…Aaand now the days are getting shorter as we’ve passed the midpoint of the year, meaning it’s high time we brought you the last but very far from the least feature in our 2016 So Far series. We’ve already regaled you with Best (Narrative) Films, Best TV Shows and our most popular hate-read Worst Films of the Year So Far, so that only leaves Best Documentaries of 2016 to fill you in on. Since the doc landscape is, if anything, changing even faster than that of traditional broadcast TV or theatrically distributed features, we’ve relaxed our rules a little here and allowed titles that we caught online or at festivals that have not yet been widely released to sneak onto this list.
That’s largely because in this new environment, it’s likely that this list, as opposed to those others, will be useful less for comparison purposes and more as (hopefully) a series of pointers to those wanting to dive into non-fiction waters at the halfway point of the year. These are the 20 documentaries, then, that we’ve seen in theaters, on our computers, on TV and at various far-flung festivals that we wholeheartedly recommend you search out, if you haven’t already done so.
“O.J.: Made In America” [Original Review]
Irony and tragedy are two of the most potent ingredients in Ezra Edelman’s epic and masterful seven-and-a-half-hour “O.J.: Made In America.” This is no mere companion to “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story”; where that series played the race card, ‘Made In America’ examines the entire deck. The necessary context of Simpson’s celebrity — one that found the athlete, spokesman and actor longing to exist free from the baggage and expectations of his race — is fundamental in understanding the full scale of his fall from grace, one in which the issue of his skin color became a pawn in what was ultimately a referendum on the bitter history that Los Angeles and even the country at large has had with African-Americans. It’s a fascinating framework against which to present this story, but Edelman never loses sight of the man himself, who was also an abusive, manipulative, dangerous monster, nor forgets how the system profoundly failed Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman. Weaving together reams of archival footage, contemporary interviews, and incisive insight, “O.J.: Made In America” is a powerfully accomplished piece of reportage, and a distinctly American saga unlike any other.
“Tempestad” [Original Review]
Whenever we discuss documentaries in this modern Golden Age, we end up talking about form and content and going around in circles about whether a great story told less imaginatively should rate as highly as a film that really tries to reassess the format. But with Tatiana Huezo‘s smoldering, evocative sophomore feature, those questions don’t really arise: “Tempestad” is both an urgent, wrenching social-issues documentary (given an even keener edge of topicality by recent events in Mexico) and a quietly intelligent expansion of traditional documentary methods to yield a film that is both essayistic and epic, both intimate and sociological. It is also very beautiful, shot masterfully by DP Ernesto Pardo, so that its twin, very specific stories of two Mexican women affected by the country’s breathtakingly corrupt kidnapping culture are constantly contextualized against imagery that helps us understand their universality. Between the narrated tale of a woman taken from work and thrown into a cartel-run prison for no reason, and the parallel story of a circus clown who has spent a decade searching for the daughter who, one night, never came home from college, Huezo’s choral approach builds to a lacerating but lyrical picture of a society in crisis.
“Fire At Sea” [Original Review]
Gianfranco Rosi‘s film achieved a rare feat when, as a documentary, it won the highest award at the 2016 Berlinale, which speaks very much to how absorbing and engaging it is, and the auteurist eye with which it is shot. (Had it been possible for a doc, its main subject, Samuele, might also have walked off with Best Actor.) But the real topical element of the film (albeit the one that we felt less convinced by than many critics) is that it is set on the small Italian island of Lampedusa, where traditional ways of life, mostly revolving around fishing, are under threat not just from modernization, but from the island’s position on the literal frontline of the Mediterranean immigrant crisis. Rosi’s camera records often graphically upsetting footage of desperate people arriving by the boatload to be processed through the island’s meager, quarantined facility, and contrasts it against the largely unruffled lifestyles of the islanders, particularly the entirely beguiling Samuele’s family. However, the conclusions we can draw about both these separate strands and how they interrelate are left either refreshingly ambiguous or frustratingly opaque, depending on your standpoint.
“Kate Plays Christine” [Original Review]
The thin lines that divide and cut through fiction, reality, performance, pretense, intention and action are masterfully weaved by Robert Greene in this blistering and impossible-to-turn-away-from piece of work. One notch above “Actress” in terms of thematic scope and intellectual weight, “Kate Plays Christine” cements Greene as one of our most invigorating documentarian voices — a voice that has become cinematically fluent in recognizing the subtle art of layering and coaxing the most sensitive “performances” out of his actresses. What we have here is Kate Lyn Sheil being herself as she prepares for a re-enactment of Christine Chubbuck’s tragic suicide story. The news anchor who shot herself on live television in the 1970s is as ambiguous a personality as Greene intentionally makes his documentary to feel at times, constantly keeping us on the edge as we drill deeper into the nature of identity and the mental consequences of portraying a real-life person whom so many people have so many different opinions about. Sheil, Greene and Sean Price Williams’ cinematography (easily one of the defining examples of cinematography of the year so far) are in pitch-perfect concert, giving a complex individual’s half-forgotten personal tragedy the kind of investigative attention it deserves.
“The Lives Of Thérèse”
Deserving winner of the Queer Palme in Cannes, Sébastien Lifshitz‘s slender film (it’s only 52 minutes long) details a life so full and varied that it truly earns the plural in the title. “The Lives of Thérèse” is also remarkable, however, for its perspective, as Lifshitz was tasked by the subject herself, French activist and campaigner Thérèse Clerc, to film her “right up to the end” as she was dying. Thérèse’s playful but ferocious intellect was such that she saw a way that her own humanity in the face of death could be instrumental in shattering yet another taboo: in this case, our unspoken horror of old age and infirmity, and our inability to face up to the fact of mortality in any meaningful way. Heavy themes indeed, but the film that emerges, while inevitably sad at times, is also full of humor and life, as Thérèse’s children, friends and even the woman herself all discover new things to admire in her full, extraordinary existence. And at times, when Lifshitz’s camera rests on Thérèse’s beautiful, lined face, the love the filmmaker feels for his friend is almost palpable, making the film, above all, an exceptionally moving act of farewell.