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The 22 Best Documentaries Of 2014

The 22 Best Documentaries Of 2014

There are various unpleasant duties associated with the Christmas period —many of them involving poultry and arguments about poultry (goose FTW, btw)— but one welcome tradition that has evolved at Playlist HQ is the dedication of most free December moments to catching up with the year’s documentaries. DOCember, maybe? Anyway, it’s all a way to ramp up to one of our most tirelessly labored over end-of-year-lists (you can find the rest of our Best of 2014 lists here), and the time to unveil the fruits of that labor is now.

The year in documentaries has been outstanding. There was perhaps no single “blockbuster” doc, at least no good one —fans of poorly presented, inarticulate, right-wing, straw-man propaganda can look for “America: Imagine a World Without Her” on our Worst Films of the Year list— but even without an “Act of Killing” or a “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” or a polarizing Michael Moore doc, it’s been a very strong year.

For some time now, non-fiction filmmaking has been on the rise, both in terms of profile and in terms of becoming a staple of the average adult cinephile’s diet. In fact, the genre’s growth in popularity and quality is perhaps the only happy by-product of a narrative feature landscape that, as many filmmakers have pointed out, underserves that grown-up audience. There is still challenging, adult, provocative, enriching and dramatic cinema out there —it’s just increasingly to be found in documentary format. Here are the 22 non-fiction films that shocked, engrossed, entertained and educated us more than any others in 2014, thereby enlarging our year in film by an enormous margin.

22. “Happy Valley
Though “Happy Valley” follows events taking place in 2011, it resonates deeply in 2014, a year in which the monolithic cultures of both football and higher education were cracked open to reveal domestic and sexual violence swept under the rug for appearance’s sake. “Happy Valley” indicts the entire culture built up around football at Penn State as complicit in coach Jerry Sandusky’s heinous sexual crimes, at least as a system that enabled and ignored a very cunning predator and blindly worshipped at the cult of the coach. The scenes of Penn State students rioting unchecked in the streets, knocking over street lamps and upturning news vans over the firing of Joe Paterno, or weeping over Penn State’s sanctions by the NCAA, are absolutely chilling. Still, Amir Bar-Lev’s film is decidedly fair, at least towards Paterno, whose legacy was quickly wiped out at Penn State. Bar-Lev doesn’t try to implicate Paterno, but instead shows how Paterno as a symbol is decidedly different from Paterno as a man. His lens is trained on the entire system that quickly dusts itself off, rights itself and goes back to the mindless pomp and pageantry that is American collegiate football. [Our review]

21.“Maidentrip

They say it’s about the journey not the destination, and in “Maidentrip,” what a journey it is. The result of a collaboration between 14 year old sailor Laura Dekker and first time filmmaker Jillian Schlesinger, the film documents the teenager’s two-year odyssey sailing around the world on her own. The doc captures every aspect of Dekker’s journey, from storms to doldrums, from boredom to sheer joy. She’s precociously talented, competent, and self-possessed, but she’s also a vulnerable teenager undertaking a truly remarkable and sometimes seemingly insane feat, and both aspects of this are necessary for the film to feel well-rounded. Schlesinger captures Dekker when she’s in port, and illuminates her backstory as a child who grew up on the sea and finds herself most at home there. Accompanied by lovely watercolor animations charting out the course and a lilting score, “Maidentrip” is a poignant and and authentic depiction of the spirit of adventure and individual achievement. [Our review]

20. “Manakamana

The Sensory Ethnography Lab is up to something remarkable. Last year, that team produced the gargantuan documentary “Leviathan,” directed by Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel, and this year Castaing-Taylor and Paravel helped produce Stephanie Spray‘s and Pancho Velez‘s magnificent “Manakamana” in the same lab. It’s a documentary that feels like no other; a fixed camera in a cable car films visitors who go to and from the Manakamana temple in Nepal for the duration of a one-way trip (more or less the duration of a film roll). It’s a place where locals go to worship a goddess that desires blood sacrifices and grants wishes and where tourists and foreigners go to visit an exotic attraction. The polarity contained within this organically simple concept is fanned out with unexpectedly rich and introspective results by the rhythm, structure and choice of travelers. The time spent with these passengers observed through the unflinching eye of the camera, with the framed backdrop of Nepalese nature reminding one that the green screen will never supplant the real thing, are some of the loudest silent moments of the year, perhaps even the decade.

19. “Keep On Keepin’ On”

On the Oscar shortlist for Best Documentary Feature, Alan Hicks’ “Keep On Keepin’ On” is perhaps one of the more heartwarming docs on this list, but it’s also genuinely moving and a superb commentary on the importance of mentorship in all avenues of culture. While he is not household name outside of jazz circles, Clark “TK” Terry is a legend in the genre. He discovered and mentored Quincy Jones, played in both Count Basie’s and Duke Ellington‘s bands and after a long and storied career devoted his life and career to teaching youngsters music and the tools, trades and disciplines to take their skills to the next level. “Keep On Keepin’ On” centers on the unlikely but perhaps most crucial mentorship of Terry’s career: teaching blind piano prodigy Justin Kauflin and helping him overcome his self-doubt and compete in a career-making national jazz tournament. But Hicks’ film becomes much more than a jazz doc, revealing a friendship and bond that is as important to the optimistic young musician as it is the veteran jazz great whose health is ailing. The two men struggle —shot over five years, Clark is 93 year-old by the end of the doc and in rough shape— but watching their mutually nurturing relationship blossom and help them overcome adversity is a genuinely beautiful and moving thing. Touching, but never sentimental —and with fantastic lesser-known jazz context to boot— this music doc could go on to become 2014’s “20 Feet From Stardom.”

18. “Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me

We should thank Chiemi Karasawa for her deeply personal and intimate film about the inimitable Broadway legend Elaine Stritch, which was released just months before Stritch’s death. So much more than just “Colleen Donaghy on ‘30 Rock,’” Stritch was a theater legend who trod the boards for 60-plus years, well into her late 80s. The film captures her offbeat style, lightning fast quips and her bold and brassy take on life, but also peels back the layers to show her fears and vulnerabilities. Karasawa developed an intense and lasting friendship with Stritch, pursuing her as a friend and subject for a film at their hair salon. Without that bond, the film wouldn’t be what it is. Stritch is completely open and unvarnished, welcoming Karasawa’s camera into her life, her home and her hospital bed. She’s truthful about her fear of aging, dying, drinking and about her stage fright, which she still gets after so many decades performing. But when she’s on, she’s on like gangbusters. If you’re looking for your new idol, look no further. You’ll be adopting the no-pants lifestyle before you know it. [Our review]

17. “National Gallery

We’ll probably all take Frederick Wiseman for granted until he’s gone. The 84-year-old documentary master has been knocking out epic studies of institutions at a steady rate since “Titicut Follies” in 1967, and at such a consistently high level of quality that it’s all to easy to shrug your shoulders and go, “yep, another excellent Frederick Wiseman film.” So let’s all agree to cherish these films as they arrive, especially when they’re as good as “National Gallery.” Debuting at Cannes barely six months after last year’s “At Berkeley,” one of the director’s very finest, this sees the documentarian turn his quietly observing lens on the art world, more specifically London’s National Gallery, a nearly 200-year-old treasure trove of some of the most famous and important paintings in the world. Weighing in at a positively breezy three hours (compared to the four of “At Berkeley”), the film’s less interested in how the organization ticks (though we get some intriguing glimpses at that as well) and more in the work it does, from restoring the artwork to educating the public. For the audience, one of the great pleasures of the film is getting to hear world-renowned experts talk about the paintings, and the stories and techniques behind them. Sometimes, Wiseman’s reluctance to provide any context leaves you floundering a little, but nevertheless, short of taking the drugs from “Lucy,” this is the best way to expand your mind in just three hours. [Our review]

16. “Jodorowsky’s Dune”

It’s become the stuff of legend: Alejandro Jodorowsky, the midnight movie titan behind “El Topo” and “The Holy Mountain” had attempted to translate Frank Herbert‘s beloved sci-fi novel “Dune” to the big screen, assembling a murderer’s row of talented artists and collaborators who he dubbed his “spiritual warriors” (among them: future “Alien” writer Dan O’Bannon, Swiss illustrator H.R. Giger, French comic book artist Moebius, rock band Led Zepplin, and surrealist painter Salvador Dali), and seeking a vision for the space epic far beyond what anyone could have previously imagined… then it all fell apart. To many film fanatics, it’s the greatest movie never made, and what “Jodorowsky’s Dune” so cannily accomplishes is a sense of what that movie could have been and why it all came crashing down. Yet it’s also aware that it’s spinning a tall, irrefutable tale: who can tell if the alternate-universe “Dune” would actually have been any good, while as a “what-if” it remains untouchable. The shadow of “Dune” is very long indeed, but this portrait of the mischievous, mercurial madman that is Jodorowsky is perhaps compensation enough for the fact that we never got his version. [Our review]

15. “The Case Against 8

Gay marriage is still in the year 2014 a hot-button topic, but even for those passionately arguing for or against the issue, it can sometimes remain aloof; a big idea lacking personal context. This is what makes Ryan White and Ben Cotner‘s “The Case Against 8” such a brilliant, wipe-away-the-tears-by-the-end-of-it feat; the doc gives gay marriage a human face (or four) and asks you to identify with those whose rights to publicly express their love are curtailed because of who they love. Proposition 8 was the law that overturned legal gay marriage in California, which was devastating for countless families in the state who had the legal standing of their relationships invalidated. For the case brought against Proposition 8, lawyers had to find two same-sex relationships that were beyond reproach —as much as the opposition dug, all they would find was love— and they succeeded: these people are wonderful. But just as fascinating is the fact that one of the lawyers hell-bent on upending Proposition 8 is Ted Olsen, a staunch Republican who among other things was instrumental in George W. Bush‘s controversial 2000 election, and his co-counsel in that case was Al Gore‘s lawyer in that same election. It’s proof that, as cheesy as it sounds, love really can transcend everything. [Our review]

14. “The Evolution of a Criminal

It’s not so much that director Darius Monroe’s first feature-length film avoids the pitfalls of first-person documentary, as much as it hurls itself into them so wilfully that it becomes a comment on the form as much as a fascinating true story well told. Monroe himself is the titular criminal: he served five years in prison for an armed robbery committed when he was 16. It’s hard to reconcile the good-looking, intelligent and articulate man Monroe is now with the image that “convicted felon” summons up —not least for Monroe himself who uses the film, loosely structured as an apology to those affected by his crime, to explore that seeming paradox as well as to reveal a moving story of apparently thoroughgoing remorse. Seeking to explain but never excuse his crime, Monroe builds a convincing portrait of the straitened circumstances that could lead a good boy to commit such a bad crime. But he also prompts us to examine his motives critically —interviews with the skeptical prosecuting counsel from his trial and a surprising third-act turn of events make this absorbing, thoughtful film also a provocative exploration of the nature of perceived identity and self-image.

13. “The Green Prince

Some stories are so compelling that they have to be movies; some are doubly so, as if they could probably only be documentaries because no one would believe them if fictionalized. “The Green Prince” is one such story. Hailing from director Nadav Schriman and some of the producers behind recent non-fiction hits like “The Impostor,” “Man On a Wire” and “Searching For Sugar Man,” the doc tells the story of Mosab Hasasn Yousef, the son of Sheikh Hassan Yousef, a senior figure in Hamas in the 1990s. Angered by his father’s arrest, Mosab set out as a teenager to avenge him, only to be recruited as an informant by Shin Bet, the Israeli secret service. An unlikely friendship sprang up between him and his handler Gonen Ben-Itzhak, one that would end up having life-changing consequences for the pair. Focused principally on interviews with the two men and aided by some well-acheived reconstructions, Schriman gives this extraordinary tale the feel of a Kathryn Bigelow thriller, dashing through a pacy 90 minutes or so with drive and heft, building up portraits of two fascinating, contradictory figures and a smart look at how the intelligence world operates in the Middle East. It’s imperfect: the film’s lacking in objectivity and sometimes fails to press on some of the more interesting questions it could be asking in favor of clarity of storytelling. But it is nonetheless a hell of a story, one of the most gripping we saw, fiction or non-fiction, all year.

12. “Rich Hill

A finely-wrought portrait of boyhood on the cusp of manhood in America in the 20-teens, “Rich Hill” explores many of the same themes of “Boyhood” though with arguably more heart-aching authenticity. The film by Andrew Droz Palermo and Tracy Droz Tragos focuses on the hardships these boys face almost a bit too much, but once you get beyond the poverty and troubles of these kids, you can start to see the really good things they do have: loving families, tight-knit communities, a childhood with moments of near picture-perfect American nostalgia. Much like “The Overnighters,” “Rich Hill” is a sensitive portrait of the fragile state of a American masculinity embattled by economic instability and the changing notion of what it means to be a man. In both films, the camera becomes a confidante, a pal and a partner in crime, lending an intimacy and truth to the experience of watching. And “Rich Hill”’s woozy, dreamlike cinematography and score lend it the feeling of a captured moment, a time capsule of these fleeting days and weeks that will be gone all too soon. [Our review]

11. “The Internet’s Own Boy”

Perhaps Brian Knappenberger’s “The Internet’s Own Boy” is so captivating because it’s subject, Aaron Swartz, isn’t a household name, though he ought to be, and the film will convince you of that. The story of his tragically short life encompasses so many of the questions we’re currently wrestling with: net neutrality, freedom of information, the broken criminal justice system. Swartz was a genius, revolutionary, activist, and someone who walked away from the rampant corporate capitalism of the tech scene (after founding Reddit), embodying what it means to “disrupt.” It’s a complicated and winding tale, but Knappenberger carefully explicates the details and imbues it with a sense of urgency. While it’s desperately sad that Swartz is no longer here to help us make sense of the internet and the way we use it, hopefully Knappenberger’s film will extend his legacy. [Our review]

10. “20,000 Days On Earth

The rock documentary has become a sadly formulaic genre over time, but we’ve had more interesting examples of late, with artists as different as The National and Nas getting worthy, cinematically interesting showcases. But a film that surely goes into the genre’s hall of fame is “20,000 Days On Earth,” a totally fascinating journey into the mind and memories of the great songwriter Nick Cave. Ostensibly telling the tale of an ordinary day in the life of the 57-year-old Bad Seeds legend, directors Iain Forsythe and Jane Pollard play with the bounds of reality, with reconstructions, staged shots and hallucinatory conversations with Cave collaborators like Ray Winstone, Kylie Minogue and Blixa Bargeld. As such, documentary purists might balk at the inclusion of this film on this list, but we’d argue that for all the liberties it takes, it’s still a work of non-fiction —indeed, there’s probably more insight into Cave, his music, the way he works and ticks and those who surround him than you’d find in a more traditionally journalistic film. Truth comes in many flavors, and Cave’s participation (he co-wrote the script with the filmmakers) makes it closer to “8 1/2” than, say, “Stop Making Sense.” Indeed, we wish that more docs had as much fun with technique as Forsythe and Pollard do here, from the dreamlike atmosphere to the gorgeous cinematography from “Submarine” DoP Erik Wilson. [Our review]

9. “Red Army

Gabe Polsky’s compulsively watchable documentary about the Soviet hockey team’s storied history, dominance, eventual dissolution and recent reputation keeps things lean and efficient at 76 minutes. Perhaps almost too much so, but even if a lot was cut from the bone (trust us, there’s a lot more to this story), the film nicely establishes the team’s preeminence and influence by zeroing on many of its best players, with top billing going to legend Viacheslav “Slava” Fetisov, a droll and charismatic interview subject. Thankfully, “Red Army” proves the team was not in fact comprised of bad guys, as Cold War propaganda and misplaced jingoism led some to believe. They were of course people who happened to be really good at hockey —revealing this apparently self-evident fact is the film’s greatest and most enjoyable feat. Even though hockey can seem like the most minor of the major sports, and many flat-out don’t understand the rules, mechanics, or what makes it the greatest game humans have invented (no bias here), the film deserves a wide audience (set for release in January). It should play even better for those who don’t care one iota about the sport, mostly because it’s so entertaining and character-driven. The film functions best as a gateway to appreciate a great sport and to explore just one of its many fascinating pieces of history.

08. “The Salt of the Earth
You may not know Sebastião Salgado’s stunning, humanistic black and white photography by name, but you’ve likely seen these austere and beautiful portraits of human suffering, and they’ve likely struck a chord. For 40 years, the now-70-year-old Brazilian photographer has traveled the ends of the earth to document forgotten, discarded and often ravaged cultures— the genocide in Rwanda, wars in Yugoslavia, starvation in Ethiopia, the Saddam Hussein-devastated Kuwaiti oilfields— often at the cost of an intimacy with his family. Co-directed by his son Juliano Ribeiro Salgado and Wim Wenders, “The Salt Of The Earth” is a soulful and deeply moving portrait of not only Salgado’s striking pictures, but the man behind the camera and his incredible journey and evolution as a human being. Like his photographs, Salgado is full of empathy and an innate understanding of the human condition, and so if Wenders’ reverence for his subject is occasionally overwhelming, it’s also the movie’s strength: he shows an ardor for the man and his photographs that takes on a near-spiritual quality. Salgado’s arresting photos lend such dignity and compassion to his often broken and downtrodden subjects, and this doc also taps into that feeling poetically with an absorbing and insightful portrait of the artist, his work and his exceptionally sensitive observations of humanity. [Our review]

7. “Concerning Violence

The documentary genre, particularly at its more commercial, contemporary edge, can only rarely really challenge traditional structural norms. Often they’re either presented by and told through the eyes of “personalities” like Michael Moore or Morgan Spurlock, or neatly wrapped in 90- or 120-minute packages ready for easy cable broadcast after a quick run in theaters. But there is nothing about Göran Hugo Olsson’s “Concerning Violence” that fits comfortable expectations of the genre. Based on Frantz Fanon‘s “The Wretched of the Earth” and narrated by Lauryn Hill, the doc is constructed solely from archival footage, exploring colonialism in Africa, how resistance takes root in the communities of the oppressed and how these cycles of rule and rebellion are perpetuated. There is no hand-holding here. Olsson drops his viewers onto deeply intellectual thematic ground and subject matter and trusts they will do the work to engage and follow along. Those who do are rewarded with one of the richest, most satisfying documentaries of the year, one that challenges the mind while moving the heart. [Our review]

6. “The Kill Team
With the underperformance of certain films wrestling with the “war on terror” in the mid-2000s, Hollywood has proven reluctant to delve into that thorny subject matter, in particular to examine U.S. troop behavior in the Middle East. Fortunately, documentaries have had no such compunction, and “The Kill Team” is one of the most searing and gut-wrenching of them all. The feature debut of Oscar nominee Dan Krauss centers on the infamous, so-called Maywand District murders, where a group of American soldiers killed Afghan civilians in cold blood and then attempted to cover up the killings. Krauss smartly keeps his focus tight on one of the Kill Team: whistleblower and Infantryman Ptv Adam Winfield, who was charged with murder by the military after confessing on Facebook chat after the first killing to his father, who then alerted the authorities. Not that he’s a hero: he’s a sympathetic figure, but the film asks whether he might have done more to intervene and how much he was caught up in the violence. This rigorous journalism is applied to almost every angle of the case, building up a broad picture of the deeply disturbing culture that the Army created in the war even across its brisk sub-80 minute runtime. Utterly sobering, “Kill Team” is not only a chilling look at the terrors of war, but describes the gross lack of accountability and the brutal inhumanity of a military environment that actually punishes the one soldier brave enough to come forward. [Our review]

5. “Citizenfour

The case against Edward Snowden, the NSA whistleblower who exposed the United States’ massive clandestine surveillance operations (both at home and abroad), has always seemed misdirected at worst and confused at best. Often painted as a free speech firebrand, the truth as revealed in Laura Poitras‘ gripping documentary is far more mundane… and even more powerful. Snowden wasn’t seized by narcissism or a desire for the spotlight, but was motivated by a kind of righteous indignation at the injustice that he saw unfolding around him. That’s it. He’s not a flashy character like Julian Assange, but is instead reserved, even dweeby, soft-spoken, and bewilderingly intelligent. Poitras was one of the first journalists Snowden reached out to, and much of the movie unfolds as he simply recounts his experiences to her from inside a cramped hotel room. From there, the story both expands and contracts, and a relatively straightforward documentary about domestic spying becomes the greatest paranoid thriller since “All the President’s Men.” When Snowden’s information was revealed, the government was quick to act: not to dismantle their overreaching programs but to find and prosecute the man who made the information known. It feels like the stuff of an Orwellian dystopia… and it’s 100% true. [Our review]

4. “Finding Vivian Maier
In 2007, co-director John Maloof, who grew up in the world of garage sales, auctions and dumpster diving, bought up a storage locker from a random stranger that contained 100,000 negatives, along with slides, undeveloped film and a smaller number of prints. By digging through the work and obsessively piecing together her life, Maloof would build a picture of Vivian Maier, a nanny who happened to be one of the greatest undiscovered photographers of the 20th Century. Her work has been rightly compared to greats like Robert Frank, Lisette Model and Diane Arbus. “Finding Vivian Maier” is a perfect storm of subject and author “meeting” through happenstance: Maloof not only brings Maier’s work to international attention, but his compulsive personality is such that he tracks downseemingly everyone she knew to interview. And so, “Rashomon“-style, he uncovers a mysterious, intensely private person who was many different things to different people: a nurturing caretaker; an elusive, disinterested nanny; a voyeur; an undercover photographer who surreptitiously documented the world around her; an odd duck; a hoarder; a fabulist who perhaps struggled with a mental illness no one understood. Featuring an affecting score by composer J. Ralph (also the composer on “Man On Wire”), the doc (co-directed with Charlie Siskel) moves with relentless energy, and like a documentary “Gone Girl,” sheds its skin repeatedly to reveal new, unpredictable and often disturbing layers. It’s a transfixing, emotional portrait of a complex human being that goes beyond the already incredible discovery of an unsung artist.


3. “Last Days In Vietnam

You probably peripherally remember the story of the U.S.’ mass exodus out of South Vietnam in 1975 from history class, and you’ve maybe seen some iconic photography resulting from the exit. But you’ve never seen the story told as wrenchingly as in “Last Days Of Vietnam.” Like a thriller moving to the sound of a ticking clock, director Rory Kennedy’s gripping documentary sets the stage for a heartbreakingly clear-eyed account of a betrayal of ideals and of people: with Gerald Ford in office cleaning up Nixon and Kissinger’s mess, political concerns shift and the U.S. evacuates, abandoning the defense of the South Vietnamese from their Northern communist invaders. As the various aspects of that occupying force pack up to leave, it’s with the full knowledge that thousands of citizens now designated as collaborators will likely be killed or imprisoned. What ensues are the firsthand recollections from soldiers, officers and civilians from both sides of the war, recounting how several key figures disobeyed direct orders in order to save as many South Vietnamese citizens as they could. Kennedy constructs an utterly spellbinding story that ultimately provides context instead of pointing fingers. The Vietnam war has been covered ad nauseum by movies and documentaries, and this is another chilling memento of the cost of war, but it’s also a reminder of the exceptional humanity, bravery and honor of some men and women on the ground in that ugly, fucked up war, of human decency revealing itself in the most indecent of circumstances. A must-watch, up there with greats like “Hearts & Minds.” [Our review]


2. “Virunga

A scathing indictment of political and corporate venality; a powerful eco-portrait of an endangered habitat and the last mountain gorillas in the world that it shelters; a deep-dive examination of the social legacy of some of the most devastating (and underreported) conflicts of our time. “Virunga,” named for the national park in the Democratic Republic of Congo in which it takes place, is all of these, and yet despite the massive sprawl of its heartbreaking, blood-boiling story, it’s never anything less than human, focussing on the unheralded outright heroism of the few park rangers left who are all that stand between this species and probable extinction. While it’s difficult for us to imagine the kind of dedication that has led 140 park rangers to lay down their lives to protect these one hundred and forty remaining creatures, by showing the incredible familial bonds that the gorillas form amongst themselves and with their caretakers, director Orlando von Einseidel finds a way to communicate the stakes that are involved here and the value of their sacrifice. “Virunga” is as close to essential viewing as documentaries get for anyone who lives on this planet and gives even the slightest damn about their fellow man or their fellow animals.

1. “The Overnighters”

The ability and the responsibility of documentary filmmaking to give voice to stories that otherwise would never be told finds its greatest expression of the year in this preternaturally engrossing, constantly surprising and immensely complex character-study-cum-social-critique. Entrenched to an almost Steinbeckian level on the front lines of recession-era Americana, director Jesse Moss’ film brings us to Williston, North Dakota, a small town suddenly engulfed with outsiders lured from all over the country by potential employment in the booming oil fields nearby. But this is nothing like a fracking documentary. In fact, that expectation is just the first of many that the film subverts, being far less concerned with environmental issues than with human ones about the nature of faith, community and second chances. And at its heart sits Pastor Reinke of the local Lutheran church who pioneers the Overnighters programme, whereby he turns over floor space in the church and the car park to men who have nowhere else to go and helps them find jobs, often in the face of opposition from the local community. But Reinke, who starts out a miracle or two short of sainthood, is progressively revealed to be something much more interesting, paradoxical and tragic: a man. “I will not give in to despair because ‘hopeless’ should never win and ‘hopeless’ is a lie,” he says at one point, and yet this is anything but a simple, uplifting story of courage and fellow-feeling in the face of adversity. In Moss’ essential, riveting film, the truth is a dangerous thing: it can set you free, but it can also eat you alive. [Our review]

2015 Releases and Documentaries Without Distribution

There are several documentaries that we’ve seen at festivals that have not yet been released, or that have yet to find a distributor. Keep a weather eye out in 2015 for Amy Berg’s chilling “An Open Secret,” which certainly would have crash-landed the top 10 if it was released this year, Debra Granik’s extraordinary Los Angeles Film Festival winner “Stray Dog,” brilliant Edwyn Collins documentary “The Possibilities Are Endless,” the devastating “Life and Mind of Mark De Friest,” Tribeca Film Festival title “Tomorrow We Disappear” and Joshua Oppenheimer’s follow up the the epochal “The Act of Killing,” “The Look of Silence” —all of which we strongly, strongly recommend.

Honorable Mentions

As we stated up top, this has been a stellar year for documentaries, to the point that we could have made our best-of-year list twice as long. Perhaps the most noteworthy omissions are Sergey Loznitsa’s inarguably valuable “Maidan” and Steve James’ loving tribute to Roger EbertLife Itself.” Additionally, many contributors had personal favorites that didn’t make it on —Jess loved “Particle Fever” and its simple, clear approach to some of the most complex physics of our time, and also the revelation that the mass of the Higgs boson was revealed in a presentation set entirely in comic sans. Katie would fly the flag for the lovely, personal “Elena,” Oli would have had us giving more love to “Nas: Time Is Illmatic,” Drew was a fan of “Leave the World Behind” while Erik was one of the champions of sports doc “Battered Bastards of Baseball.”

Then ”Tales of the Grim Sleeper,” “Death Metal Angola,” “Art & Craft,” “Merchants of Doubt,” “Code Black,” “Mistaken for Strangers,” “No-No: A Dockumentary,” “The Dog,” “Sepideh,” “Alive Inside,” “Actress” and “Algorithms” were all under serious consideration (and some of them made it into our halfway-mark Best Documentaries of the Year So Far from July), while “Finding Fela,” “Whitey” and the only Oscar-shortlisted doc not mentioned above, “Citizen Koch” all left us a little cooler than many.

Anything we’ve missed entirely? Let us know in the comments how you feel about the year in documentary. And here’s where you can find all our Best of 2014 coverage to date.

–Jessica Kiang, Oli Lyttelton, Katie Walsh, Rodrigo Perez, Drew Taylor with Erik McClanahan and Nik Grozdanovic

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Comments

paul

Who ever this writer is trying to describe each documentary should quit his/her job. seriously poor attempt you’ve made each documentary sound awful when they are not.

Santiago Merek

"Gabor", about the blind DOP Gabor Bene.

Ismael

Once again, you missed another great Wang Bing documentary: ‘Til Madness Do Us Part (Feng ai). Have any of you ever watched one of his films?

Frank B

Virunga is by far one of the most moving movie i ever saw. Did it play in theaters or only on Netflix?

Jonathan

A rock documentary that broke every convention was Every Everything, the music, life and times of Grant Hart. It was one of the greatest music films I’ve ever seen. Heart-breaking and real. Not an ego trip. As good, if not better, than 20,000 Days On Earth.

john

E-Team should at least be mentioned…

James

Nice list, i missed "Cowspiracy", though, one of the best docs of the year.

Dean Treadway

Some docs that have yet to get distribution that you missed: A CHAIR FIT FOR AN ANGEL (Raymond St. Jean’s film about the Shakers and their culture), THE ORACLES OF PENNSYLVANIA AVENUE (Tim Wilkerson’s piece about the longest running continual protest in US history), LIMO RIDE (a raucous doc about the worst night of partying ever), SUNSHINE SUPERMAN (Maura Strauch’s piece about the inventor of base jumping), IRIS (the great Albert Maysles’ profile of fashion maven Iris Apfel), and you forgot to mention Robert May’s KIDS FOR CASH and Stephanie Soechtig’s FED UP as well. Otherwise, pretty great list of movies!

Bohdan

You should’ve left Mala Mala on the list. Such a beautiful film!

Eric

not Led Zepplin even..

Eric

Jodorowsky’s "spiritual warriors" included Pink Floyd and a french band called Magma no Led Zepplin… either way it was the best doc I saw this year…

Mike White

Definitely check out The Search for Weng Weng and Hit & Stay. Both are top notch docs that aren’t on enough people’s radar.

Tim Day

I really enjoyed LITTLE HOPE WAS ARSON

Damon

Aw, no mention of Harmontown?

Patrick

Surviving Cliffside. I saw it at SXSW this year and cannot stop thinking about it.

Glass

Great list! I’m still itching to see ACTRESS, that looks really interesting.

oren

The Iron Ministry

Charles Farley

Kill Team is one of the best of the year, Merchants of Doubt was a contender, but America is strawman propaganda? What specific claims in America qualify as strawman propaganda? It would be more honest if you simply wrote, "polemics that I agree with are not propaganda; anything I disagree with is propaganda."

Jess

yes, and it’s out in July 2015. Hence it comes under "2015 releases" and will be eligible for next year’s list.

James

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