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The 20 Best Documentaries Of 2015

The 20 Best Documentaries Of 2015

15.The Jinx

What to make of Andrew Jarecki’s “The Jinx”? The documentary mini-series gripped the nation with depictions of Robert Durst’s wild, very likely murderous hijinks, causing such a fervor that when a New York Times breaking news alert came through about Durst’s arrest on the day of the finale, many screamed “spoiler alert!” at their own email. So the series was a huge hit with the chattering classes, investing true crime sensationalism with HBO-prestige sheen. But it is also deeply problematic, particularly the final episode, in which we see Jarecki and team plotting to ambush Durst with the damning handwriting sample before Durst unknowingly mumbled something like a confession (or the ravings of a madman) into a hot mic. Journalistic ethics aside, it’s a fascinating but weird project. Jarecki and his colleagues even revived the cheesy reenactments that are more often seen on places like Dateline and Investigation Discovery. But the star was Durst himself. The burping, blinking, gravel voiced- New York real estate scion is an utterly captivating trainwreck, an unreliable protagonist interviewed by a questionable figure in Jarecki himself (those sideburns cannot be trusted). In a post “Serial” world, “The Jinx” proved that we’re all crazy for crime, precipitating an unprecedented interest in serialized non-fiction. [Our take]

14. “The Pearl Button

Patricio Guzmán‘s last film “Nostalgia for the Light” is a colossal yet intensely personal attempt to parse the philosophical meaning of the bizarre fact that the Atacama desert is both home to the Large Millimeter Array of state-of-the-art radio telescopes and the final resting place for so many bodies of Chile’s “disappeared.” If anything, “The Pearl Button” is even more breathtaking in ambition, yet even more piercingly intimate in execution. Here Guzmán, in powerfully poetic narration, relates the story of his country’s legacy of human cruelty to its relationship with water —the sea that laps its long coastline, the rain that fell on the tin roof of his childhood home, the droplet that came to earth on a meteorite and seeded all life. It’s a dizzying exercise in shifting scale and sweeping scope, sometimes containing across a single cut a contrast in time or place or theme so staggering it approaches the sublime. Guzmán’s visuals have a crystalline clarity to them, complemented by the cut-glass precision of the film’s sound design that finds, literally at one point, melody in the sounds of nature —the running of water or the guttural noises of a nearly vanished language. This is a director playing many roles at once —archaeologist, anthropologist, astronomer, archivist, activist— and often the conclusions he reaches are desperately sad, showing us his world in this most generous of ways can never be anything but an uplifting act of exquisite empathy. [Our review]

13. “The Salt of the Earth

Wim Wenders typically uses the documentary format as a tribute to other artists, often filmmakers (see his films about Nicholas Ray, Yasujirō Ozu and Cannes doc “Room 666”). As such, at their core Wenders’ non-fiction filmmaking frequently reveals him as a kind of patron of the moving image. So perhaps it makes sense that the German filmmaker would distill his sensibility even further with “The Salt Of The Earth,” an examination of the life and work of venerable black-and-white stills photographer Sebastian Salgado. But while the globetrotting Brazilian photographer is known for his striking humanitarian photojournalism —he was on the ground for the Rwandan genocide, Saddam Hussein’s burning oil fields, the famine devastation of Ethiopia in the 1980s and many other international calamities— Wenders’ deeply lyrical doc also explores the man behind the pictures and what compels him to continue taking them at his age of 74. Co-directed by Salgado’s own son Juliano Ribeiro, the expressive film is a sublime tone poem celebrating both the images, rich in dignity and captivating to observe, and the sensitive artist who scratches right into the soul of things to create them. [Our review]

12. In Jackson Heights

When the history of the documentary movie is written, Frederick Wiseman will have his name writ large therein. The 85 year old director has been making beautifully observed portraits of institutions and society for over fifty years, and this year’s “In Jackson Heights” marks his fortieth film. As usual, it’s brilliant. Weighing in at a typically hefty three hours, “In Jackson Heights” sees Wiseman turns his lens to the titular Queens neighborhood, which has been claimed to be the most ethnically diverse area on the planet, with 167 languages spoken in a square mile. It’s a perfect subject matter for the director, a sort of summing-up of his favorite themes and subjects, namely, when communities formed when people are brought together, whether by employment, geography, or shared interests. As ever, Wiseman’s presence is so subtle as to be nearly invisible: the only statement he’s making is to continue weaving a giant tapestry of the area, a symphony of everyday life taking in both vibrant Pride parades and impossibly dull offices, which his compassion somehow makes fascinating. More human than last year’s “National Gallery” and less high-falutin’ than the previous year’s “At Berkeley,” it’s as understated, moving and intellectually stimulating as anything the director’s ever made. [Our review]

11.The Black Panthers: Vanguard of a Revolution

Stanley Nelson’s “The Black Panthers: Vanguard of a Revolution” is the kind of film that you wish isn’t so timely. Ostensibly a historical analysis of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, the doc makes you realize that 1967 sounds a little too much like 2015. This account of the trials and tribulations of the Black Panthers includes interviews and archival footage galore, making this history feel immediate, intimate, and urgent, as do the striking similarities between the goals of the Panthers and today’s #BlackLivesMatter movement. Nelson’s quick to cop to the clashing egos and inner strife that led to many of the party’s problems. Those quickly pale in comparison to the bloody destruction of the party, both overt and covert, at the hands of the FBI and J. Edgar Hoover. Allowing the facts to speak for themselves, the evidence against the FBI in the assassination of party leader Fred Hampton is not only damning, but sickening. This primer on the Panthers is vitally necessary not only to tell that story, but to place contemporary movements within context. A change is going to come, but as this doc shows us, it hasn’t yet. [Our review]

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