I‘m not particularly into competitions outside the sporting arena, so I’m not claiming these are the “best” documentaries of the year, and I’m certainly not going to rank-order them. Instead, following the precedent of a far better known publication than this one, I offer, in alphabetical order, a list of ten notable documentaries released in 2018. Some of the documentaries on this list are straightforward, while others are more stylistically adventurous, but all offer a splendid return on the time invested in watching spend watching them.
93Queen. Paula Eiselt’s documentary looks at the efforts of a group of determined Hasidic women in Brooklyn who found an all-female ambulance corps specifically for the purpose of assisting female patients, particularly those about to give birth. That might sound like a natural fit, but the men who run the Hatzolah volunteer ambulance service were willing to play every dirty trick in the book to keep this potential competitor from succeeding. Eiselt’s film offers a fascinating (and not always flattering) look into a community that generally keeps to itself, as well as a compelling portrait of Rachel Freier, who led the women’s efforts; she later became the first Hasidic woman to hold public office in the United States when she was elected to the Civil Court in Kings County (a.k.a. Brooklyn).
The Gospel According to André. If you pay much attention to fashion or documentaries about fashion, you’ve probably noticed a big black man who stands out incongruously among all the skinny white people who make up most of that world. That would be André Leon Talley, editor-in-chief of the American edition of Vogue, and his somewhat improbable rise from the Jim Crow South to the top of the fashion world is the subject of Kate Novack’s documentary. The Gospelis full of fascinating archival footage and Talley is a thoughtful and forthcoming interview subject, resulting in a documentary that will interest even people who generally buy their clothes at Old Navy.
The Judge.In the Middle East, Shari’a courts deal with matters such as divorce, alimony, spousal abuse, and child custody. Women are affected by those matters at least as much as men, but until 2009 only men served as Shari’a court judges. The gamechanger was Khouloud Al-Faqih, appointed in 2009 to serve as a Shari’a court judge in in the West Bank, who is also the subject of Erika Cohn’s documentary. The Judge, which includes segments from court proceedings presided over by Al-Faqih, offers insight into Palestinian society and politics as well as providing a compelling portrait of the remarkable woman who is its primary subject.
Letter from Masanjia. One of the more stylistically interesting documentaries on this list, Letter from Masanjia tells the stranger-than-fiction story of a how a letter concealed in a box of holiday ornaments led to the dismantling of China’s system of forced prison labor. Director Leon Lee creates a compelling documentary by combining interviews with, among others, Sun Yi, the Chinese prisoner who wrote the letter, and Julie Keith, the American woman who followed up on it, with animation drawn by Sun Yi depicting conditions within the prison camp.
McQueen. Even in the world of high fashion, where making a strong impression is generally the point, the designs of Alexander McQueen stood out. How often, after all, have you heard of fashion collections carrying titles like “Highland Rape” and “McQueen’s Theatre of Cruelty”? Ian Bonhote and Peter Ettedgui’s documentary McQueen offers a backstage look at the business end of a fashion designer’s life as well as the public shows at which reputations are lost or won. It also insight into what made McQueen McQueen, as well as the dark forces that may have led him to take his own life at age 40.
People’s Republic of Desire. Americans may be crazy about social media, but we’re not the only ones. Director Hao Wu’s People’s Republic of Desire focuses on one aspect of the social media revolution in China, in particular a streaming platform called YY which features performers who compete for the attention of fans who tip their favorites electronically. For the winners, like karaoke singer Shen Man, this can result in an income of $40,000 per month, some of it coming from displaced urban workers longing for connection in a world that’s changing too fast.
Science Fair. It’s become a documentary cliché–earnest, photogenic young people intensely focused on a competition whose course provides a natural structure for the film—but Science Fairshows that there’s plenty of life in this formula if you know how to work it. Directors Christina Constantini and Darren Foster follow a diverse group of competitors in the International Science and Engineering Fair, as they proceed from local competitions to the big show itself. These are some impressive young people, and you’ll be astounded at their projects, which involve things like investigating the correlates of risky behavior in youth, building a device to detect arsenic in drinking water, and redesigning a type of aircraft (demonstrated with a model plane) to make it more stable and efficient.
Shirkers. Singapore is hardly a hotbed of indie film, but that didn’t stop Sandi Tan from shooting a narrative film, Shirkers, there in 1992. She was assisted by two friends and their film professor, Georges Cardona, and when Tan went abroad to study, she let the footage with Cardona. He promptly disappeared with it, and she believed it lost until it turned up 20 years later, missing its audio track. Tan reused the footage in creating this documentary, which offers insights into Singaporean culture, the visual imagination of a young filmmaker, and the questionable behavior one a very strange professor.
Three Identical Strangers. In 1961, three triplets were born to a Jewish mother on Long Island. They grew up not knowing of each other’s existence, but found each other as adults (among other things, they once ran the Romanian Jewish restaurant “Triplets” in Manhattan together). The story of how this strange sequence of events came to pass is the subject of Tim Wardle’s documentary Three Identical Strangers, and it exposes some issues concerning medicine, power, and ego that those involved would certainly prefer had remained firmly swept under the rug.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor? Even if you didn’t grow up watching Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood (I didn’t), you can find much to admire in the calm and gentle approach Fred Rogers used to help children explore and understand difficult emotions. Director Morgan Neville captures the essence of the Rogers brand, while also revealing the practical man behind the program (most obviously with regard to a gay castmate). I never thought I could be moved to tears by a hand puppet, even one expressing fear that he just wasn’t good enough, but that’s the magic of Mr. Rogers, and it’s clearly on display in this documentary. | Sarah Boslaugh