“If only I had time,” I remember sighing at some point in late 2019, probably in a pub or a restaurant among a cluster of friends separated by <1 ft of space, lipstick doubtless boozily smeared across my maskless face. “If only I somehow had the time to do nothing but stay in and catch up on all the non-fiction releases I’ve missed through the year!” Little did I know that at that exact moment, the Ministry of Be Careful What You Wish For was listening in. So yes, sorry everybody, clearly All This is my fault, but hey, at least the global pandemic means your dedicated documentary-enjoyer has been able to spend a million hours watching and absorbing all the year’s docs from the comfort/expert-recommended safety of her own sofa? Well, hmmm.
I know I’m not the only one who’s experienced a subtle but unmistakable shift in my viewing habits and tastes this year. Enforced inactivity due to airborne disease particles is so much less enjoyable than voluntary inactivity due to laziness, and I’ve found myself irritable and impatient with films that would likely have floated my boat a few months ago, transfixed by other things that might have previously tried my patience, and reduced to a blubbering wreck by scenes that would scarcely have grazed my cold, stone heart last year. I think this list reflects that: though a fair few have made it on, I’ve found it hard not to notice, for example, an increasing sameness of approach in the Netflix documentary “genre.” And while in many, if not most, cases that’s an unfairly reductive way of assessing doubtless impassioned storytelling from dedicated filmmakers, my irritation with that smooth matte-finished, precision-tooled non-fiction delivery system has definitely been a factor in what I’ve responded to, or not, this year. This being a documentary list, one should be honest about that.
Or should one? Conversely, I’m probably more open than ever to films that take a smudgily hybrid approach to documentary, drama, narrative, and the fiction/non-fiction divide. One of those trickly little numbers appears below, but there are two other such hybrids that were festival-only titles in 2020 and therefore ineligible here – “My Mexican Bretzel” and “The Metamorphosis of Birds” – which are among my very favorite recent discoveries in any form, and I urge you to seek them out if you can.
Speaking of, the “rules” for inclusion here were simply that the film had some sort of publicly accessible US release in 2020, and that it wasn’t a serialized TV documentary. That does mean that “The Last Dance” does not appear, though I hear nothing but great stuff about it, but it also got me out of having to watch “The Tiger King,” so I think it was a good bargain. Here is an otherwise ill-disciplined and probably self-contradictory list of the 20 documentaries that have either helped me engage more with this bananas year, or helped me escape the fuck out of it for a couple of hours.
20. “Assassins” (d. Ryan White) – currently in virtual cinemas; On-Demand January 15, 2021.
The absurdly contorted February 2017 plot to murder Kim Jong-nam – the elder half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un – was successful in two ways. Firstly, the targeted man, a potential succession threat despite his long exile from his homeland, did indeed die after two young women accosted him in Kuala Lumpur airport and smeared his face with a deadly toxin. And secondly, as proved by Ryan White’s engrossing if slightly unsatisfying documentary, the assassination’s dramatics – a broad-daylight attack in a public place, perpetrated by two pretty, unwitting, non-national females who, most outlandishly, believed they were taking part in Japanese prank TV show – ensure that coverage of the killing gravitates toward the sensationalist smokescreen and away from the essentials of what was a grubby little act of paranoid fratricide, for all its Bond-villain trappings. It’s a paradox that “Assassins” can’t really reconcile, making the tasteful if somewhat disappointing choice to make the two accused, obviously innocent, duped women the center of the action, when the factors shaping their fates actually had little to do with them personally. The result is unfocused, but still a good primer on a great story – one of the most bizarre murder plots in recent memory.
19. “Crip Camp” (d. James Lebrecht, Nicole Newnham) – currently on Netflix
Camp Jened in the Catskills had been around since the early ’50s, but in James Lebrecht and Nicole Newnham’s uplifting Obamas-produced Netflix doc, it’s the more hippieish incarnation of the following decades that provided the formative experience for an entire generation of future disabled-rights activists. Combining archive scenes of demonstrations, news stories, and recent interviews with a selection of the camp’s graduates as well as, most engagingly, video footage shot by the attendees themselves at the time, the film presents a witty and heartfelt overview of disabled rights advocacy. Still today, that struggle for social justice is little celebrated compared to other contemporary civil rights movements, which “Crip Camp” addresses by placing it firmly within the context of the various revolutions born of the ’60s and ’70s (that the Black Panthers supplied disabled protestors with food at a 1970s sit-in is a fascinating detail), as the inevitable use of Buffalo Springfield proves. But it’s also a persuasive argument for how one generation’s trailblazing leaders and activists are the previous generation’s awkward youth, sneaking smokes, making out, and finding their tribe at a summer camp that was revolutionary in many ways but mostly for empowering them be teenagers first, disabled a distant second.
18. “Mucho Mucho Amor: The Legend of Walter Mercado” (d. Cristina Constantini, Kareem Tabsch) – currently on Netflix
Wherever you hail from, there are probably a handful of TV personalities and local celebrities who defined your upbringing and who now form a kind of collective cultural memory that bonds you to others of the same background. And if you’re Puerto Rican and of a certain generation (say, if you’re Lin Manuel Miranda, who makes an appearance here), Cristina Constantini and Kareem Tabsch’s affectionate doc persuasively contends that Walter Mercado, the flamboyant, androgynous telenovela actor-turned-beloved-TV-astrologist, was just such a personality. Mercado, though living out his late-80s in semi-obscurity, is a joy, and it’s entirely gratifying to watch him blossom under the filmmakers’ attention into something like his prior Liberace-style fabulousness (such incredible capes), his determinedly unlined, ageless face belying his advanced years and his eager desire to reconnect with “his” public only matched in enthusiasm by the reactions of the public he does indeed meet. The strange and sad story of his retreat from the limelight is revealed gradually, but even though Mercado passed within a few months of filming, the grand trajectory of this hugely enjoyable doc is upward, giving an erstwhile star a last chance of going supernova, and like the pro he always remained, he does not disappoint.
17. “The Mole Agent” (d. Maite Alberdi) – currently on Hulu
Dapper, bright-eyed octogenarian Sergio Chamy makes an unlikely spy. But, hired by a private investigator to check-in undercover and investigate a Chilean nursing home suspected of elder abuse, a spy is indeed what he becomes in Maite Alberdi’s Sundance doc hit. Chamy is an unbelievably sympathetic hero, part gumshoe detective rummaging through his fellow patients’ lives, part oblivious thirst trap for the center’s many single older ladies (the female to male ratio is 40:4) and part – as it gradually emerges – a sensitive and compassionate senior whose most valuable contribution to these people’s lives may not be the exposure of systemic malfeasance but simply the friendly act of talking and listening to them. At times the almost jauntily comic tone sits at odds with the insights Sergio happens on, consciously and otherwise, and sometimes the gravity of other people’s misery seems to cause even this unflappable, intrepid double agent to doubt the usefulness of his mission. But these tonal oddities aside, “The Mole Agent,” almost despite itself, ends up being a mystery story, after all, it’s the just the mysteries it deals in are, like elder loneliness, filial neglect, and senile dementia, far more profound than the one it’s ostensibly investigating.
16. “The Social Dilemma” (d. Jeff Orlowski) – currently on Netflix
The irony of this apocalyptic anti-algorithm statement coming from Netflix does not appear to have occurred to anyone involved – or if it did, it’s been carefully excised from Jeff Orlowski‘s slickly packaged, doom-laden doc. That very slickness is perhaps one of its least trustworthy aspects – in particular, the rather glib dramatizations of the Perils of Social Media as experienced by one carefully cast, mixed-race “average” family. But the power of the interview segments, in which former high-level engineers of platforms from Facebook to Google to Twitter to Insta to Pinterest, turn apostate and give their uniquely well-informed analysis of the way in which we are all manipulated by the socials they were instrumental in designing, and the way our own psychology has been weaponized against us by the tech giants, is fascinating and terrifying in equal measure. It is also, in some small way, heartening that these very brilliant men and women have opted out and are trying to repair some of the damage they feel complicit in creating. Still, to be on the safe side, I’m writing this copy by candlelight on a manual typewriter in my off-grid, freshwater-adjacent mountain retreat and will be delivering it via a friendly raccoon.