It’s been a great decade for documentaries, as improvements in digital equipment have made it easier than ever to make a great film on a relatively small amount of money. Documentary filmmakers have also expanded their toolkit, so to speak, incorporating narrative techniques from feature films, animation from, well, animated films, and creating documentaries that are works of art able to stand next to any narrative film. Here are ten notable documentaries from the years 2010-2019, in alphabetical order, with a note about what makes each of them so special.
13th (Ava DuVernay, 2016): The Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, passed in 1864, abolished slavery and involuntary servitude in the United States, “except as punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” That’s a big “except,” as DuVernay makes clear in this compelling film, because it has allowed the United States to continue slavery through other means, such as convict leasing. More broadly, 13th explores legal measures enacted to ensure African Americans are not truly free and equal, from drugs laws that disproportionately affect them to voter suppression through the creation of administrative obstacles to prevent them from registering and casting their votes.
Ex Libris: The New York Public Library (Frederick Wiseman, 2017): Libraries may be the most democratic institution we have—they cost nothing to use, are staffed by people eager to help, and are loaded with the kind of resources that, not all that long ago, were out of reach to everyone but the rich. In his trademark style, Wiseman captures the variety of people who use the library, and the variety of purposes it serves in the life of the city.
Exit Through the Gift Shop (Banksy, 2010): Who is that fellow in the black hoodie, lurking in the shadows? And is Thierry Guetta a real filmmaker or just a person with a mental illness that happens to have a camera? I don’t know and I don’t care—this entire documentary may be one extended stunt, but it makes valid points about the art world and it’s loads of fun to watch as well.
Fire at Sea (Gianfranco Rosi, 2016): It’s easy to escape into abstraction concerning the issues surrounding asylum seekers and other undocumented immigrants, particularly when you live a comfortable life in a country where you enjoy full citizenship. A good antidote to this type of thinking is Gianfranco Rosi’s Fire at Sea, shot on the Italian island of Lampedusa, which embraces the humanity of both the asylum seekers and the islanders, who are doing the best they can to help but can’t possibly meet the needs of the massive numbers of people crossing the Mediterranean in the hopes of receiving asylum in Europe.
I Am Not Your Negro (Raoul Peck, 2016): James Baldwin was one of the great prose stylists of his era, as well as a sharp-eyed observer and sharp-tongued analyst of American life. Raoul Peck wisely used Baldwin’s own words, narrated by Samuel L. Jackson, for the backbone of this documentary, while also including contemporary clips of Baldwin, including, most memorably, his 1965 debate with conservative pundit William F. Buckley, in which Baldwin conceded not an inch to his privileged and apparently oblivious opponent.
The Oath (Laura Poitras, 2010): More people may have watched Citizenfour, but to my mind The Oath is Laura Poitras’ best film. It tells the story of two brothers-in-law, Abu Jandal and Salim Ahmed Hamdan, both of whom crossed paths with Osama bin Laden in Yemen. One was captured by American forces in 2001 and held in Guantanamo Bay for eight years, where he was eventually convicted under a law passed years after his capture. The other continued to live in freedom, driving a cab, appearing on television, and engaging in discussion of jihad. What will slowly dawn on you while watching this documentary is that we arrested the wrong brother-in-law and have absolutely no interest in correcting that mistake.
Restrepo (Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington, 2010): Tim Hetherington was known as a photojournalist and Sebastian Junger as a writer specializing in high-adrenaline topics (The Perfect Storm, Fire) when they collaborated on the documentary Restrepo, which follows a year in the life of an American army platoon serving in the Afghanistan War. Hetherington and Junger seem to have meant this film as a celebration of the servicemen, in particular their courage and camaraderie, but what they delivered instead was an expose of the folly of trying to fight a war when you understand nothing of the culture and history of the place in which you are fighting, and have no interest in learning anything about it.
Stories We Tell (Sarah Polley, 2012): Sarah Polley, a noted Canadian actor, producer, and director, is the daughter of British-born actor Michael Polley (they appeared together in Slings and Arrows). Or so she thought until she became an adult and followed up on rumors that she was actually the child of the producer Harry Gulkin. While it’s hardly a unique experience to discover that your parents are not who you were told they are, Polley explores her experience with great insight in an unusual film that includes astonishingly convincing Super-8 “home movies” recreating key events in her life as well as contemporary interviews with those involved.
Science Fair (Cristina Costantini, Darren Foster, 2018): Science fairs are an American tradition, and documentaries about various types of competitions are becoming one as well. To its credit, Science Fair doesn’t adopt the conventional formula of the sports film, in which the most important thing is winning the big game, but instead uses the 2017 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair to explore differing paths through adolescence, attitudes toward education and accomplishment, and the international nature of scientific research today. Science Fair will also restore your faith in humanity, because it’s impossible to feel gloomy while watching these pleasant young people display their considerable creativity and accomplishments.
Shirkers (Sandi Tan, 2018): In 1992, three Singapore teenagers led by Sandi Tan shot a road movie, Shirkers, with the help of their teacher George Cardona, in the last summer before they left the country to attend university. They left their unfinished film with Cardona, who promptly disappeared and took it with him. Nineteen years later, Tan was able to reclaim the footage, although without its audio track, from Cardona’s ex-wife, and decided to make a film about the making of that film. The result is the 2018 documentary Shirkers, which is a truly original film full of fascinating insights about the Singapore of Tan’s youth and adolescence, as well as the story of who Cardona actually was (hint: he turns out to be a familiar type). | Sarah Boslaugh