In the 21st century, everyone is an amateur documentarian. From snapshots of turmoil in the streets of Syria to adorable glimpses of the world’s nuttiest pets, the volume of video documenting virtually every facet of societies around the world continues to rise at an unprecedented rate. Moving images aren’t just a record of the world as it passes by; they now document virtually every waking moment of the present.
What, then, constitutes serious documentary filmmaking? Over half a century since the cinema verite movement, there has been no real consensus on where non-fiction storytelling is headed. To some extent, the term itself restricts discussion of the documentary’s possibilities: Any kind of filmmaking forced to adhere to a set of aesthetic or technical expectations can’t possibly evolve. However, the past year has seen the release of a healthy blend of traditional documentaries and boundary-pushing works that revitalize the medium.
The following 10 titles, released over the course of the past 12 months, represent both ends of the spectrum. Collectively they show that even as some of the more straightforward approaches to documentary filmmaking continue to enthrall with topical issues, the various ways in which documentaries as a creative practice will keep developing are limitless.
10. “After Tiller”
"Everything has a risk to it," says the late Dr. George Tiller in the opening moments of "After Tiller." It's a prophetic statement that defines the movie's stance. In 2009, Tiller, one of only five licensed physicians performing third-trimester abortions, was shot to death by an extremist while the doctor was attending church. Directors Martha Shane and Lana Wilson follow the experiences of the remaining four in the wake of his death, emphasizing the nobility of their practice even as they face mounting pressure from the far right. The documentary compellingly illustrates how the regular perils of their profession make them martyrs for a tragic need.
In constructing its gripping overview, "After Tiller" maintains a generally straightforward roundup of talking heads, but its unassuming construction gradually generates an authoritative voice. Only once the arguments have been plainly established does the emotion truly take hold, with the doctors expressing their own reservations about their perilous task. In describing the experience of delivering a stillborn child, Stella asserts, "That's not tissue. It's a baby." That line alone embodies the challenge of fighting for a cause that nobody wants to face in the first place.
9. "Cutie and the Boxer"
"Art is a demon that drags you along," says 80-year-old visionary painter Ushio Shinohara in first-time director Zachary Heinzerling's delicate portrait "Cutie and the Boxer," but neither Shinohara nor his supportive wife and fellow artist Noriko are looking for a cure. Heinzerling's beautifully shot, painfully intimate look at the aging couple's struggle to survive amid personal and financial strain is both heartbreaking and intricately profound. This is a story about creative desire so strong it hurts.
Heinzerling has chosen the right subject to make that point. Shinohara, a resident of New York's fine art scene since the late sixties, primarily indulges in a practice known as "box painting," an aggressive technique that finds him hurtling paint-covered gloves across a massive canvas, churning out loud, stream-of-conscious abstractions in under three minutes. Heinzerling first shows us this phenomenal practice in an early long take that establishes the movie's engrossing style. The filmmaker brings this world to life with a mixture of realism and vivid imagery. Set to Yasuaki Shimizu's smooth jazz compositions, animations based off Noriko's drawings and subtle camerawork that explores the crevices of Shinohara and Noriko's lives, "Cutie and the Boxer" uses each frame in expressive ways on par with its subjects' work.
8. "Lenny Cooke"
New York filmmakers Josh and Benny Safdie are known for their irreverent urban narratives "The Pleasure of Being Robbed" and "Daddy Longlegs," both of which contain a naturalistic quality that suggests they could work wonders with non-fiction. With "Lenny Cooke," they've done just that: Partly a found footage documentary about former high school basketball star Lenny Cooke, who in 2001 ranked highest in the country, the movie follows Cooke from his promising teen years through the series of disappointments that follow, constructing a beguiling American tragedy that defies genre categorization and eventually veers into magic realism even as it remains tethered to a true story.
The Safdies have stood out over the last few years for continually challenging audience expectations even while seeming to adhere to conventional storytelling traditions, and that's certainly true here: You've never seen a sports movie like this before.