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The 25 Best Documentaries of the 21st Century, from ‘Amy’ to ‘The Act of Killing’

From "Leviathan" to "No Home Movie" and "This Is Not a Film," there's never been a deeper or more diverse time for documentary cinema.

20. Twenty Feet from Stardom (2013)

“Twenty Feet from Stardom”

Morgan Neville’s Oscar winning documentary “20 Feet From Stardom” hits you like an explosion of joy that’s impossible to shake. What it lacks in narrative innovation it more than makes up for in emotion. Neville spotlights the behind-the-scenes lives of some of the most famous backup singers in music, including Darlene Love, Judith Hill, Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer and Táta Vega.

Some love supporting other artists and just want to sing, others have dreams to be at the front of the stage. Each woman harbors a self-possessed artistry that is awe-inspiring, and baring witness as they get the spotlight they deserve provides a sensation that makes your heart soar. Try not to stand up and cheer as Mick Jagger listens to Merry Clayton’s stripped vocals on the “Gimme Shelter” chorus. Moments like these are pure bliss for music lovers, and “20 Feet From Stardom” is full of dozens of them. In finding an inspirational topic and telling it with confidence and respect, Neville makes the crowd-pleasing doc of the 21st century. —Zack Sharf

19. “Capturing the Friedmans” (2003)

“Capturing the Friedmans”

In 2003, Andrew Jarecki’s “Capturing the Friedmans” quickly became a landmark achievement in the history of non-fiction film, snatching up a Grand Jury prize at the Sundance Film Festival, generating massive buzz and heated controversy in the wake of its release, and eventually landing an Oscar nomination. The filmmaker’s dark investigation into the pedophilia charges against the late Great Neck resident Arnold Friedman and his teenage son Jesse, partially told through the family’s uncomfortably intimate home movies from the ’80s, captured the dissolution of an American family in extraordinary detail.

There are many ways to engage with this unsettling documentary thriller: It’s an exposé of the he-said, she-said dynamics that complicate virtually every sexual assault case, a treatise on the voyeuristic nature of home movies and what can happen when their initial function gets subverted, and an epic tragedy about the American dream gone sour. But more than anything else, “Capturing the Friedmans” is astonishing filmmaking that draws you into a seemingly comfortable family unit, takes a dark turn, and leaves you feeling as uncertain about the victims and the perpetrators as many of the people involved in the case. —EK

18. “Fire at Sea” (2016)

“Fire at Sea”

Gianfranco Rosi’s riveting non-fiction drama takes place on the Italian island of Lampedusa, where thousands of migrants are rescued from Africa throughout the year. (Others aren’t so lucky.) While the bracing footage of rescue efforts are enough to make the movie a terrifying peek beyond the headlines, Rosi compliments them with the portrait of Pietro Bartolo, a kindly doctor who treats new arrivals to the island and speaks to the lonely, DIY efforts involved in addressing a problem when the broader system falls short of solving it. Rosi juxtaposes these moments with the carefree exploits of a young boy who lives on the island, a stand-in for the innocence that much of the world experiences in relation to this global crisis. It’s harrowing filmmaking with a razor-sharp message. —EK

17. “Leviathan” (2012)


Harvard University’s Sensory Ethnography Lab has dedicated itself to pioneering new frontiers of immersive documentary filmmaking, and efforts like “Sweetgrass” and “Manakamana” have proven that there are any number of compelling ways of fulfilling that mission statement. But the outfit’s magnum opus remains 2012’s “Leviathan,” in which directors Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel provided a peerlessly immediate look at the commercial fishing industry by sticking GoPro cameras on the hull of a ship.

The footage they brought back to dry land is borderline hallucinatory, as viewers are plunged into a grey-blue word of frigid terror, every image overwhelmed by the raw elemental power of the world’s most indifferent work environment. The glimpses from inside the ship are almost as harrowing, as cock-eyed shots of a foul mess hall indicate that the ship’s crew are capable of creating a hellscape of their own. There’s vérité and then there’s vérité, and “Leviathan” remains a shining (if shivering cold) example of the latter — the film is such a transportive and tactile experience of working the high seas that it feels like it should end with a paycheck. —DE

16. “Kate Plays Christine” (2016)

“Kate Plays Christine”

On the morning of July 15, 1974, a Sarasota news reporter named Christine Chubbuck read through a few of the day’s top stories and then calmly shot herself in the head on live television. Footage of the (ultimately fatal) event has never been seen since, though a tape supposedly exists under a law firm’s lock-and-key. For “Actress” filmmaker Robert Greene, who has always been fascinated by the mythic power of images and the implications of creating them, Chubbuck’s performative suicide was an irresistible subject. He decided to recreate the missing video.

Casting actress Kate Lyn Sheil as Chubbuck, taking her down to the coast, and goading her to get into character, Greene’s characteristically self-reflexive and increasingly hypnotic film wedges fact against fiction until the two are subsumed by each other under the haze of the Florida sun. Richer, more compelling, and more aggressive than anything Greene had made before, “Kate Plays Christine” leverages a morbid historical footnote into an essential documentary about the ethics of exhuming the dead on screen. —DE

15. “Citizenfour” (2014)


“I am not the story,” says Edward Snowden to documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras and journalist Glenn Greenwald in “Citizenfour,” but like Snowden himself, there’s nothing simple about that statement. Poitras’ bracing look at the former National Security Agency contractor, whose intel about government surveillance launched a firestorm of global inquiries following his exodus from the country in 2012, gives us everything we already knew about Snowden and his findings in a tightly-wound package — while hinting at a fascinating bigger picture filled with new information. “Citizenfour” would be a remarkable experience even if were simply a behind-the-scenes look at the biggest government leak in modern history, but Poitras also happens to be a terrific filmmaker, transforming Snowden’s paranoid world into a microcosm of our uncertain, fragmented times. —EK

On the next page, personal stories writ large and one hell of a high-wire act.

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