The Austrian filmmaker Claude Lanzmann, who passed away in the summer of 2018 at the age of 93, once said that archival images are inherently flawed because they have no imagination and, by extension, leech the power out of movies built off these images to evoke and stir thought. In his view, the very attempt to reconstitute the experience of existing in or thoroughly retelling a historical event is an act of surrender to the preexisting framing of the past, a tactical retreat from the realities of time and the challenges of memory. To accept an image created by someone else is to also accept the narrative framing that that photographer or cinematographer is making therein and that comes with more than one moral and artistic concession.
It’s unclear if Lanzmann was fully aware of how widespread and obsessive image manipulation would become in the 2010s, but it is clear that he saw the dangers in assuming that the defining images of the past and the narratives they presented would never erode or mutate. As the Obama era gave way to the Trump years, the litigation of imagery and the practice of crafting images has become the premiere social activity, one done predominantly online but that comes with torrents of real-world effects. On Snapchat, you can give yourself big glowing eyes, add illustration, and smooth out discerning features as a representation of you. Bursts of 120 or 280 characters with photos, memes, gifs, and short video create a simulacrum of personality for the public to ignore, condemn, embrace, and celebrate on Twitter. None of this is necessarily new but the intensity and pervasiveness does seem to have increased dramatically. What exactly is the documentary, a film style largely misconstrued as tied inextricably to telling the truth, supposed to do to keep up?
The very best documentaries of the 2010s, including those that buck against Lanzmann’s conclusions, have gone about not only questioning the concrete meaning of any given image or snippet of audio but also subverting the idea that the messiness of life experienced first-hand can be summated in any honest way through traditional narratives. Ezra Edelman’s O.J. – Made in America refuses to allow either the portrait of Orenthal James Simpson as a victim or a unique monster to be perceived as sincere; he is both and so is the public. Amidst anti-Russia hysteria and unyielding demonization of left-wing or third-party candidates, Adam Curtis’s Hyper Normalisation presented a far more chilling and convincing reasoning for the rise of President Donald Trump, a theory rooted in the government and the ruling class’s need to control and reinforce an outdated, wildly inaccurate story of America and its citizens. Even documentaries constructed entirely of archival images, such as Let the Fire Burn and The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu, are revitalizing and damning in how they reframe images of the past as sloppy and gaudy presentations of faulty, half-blind narratives.
The best documentaries of the 2010s are also the most skeptical, whether or not that fact is worn on the film’s sleeve, and that is what I sought while compiling my list of the 35 best documentaries of the 2010s. In the interest of full transparency, I gave myself a few ground rules in making this list, primarily no more than two films by any given director are included and there must be proof of each film being screened on a big screen for the public at some point. This was done both to show a level of diversity in styles and perspectives and distributors, and to avoid making up half of my top ten with the work of Frederick Wiseman, still the best American filmmaker currently living and arguably the most influential documentary director to ever pick up a camera. At 89 years of age, Wiseman represents the height of the cinematic form beyond the confines of documentary as a genre or a style, even if he has no claim to innovation the way Sandi Tan’s miraculous Shirkers or Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing do. Wiseman the artist, as much as any of the films that can be found below, has come to represent a dated saying that nevertheless neatly summarizes the arc of the 2010s: what is old is new again.