There was a time when documentary filmmaking felt a little bit like the red-headed stepchild of the film industry, and, to be sure, they still tend not to challenge fiction features at the box office unless they’re furiously topical political manifestos like “March of the Penguins,” awe-inspiring testaments to the grandeur of nature like “Jackass 3D” or gross-out slapstick like “Fahrenheit 9/11.” But the rise of streaming services, and the fall of Western democracy, have given non-fiction filmmaking a new lease on life: not only are the incisive and dedicated perspectives of documentarians of all stripes more necessary than ever now to help us make sense of an increasingly senseless world, they also tend to be more available to us than ever before.
In fact, that availability — the sheer choice — can be overwhelming (one reason this particular Best of 2017 list was a little later than usual this time, for which, apologies). And so we’ve done our best to provide you with a thorough look at our favorite docs of the year below, to help you sort through the plethora of options. Whether you want to educate yourself further on your favorite filmmakers, or you’re looking for a new way to engage with the major issues of the day in terms of civil rights, the war in Syria, doping in sports etc, or whether you want to escape all that and just look at a bunch of cats and/or Agnes Varda doing very cute stuff, there’s something for you here.
Click here for our full coverage of the best of 2017, including The Worst Films Of The Year, Best TV, Best Scores & Soundtracks, Best Cinematography, Posters, Trailers, Horror, Action Sequences, Sex Scenes, our Best Films Of The Year, Underrated and Overrated Films of the Year, Breakout Talents, Best Animation, and the 100 Most Anticipated Films Of 2018.
Much like 2016’s “De Palma,” which led us breathlessly through the oeuvre of the titular filmmaker, this HBO documentary, from director Susan Lacy, who has previously produced films on Janis Joplin and Woody Allen as well as directing non-fiction TV series “American Masters” and a forthcoming Jane Fonda doc, clearly has mad love for The Bearded One, but it also entertains, informs and provides real insight into his work. It’s nice to see this come out now, with Steven Spielberg back on form of late, and receiving terrific notices for “The Post.” His “Lincoln” and “Bridge Of Spies” later-career phase has seen the director stepping into older age with grace and reminding younger generations that he’s still got plenty of gas left in his cinematic tank. If you love Spielberg’s work already, you’ve probably already watched this (if not, what are you waiting for?). But this may actually be a better, more valuable watch for the haters: full of plenty of evidence to counter the urge to take him for granted, and to reinvigorate our appreciation of him as one of the greatest filmmakers of all time. — Erik McClanahan
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 compenents — 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. — Jessica Kiang
22. “Nobody Speak: Trials Of The Free Press”
It was easy to make the “Alien Vs. Predator” joke of “whoever wins, we lose” about the trial that saw Hulk Hogan sue influential gossip-mongering site Gawker for publishing his sex tape. Indeed, in the end, Hogan won and yes, we all duly lost — not just Gawker who were bankrupted by the hefty damages they had to pay to the former wrestling star, but the very idea of a free press — a notion previously believed to be foundational to a democracy which has only been further eroded in the months since the film’s release. This excellent doc from “The Internet’s Own Boy” director Brian Knappenberger makes clear that however much you might have disliked editor Nick Denton’s sometimes glorious, often grubby site, that they could be brought down in such a manner is positively chilling and, even worse, has proven merely a shot across the bows for what was still to come. Knappenberger builds a clear, concise narrative of some complex issues, smartly keeping his villain Peter Thiel (who financed Hogan’s suit) in the shadows until late on. And while it doesn’t pretend “objectivity” — it’s firmly on the side of a free press, as should we all be — it doesn’t let Denton and his crew completely off the hook either. Made with real wit and skill, and only occasionally stopping to contemplate the absolute absurdity of the situation, it is a summary exercise in sometimes hating what the other guy has to say, but absolutely defending their right to say it. — Oliver Lyttelton
21. “Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond”
Depending on how you look at it, Chris Smith‘s involving, reflective Netflix original “Jim & Andy”is either about perception as deception, or it’s deception in the form of perception. Either way, this thoughtful, confessional, melancholy Hollywood documentary is a fascinating find. Scavenging through hours upon hours of behind-the-scenes footage recorded from the set of 1999’s underappreciated Andy Kaufman biopic dramedy “Man on the Moon,” for which Jim Carrey — arguably at the height of his professional comedy career — dived headfirst into method acting to channel the wild, incomparable energy of both absurdist comedian Andy Kaufman and his notoriously barbarous lounge singer alter ego Tony Clifton, the results are often more bittersweet and even disturbing than outright humorous. And Smith’s film isn’t merely celebrating Carrey’s snubbed would-be Oscar contender. Rather, “Jim & Andy” — breathlessly subtitled “The Great Beyond: Featuring a Very Special, Contractually Obligated Mention of Tony Clifton” — is a meditative, heartbreaking reflection on self-worth, emotional damage and mental health from one of the most beloved comedic actors of the past generation. And yet, as you watch Carrey lose himself in the roles, you can’t help but wonder if Carrey is still channeling the spirit of Kaufman and if this whole thing is some sort of “I’m Still Here“-esque ruse. And that, in its own weird, messed up way, makes it even more fascinating. One thing is for certain: Andy Kaufman would be proud. No matter what’s real and what’s not, “Jim & Andy”is one of the most telling, informative movies to be made about the moviemaking process in ages. — Will Ashton