Remember when “truth is stranger than fiction” used to be a thing that boring people said to fill awkward post-anecdote gaps at dinner parties and before it became the literal truth of every waking moment living in the Western world in 2017? Yeah, us neither. But of all cinematic forms perhaps it’s our appreciation of documentary filmmaking that has been most affected by the experience of living in such unsettled times — with only a few exceptions the docs we’ve been most impressed by this year have commented on the state we’re in right now, even when they ostensibly have done nothing of the sort.
This feature is always one of the ones we’re most excited to draw up and research, but it’s also always problematic in terms of release dates, festival premieres and now, online availability which all muddy the waters of what we should consider a 2017 film. And so the selection below spans everything from films we first talked about a long time ago that only just got released, to hot-off-the-presses festival premieres that only a few hundred people have had the chance to see yet. Hopefully that means this eclectic selection can serve as both a checklist and a wishlist, and get you excited for a few non-fiction features you’ll hopefully get to see in the coming months.
One last note — we do mean features only: we made the decision not to include documentary series on this list and instead, “The Keepers,” one of undoubtedly the most extraordinary documentary achievements of the year, features on our Best TV of the Year So Far rundown. But enough about the docs that aren’t here, here are the 20 that are.
Billed by its filmmaker Alexandre O. Philippe as the only feature film ever made about a single scene, there’s a joyous geekery to “78/52” that will make it catnip to professional and casual film buffs everywhere. With a title that refers to the 78 set-ups and 52 cuts that were employed in the creation of the single most famous scene from Alfred Hitchcock‘s long and storied career — the “Psycho” shower scene — it’s basically an exhaustive and affectionate homage to the incredible power and complexity that cinema can achieve. Philippe doesn’t only break down the scene into its various components — acting, writing, storyboarding, camera angles, editing, Bernard Herrmann’s basically irreplaceable shrieking violins — he gets terrific interviewees to talk about each aspect. Sometimes they’re exactly who you’d want (Marli Renfro, the actress who body doubled for Janet Leigh being a great addition) sometimes they’re counter-intuitive (actor and newly minted horror producer Elijah Wood and his two producing partners make a kind of geek Greek chorus at times) but they’re always illuminating. One thing we can say for sure: no matter how much you think you know about “Psycho,” you’ll leave “78/52” having learned something new, and that’s a pretty strong endorsement for a film about the most endlessly dissected dissection scene of them all.
“All This Panic”
It doesn’t feel like the most focused or original of loglines for a documentary, but the unparalleled access of Jenny Gage‘s “All this Panic” makes the examination of a generational coming-of-age feel vitally engaging. Gage followed seven teenage girls in Brooklyn over the course of three years to plot that moment of transition and the result is a deeply absorbing, quietly dazzling meditation on the transience and preciousness of childhood, and the different ways these resourceful young women are facing its end. The changes the girls undergo during this momentous period give the film an almost “Boyhood“-style relationship to time, while its central figure, Lena, emerges as one of the most endearingly empathetic doc characters in recent memory. With circumstances that include a mentally unstable father and brother and a mother who can no longer care for her, Lena is forced to grow up before her time, while another of the other girls can’t wait to do so and still another confesses that she’d like to hang on to childhood for as long as she can. It’s a rare, intimate privilege to bear witness to their lives over this period, and Gage’s well-shot, entirely uncondescending film treats an often dismissed demographic with respect, affection and insight.
“Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds”
It feels like directors Alexis Bloom and Fisher Stevens‘ bristling, bright-eyed documentary about the bond that existed between an extraordinary mother and her extraordinary daughter, was karmically timed. But though it aired less than a month after Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds passed away within a day of each other, it originally premiered in Telluride (the use of the present tense in our glowing review from there is a bit of a heart-squeeze now), and is untouched by tragic foreknowledge. Instead, it’s a gossipy, fast-paced delight, a whistle-stop tour through two parallel lives and parallel personalities that had long overcome their mutual antagonisms to become each others’ most ardent admirers and most faithful support system. It’s not just that both women were movie stars, but both starred in a defining film of their time (what other duo could boast two potential all-time top 10 pantheon titles like “Singing in the Rain” and “Star Wars”?), and both were beset by private adversity that went public: Debbie when her husband Eddie Fisher left her for Elizabeth Taylor, and Carrie by her escalating drug habit and bipolar depression. But what makes ‘Bright Lights’ so acutely bittersweet now is that both women come across as indomitable, with their foibles, follies, and blazing wit intact right to the end: It’s a portrait made topical by tragedy and death, but it’s all about love and survival.
Few crimes since the Manson murders have attracted more sensationalism than the still-unsolved case of six-year-old pageant queen JonBenet Ramsay, who was found dead in the basement of her family home at Christmas in 1996. This lurid impulse is both exploited and examined in Kitty Green‘s fascinating hybrid doc, which focuses less on the crime than its mythology and the way it affected the community, through the conceit of a casting call for a putative narrative film about the subject. The often oddball professional and non-professional actors who show up provide a fascinatingly variegated and hugely entertaining oral history of the many theories behind the murder, and though sometimes the ethics niggle a bit (we’re never sure at what point the subjects are told the real nature of Green’s intent, or that their personal anecdotes and reminiscences will actually form the basis for the film), it builds to a climax that thoroughly justifies the subterfuge. In the finale, more a live art installation than a reconstruction per se, the actors play out all the theories simultaneously on one soundstage, built to replicate the Ramsay home, in a kind of meta-on-meta “Synecdoche NY” approach to true crime that is weird, dazzling and oddly haunting.
“City Of Ghosts”
Matthew Heineman’s “Cartel Land” was one of the most gripping and cinematic documentaries in recent years, so hopes were understandably high for his follow-up, “City Of Ghosts,” which takes a similar ground-level look at a terrible conflict, this time in Syria rather than the war on drugs. Here, he’s got a story of clearer villains and heroes than the moral murkiness and twists of “Cartel Land” — focused on a group of citizen journalists in Raqqa, who formed a group called “Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently,” to show the world the atrocities being committed by ISIS in their hometown, and causing themselves and their families to be targeted in the process. Heineman brings the same smart eye and muscular editing that he displayed in “Cartel Land,” but this is a quieter, sadder film in most respects, its subjects showing almost unthinkable dignity and heroism in the face of true evil. At a time when our own president has attempted to make journalists and the media into the boogeyman, a film like this is more vital than ever to prove exactly how important the profession is.