The Best Documentaries Of 2017

blank5. “Last Men In Aleppo”
It’s difficult to overstate the achievement of Feras Fayyad and Steven Johanssen’s heartbreaking, powerful “Last Men In Aleppo.” The winner of the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance 2017, it’s a film that is both agonisingly urgent yet also hauntingly beautiful at times: few documentaries have ever managed to capture conflict and destruction with such visceral impact, yet also feel like they’re built to last. But the film spans the entire emotional spectrum from the gut-punch horror of small bodies (so often those of children) dusted deathly white with plaster powder, being pulled from the colossal piles of crumbled masonry that moments before were homes and apartment buildings, to the spectacular wide shots of the besieged city that are shot through with a profound sense of love and grief for the place Aleppo once was and never will be again. Following members of the civilian volunteer first-responder organisation that was also the subject of last year’s Best Documentary short, “The White Helmets,” Fayyad and his team ride along on their daily grim duties, which they face with an unflagging, tireless resolve, despite how acutely, existentially difficult the work is. The footage is heartbreaking and horrifying, but what is most overwhelming is the extraordinary humanity shown by the men and their colleagues in their face of such monstrous acts, and the resilience of the inhabitants of a city in the throes of being essentially eradicated from the face of the earth. — JK

blank4. “Jane”
Jane Goodall is the real Wonder Woman. Writer/director Brett Morgen (“The Kid Stays in the Picture,” “Cobain Montage of Heck”) continues his obsession with profiling massively successful celebrities who changed history. This time he finds the sweet spot between his typical cinematic structuring that prizes immersion and elevation above business-as-usual talking head interviews, and something approaching a “Planet Earth”-esque nature documentary. There’s probably more than enough drama, history and pathos in Goodall’s journey from amateur scientist to chimpanzee expert to fuel several documentaries: you’d have to try pretty hard to deliver anythig less than fascinating. However, Morgen wisely employs a lot of archival footage, specifically the gorgeous 16mm film work by Goodall’s husband (more than 100 hours at National Geographic were combed through and edited together), adding a level of gorgeous Malick-ian montage over nearly all of the film’s runtime. It’s a beautiful thing to behold, and get lost in [our review]. This is what a real hero looks like: covered in dirt, putting in the work, always striving to learn more. — EM

blank3. “Ex Libris: The New York Public Library”
Sticking up for your lowly local library can often feel like a fool’s errand, particularly when it’s an easy line scratch off an austerity budget. But leave it to Frederick Wiseman to paint an absolutely gorgeous portrait and defense, not just of the library system, but its role within the complex fabric of a metropolitan city. Spreading out over three, highly engaging hours, “Ex Libris: The New York Public Library” [our review] doesn’t just hang out at the institution’s iconic 476 Fifth Avenue location. Instead, it takes audiences to branches located in many different boroughs, highlighting everything from kids’ programs to archival work that makes up wide-ranging mandate of the public/private institution. It’s not a mistake that Wiseman re-emphasizes the private and public funding that maintains the balance of the New York Public Library system; he clearly believes in it. However, ‘Ex Libris’ is not a polemic so much as gently persuasive argument at the necessity of the system, one that connects all New Yorkers — regardless of class or race — in a city that can often feel very divided. In this way, ‘Ex Libris’ is also a love letter to the city, its people, and the pulsing lifeline of information, education, and illumination that keeps it vibrant. — Kevin Jagernauth

blank2. “The Work”
Once the hangover has lifted, the resolutions begin, as the dawn of a new year inspires all of us to become better versions of ourselves. But change is hard, and realizing our potential means grappling with understanding who we are first. Directors Jairus McLeary and Gethin Aldous take audiences on one of the most extreme examples of that in the the bracingly immersive and hauntingly raw “The Work.” The film goes inside Folsom Prison, following three men from the outside as they join a four-day group therapy retreat guided by level-four convicts. The camera never flinches and neither do these men, who through the course of their sessions, break down some astonishingly strong emotional walls they’ve built around them, as both the inmates and the visitors plumb the depths of the fears and the pain that linger inside them. It’s captivating cinema, that makes up for its lack of flash, with an experience that leaves you winded and red-eyed. — KJ

blank1. “The Keepers”
When Film Twitter worked itself into a storm/teacup lather over the classification of “Twin Peaks: The Return” as cinema, it was eerily reminiscent of a similar kerfuffle last year when “OJ: Made in America” was put into the Best Documentary film category at the Oscars (and subsequently, quite rightly, won). But while the is-it-TV-or-is-it-a-film obsessives got thus sidetracked, for the second year in a row the best documentary of the year was a piece of long-form storytelling: Ryan White (who also made the excellent “The Case Against 8“) took an unsolved cold case and made from it one of the most riveting, energising, enraging and inspiring works of the year. That said, “The Keepers” doesn’t quite fit the TV/Movie debate because it’s also possibly one of the least bingeable shows ever made — on several occasions I had to turn it off and go for a walk mid-episode as the revelations became just too much to process. Starting out as the story of the murder of a young nun in the 1960s, it soon develops into a many-tentacled expose of systemic child sex abuse in the Catholic Archdiocese of Baltimore. Episodes 2 and 3 especially, wherein the abuse is bluntly catalogued by the survivors, most now in their 60s, are so red-mist maddening that they can be difficult to bear. But as much as its portrait of abject evil fills you with anger, and as much as it eschews simple cathartic resolution, “The Keepers” most lasting effect is the absolute mountainous respect, admiration and gratitude we feel toward the women involved — especially the two students of the murdered Sister Cathy who started this crusade, and the victims who finally come forward. In a year when the biggest tectonic shift in the entertainment industry and in popular culture in general, was the tsunami of #metoo, “The Keepers” shows the absolutely breathtaking strides that can be made by ordinary women fighting for each other, talking to each other and simply believing each other’s stories. This is an incredible piece of work. — JK

Honorable mentions: one film that simply not enough of us have seen so far to be able to include is widely lauded cinephile opus “Dawson City: Frozen Time” from director Bill Morrison, about a cache of celluloid films from the 1910s and 1920s discovered under the permafrost, deep in Yukon Territority. And there are a whole lot more titles that made our mid-year Best Documentaries list but do not feature here, such as “Joshua: Teenager vs Superpower”; “Oklahoma City“; “Bright Lights“; “Kiki“; “Karl Marx City“; “I Am Heath Ledger“; “I Called Him Morgan“; “All This Panic” and “Water & Power” all of which we nonetheless highly recommend.

Other non-fiction highlights released this year include: the investigation into the mysterious end of a black transgender activist in “The Death And Life Of Marsha P Johnson“; creepy HBO doc “Mommy Dead and Dearest“; Italian village theater story “Spettacolo“; Laura Poitras‘ Julian Assange doc “Risk“; environmental cautionary tales “Chasing Coral” and Melanie Laurent‘s “Tomorrow“; witty economics examination”Abacus: Small Enough To Jail“; Jon Alpert‘s chronicle of a country over 45 turbulent years “Cuba and the Cameraman“; fascinating profile of the NYT obituaries team “Obit“; inspiring doc on black colleges and universities “Tell Them We Are Rising“; heartrending immigration/custody story “Elian“; Griffin Dunne‘s interview-based film about his charismatic famous aunt “Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold“; shocking, informative, all-angles reportage and interview film “Cries From Syria“; enjoyable photography doc “The B-Side“; and the rather hagiographic but nonetheless absorbing “Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story.” Oh, and once again we discovered that there’s no Playlister sufficiently energized by The Grateful Dead to watch “Long Strange Trip,” though we hear nothing but good things. What were your non-fiction highlights of the year? Any we missed? Let us know below.