Very little felt real in 2020. Time started to slip and slide. Screens became not just entertainment portals but a connection to the rest of the world, where we worked, learned, attended birthday parties and holiday gatherings, played games, and tried to maintain some semblance of real life.
So maybe it’s appropriate that 2020 was a brilliant year for documentaries, rife with engrossing nonfiction films in every genre — from comedies and dramas to journalistic exposés and category-defying tricksters. They explored mortality and love, showed us the past and the present, and challenged us to engage in the future, even in the midst of an unreal present.
Here are my (unranked) picks for the 18 best documentaries of 2020, plus how you can watch them.
There have already been a few documentaries about the Covid-19 pandemic, and I expect many more in the years to come. But 76 Days will surely be remembered as one of the gutsiest, best, and — oddly — most hopeful. It was shot inside a hospital in Wuhan, China, from the beginning of the outbreak until the city’s lockdown was lifted after 76 days. Even with the nurses and doctors in full PPE and patients struggling to survive in their hospital beds, 76 Days manages to be funny and tense, heartbreaking and humanizing — and it ends, improbably enough, on a note of hope. It’s a massive project (helmed by Hao Wu, Weixi Chen, and an anonymous collaborator) that provides a glimpse into reality and an invaluable record of this moment.
How to watch it: 76 Days is currently playing in virtual cinemas (short-term digital rentals that benefit the brick-and-mortar theaters that host them). See the full listing on the film’s website.
Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets
In the extraordinary Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets, documentarians and brothers Bill and Turner Ross chronicle the last night of service for a Las Vegas dive bar called Roaring ’20s. Their cameras roll as regulars come and go, fight and kiss, and try to face facts: After tonight, the place that felt most like it was theirs will no longer exist. For them, it’s the end of the world.
But there’s a catch: The Ross brothers used a real bar in New Orleans as a set, and asked people to play characters much like themselves. Is the movie fiction? Yes, technically. Is it nonfiction? Not exactly. Is it “real”? Absolutely. It’s a film that inadvertently captured the mood in a year that felt apocalyptic — a lament for the world of days gone by, deep longing for places we used to visit, and hope that we’ll find ourselves there once again.
How to watch it: Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets is available to digitally rent or purchase on platforms including iTunes, Amazon, YouTube, Google Play, and Vudu.
Not only is Boys State timely, it’s also extremely entertaining. Documentarians Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine (The Overnighters) follow the 2018 summer session of Boys State in Texas; it’s a gathering of more than 1,000 17-year-old boys who form a representative government, complete with party platforms and campaigns, to learn about how the American system of government works.
In a sea of documentaries seeking to make sense of America’s divided and confusing political present, Boys State succeeds, in part, because it’s one step removed from the “real world.” The teens come to Boys State with established political ideas, but through debate, discussion, and defense of their stances, they learn a lot about what it takes to form consensus and win. And their experiences are both a microcosmic look into the political process and a hint of the way future politics might unfold, in dismal and strangely optimistic ways.
How to watch it: Boys State is streaming on Apple TV+.
Frederick Wiseman is a legendary chronicler of American institutions (here’s a guide to his films) who’s spent more than five decades making lengthy, intimate portraits of everything from high schools to welfare offices to the New York Public Library; for his latest film, Wiseman spent weeks in Boston, anchored at City Hall. His camera mostly follows Mayor Marty Walsh as Walsh crisscrosses the town to meet senior citizens in a church basement, veterans in a community hall, real estate developers in a hotel boardroom, and citizens at open-air rallies.
Periodically, the filmmaker floats away from Walsh to watch a wedding being performed, observe a budget presentation, or listen in as a committee dedicated to public housing reform debates how to prevent people from becoming unhoused. The result is not a portrait of a city, really. Refreshingly — and maybe even a little surprisingly — it’s a portrait of a government that actually seems to be working for its citizens.
How to watch it: City Hall is available to digitally rent at this site.
In 2015, a fire in a Bucharest nightclub killed 27 people — and, in the weeks that followed, 37 more, due to shockingly inadequate hospital conditions that led to infections in the survivors. Collective, named in part for the nightclub, is an observational documentary that traces the conditions and exposes huge deficiencies in the Romanian health care system as a whole, which led directly to that additional loss of life. Documentarian Alexander Nanau captures the lies told by government officials during the fallout from the fire; eventually their actions resulted in the government’s downfall, though that was short-lived.
Collective plays out like a chilling, slow-moving train wreck, a study in how a government gaslights its citizens into accepting conditions that would be avoidable but for greed and corruption. In its second half, the film focuses on a new, young minister of health — Vlad Voiculescu, who’s trying to effect change — while also showing the uphill battle and eventual fruitlessness of his fight.
How to watch it: Collective is available to digitally rent on platforms including iTunes, Amazon, YouTube, Google Play, and Vudu.
Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution
Crip Camp starts out as a movie about a place: Camp Jened, an almost magical-seeming “summer camp for the handicapped run by hippies,” as the film’s co-director (and former Jened camper) Jim Lebrecht explains early on. But soon, it becomes a chronicle of a movement, sparked by the young people whose lives were changed by their time in that place. Crip Camp shows how the vision that young Jened attendees experienced at camp — that the world could be open to them, too — led them to become activists and community organizers. The film is buoyant and inspiring, a tale of people working together through difficulty and opposition to change the world.
How to watch it: Crip Camp is streaming on Netflix.
Dick Johnson Is Dead
When Kirsten Johnson’s father Dick was diagnosed with dementia, the pair decided to make a movie together. The only way she could imagine making the road ahead more bearable was to collaborate with him in imagining what his death and afterlife would be like. They decided to “reenact” the different ways he could die, and in their pursuit of that endeavor, they contemplated the meaning of life.
The result is of course moving, but it’s also strangely joyful. Deep connection and abiding love are evident in every frame, and imagining the possibilities gives the pair a way to picture the unspeakable, live through the inevitable, and tentatively step into the future without surrendering to it quite yet. In some ways, Dick Johnson Is Dead is a model for facing the future head-on and maybe, just maybe, finding a way to smile and cry and get a grip on what we truly are: tied to our bodies and minds, which eventually fall apart, but also tied to one another.
How to watch it: Dick Johnson Is Dead is streaming on Netflix.
Feels Good Man
Pepe the Frog, the hand-drawn cartoon character notoriously memed into madness (and an ACLU-designated hate symbol) by the alt-right, was created by a mild-mannered artist named Matt Furie. Feels Good Man explores how the co-opting of Pepe happened and, in so doing, offers a look at the 4chan-ization of our culture and politics. In the process, it illuminates how little control creators really have over their creations once those creations are out in the world, and what the ramifications of that lack of control are in a world like ours. All of that sounds depressing, but somehow Feels Good Man manages to be engaging, surprising, and even oddly reassuring.
How to watch it: Feels Good Man is available to digitally rent or purchase on a variety of platforms, including iTunes, Amazon, YouTube, Google Play, and Vudu. For a full listing, see the film’s website.
You could say filmmaker Viktor Kossakovsky is unconventional. His last film, Aquarela, was a portrait of water set to a soundtrack by the Finnish symphonic metal band Apocalyptica; his new film Gunda, executive-produced by Joaquin Phoenix, swaps Aquarela’s massive scope and ear-splitting music for an intimate portrait of a pig and her piglets, two cows, and a one-legged chicken. There’s no dialogue in Gunda; we just watch the animals go about their lives while we experience the quietly dawning recognition that these animals have real lives. Phoenix is an animal rights activist — as you may recall, he championed veganism when accepting the Best Actor Oscar for Joker earlier this year — and his interest in Gunda is no surprise. It’s a recognition of animals’ creatureliness and a quiet argument for their dignity.
How to watch it: Gunda had a one-week virtual cinema run in December, and will open more widely in 2021.
David Osit’s hilarious and moving documentary Mayor follows Musa Hadid, who is mayor of Ramallah, the de facto Palestinian capital that is surrounded on all sides by Israeli settlements. Hadid is beloved in the city, a true public servant, and also one who has to grapple with matters that few mayors encounter — dealing with sewage and cemetery issues that stem from stonewalling by the Israelis; receiving the British royal family for a visit; experiencing the repercussions of international politics that directly affect your constituents’ daily life; suddenly discovering there are active gunmen on the ground in your city.
But he also just has to do normal mayor things, many of which are faintly ridiculous, and that makes Mayor a very funny film. At times, it plays like Veep — if the characters in Veep were actually kind, compassionate, and oriented toward what best serves the public’s interest. But Mayor also shows how challenging the job of mayor is, even for a talented leader like Hadid, who struggles to show the world what the citizens of his city are facing as they, and he, go about their lives under impossible and seemingly intractable circumstances.
How to watch it: Mayor is playing in virtual theaters throughout the country; see the film’s website for listings.
The Mole Agent
You could call The Mole Agent a spy movie, but it’s an unusual one — and unusually poignant, too. Documentarian Maite Alberdi lets us in on a bit of subterfuge as Sergio, an older Chilean man, is “cast” as a new nursing home resident by Detective Romulo, who’s been hired to investigate the facility. Sergio’s job is to infiltrate the home on behalf of Romulo’s client and look into whether the client’s mother is being abused; meanwhile, the documentarians follow Sergio and observe the home’s residents, who don’t know the whole truth about why Sergio is there. It’s a sweet film and a surprising one, an interesting blend of fact and fiction that also explores the lives, wishes, and desires of older people.
How to watch it: The Mole Agent is streaming on Hulu. It is also available to digitally rent or purchase on platforms including iTunes, Amazon, YouTube, Google Play, and Vudu.
Narrowsburg is a bizarre true-life con story, one that ended up roiling an entire small town. In upstate New York, the tiny hamlet of Narrowsburg one day discovered the arrival of two glamorous strangers, both of whom had connections to the movie business. The strangers launched a film festival (which, they proclaimed, would become the “Sundance of the East”) and shot a movie with the whole town’s involvement. Then things got very, very weird. Director Martha Shane keeps you guessing about what was really going on — Narrowsburg is full of twists — as she crafts a poignant portrait of the allure of show business in American life.
How to watch it: Narrowsburg is streaming on Amazon Prime and available to watch free (with ads) on Vudu. It’s also available to digitally rent or purchase on iTunes, Amazon, YouTube, Google Play, and Vudu.
On the Record
On the Record is a bombshell of a documentary, in which a large group of women allege that Def Jam record label founder and “godfather of hip-hop” Russell Simmons sexually assaulted or raped them; the film is absolutely damning of Simmons, who continues to insist he did not commit the crimes he’s accused of. Directed by Amy Ziering and Kirby Dick, On the Record is at its best when exploring the reasons that women in America, and particularly Black women, often hesitate to accuse a powerful Black man of a crime like sexual assault. It also points to what’s been missing from the Me Too movement: the voices of Black women.
How to watch it: On the Record is streaming on HBO Max.
The Painter and the Thief
I have thought of this movie almost every day since I saw it at Sundance in January, and my love for it grows every time I rewatch it. The Painter and the Thief is a stunning film about a young Czech painter named Barbora Kysilkova, and Karl-Bertil Nordland, the thief who stole two of her paintings from an Oslo gallery. When she tracks him down, he says he was so high that he can’t remember why he did it — or what he did with the paintings. Barbora is less interested in the thief himself than in where he took her artwork, but eventually she decides to paint his portrait, after which they form a friendship and creative partnership of sorts.
The Painter and the Thief actively challenges what we think we understand about its characters based on their appearance, class markers, or behavior. It highlights the way artists of all kinds, from painters to filmmakers, turn reality into something that’s at least a little fictionalized in order to make their work — and how everyone conceals the truth at times. And then there’s its last shot, which you’ll never forget.
How to watch it: The Painter and the Thief is streaming on Hulu. It’s also available to digitally rent or purchase on iTunes, Amazon, YouTube, Google Play, and Vudu.
The excellent documentary Scheme Birds finally came out in 2020 after a largely overlooked tour of the 2019 festival circuit. The film plays like a coming-of-age story, a vérité portrait of teenage Gemma, who lives with her grandfather in Scotland.
Directors Ellen Fiske and Ellinor Hallin follow Gemma for three years as she causes trouble with her friends, raises birds with her grandfather, falls in love, has a baby, and tries to decide what her future holds — all while Gemma narrates her own story, explaining what she thinks, feels, and does. The film is a different sort of study of teenage life than we’re used to, intimate and raw without manufactured drama. And without sentimentality, it draws out the challenges that a girl like Gemma faces in trying to change her life.
How to watch it: Scheme Birds is available to digitally rent or purchase on a variety of platforms, including iTunes, Amazon, YouTube, and Google Play.
Heartbreaking and passionate, Time is the chronicle of a love deferred and the drive to keep going that hope can provide. Garrett Bradley won the directing prize at Sundance for her documentary, which follows Fox Rich, a woman who has spent 21 years doggedly petitioning for the release of her husband Rob from prison.
Rob has been sentenced to 60 years following a crime he committed as a young man, in which he and Fox were both involved. Meanwhile, she’s been raising their six children and becoming a powerful advocate for change in her community. And all along, Fox has made videos at home, which together feel like a diary of her pain and endurance. Time details her struggle, demonstrating how mass incarceration persistently separates Black families in America as well as how bureaucracy and centuries of official narratives conceal the truth and pain of those separations.
How to watch it: Time is streaming on Amazon Prime.
Welcome to Chechnya
People who identify as LGBTQ+ experience opposition and difficulty all over the world. But in the Russian republic of Chechnya — the Vladimir Putin-backed regime led by strongman Ramzan Kadyrov — the state is abducting and killing them with impunity. Welcome to Chechnya, which won a prize for editing at Sundance, carefully follows a number of Chechens who are fleeing for their lives and others who try to shelter them and provide passage to countries where they might be safe. Directed by investigative journalist and award-winning documentarian David France, the film digitally obscures the faces of people who are on the run — a technique to obscure the “truth” that becomes all the more powerful when it suddenly becomes part of the story.
How to watch it: Welcome to Chechnya is streaming on HBO Max.
One among a sea of unfortunate consequences of the past four years is that ordinary people have heard of many political figures who once would have been relegated to the fringe. There’s Mike Cernovich, a self-styled provocateur and meme creator who is an Infowars regular. There’s Richard Spencer, the white nationalist leader who became especially notorious during the violent “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville in 2017. And there’s Lauren Southern, a YouTube personality and anti-immigrant activist who famously supported the “Defend Europe” group, which opposes search-and-rescue operations for refugees in the Mediterranean Sea.
These three individuals are the focus of White Noise, by former Atlantic journalist Daniel Lombroso. Lombroso spent several years tagging along with Cernovich, Spencer, and Southern — attending their events, letting them talk, and quietly allowing them to do the work of unraveling their own arguments. The film paints a portrait of the past few years of their lives, but more than that, it subtly exposes how much of the internet-fueled alt-right is driven by a desire to get rich, become well-known, and draw acolytes. The result is fascinating and damning.
How to watch it: White Noise is available to digitally rent or purchase on platforms including iTunes, Amazon, YouTube, and Google Play.