting the warbling synths that will become the score. It’s a nod not only to the self-referential style of Anthony’s film but to the heart of the matter in Rat Film: race. Deacon comes from Wham City, the famed Baltimore collective that gave rise to Deacon and noise-punk outlaws No Age, music that is at the forefront of noise rock and noise pop. And yet, not all that far away, black men spend their times getting rid of rats by literally fishing for them with cheese. In another neighborhood, a black pest controller muses about the origins of the city’s rat problem but also the hardships of making a decent living in the city without higher education and with a mark or two on your arrest record.
In mining the history of Baltimore’s rat infestation and racist city planning, including sketches and drawings of county lines and districts, Anthony is smart enough to see the privilege given to himself in being able to make this short, sensational movie, much like Deacon is allowed to make his music. It’s an important moment of personal confession, amongst a plethora of intimate experiences, remembrances, and statistics that come to outline a bleak future for Baltimore’s oft-plagued black population.
3) 'Dawson City: Frozen Time'
The director Bill Morrison utilized a treasure trove of footage at the Dawson City Film Fund to create this wondrous experimental documentary. The glut of the movie is made up of passages from films we will likely never seen in full, only rescued in snippets after poor storage and preservation standards led to them being essentially destroyed. Others burned up, as is the inherent danger of shooting anything on nitrate. The volatility of the format itself informs Morrison’s view of history, which he traces from the Gold Rush to the early 1930s. The filmmaker delights in plumbing the historical and geographical details of Dawson’s rise and financial downturn, strewn with a bevy of stories that lay the bedrock of Hollywood’s salad days in the 1920s, but Dawson City: Frozen Time pushes further. In assembling footage of these thought-lost movies, some by early female filmmakers, Morrison suggests an alternative history in which these people influenced early Hollywood and were discussed with similar fervor as early silent American masterpieces. He also, perhaps inadvertently, presents a striking argument for cinema being an all-too-important reflection of society and political structures that can themselves help shape and influence culture. Few movies this year felt so sensationally alluring, even hours after the movie itself finished.
2) 'Faces, Places'
Agnes Varda has always had a soft spot for workers. Decades ago, she traced the quotidian lives of the shop owners and tradesman on her street in the tremendously influential Daguerreotypes, and The Gleaners and I, her 2001 ode to those who live off the discarded food of others in France, highlighted the usefulness of what becomes food waste in helping working-class people and the poor survive. And with Faces Places, Varda goes one step further with help from the visual artist JR, who specializes in putting up large-scale photo-portraits of people, animals, and objects on buildings and large-scale vehicles, like how billboards are put up. The co-directors travel across rural France, interviewing farmers and townsfolk about their neighbors, family, and personal lives. What she culls from these conversations, and her ecstatically creative doings and exchanges with JR, is an overwhelming sense of the roiling tides of personal history and tragedy that shape everyday lives for those who rarely are represented or are allowed representation. Varda and JR turn that around by turning their good humor, their sadness, and their wonder into the stuff of thrilling, joyous art.
1) 'Ex Libris - The New York Public Library'
Ta-Nehisi Coates has a conversation about the history and perspective of being black in America at one point in Frederick Wiseman’s Ex Libris. Later on, a teacher questions the ultimate value of capitalism and America’s not-so-subtle obsession with empire. Toward the end, a largely black community reckons with the value of libraries and their funding for their kids and neighbors. These are all snapshots from the intricate network of public libraries in New York City, and Wiseman doesn’t rush one of them. He investigates every corner of the library system’s generous world and finds a utopian ideal of local government and institutions in doing so. He includes poor families looking for free internet services, students getting turned loose on their photo collection, and galas where great artists like Norman Lear are honored in the hopes of adding some room to their budget. Three hours stuck in a library may sound boring from the outside but what Wiseman finds is a support system that benefits those that are looking for a little relief from an unexpected source as well as those who are financially stable and just need a good place to write, research, or read a good book. More than that, he finds the dream of a public institution run by dedicated teachers, day-workers, and specialists who seek nothing more than to offer services to their fellow man in return for a living wage.
In Order: Whose Streets?, Abacus – Too Small to Jail, The Challenge, Quest, Tempestad, Wait for Your Laugh, Escapes, The Work, Starless Dreams, The Force, Risk, Jane, School Life, Machines, Long Strange Trip, Kedi, Voyeur, Nobody Speaks, City of Ghosts, and My Journey Through French Cinema