Image credit: Jovaughn Stephens

The 25 best documentaries released in 2020

With 2020 coming to its widely anticipated end, many of us are realising that we made it through almost an entire year of a global pandemic. Like many other sectors of our society, the film industry was hit hard by the virus as well. Film theatres and cinemas were designated as ideal environments for the spread of the virus and were immediately shut down, along with other areas meant for social gathering. 

However, more than ever, documentaries which chronicled these unprecedented events, as well as other interesting occurrences, became immensely popular. The works listed below are exigent works which inform us about our important past, the bleak present as well as the uncertain future.

Suzanne Hillinger, the producer of the documentary Totally Under Controlsaid: “When the pandemic hit so many people started making films, and a lot of them still are and they’re starting to come out. I certainly had the same urge [to ask] ‘what is the story that I can help tell?’ And I had been speaking actually with a couple filmmakers who are embedded in various hospitals. I knew that that was happening.”

As this year is finally reaching its drawn-out conclusion, we take a look at 25 of the best documentaries that were released in 2020.

The 25 best documentaries of 2020:

25. The Mole Agent (Maite Alberdi)

This Chilean documentary follows an octogenarian who tries to find evidence of abuse in a nursing home by going undercover. The film beautifully subverts the primary attractions associated with the spy genre, focusing its vision on the terrible reality of growing old instead. Some critics have dismissed it for blurring the lines between fact and fiction as a documentary, but despite the setup, it retains its artistic statement.

“For me, at the beginning, the film was completely about the case,” director Alberdi admitted. “But at some point I started to realise that it is not about a private detective, more about what is happening in those kinds of places…a film about old people abandoned or alone in a home – it’s not attractive.”

24. The Truffle Hunters (Gregory Kershaw, Michael Dweck)

A documentary about the truffle trade, The Truffle Hunters, follows a group of older men who hunt for the famous white Alba truffles in the forests of Northern Italy. Although it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, The Truffle Hunters was set back by the pandemic regulations and is set to have a wider 2021 release.

Dweck revealed, “We found this place by accident. We had just finished editing The Last Race and were looking for a place to go with our families to disappear and relax. We both ended up by coincidence in this tiny little village called Montecalvo in the Piedmont Mountains of Italy. We were trying to find a place that had no tourists.”

He added, “Piedmont was a unique place in that it looked like time had stopped. Greg and I decided to come back and we spent two weeks trying to dig up a possible film. We thought it would take a month, but it actually took a year just to find who the real truffle hunters were.”

23. Feels Good Man (Arthur Jones)

Feels Good Man is a fascinating documentary about the origins of the famous meme Pepe the Frog, a symbol which has been adopted by the problematic alt-right. Arthur Jones launches an investigation of how a harmless cartoon character made by a soft-spoken artist became a part of a pernicious culture.

Jones said, “I was a fan of Matt Furie’s comic books and when I moved to Los Angeles, I met him on a group hike with some friends. I found him to be just a sweet and generous, funny guy and Matt and I talked about maybe doing a couple artistic collaborations together, maybe making an animated cartoon together.”

“But as we were working on those sort of collaborations, it became very clear that all the negative baggage around Matt’s artwork and Pepe was making it hard for us to potentially sell an idea to a network or something like that. So I had pitched Matt on the idea of doing a documentary.”

22. Miss Americana (Lana Wilson)

A documentary which deconstructs the cult status of pop icon Taylor Swift and tries to look for the human underneath, with all her fears, doubts and insecurities. It shows how one of the most popular stars of her generation transitioned from being an instrument of studio executives to an artist who finally found her voice.

“I think girls in our society are taught that other people’s approval is of paramount importance to their self-worth,” Wilson said. “I really related to those questions of: ‘Was I nice enough? Do they like me? Are people mad at me?’

“When I heard Taylor verbalise that, I was just like, ‘Oh my God. I can’t believe it. I can’t believe it.’ And I thought it would be so comforting and relatable to so many women to know that, even if you’re a celebrity at the highest level, you still ask yourself those questions.”

21. Totally Under Control (Alex Gibney)

One of the more relevant entries on this list, Alex Gibney’s documentary tracks the US government’s response to the public health crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. It systematically reveals how the Donald Trump administration miserably failed to contain the situation in the US while other countries like South Korea took the pandemic seriously and managed to curb the effects to a large extent.

The filmmaker traced the origin of his work, “I was involved in another project as an Executive Producer, with Matt Heineman, where he had his cameras in New York hospitals. It really seemed apocalyptic. And it seemed that the big problem here was that there was no federal response.”

“So I thought, ‘wouldn’t it be important to dig into that’ and to understand how and why the federal response wasn’t working. So I decided to do a film and really wanted it to come out now, sometime in early October before the election, so that it could be a way of people reckoning with how the federal government treated the pandemic.”

20. I’ll Be Gone in the Dark (Liz Garbus)

A six-part True Crime documentary series, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark revolves around writer Michelle McNamara and her obsessive quest to write about the infamous Golden State Killer. It does not just focus on the external tragedies but also chronicles McNamara’s psychological conflicts and her deteriorating mental health.

Garbus admitted, “I started off making films inside prisons, talking about life and death in Angola Penitentiary, or Girlhood, which was about young girls in the juvenile justice system. Nobody calls those true crime. And it’s interesting, when you look at those from the point of view of a very public case…I don’t know what makes something true crime or not. I’m always curious about why some of the work I’ve done is True Crime, and some is not.”

19. Garage People (Natalija Yefimkina)

A wonderful documentary set in Northern Russia, Garage People, explores how Russian men have set up alternate living spaces in countless garage settlements in order to escape their bleak daily lives. They take refuge in those garage spaces and gather the courage to dream beyond their monotonous routines.

The filmmaker said, “You can find these garage communities in every city in Russia, so it’s a very common thing there and I think it’s a Russian phenomenon. In some cities, you can find more garages than flats. That’s why I never say where it is exactly, because it could be anywhere in Russia. It was very important for me to represent it as a phenomenon.”

18. Assassins (Ryan White)

Ryan White’s documentary sheds some light on the mysterious events leading up to the assassination of North Korean dictator Jim Jong-un’s half-brother Kim Jong-nam. It tells the story of the two young assassins who were used as political pawns.

“To me, it’s a story about the exploitation of young women, especially in the era of social media and peaking stardom. And when you really look beyond the headline and start peeling back the layers, that there might be deeper truths there,” White explained.

“That is what I think is so important about this film, that these two women were virtually convicted from the very beginning. Everyone assumed they were guilty. And hopefully, our film peels back those layers and people will see it from a completely different perspective.”

17. Spaceship Earth (Matt Wolf)

Spaceship Earth is an intriguing documentary about quarantine but not the kind we have become accustomed to. It focuses on an experiment from 1991 where eight people quarantined themselves for two years inside Biosphere-2, a microcosm of Earth’s ecosystem which they engineered themselves.

Wolf revealed, “I’m always kind of poking around the internet looking for film ideas, and I came across these really striking images of eight people in bright red jumpsuits. They looked like the band Devo, standing in front of a giant glass pyramid.

“And I honestly thought it was a still from a science fiction movie I hadn’t seen before, but it didn’t take me long to realise that the structure was real and that these people indeed lived inside of it. And from that point on, I was determined to tell their story.”

16. Welcome to Chechnya (David France)

David France’s emotional documentary chronicles the anti-LGBTQ purges in Chechnya by following activists who risk their lives in order to confront the fascist government of Russian leader Ramzan Kadyrov. It laments the mass persecution of marginalised people, interviewing refugees and survivors who should never have been in danger in the first place.

“I was concerned about what was happening in Chechnya from the original news reports back in early 2017. But by the middle of the summer, we learned that the atrocities there and the horrors there were still ongoing,” France said.

“I learned about the work that the activists were doing and I saw that I hadn’t heard of this kind of desperate efforts to rescue and hide people from persecution since the Nazi era…and so I joined in right away to try and tell the story. I flew to Russia for the first time in August and stayed embedded with the whole underground operation there for 20 months.”

15. Dick Johnson is Dead (Kirsten Johnson)

An intensely personal documentary, filmmaker Kirsten Johnson has made a powerful and hilarious work which follows Johnson’s father, Richard who has dementia. The film tries to subvert the gravity of death by staging various comical ways in which Richard could die, including “falling down a flight of stairs, [and] being struck in the neck and bleeding out”.

“I was looking for exuberance, life catharsis, euphoria, the pleasure of colour. All of those things I kind of needed because my father’s world was shrinking. It felt like the dementia was making things smaller, but then I realised dementia is also expanding things, expanding time,” Johnson said.

She added, “Even though my father’s looping on these very small time periods—he’ll say a question and then say it again a minute later because he doesn’t know he just said it—cinema can get into that space and open it up.”

14. Coded Bias (Shalini Kantayya)

This brilliant documentary explores how racism can be programmed into technology as well, revealing how facial recognition and AI software have a “coded bias” for lighter-skinned people. It follows the efforts and the discriminatory experiences of Joy Buolamwini, the founder of Algorithmic Justice League, who is actively pushing for legislation which will ensure the correct governance of AI systems.

“It would’ve been much easier for me to just make a film about facial recognition,” Kantayya said. “I understand that the film is sprawling in all these different directions — how algorithms impact our opportunities. But as I began to understand these issues, I felt a responsibility to translate them to the public.

“Facial recognition is the most primal, the way that we can most viscerally understand how these algorithms work. It was important for me to use facial recognition as a catalyst to better understand the more invisible and opaque systems that might be limiting our opportunities and interfering with our civil rights and democracy.”

13. Tiger King (Eric Goode, Rebecca Chaiklin)

Probably the most popular entry on this list, The Tiger King had 34.3 million viewers over the course of ten days after its first release. The true-crime documentary series explores the wild lifestyle of big cat collectors like Joe Exotic who are accused of abusing the endangered animals by conservationist organisations.

“The one thing that I think that can come out of this docuseries that is good: people are now going ‘free the animals’,” said Rick Kirkham. “I think that’s the best thing.”

“I never thought that they should be kept in captivity, but I knew the reality of it,” Kelci Saffery added when asked, about the tigers kept in Oklahoma. “And the reality of it is that they cannot be returned to the wild. And there’s not much of a wild to return to.”

12. The Painter and the Thief (Benjamin Ree)

Benjamin Ree’s poignant documentary focuses on the relationship between an artist and the thief who stole her paintings. One of those stranger-than-fiction accounts, The Painter and the Thief, search for the relevance of unspoken social contracts in the modern world where survival is often a solitary pursuit.

“Back in 2016, I was researching art robberies,” Ree recalled. “In Norway, we have a great tradition of art robberies. What fascinates me about the topic is the odd combination: you have art, which is high culture, and you have robbers, who represent low culture.

“The film’s story was front-page news in Norway, and while following the case I learned that the painter had approached the thief in court and asked if she could paint him. It was after that I got in contact with Barbora and Karl Bertil, thinking it was a really fascinating premise for a story.”

11. Crip Camp (James Lebrecht, Nicole Newnham)

Set in 1971 at a summer camp in New York, Crip Camp is a heartwarming account of Camp Jened: a safe haven for disabled people which operated for decades and inspired many of its alumni to fight for disabled people’s rights in today’s world. The film was nominated for Best Documentary at the Sundance Film Festival, winning the Audience Award.

Nicole Newnham commented, “Some have said this is the perfect time for the film to come out. This health crisis is impacting people who are vulnerable, and this film shows how a lot of that vulnerability is systemic. We want people to see that it is possible to change things and make the world a better place for everyone. This film shows that a small committed group of people can make a huge difference. We need to ask ourselves, when this is over, how will we rebuild the society that we want to see?”

10. McMillions (Multiple directors)

A startling documentary miniseries about the McDonald’s Monopoly promotion scam, McMillions unveils the sinister machinations of Jerry Jacobson who systematically manipulated the McDonald’s promotional offer to scam the company out of almost $24 million. It interviews the people who were directly involved with the scam, from Jacobson’s relatives to FBI agents.

“There were victims here. We’d hear often, ‘Oh this is a victimless crime, and it didn’t hurt anybody,'” co-director Brian Lazarte said. “You know, it’s McDonald’s, a billion-dollar company. But when you really break it down, hopefully people will walk away realising that there were real consequences that affected the victims’ friendships, their families and their job prospects.”

9. Boys State (Amanda McBaine, Jesse Moss)

A documentary about politically active teenagers who wish to take their future into their own hands, Boys State follows thousands of teenage boys from all kinds of economic and social backgrounds who come together to form their own representative government. The film won the U.S. Documentary Competition Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival.

“They are being politicised at a young age and [recognize] the existential threats they face in the form of gun violence and climate change,” Moss said of Gen Z. “They have been forced, compelled to become more active participants in democracy […] and that’s healthy. I think that’s hopeful to me.” 

8. The Last Dance (Jason Hehir)

The Last Dance examines the massive legacy of NBA star Michael Jordan, focusing on the last season of his career with the Chicago Bulls. Featuring interviews of NBA legends like Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman, The Last Dance is a fitting tribute to one of the greatest athletes of all time. It won an Emmy Award for Best Documentary series, earning two other nominations.

The filmmaker said, “I really was more interested in discovering more about Michael Jordan the man, and also going into the backstories of the people who were the key cogs in the machine that was that Bulls dynasty in the ’90s. Because the documentary is about the Bulls dynasty as seen through the lens of the 97-98 season, and of course it’s going to star Michael Jordan, but it’s also about a lot more than Michael’s life in basketball.”

7. The Social Dilemma (Jeff Orlowski)

One of the more astonishing entries on this list, The Social Dilemma does a wonderful job at jolting the viewers awake by informing them of the pernicious habits of the monstrous sphere that is social media. Through interviews with tech experts and scholars, it examines how social media has been used to manipulate and mobilise people for all the wrong reasons.

Orlowski said, “I feel like this is the issue underlying so many of our other issues. In my mind, it’s the reason why our society feels this way right now — the political polarization and the turmoil — so much of it in my mind ties back to the way humans are getting information.”

He added, “Each of us is in our own little filtered view of the world and we’re not being given stuff that we ever asked Facebook or Twitter to give us. We’re given stuff that these platforms have figured out will get us to come back and spend more time on them. That’s the challenge. It seems so innocent at first. You see one post from somebody and think, ‘What’s the big deal?’ But when that continues over a decade of constantly being optimised just for you, it’s having these downstream consequences that we’re just now realising at a societal level.”

6. David Attenborough: A Life On Our Planet (Multiple Directors)

An incredibly powerful wake-up call for climate change deniers and people who do not care about the environment, this documentary is the “witness statement” of one of the most celebrated natural historians of our time: Sir David Attenborough. In the film, Attenborough outlines the precariousness of the Anthropocene and shares his hopes for a better tomorrow.

Colin Butfield, WWF’s Executive Producer for the film, said in a release: “For decades, David has brought the natural world to the homes of audiences worldwide, but there has never been a more significant moment for him to share his own story and reflections.

“This film coincides with a monumental year for environmental action as world leaders make critical decisions on nature and climate. It sends a powerful message from the most inspiring and celebrated naturalist of our time.”

5. Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets (Bill and Turner Ross)

An experimental documentary which plays with the limits of the genre, Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets is the cinematic funeral of a Las Vegas bar that’s shutting down. It offers an authentic look at the locals who frequent it, portraying the connections and the memories they share.

“We’re interested in people in the space they inhabit, people in the spaces they create, how the spaces that they occupy both relate to them and are manifested by them. So, I think every film has a bit to do with that,” Turner Ross revealed.

Continuing, “We wanted to take that idea of constraints and a limited palette and say, ‘Can we reduce that down to actually four walls, just the two of us, to a group of people assembled? Can we give a sense of being there to a place that we’ve manifested? Can we elicit an authentic experience from an intention to a scenario?’ But those are imposed limitations and obstacles, and that’s what makes it interesting for us.”

4. Be Water (Bao Nguyen)

Bruce Lee’s contributions to the world of cinema have been analysed and recorded countless times before this. However, Be Water is a unique documentary which tries to highlight the conflicts in the personal identity of the star during his formative years in Hollywood. It follows a young Lee as he navigates the social evils of racism and prejudice, conducting a complicated re-examination of his legacy.

The filmmaker said, “I think just as an Asian American boy growing up in the United States, I didn’t really see that many people that looked like me on screen. So I was always just enamoured the first time I saw Bruce Lee on screen. I was always fascinated by him as a symbol.

“I didn’t really know him as a man, as a human being so I felt like I wanted to unpack the myth of it and looking at him through the lens of being an outsider, as an “other,” as an immigrant American, and as an Asian American. I thought that perspective for me as a filmmaker was something that added to the theme.”

3. Time (Garrett Bradley)

A scathing attack on the American prison system, Time follows Sibil Fox Richardson on her heartbreaking quest to have her husband, serving a 60-year sentence, released. The film combines original footage with raw home videos, accentuating the intimacy and emotions of the story. For her brilliant work, Bradley became the first African American woman to win the Directing Award in the U.S. Documentary competition at the Sundance Film Festival.

“I wanted to show the ripple effect of what it means to incarcerate 2.3 million people,” Bradley explained. “We think about the magnitude of people that are incarcerated, but we have no optics, no sort of visual examples of what that looks like. We’re dealing with an invisible community. In a way, the only way we can bear witness to their experience is through the people who are on the outside.”

2. Ultraviolence (Ken Fero)

Nineteen years in the making, UK documentary filmmaker Ken Fero has produced a startlingly prescient and powerful chronicle of a broken system which continues targeting marginalised individuals, people who have been stripped off their human rights. Ultraviolence is a lot of things: it is a letter to Fero’s own son, it is an archive of documented injustice, it is an unceasing battle-cry for equality but more importantly, it is needed.

Structured in the form of memories, Fero transitions from one act of police brutality to the next. He employs inter-titles like Jean-Luc Godard and is conscious of the conventions of filmmaking but how does one frame death? Fero reflects: “The filmmaker Pasolini believed that the long take was the central element of cinema. In filmmaking, death is often displayed as sudden. Here, we watch death happen. It is not cinematic. It is brutal.”

1. A Thousand Cuts (Ramona S. Díaz)

Ramona Díaz’s impactful documentary about the struggles of the outspoken Filipino-American journalist Maria Ressa investigates the questionable administration of President Rodrigo Duterte and his diversionary war on drugs. Through Ressa’s story, the film comments on the problematic erosion of a free press by exploring the conflicts between the conservative government and the press.

Díaz recalled, “I started talking to people on the ground in Manila at the end of 2017. I was there for at least four months and in those four months, I met Maria. She was the loudest voice speaking against Duterte at that time. We met and that was the start. It was apparent to me that she was gonna be the fulcrum on which the film rests.”

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