While putting together our Best of the Year coverage, the documentary list has been possibly the one most tussled-over amongst The Playlist staff, which goes to show just how strong the doc landscape is right now, and has been, in recent years. The emails were both fast and furious, and The Google Doc wars were heated (we lost a lot of good soldiers out there) as the team members argued passionately for their favorites or against the ones we believed were overrated. Noted documentarians this year produced an embarrassment of riches, with films from Joshua Oppenheimer, Michael Moore, Alex Gibney, Asif Kapadia and more released in 2015. While there hasn’t been just one obvious breakout this year, it means the love’s been spread around, and it gave us the chance to really dive deep. At the last minute, we’ve managed to hone the list to 20 of the best documentaries of the year.
It’s interesting to see how this year end coverage correlates with strategies in documentary distribution and release. Many of these selections on our list came out early in the year, debuting at festivals like Sundance and Cannes. The philosophy as such seems to be that docs need a bit more word of mouth to get people to watch, and therefore a longer time to percolate in the market, or on Netflix and VOD. Therefore, there’s a fair bit of overlap with our Best Documentaries of the Year So Far list, though we’ve taken time to catch up with many hotly tipped releases from the the latter half of 2015 too.
This list showcases films with diverse stories and subjects, from drug wars to the downfalls of fame; from small and intimate stories to ones that look at overwhelmingly large systems of power. Each of these films made us see something about the world in different way, made us mad, sad, joyful, and contemplative. Many of these films are about artists and media, the ways in which artists and thinkers have shaped the world. We think a lot of these films have the potential to do that as well.
20. “The Hunting Ground”
No film made us as angry this year as “The Hunting Ground.” Which we mean entirely as a compliment: this rigorous look at the campus rape epidemic is intended to make you furious as the complacency, institutional sexism and lack of duty of care in higher education, and succeeds entirely. A companion piece of sorts to Kirby Dick’s earlier film “The Invisible War,” which focused on the military, “The Hunting Ground” is wide-ranging in scope but tightly-focused in theme, examination of a number of young women assaulted by fellow students and utterly let down by the institutions meant to protect them, with Harvard, The University of North Carolina and Florida State (where now-NFL star Jameis Winston was named in a case featured in the film) all shown to be institutionally rotten when it comes to this subject (one student says she was told by her college authorities that the written admission of guilt she obtained from the man that raped her was “proof he loved me.” It’s intentions are undoubtedly closer to advocacy journalism than anything else, but it nevertheless makes an utterly compelling case for how skewed, broken and generally fucked higher educations’s response to this unacceptable state of affairs is.
19. “Heart Of A Dog”
Mixed media artist, musician, and spoken word composer Laurie Anderson has always demonstrated an inquisitive reflection into art and the topics she wished to address. If many artists make statements, Anderson does so contemplatively: questions being raised and queries left to be pondered rather than definitively answered. Which makes “Heart Of A Dog,” her lovely and welcoming meditation on life and death something of a greatest hits of her collective concerns and methods. Anderson makes gentle connections about the human condition and the current state of humanity by exploring the life and death of her faithful dog, the penumbra effect of 9/11, the temperament of political suspicion and mistrust in its fallout, her half-remembered childhood and more. Somewhat abstract and certainly impressionistic, with a terrific gossamer score to paint the musical colors of dreaminess that pervade the documentaries tone, “Heart Of A Dog” functions as catharsis through storytelling. Anderson shares her grief —the film is also dedicated to her late husband Lou Reed, though he’s barely mentioned aside from a closing credits song— but the film is never morose. In sharing her story, her upbringing, our shared calamities and the deaths that have shrouded her life, Anderson illuminates the corners of life with sublime radiance. [Our review]
18. “Prophet’s Prey”
Amy Berg’s been on a hell of a run of late: her Hollywood sex abuse doc “An Open Secret” was released last year, her fiction debut, the undervalued “Every Secret Thing,” this year, and her well-received Janis Joplin doc “Little Girl Blue” hit the festival circuit this year. The highlight, and maybe her best film since breakthrough “Deliver Us From Evil,” is the searing “Prophet’s Prey,” which examines the repulsive Warren Jeffs and the crazy-ass Mormon sect he led. Based specifically on Sam Brower’s book of the same name and interlinking with Jon Krakauer’s powerful “Under The Banner Of Heaven” (both authors feature in the film), it’s a gripping look at Jeffs, who headed up the Fundamentalist Church Of Jesus Christ Of Latter-day Saints, taking dozens of wives and sexually abusing many, including children, while amassing enormous wealth even when he ended up on the FBI’s Most Wanted List. The archive footage and recordings of Jeffs show a figure so creepy that you’d reject him in a movie as too obvious a villain, yet Berg is effective at showing the odd charisma that made him so powerful and so ignored by the outside world for so long, and the fear he could induce in his flock. As a sort of closing off of a trilogy about institutional sex abuse, this easily matches, if not exceeds, its predecessors. [Our review]
17. “Seymour: An Introduction”
If ever you had a moment where you thought Ethan Hawke could be a shallow Hollywood big shot, that notion would be instantly disabused upon seeing his third directorial effort and documentary debut, “Seymour: An Introduction,” which concerns former concert pianist and composer turned teacher Seymour Bernstein (though as an author, playwright, filmmaker and actor, you should know Hawke is the real deal by now). In this reverent and lovingly crafted film, Hawke calls Bernstein, who gave up performing for teaching, a mentor and its easy to see why. The insightful and sensitive octogenarian artist is a wealth of knowledge and inspiration, and the intimate tenderness and understanding that Hawke’s doc conveys expresses the beauty and honorability of passing on knowledge. ‘An Introduction’ tells the poignant stories of Bernstein’s life, plus his philosophies on art, craft and technique, and his soft-hearted convictions are a how-to guide for living life and integrating artistic pursuit into every day existence.
16. “The Seven Five”
Over forty years after “Serpico,” it feels like there might not be much left to say about the corrupt cop movie. But with “The Seven Five,” Tiller Russell has found a new lease of life in the genre, finding a true-life story that’s as extraordinary and characterful as anything that Sidney Lumet or Martin Scorsese have gotten up to. Set in East Brooklyn’s 75th District, mostly in the pre-Guiliani late ’80s and early ’90s New York, the central figure is Michael Dowd, then a young cop barely into his twenties who started off with good intentions but soon found himself compromising his values more and more, ending up working as a bodyguard to drug dealers and even allegedly plotting to kidnap a woman for drug cartels. Russell tells the story slickly through a mix of graphics, archive footage and, crucially, interviews with almost every key figure, from cops who informed on their colleagues to Dominican druglord Adam Diaz, who Dowd ended up working for. Each tough-talking and unexpectedly funny interviewee feels like they’ve walked out of an HBO drama, and Russell is careful to give everyone their POV without endorsing them. The film moves like a thriller too, not least when the filmmaker drops a narrative coup de grace late in the game, hopping back in time to reveal a secret he’s been keeping back.