This year has been a Large one, so far.
With uncomfortable truths to confront, fearless pioneers to celebrate, and big-time crimes to puzzle over, documentary-makers have had their plates heaped with important stories.
While plenty of show-stealing documentaries premiered at Sundance this year, some of these aren’t yet available for you to watch at home — but don’t worry, many are. Plus, some of the best documentaries of 2020 have come in the form of limited series, hitting streaming services like Netflix and HBO to considerable and warranted buzz. So, we decided to stick to the very best documentaries from 2020 that you’re able to watch straight away.
And though we haven’t included it in this list, we’d be remiss to not mention Tiger King, one of the most talked-about series of the pandemic, for better or worse. Whether this series adds or significantly detracts from your life, we can’t say, though you’ve more than likely already seen it.
Without further ado, here are the 10 best documentary films and series from 2020 so far, in no particular order…
Right now, we’re living through a period of “unprecedented trans visibility,” according to Disclosure‘s executive producer and Orange Is the New Black star Laverne Cox. But she notes that since 80 percent of Americans do not personally know a trans person, onscreen portrayals have become the only experience for some people. “For a very long time, the ways in which trans people have been represented onscreen have suggested that we’re not real, have suggested that we’re mentally ill, that we don’t exist,” says Cox. “Yet here I am. And here we are. And we’ve always been here.”
One of the best documentaries you’ll see this year, Disclosure takes a hard look at the representation of trans people on screen throughout history, which goes back way further than you might think. And with this disheartening analysis comes a discussion of the offscreen impact of that representation, with transgender people portrayed onscreen more often than not as a joke, someone to be feared, or someone who constantly experiences violence. “For decades, Hollywood has taught people how to react to trans people, and that is with fear,” explains GLAAD’s Nick Adams in the film. There is hope, however, in how far we’ve come with the likes of Orange Is the New Black, Transparent, and Pose. The documentary, as writer Jen Richards says, gives a sense of a broader history of trans representation onscreen so trans people “can find themselves in it.”
If you want more on the representation of LGBTQ+ folks on TV, check out the Apple TV+ series Visible: Out on Television, a six-part series from The Case Against 8/The Keepers director Ryan White.
Where to watch: Netflix
2. On the Record
In the wake of the #MeToo movement in 2017, former music executive Drew Dixon made the decision to come forward and publicly accuse Def Jam Recordings co-founder Russell Simmons of rape in 1995 when she was working for the label as director of A&R. To date, the documentary states, 20 women have since come forward with accusations of sexual misconduct, sexual assault, and rape against the hip-hop mogul — Simmons has issued several denials, once in a blanket Instagram statement.
Directed and produced by Amy Ziering and Kirby Dick, who made The Hunting Ground and The Invisible War, On the Record puts Dixon’s story center-stage, alongside survivors Sil Lai Abrams, Sheri Sher, Alexia Norton Jones, Jenny Lumet, Kelly Cutrone, Tina Baker, and Keri Claussen Khalighi. The film sheds some seriously delayed light on sexual harassment, baked-in misogyny, and abuse of power in the music industry — feminist cultural critic Dr. June Morgan even describes having to deal with all this as “considered the price of admission for women.” For Dixon and other survivors to come forward in the first place to reporters, to experience the aftermath of speaking out, and then revisit this trauma in the documentary, even physically standing outside where Def Jam used to be for a shot, shows incredible courage. And importantly, On the Record confronts the marginalization of Black women in the #MeToo movement and whose stories get to be told — and believed.
Where to watch: HBO Max, BFI Player
3. Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution
Pack your bags for one of the most important documentaries you’ll see this year. Premiered at Sundance and co-produced by Barack and Michelle Obama’s Higher Ground Productions, Crip Camp follows the story of Camp Jened, an inclusive summer camp for young people with disabilities in the ‘50s and ’60s, which left a lasting impact on the lives of those who attended — enough to lead many to steer the disability rights movement in the ‘70s.
Crip Camp was created by disability rights activist and Camp Jened attendee James LeBrecht alongside Emmy-winning documentary maker Nicole Newnham, and it traces the connection between the campers and the civil rights movement. As Mashable’s Alexis Nedd put it, “It’s a case study in the power of activism, a badly needed history lesson, and an invitation for viewers to assess the impact of spaces like Camp Jened — designed from the start to include.”
Where to watch: Netflix
4. Welcome to Chechnya
Directed by Academy Award nominee David France, Welcome to Chechnya is a highly important documentary that follows a group of human rights activists helping people escape persecution from the Russian republic’s anti-LGBTQ genocide led by leader Ramzan Kadyrov. The film sheds light on this atrocity through footage smuggled out of the country by activists, alongside that taken by France’s team. , “Welcome to Chechnya is a blisteringly painful watch, one that imparts new meaning on the practice of bearing witness. This is the kind of film destined to be on ‘essential’ documentary lists for decades to come, the kind we will look back on as critical documentation of a historic wrongdoing.”
Where to watch: HBO Now or HBO Max
5. Athlete A
In Jan. 2018, USA Gymnastics team physician Larry Nassar was charged for decades of abuse against girls and young women after more than 100 women including athletes , , , and , made sexual assault accusations against him. It’s now 500. One of those athletes, Maggie Nichols, reported the abuse to the national governing body for gymnastics in 2015 and no action was taken. Nothing. Then, she was denied entry to the 2016 Olympic team. Nichols was anonymously dubbed Athlete A at the time, and forms the core of this enraging documentary streaming on Netflix. Centering the stories of the survivors, directors Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk conducted interviews with gymnasts who came forward against Nassar, including Nichols, Rachel Denhollander, and Jamie Dantzscher, alongside interviews with the investigative reporters and editors from the Indianapolis Star, which broke the story.
Athlete A is a testament to the courage it takes to come forward — the bravery shown by these athletes to revisit their trauma through their testimony, their victim impact statements read in court, and then again on camera for the documentary is nothing short of astounding. But it’s also a truly angering investigation into an organisation who failed to protect children over their own interests, creating an environment of control, dominance, and fear that enabled Nassar to remain in his position and continue to abuse young women.
Where to watch: Netflix
6. Miss Americana
It’s one of Mashable’s picks for the 10 best films of 2020 (so far), and we couldn’t leave it out of this list either. Whether you’re a fan of Taylor Swift or just curious about her meteoric rise to fame, Miss Americana is not trying to win any kind of argument — rather, it allows you a rare peek into the pop superstar’s life.
Director Lana Wilson crafts an intimate portrait of Swift, through plenty of interviews and behind-the-scenes footage, taking you into the songwriting sessions of her latest album Lover, backstage on the spectacular Reputation tour, through her relatively short journey from teen country singer to global superstar, through the sexual assault she won against radio host David Mueller, and the breaking of her political silence. But more than anything, the film makes plain that our loud opinion is the last thing that matters to Swift. As Mashable’s Angie Han writes, “Maybe it’s not the movie everyone wanted. Maybe this latest reinvention of Taylor Swift, this time as a woman who’s comfortable enough in her power to wield it fully, isn’t for everyone, either. But maybe, also, that’s the idea: Swift, Miss Americana tells us, is done worrying about what everyone else thinks.”
Where to watch: Netflix
7. The Last Dance
Dubbed “the greatest sports fix of the pandemic” by Mashable’s Kellen Beck, The Last Dance landed at just the right time for those missing games canceled due to lockdown. “Part gift to sports fans with nothing to watch and part attempt to boost ratings during a content drought, The Last Dance has become a haven of normalcy to large swaths of the world who feel lost without sports,” reads the review. Tracking the formidable career of Michael Jordan and particularly his last season with the Chicago Bulls in 1997-98, the 10-part miniseries is compelling viewing even for sports n00bs like me. Directed by Jason Hehir and co-produced by ESPN Films and Netflix, The Last Dance blends footage from an NBA Entertainment crew who was allowed to follow the team around for that season, and interviews with former teammates, coaches, managers, and people close to them.
Where to watch: ESPN+, Netflix, .
If you’ve read or listened to Michelle Obama’s memoir, Becoming, this documentary is a nice follow-up, taking you along for the ride for the former First Lady’s book tour across America. There’s plenty of backstage footage from the road and onstage interviews with the likes of Oprah Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon, Gayle King, and Stephen Colbert, along with photos and videos from Obama’s years spent growing up in Chicago, on the campaign trail, and in the White House.
Becoming, as Mashable’s Alexis Nedd puts it, is a visual reintroduction to Michelle Obama. “It’s a slick, emotional hour and a half that allows for a calibrated peek behind the scenes of Michelle Obama’s life on the road and offers much to those who want to bask in the familiarity that comes with checking in on a beloved American Icon,” she writes. Plus, the journey is peppered with visits to community groups, as Obama’s investment in time with young people helps frame her next moves, whatever they may be, her own chapters to be penned from outside 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
Where to watch: Netflix
If you ever participated in the McDonald’s Monopoly game, you need to see this documentary. A six-part docuseries directed by James Lee Hernandez and Brian Lazarte, McMillions follows the true-crime tale of one of the biggest scams in recent history — a $24 million case of fraud that occurred between 1989 and 2001 — and it all came down to those little tear-off tickets on the front of McDonald’s packaging during the long-running Monopoly promotion. While the documentary begins as a stock-standard FBI investigation into some dodgily connected million-dollar winners (complete with undercover operation), the tale meanders through some extremely weird territory with all the characters involved before revealing the strategy of the kingpin. There’s even an official podcast if you’re thirsty for more.
Where to watch: HBO Now, HBO Max, HBO on Amazon, NOW TV
10. Beastie Boys Story
If you’ve read or listened to the audiobook of the excellent Beastie Boys Book, are a major fan of the group, or are simply interested in the history of music and New York in the ‘80s and ‘90s, watch Beastie Boys Story. This Apple TV+ documentary is nothing fancy, basically an onstage PowerPoint presentation of the life of the band, from their early beginnings as major music fans smashing out a few loud-n-fast songs, to running wild with fame. Michael “Mike D” Diamond and Adam “Ad-Rock” Horovitz tell stories with a giddy teenage enthusiasm, involving “this guy” or “this club” and every single band and artists they’ve ever obsessed over (mainly RUN DMC). But, as with the book, the absence of Adam “MCA” Yauch is ever-present, honoured by his two friends and fellow Beasties with reverence, hilarity, and huge respect.
Where to watch: Apple TV+