Ten Notable Documentary Films of 2023 | Sarah Boslaugh

The Academy generally does a terrible job with documentary films—I still haven’t forgiven them for overlooking Hoop Dreams, and don’t get me started on Paris is Burning—and docs tend to not do that well at the box office either. And yet I really love documentaries and am always trying to convince people to watch them. In that spirit, here are ten of the documentary films released this year, presented in alphabetical order.

20 Days in Mariupol. When Russian forces attacked the port city of Mariupol, Ukrainian journalist Mystyslav Chernov was there to document it. Fortunately, unlike tens of thousands of other civilians who died in the attacks, he survived to make this film, which communicates a sense of what it’s like when your home becomes a battlefield and the aggressors claim it’s all fake news.

Beyond Utopia. Madeleine Gavin’s remarkable film, consisting in large part of footage clandestinely recorded, conveys a sense of the remarkable experiences of people attempting to get out of North Korea. Additional context is provided by interviews from the outside and shots of daily life including things like schoolchildren being taken to observe execution.

Going to Mars: The Nikki Giovanni Project. I always knew Nikki Giovanni was a great poet, but until seeing Joe Brewster and Michèle Stevenson’s documentary, I didn’t realize what a remarkable life she has led. Going to Mars takes the view on a journey through that life, which includes activism and teaching as well as poetry. Now 80, she’s still meeting life on her own terms and firmly setting bounds on what she will and won’t discuss.

Kokomo City. One of the most unusual documentaries of recent years, Kokomo City consists primarily of interviews with four black trans women, supplemented by interviews with men who attracted to trans women plus re-enactments, animations and other visual materials. Director D. Smith, a successful music producer who was blackballed from the industry (her words) when she transitioned, cuts the women’s stories together in the manner of a collage and uses a number of cinematic techniques to draw attention to the created nature of the film.

Little Richard: I Am Everything. Seldom has a film been better titled than Lisa Cortés’ take on the life and career of the man born Richard Penniman in 1932 in Macon, Georgia. Kicked out of the house at age 15 because his father couldn’t bear his obvious queerness, Little Richard found a home and music and went on to influence everyone from Paul McCartney to James Brown. There’s a lot in this documentary I didn’t know, from the original lyrics of “Tutti Frutti” (later toned down for the white market) to the fact that drag shows were a regular feature on the TOBA circuit.

Menus-Plaisirs-Les Troisgros. Frederick Wiseman’s latest masterpiece illuminates the inner workings of Les Bois sans Feuilles, a French country restaurant run by the Troisgros family which has held 3 Michelin stars for over 50 years. Wiseman observes rather than explains, providing an immersive experience in which you will learn not only how a great restaurant is run (short version: in an orderly but labor-intensive manner), but also, among other things, how cheese ripens and how honey is extracted from the hive.

The Mission. John Allen Chau, an idealistic and apparently well-meaning young man of 26, made headlines in 2018 when he was killed by the inhabitants of North Sentinel Island in the Andaman Sea. He wanted to convert them to Christianity, while they had made it perfectly clear that they didn’t want any outsiders on their land for any reason. One can hardly blame them—remember how European diseases devastated the Native populations in North American?—and Chau knew he was breaking the law to be there. Jess Moss and Amanda McBaine’s documentary takes you into the strange world that led up to that fateful encounter, including a a bro-tastic evangelical culture that frames such missions as righteous adventures.

Orlando: My Political Biography. Paul B. Preciado’s documentary takes as its point of departure the assumption that Virginia Woolf’s novel Orlando represents the trans experience. Preciado cast 20 trans and non-binary people, of a variety of ages, races, and gender presentations in a collage-like film that mixes excerpts from Woolf’s novel with enactments of different aspects of modern trans life (like trying to explain non-standard gender identity to a psychiatrist who really doesn’t get it, and to whom it may be advisable to lie).

Silver Dollar Road. Based on a New Yorker/Pro Publica article by Lizzie Presser, Raoul Peck’s essay film documents the case of the Reels family who have owned property in Carteret County North Carolina for generations. Once cheap farmland affordable for newly freed slaves, now it’s viewed as valuable waterfront real estate that developers want to get their hands on. Peck ties the story of this one extended family to a larger pattern of Black families in the South becoming dispossessed of their land through a variety of legal and extra-legal maneuvers.

The Smell of Money. A good companion piece to Silver Dollar Road, Shawn Bannon’s documentary takes on environmental racism, specifically the pollution caused by industrial hog farms in the South. Hogs create a lot of waste, and in North Carolina, rather remarkably, it’s legal to spray it into the air to fertilize farmland. Imagine how good that smells to people on neighboring properties, to say nothing of the health effects (and, needless to say, liquids sprayed in the air respect no property lines). No surprise, then, that the hog industry is concentrated in parts of North Carolina that had a high prevalence of slavery before the Civil War and a high percentage of African American residents today.

Honorable Mention: Beyond the Aggressives: 25 Years Later, Bobi Wine: The People’s President, Desperate Souls, Dark City, and the Legend of Midnight Cowboy, Smoke Sauna Sisterhood, Wild Beauty: Mustang Spirit of the West, Women in the Front Seat, Your Fat Friend.

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