As the year draws to a close, my Best of 2020 series continues. Last week I looked back at the best games of the year, and now, with just a few days left of this decade long year, it’s time for the documentaries. In no order, here are my ten favorite films that shook, startled, and deeply moved me in ways that make me understand and appreciate the world even better.
My favorite documentary of the year is Justin McConnell’s heartfelt, honest, and thoroughly captivating look at what it takes to survive in the film industry. Charting life before, during, and after making his film LIFECHANGER, McConnell isn’t afraid to point the camera at himself, yet it never feels self-serving or aggrandizing. Instead, the narrative overflows with hard truths, and it’s touching to see McConnell go through every phase of putting his film out there.
I raved about CLAPBOARD when I saw it earlier this year, and I had a blast talking with McConnell about the importance of perseverance. Still, this is the one film I’d show anyone wanting to get into film, and it should be mandatory viewing in film school.
EL FATHER PLAYS HIMSELF
Another film about filmmaking that could just as quickly turn self-centered, Mo Scarpelli’s EL FATHER instead is sharp and poignant, never stooping to cheap melodrama in its depiction of familial bonds told through fiction. Bringing a distraught man (and equally troubled son) back into the jungles of the elder’s youth, Scarpelli is like a fly on the wall as she aims her camera at the collective trauma the two share.
It’s a fascinating case of chicken or egg: Scarpelli presents a subjective view of a son trying to capture the personal truth of an intensely unreliable narrator. Like Werner Herzog at his finest, Scarpelli knows when to prod and when to withdraw, never overstaying her welcome. Herzog has opined that the greatest teacher for filmmakers is life itself and the people in it, and Scarpelli’s gloriously alive documentary is brilliant proof of that.
When Keanu Reeves visited Stephen Colbert on his late-night show, Colbert asked the film icon what happens after we die. Keanu, in peak form, pondered for a bit and sighed, “I know the people who love us will miss us.” It’s a simple, heart-wrenching truth, one often overlooked when faced with big questions like this. But what happens when there isn’t anyone left to remember us? Will you disappear entirely? Will it be as if you never lived?
In Elina Talvensaari’s mesmerizing documentary, the director seeks to reconstruct a life left behind by the former tenant of the home she has bought. Piecing together clues from old photos and forgotten family correspondence, Talvensaari crafts an immense portrait of joy, sorrow, love, and loss. It’s a film that can break the heart, rebuild it, and reaffirm the belief that our lives’ every action has meaning – one day.
Alexander Nanau’s chilling and heartbreaking documentary unfolds from a simple question into a full-blown countrywide conspiracy and plays out like a real-life thriller. After the horrific fire at the Kollektiv club in Bucharest, dozens of survivors die in hospital care weeks later, prompting sports journalist Gazeta Sporturilor to ask how could such a thing happen.
The truth, it turns out, is a mixture of complacency, greed, and negligence that threatens anyone who should fall ill. Not just a hunt for the truth, Nanau’s riveting film explores the difficulty of doing the right thing and how even the most progressive wave can roll back when momentum is lost.
In February, I said CARNIVAL PILGRIMS is one of the best films of the year. But even then, I had no idea how abnormal 2020 would turn out, making Mika Mattila’s riveting journey across our planet feel that much more intense. Charting famous tourist attractions worldwide, Mattila lets his camera do the talking, capturing tourists swarm like locusts from one location to the next, mindlessly experiencing what others tell them to.
There are horrific and awe-inspiring visions, like a massive cruise liner roaring into the idyllic vista of a tiny port town or the thousands of selfies shuttered on holy ground. Punctuated by narration from the Epic of Gilgamesh, Mattila shows a keen and poetic understanding of human nature, effectively capturing our futile attempts to make a mark on nothing while damaging the very planet we claim to embrace.
THE RISE OF THE SYNTHS
Iván Castell’s punchy, vibrant, and arresting portrait of subculture celebrating nostalgia is one of the year’s happiest surprises. I’m not a big fan of synthwave or the 80s, yet Castell’s enthusiasm, knowledge, and understanding to let the artists do the talking makes me feel like I could be.
Hopping around the world to meet with some of the underground movement’s biggest influencers turned cultural touchstone, Castell turns what could be a typical rags-to-riches story into an oral history, complete with contradicting narratives and origins. The interviews are fascinating, ranging from the taciturn to the garrulous, where some wonder if the sudden rise in interest could damage their art’s purity. In contrast, others bask in the new found glory and acceptance. There are no clear answers, but instead, SYNTHS offers something better, a front-row seat to the creation of a genre that makes you feel like you were there as it all happened.
Directed by journalist Susani Mahadura, KELET is one of those biographical documentaries that arrive out of nowhere and instantly make their mark on the cultural landscape. Following the life of a Somali trans woman, Kelet, living in Helsinki, Mahadura pulls back the curtain to life beyond what your average pedestrian ever sees.
Behind it, she reveals a vibrant community of artists, dancers, performers, and people finding themselves, tenderly capturing both the first steps and established certainty of community pillars. Never shy or ashamed of who they are, KELET is a roaring call for everyone to take pride in themselves and a staggering showcase for its subject, who maturely and graciously guides us every step of the way.
WELCOME TO CHECHNYA
Intensely hard to watch, journalist and documentarian David France’s eye-opening expose of the gay purge in Russia left me with nightmares for weeks. Following years of subterfuge and danger as human rights activists try to smuggle sexual minorities out of the hostile country, France’s immediate film is on the ground with them every step of the way.
The footage displayed is horrific but necessary, and some of it will deliberately traumatize viewers. But I argue it’s essential because what we see is a fraction of the horrors inflicted on people daily in a country right next door. WELCOME TO CHECHNYA is a vital documentary, and calling it just one of the best films of the year feels too small. It’s a piece of reporting so important, so desperately needed, that it should force entire movements into action. Otherwise, we’re as good as guilty ourselves.
How do we use technology daily? How does technology use us? Is it truly for everyone, as the advertising would tell us, or is it just a convenient lie to believe for the majority? These questions and more stand at the heart of Shalini Kantayya’s dive into the rabbit hole, which proves a more bottomless and more perilous pit than previously imagined.
From security to accessibility, Kantayya keeps digging until the unspoken truth reveals itself: Technology, as with everything, is about control, and that control is never in the hands of those who genuinely need it. As a small minority of wealthy white men code our future, Kantayya brings the voices of those facing a dystopia of digital control and amplifies them worldwide. It’s the smart kind of documentary that depicts difficult concepts but never alienates the audiences by making them feel dumb. Instead, Kantayya and her subjects bring us in through understanding and compassion, painting a portrait of a fairer and more just future, where everyone, not just the privileged few, can stand equal.
AN ORDINARY COUNTRY
Told entirely through found footage, Tomasz Wolski’s haunting and painfully timely portrait of Soviet Poland is one of the year’s unsung masterpieces. Each element of the film is from disparate material, yet Wolski deftly composes a narrative from the strands – or does he? Are we just imagining it? Do the people even have anything in common? Just how much can we glean from bits and pieces of conversation? At what point do we assume too much?
Wolski gives us the tools and ingredients and allows us to see how quickly and expediently we weaponize knowledge. The result is a terrifying image of our time, where everything becomes recording and catalog, and context becomes an ethereal commodity, rarely sighted in the wild.