A countdown of the most brilliant, unique, and fascinating accomplishments in documentary filmmaking in the past decade.
If there’s a genre of film that has exponentially benefitted from the streaming revolutions and the newest waves of independent media and content creation, that is documentary film, primarily because, even in the wake of a global financial crisis that undoubtedly created an unprecedented set of monetary constraints and logistical challenges, this new stage in the age of information, where a wide range of communities and perspectives begin to take control of their own means to tell their own stories, has also created the right conditions — and subsequently, the right mentality — for both creators and audiences to engage in conversations that matter. Documentary film has always served a double purpose; it’s a form of art but it is also education, it is journalism but also activism, and no decade has ever witnessed how a generation of directors has played around these lines like the 2010s, an era where virtually everything can be documented, and at the same time, where the very concepts of “truth” and “fiction” have been put to its toughest challenge ever.
But that is precisely why documentaries are more important and necessary now than ever. If we’re firmly in the age of “post-truth”, as many intellectuals claim, where the malevolent media outlets at the service of the powers that be “use” the truth — or at least, the framing of facts in the form of news stories and academic studies — to the nefarious end of imbuing their ideologically and financially-motivated fictions in order to shape the political discourse, documentary film does the opposite; it applies the framing devices and the narrative approaches of fiction, in order to tell the truth, to create awareness of the past and present complexities of the world, and to call to action. In the age where the powerful tell the most egregious, pernicious lies, we need the people’s truth and the artists and thinkers who depict it.
And yet, the most powerful documentaries of this decade are not those that take it straight to the facts or center their efforts in the factually incontrovertible, but those who immerse us in the subjectivity of the human experience, in the perspectives of individuals and communities, in the emotions and intimate universes of people in the context of their realities, and in the essence of artistic creation and creators themselves.
Film, first and foremost, is an art; and if one of art’s missions is to reflect and represent the reality of its time, its ultimate commitment is to beauty and emotion, and many incredible documentaries this decade have moved us in ways we never imagined. Here are our 20 picks of the very best.
20. The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu (Andrej Ujica, 2010)
The new decade was offering filmmakers, video artists, and journalists an unprecedented amount of possibilities when it comes to archival footage and other material from previous eras; between the Youtube revolution, where both amateur and professionals were employing copyrighted material and twisting and warping it in creative ways in the name of fair use, and libraries like Kenneth Goldsmith’s Free Music Archive, where creators submitted stuff for everyone to transform, this was to be time of both discovery and nostalgia. The past was alive and a click away. However, one of the most effective uses of visual archives came in 2010 from the unlikeliest of sources: The Romanian Communist Dictatorship. Composed of nothing but official State footage from the Ceausescu era, director Andrei Ujica creates a stunning, nuanced, and strikingly honest portrait of the country’s most powerful man, during the 25 years of his reign. This film aims to find the truth amidst the sea of propaganda, but what makes Ujica’s creation unique is the way it uses the very images this dictator wanted the whole world to see in order to reveal even what he vigorously wanted hidden. We see the rise and fall of a tyrant and a nation that underwent huge shifts with him in charge.
19. Stories We Tell (Sarah Polley, 2013)
Actress-turned-director Sarah Polley has a very particular family History, which is something the public already knew by when her film Stories We Tell came out, but it was how she decided to tell her story through a comprehensive study of personal and familial narratives that made every single new detail it presents feel like such a revelation. Stories We Tell is an ode to the subjectivity of memory, and how the ties that bind us can become both bridges that support our hearts in the hardest times or roots that can choke us.
18. Tempestad (Tatiana Huezo, 2016)
Tatiana Huezo’s Tempestad is a film of voices. It portrays the reality that thousands of people face in Mexico, day by day, through the stories of two women, Miriam and Adela, who make a journey underlined by suffering and despair through the labyrinths of injustice in this country. The former was taken from her job at the Cancun airport and transferred to Mexico City, where she was unjustly accused of human trafficking; while Adela, a woman who has dedicated her life to making people laugh at her job as a circus clown, has been looking for her daughter Monica for ten years. Fear paralyzes us by showing how close any citizen is to living a situation like these; because what Miriam and Adela have lived could happen to anyone in a country where power has forgotten about the vulnerability of society. With this film, Tatiana Huezo delivers a mechanism to break the silence in which these two women lived, an opportunity to scream and get themselves heard.
17. Infinite Football (Corneliu Porumboiu, 2018)
More than just a sports documentary, Romanian film Infinite Football is a deep look into the nature of the creative vision and passion projects, and by proxy a critique of its country’s bureaucracy. Our protagonist is Laurentiu Ginghina, a down-on-his-luck sociologist with a life-long obsession with football and one mission: To change the rules of the game to transform it into something more dynamic and modern. His theories on how to achieve this raise a lot of doubts, and when director Porumboiu organizes a match using Ginghina’s variations no one seems very convinced, but the film focuses primarily on the man’s vision and his uncompromising persistence, touching on philosophical and even political matters, instead telling a Quixotic tale of a loser, who himself reflects the frustrations and limitations of a generation raised by a set of rules imposed to them by the powerful. Ginghina’s attempt to liberate football mirrors his aim to liberate himself, and Romanian society.
16. Black Mother (Khalik Allah, 2019)
It is a tired cliché to call a film “a love letter” to anything, but Khalik Allah’s Black Mother gladly takes this term and turns it into something infinitely more profound: Black Mother is a hymn, a spiritual, a prayer, dedicated to Jamaica, the land and its people. The film is a spiritual exploration of Jamaica, soaked in its bustling cities but also in its quiet rural areas. The characters, who have their home on the island, offer testimony in the form of a polyphonic symphony, while Allah shows them and their surroundings with a very characteristic visual style and sense of rhythm. Black Mother goes from Super8 to 16 mm and to video to immerse us in the sacred, the profane and all that remains between one and the other, and channels the people’s uprising and veneration in a deeply personal ode, modeled by the turbulent history of Jamaica but with a fixated look on today.
15. Bestiaire (Denis Côté, 2012)
Denis Côté’s Bestiaire is a bafflingly marvelous film, not at all because of how it moves, but because of everything that remains stationary. In a prologue as splendid as cunning, Côté anticipates the insightful game of representations and perceptions that will unfold throughout Bestiaire, an enigmatic and splendid essay on observation, identification, and imagination. The film then centers in Montréal’s Safari Park, where animals and humans interact, but more importantly, observe each other from a distance that itself represents this difficult relationship. There are few “comments” of the author in a film stripped of proposals, beyond those that the viewer can obtain with the observation of the series of fixed planes that the Québec director exposes. Côté offers an antithesis of the Animal Planet or NatGeo series, where they usually show us the animals in their habitat, with their customs and survival instincts, and with a resolution that corroborates the Darwinian thesis that the most suited survive. Nor is it a clear plea against animal abuse and confinement. It is an ethnographic study of a prison, using the intuitive, almost hypnotic aspects of its stream-of-consciousness non-structure to offer the viewer space for reflection. Bestiaire makes no claims. But that which it depicts makes claims on us.
14. The Missing Picture (Rithy Panh, 2013)
If there is something particularly amazing about Rithy Panh’s The Missing Picture is the way he uses several forms of visual resources — archival footage, photography, fictional film, and even animation — to fulfill his mission of telling the real story of the Cambodian people under the Khmer Rouge genocide, through the memories of him and his family. During the communist regime of the dictator Pol Pot, thousands of inhabitants were expelled from their lands and forced to work in the countryside. Anyone who gave the feeling of being suspected of treason was tortured and killed. The relatives of director Rithy Panh, who escaped in his teens from the country, disappeared one by one. To tell the story of this era, Panh looked for images of this period but found little or nothing. So he created them using clay figures and models. Panh’s ambition to create a visual universe in order to complete the missing pieces in his family narrative, and the measures he takes to do so, result in a harrowing experience, in which we can see how a subjective truth has the capacity to complete the objective facts.
13. Fire At Sea (Gianfranco Rosi, 2017)
The drama and tragedy of immigration, and a regular, lively Italian boy with amblyopia. Africa and Europe. The metaphor is devastating. The small island of Lampedusa has seen around two hundred thousand African immigrants in the last twenty years. Fifteen thousand have perished in their particular exodus. The Italian director Gianfranco Rosi is very intelligent, and in Fire at Sea he tries to reflect two realities in this tiny island and the relationship between the West and the African continent. How is it possible that a population that does not reach the six thousand inhabitants remains completely impassive before the worst drama that occurs on its shores? An island whose economic engine is fishing. An island whose livelihood is the sea itself. The same place where immigrants find their own hell. Gianfranco Rosi’s film excels in establishing these parallels and addressing these questions in this magnificent documentary. We want more cinema that slaps us in the face. We want it and we need it.
12. Cameraperson (Kirsten Johnson, 2016)
This film’s chief accomplishment, before anything else, is its miraculously brilliant editing. On top of that, it displays the true power of the act of documenting, as these images are presented with the entire weight of its situations and subjects. Veteran filmmaker Kirsten Johnson uses her personal work archives to craft an essay on images themselves, and in the process, she speaks about the great responsibility implied by being the person holding the camera, being an agent of change, recording History in order to shape it. If this documentary works, despite its fragmentary aspects and what might seem a series of unrelated sequences, it is because of the exquisite selection of the material, which gives the footage very interesting intentionality and meaning. We see a Bosnian family after the war, some scraps of Afghanistan, we observe a girl from Alabama or a boxer in New York, we enter Sudan, we visit Liberia … Kirsten Johnson displays a kaleidoscopic vision of the world that is very enriching for the viewer and that at times allows one to feel one with humanity.
11. Hale County This Morning, This Evening (RaMell Ross, 2018)
RaMell Ross made a difficult, uncomfortable film that is not for everyone, which is exactly why it should be seen by everyone. This film portrays the everyday struggles of a majority African-American community deep in the heart of Alabama, but this micro-universe represents the major truth of institutional racism and abandonment under Capitalism. It is an intimate diary, with moments of undoubted lyricism, from a person that lives there, and uses the closeness of experience as the main source of its tremendous impact. A beautiful yet not at all ostentatious, respectful yet not overtly solemn film that brings poetry from pain.
10. A Spell To Ward Off The Darkness (Ben Russell & Ben Rivers, 2013)
Filmmakers Ben Russell and Ben Rivers’ first collaborative work A Spell To Ward Off The Darkness is an exploration of spirituality in an increasingly secular world, but this extremely cryptic, mysteriously ethnographic film reveals something even more rewarding: This film is about ecstasy, the quiet search for the sublime, and how there is always a combination of community and isolation that is necessary for us to achieve illumination. The film follows Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe (better known in the experimental music scene as Lichens) through two enclosed communities that strive for the eternal through their music-soaked lifestyles, and a striking middle section, where he is left in complete solitude in the middle of the Finnish winter. These three sections are a stunning representation of the parts that conform our life-long journey, which is always shaped by the ecosystems we inhabit, but ultimately, by how we assimilate these experiences within’ ourselves, in the space of our minds. Besides, no other film this decade achieved in portraying sub-cultures as meaningful forms of civilization as seriously as this US/UK production.
9. Let The Fire Burn (Jason Osder, 2013)
What happened in Philadelphia in 1985 when the police faced the MOVE black liberation movement? Well, we saw injustice, bigotry, racism and systemic discrimination in the name of Capitalism all in action, in the ugliest of ways. Let The Fire Burn is a clear reason for our passion for the documentary genre; It is the artistic-chronicler format of reality in its most crude state. Using only images and sound from the time, without commentary, complementary interviews or cinematic embellishment and relying solely in the material itself, editing talent, and an urgent need to make these events remembered and these voices heard, Jason Osder creates a documentary that screams its need to be taken as that, to be given its due respect as a historical document, to make its very existence justified. But above all, its tremendously skillful montage and its impactful framing bring such a strong topic across in a way that easily captures the viewer. It draws power from clarity.
8. All These Sleepless Nights (Michał Marczak, 2016)
We all love sobering, serious immersive depictions of youth and the fast-lane lives of those who want to enjoy life to its absolute limits — this decade was full of them, both in documentary and in fiction —, but really, how many of those film are honest in presenting the experiences that actually comprise the cherished memories of our teenage years? Michał Marczak’s genius visual essay All These Sleepless Nights achieves just this and much more. It is perhaps the decade’s most earnest — and earnestly delusional — illustration of what it means to face the world knowing there is a long, uncertain future ahead, and all you can do is to bask in the glory of now. They say that if you combine a life of experiences and relive them all at once “you will end up watching fireworks for four days in a row.” Thus, between the enigmatic and the poetic, the Polish documentary manages to portray a generation of young people in Warsaw who wants to feel, live and be constantly stimulated to perhaps, one of those lucky days, be able to see the fireworks. Think of all the memories of your teenage years. It’s basically a highlight reel of parties, encounters, conversations and small, significant moments. That is exactly what this film is.
7. Faces/Places (Agnès Varda, 2017)
Agnès Varda is, without the shadow of a doubt, one of the ten most influential film directors of all time. The entire French New Wave and the Left Banke movements alone cannot be explained without her presence, and the door she opened for female creators constituted one of the most important progressions in film History — there is still a long way to go, but a lot of what we have today is undoubtedly owed to Varda. Assisted by artist and photographer JR, she creates Faces/Places, a lyrical examination of life and labor in a way that is completely unique to her. There is no doubt that the faces she portrayed had much more than an aesthetic drive, and that they enjoyed a kind of intrinsic, enigmatic narrative, difficult to decipher, as all good authors have. Faces/Places explores realism and situationism, the relationship between artists and their struggle to find their place in an increasingly incomprehensible world, how regular people live through their own labor and the fruits of it, and how expressions are universal, even when their personal narratives are very specific. Besides, it is a visual gem that only Varda’s sense of cinematographic virtuosity can offer.
6. ‘Til Madness Do Us Part (Wang Bing, 2013)
The most anxiety-inducing, chilling film of the 2010s. For almost four hours Wang Bing leaves us almost exclusively with the words and gestures of madmen. There are no narrators or signs, there are almost no doctors, hardly any family members appear: Wang’s camera is locked up and locked in a mental asylum in southern China, stuck to daily life, to endless sleepless nights, to the encounters and dialogues of these men who live in the worst conditions, secluded against their will. In a China with pretensions of modernity, what is described by Wang Bing through his camera seems anchored in a remote past with feudal reminiscences. This depiction of the 50 inmates is overwhelming. The spectacle they exhibit before the camera is crude, sometimes obscene: satisfying their basic needs and instinctive impulses, from the sexual to the eschatological.The delinquent, the sick, the dissident, the wanderer and the elderly share the same condition of social waste in this clinic of programmed dehumanization. Every escape attempt is illusory, almost ridiculous; around the asylum, everything is a desolate wasteland.
5. This Is Not A Film (Jafar Panahi, 2011)
As the title defiantly suggests, this might not be a Film, but it is definitely the work a great filmmaker. Jafar Panahi strives to offer, not so much a personal plea in his own defense or in favor of artistic freedom, but rather a sample of the strength of film creation against any possible restriction, while raising valuable questions about the need to carry out that creation and the inevitable infiltration of reality on any possibility of fiction. The film obtained its international distribution through a pen-drive that stored the digital files of documentary filmmaker Mojtaba Mirtahmasb’s video device, and that of the Panahi’s own iPhone, and that was hidden inside a cake to be able to leave from his country of origin, in one of the happiest smuggling acts that have been carried out by an artist in recent memory. Through a creative use of resources, mostly some footage of his old films, situational images recorded in the streets, and his unflinching force of will, Panahi seems to be able to reduce the possibilities of cinema to that contour that he has drawn on the carpet of his living room, defining a possible scenario for his fictions where the real imposes itself (or is imposed, as in this case) as inspiration, but also as infiltration, as a force with which the filmmaker must complement himself to avoid his own extinction, no longer as a free being, but also as an artist. He tries to create even in those confines; a testament to how this impulse is able to overcome all kinds of censorship.
4. I Am Not Your Negro (Raoul Peck, 2017)
It is hard not to feel a deep contempt for the human race when one reflects on the harsh reality. That of yesterday or today does not matter. That is, there is not much difference between putting a random news channel and the archive images of this painful documentary by Raoul Peck. The story tells, through the voice of Samuel L. Jackson, a script based around the unfinished story of the writer James Baldwin. I Am Not Your Negro manages to end the work that Baldwin began in 1979 when he prepared to write a book about the History of the United States of America through the memories of three murdered black icons. Baldwin’s sister managed to recover all the material and deliver it to Peck, who from these texts creates an amazing (and painful) portrayal of how the oppression of the black population was foundational to this nation. This is real America. This has always been real America. The documentary analyzes the different types of hatred inherited by the American people, especially those that enter through the eyes — from the media’s shameful representations of black people, to the horrific white supremacist propaganda of the mid 20th Century, to the FBI persecution of Baldwin himself, for being black and homosexual. Peck’s film is an indispensable piece to understand a large part of the problems that we have been carrying for hundreds of years and that will likely never disappear. A first-person account about the horrors of being different in this country, and about a society’s absence of empathy and compassion. It will put you in your place and crush your bones.
3. The Act Of Killing (Joshua Oppenheimer, 2012)
In 1852’s The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, Karl Marx wrote: “History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce”. Joshua Oppenheimer, in his impressive documentary The Act Of Killing, flips this concept on its head. He uses farce to complete our picture of the tragedy. The film focuses on those responsible for the massacres of Indonesia in the mid-60s, who decide to recreate them at the request of Oppenheimer, in a series of films that also involve relatives of the victims. This scenario, that in itself is something we have never witnessed before, offers a journey in two parts: First, it explores the crime without regret, without complexes, without doubts, and without fear. Talk about absolute power. But then — and here comes an even more fascinating part — it explores how cinema is capable of transforming the individual. “Your crimes,” he says, “are not crimes until you see them reproduced on a screen, fictionalized. It is at that moment when you feel guilty.” The Act of Killing is many things. but we need to emphasize that it is also an example that cinema really changes the world.
2. No Home Movie (Chantal Akerman, 2016)
How do we analyze a film that quite possibly anticipated, if not even indirectly caused, the death of its creator? Chantal Akerman, one of the foremost representatives of Feminist cinema, and one of the most innovative directors ever, centers this film in the last days of her mother’s life, and exhibits the power of cinema itself as a captor of the times that we have to live in, and claims its importance and its rightful place in culture in order to articulate the past, make the present alive and anticipate the future. It also records the importance of the family nucleus, the community, and the parent figures. The result is a moving masterpiece that takes the intentions of its images and elevates them to infinity. We are not only faced with the communal emotions that the meetings between mother and daughters arouse and the filming of the passing time that summons these unions; We are also faced with a crucial look at a tumultuous era that could well have been avoided by virtue of generosity and humanity. It puts itself firmly in its dark time and registers the presence of a tragedy. A tragedy before which this unstoppable audiovisual conquest stands with great aplomb. Its production is an act of resistance, even to the inevitable; a proof of Akerman’s imperishable spirit.
1. Leviathan (Véréna Paravel & Lucien Castaing-Taylor, 2012)
This isn’t only our pick for the greatest documentary of the decade, it is also this humble critic’s pick for the greatest film, in general, of the 2010s. An innovative, ravishing, haunting, otherworldly yet painstakingly raw and realistic set of pictures that has definitely left a mark on the viewer to this day, seven years after its original release.
The film consists of a series of impressionistic images taken on the high seas aboard a fishing vessel that works in the North Atlantic. It’s a simple premise with a simple objective: Observation, research. How can a film about fishermen become one of the most overwhelming and intense experiences that can be lived inside a movie theater this entire decade?
Well, first, the images in Leviathan have an immediate strength that is impossible to forget; filmed with 20 GoPro cameras located in unusual places that break the classical conception of space to observe reality from points where a man could not do it, Leviathan approaches a visual collage of coarse grain and maximum contrast that moves with millimetric juggling between the line that separates the documentary from the video art, ultimately approaching the conception of experimental cinema. It is an exercise in style as well as a tremendously open reflection on the human condition and its limits. We will barely hear a couple of sentences throughout the movie. There is no narration, there are no dialogues. For not having, there is no music. Only the natural sound of the environment. The continuous squeak of the chains, the deafening machinery of the ship playing underwater, rumbling with the echo of the engine running, between the waves and the wind. The sound of the beast.
Second, and most notably, The sensory pummeling that Leviathan produces does not bury the richness of its content. As we say, the enduring image search is conscious, but not manipulated further from the film’s natural intuition. The aim is to provoke a series of evident, almost transcendental reflections, as this so elegiac end suggests, with the seagulls in the middle of the night illuminated by the lights of the ship, recorded in the middle of the darkness of the ocean, barely intuited as shooting stars. We see these men, first anonymously, doing their job without showing their faces. We judge their actions. We are horrified to see how they cut open a stingray, then throw its body to the bloodstained floor. Then we see a young bird landing right on the edge, trapped by impassable timbers that it tries to overcome again and again without success, only to end up thrown into the sea, perhaps left to die, and we realize that nature is cruel. These men are no better nor worse than any of us.
Admittedly, Leviathan is a movie not suitable for everyone, nor for every time. One must be mentalized, and find the right mood, and this still might come across as too demanding an experience. If you can get into it, you should be clear that you will end up soaked from head to toe, lost in the ocean, watching the seagulls from afar, while the sea consumes everything leaving you only in the dark.