We’re deep into the week before Christmas and still cutting a swath through our Best/Worst/It’s Complicated Year-End coverage, most of which we hope you’ve all read and enjoyed, or at least been engaged by (it’s okay, you can disagree). This year, a few documentaries made it onto our collective 25 Best Films of the Year list; in 2016, it seems that many of the achievements in non-fiction cinema have rendered moot the notion of keeping narrative and documentary separate for evaluation. Clearly films like “Cameraperson” and “O.J.: Made In America” have been as affecting cinematic storytelling as any of our other favorite fiction films, and we, for one, welcome the bleeding together of the lists.
Of course, we’re such fans of docs that we also had to carve out a separate space to talk about all of our favorites from 2016, hence our Best Documentaries of 2016 list. Interestingly enough, this was a relatively easy list to draw up, and one we put together before the Oscar shortlist came out, only to be gratified to see that many tastes were shared between us and the documentary branch of the Academy. Yet more proof that it seems to be a golden epoch for docs, which have found homes in theaters, on TV, on streaming sites, and in all shapes, forms and lengths. It’s an embarrassment of riches, and we like it that way.
22. “Miss Sharon Jones!”
We had to include Barbara Kopple’s portrait of the inspiring soul singer Sharon Jones, who sadly passed away this year, having suffered a stroke while watching the U.S. election results come in, no less. It’s quite the dramatic exit for a woman who brought it all on stage with her retro-soul revival band the Dap Kings. For all the fervor and fire that Jones brought to the stage, the film itself is more quiet and contemplative, following her hard-fought battle with pancreatic cancer. Kopple weaves Jones’ life story throughout, from her humble upbringing in the segregated South, the many obstacles she faced in the pursuing music as a career, and the success she found with her band. The most profound and cathartic moments of the film are when Sharon summons her gift for music, a wild, full-body possession that fully takes over her 4’11” frame whether onstage in front of a crowd, or simply singing in church. She seems to be a second coming of James Brown, borne of the same land and culture that made him. The fact that the film leaves you wanting to know so much more about this remarkable artist is a testament to her vibrant soul and the depths of her gifts.
21. “Holy Hell”
Cult documentary “Holy Hell” is an achievement in documentary if only for its unprecedented access to the former members of the goofy LA cult The Buddhafield, and to director/former member/cult videographer Will Allen’s collection of archival footage and video materials from the cult’s heyday. Perhaps “Holy Hell” doesn’t shed new light on the way cults work, but it’s a heck of a ride with The Buddhafield, which initially seems too good to be true — a Southern California-based meditation group of hot young people high off their own supply of fruit salad, ballet, sunshine and forest dancing. Leader Michel/Andreas is one of the most unforgettable characters of the year, a completely magnetic figure with piercing brown eyes, a bod built for sin, and a vast collection of neon Speedos. If at first you think, “this looks pretty cool,” remember that it’s too good to be true, and then stick around for the revelations of Michel/Andreas’ abusive transgressions and shocking twists in the tale. It’s unclear which moment of “Holy Hell” is more chilling — Allen’s confrontation with his former guru on the beach in Hawaii, his hanging with a new crew, or the group’s spine-tingling recruitment video of them dancing and crying in white tunics to Snow Patrol’s “Chasing Cars.” Truly scary stuff.
20. “Audrie & Daisy”
Our collective true-crime obsession reached a boiling point in 2016, but the Netflix documentary “Audrie & Daisy,” directed by Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk, took a unique, victim-based approach to telling the stories of two high-profile high-school rape cases. It’s right there in the title, and the film keeps both Audrie Pott and Daisy Coleman at the forefront, weaving together the stories of the two girls, who were victims of sadly similar crimes and subsequent harassment, in towns thousands of miles apart. Social media and technology have proven to be a toxic additive to the high-school stew, which in its worst forms includes gossip, bullying, alcohol, and sexual assault. Pulling away from the headlines and hot takes around this issue of rape in high schools and on college campuses, “Audrie & Daisy” dives into the specifics of these two distressingly similar cases, which include not just the crime but a rash of victim-blame and shame that follows. One of the most chilling parts of the film is Cohen and Shenk’s inclusion of the perpetrators’ testimonies, rendered in animation to disguise their identities, illuminating the lack of education around this issue, which goes all the way to the top — a law-enforcement officer interviewed espouses truly retrograde beliefs about rape victims. Pott and Coleman’s stories have different endings, though only a razor’s edge divides the two girls’ fates. “Audrie & Daisy” proves to be a tragically edifying but sensitive portrayal of these ugly and troubling facts.
If only “Trapped” didn’t always feel so urgent. But Dawn Porter’s primer on the current methods used to dismantle abortion rights just continues to feel more and more relevant — a constant, lucidly recounted reminder of the way TRAP (targeted regulation of abortion provider) laws work to chip away at abortion access, and what that means for providers around the United States. Porter synthesizes powerful statistics to illustrate these laws’ dangerous effects on women’s health, with intimate personal portraits of the doctors, nurses and clinicians caring for their patients in states where restrictions have effectively hamstrung their work. In Porter’s film, these health-care providers are simply ordinary people who go to work everyday, who pray and celebrate and cry with their co-workers and patients, but are also fighters and rebels, individuals who are so invested in doing what they believe is right that they put everything on the line for it. It’s a battle that happens on a daily basis, with victories and losses big and small. That they never give up offers a tiny flicker of hope. They’re the kind of people we so desperately need right now, as “Trapped” makes it abundantly clear.
Forget the Ice Bucket Challenge — “Gleason” is the film that truly brings awareness to the realities of ALS. Following the Gleason family on their journey with the disease after New Orleans Saints retired player Steve Gleason’s diagnosis, the film is a triumph of the human spirit over the greatest of challenges, and never shies away from the the incredibly raw, real stuff that makes up the day-to-day reality of an ALS patient. Diagnosed just a few weeks before Steve and wife Michel learned they had a baby on the way, Steve started making videos for his unborn child, attempting to pass on as much of his personality and zest for life before the disease robbed him of his speech, strength and mobility. Director Clay Tweel came in to capture the daily aspects of life in the Gleason home, as Steve and Michel transformed from local heroes to ALS advocates, while the personal videos offer up vulnerable confessional moments. The film never hides any of the more challenging moments as Steve and Michel struggle to maintain their identities and their normalcy through marriage and raising a child — hard enough without the extraordinary circumstances. The uncensored, free-spirited Michel emerges as the entertaining star of the film, relying on her humor and no-nonsense attitude for strength. It’s a story about overcoming obstacles, fathers and sons, what you pass on in life, and how to stay yourself through unprecedented change — it’s about ALS, but it’s really about so much more.