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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.

5. “I Am Not Your Negro” (2016)

James Baldwin Raoul Peck I am Not Your Negro

“I Am Not Your Negro”

“I Am Not Your Negro” operates on many levels at once: It’s not only a fresh vessel for James Baldwin’s own analysis of black life in America, but a platform for his assessment of other great thinkers who informed his views. Raoul Peck, an undervalued Hatian filmmaker who has shifted between narrative and documentary projects for nearly 30 years, uses a remarkable foundation for this sweeping exploratory piece: a 30-page manuscript Baldwin wrote in 1979, as part of an uncompleted book project that delved into the lives of Medger Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr. All three activists died before they turned 40; Baldwin worked alongside, then outlived, all of them.

The movie injects Baldwin’s voice through a voiceover performance by Samuel L. Jackson that’s one of his very best performances in ages, while Peck shifts between archival footage of his four subjects (including Baldwin) and contemporary moments to throw the timeless resonance of Baldwin’s words. It’s at once a perceptive history lesson and a resurrection. —EK

4. “The Look of Silence” (2015)

“The Look of Silence”

When it was first announced that Joshua Oppenheimer was making a second film about the Indonesian genocide, it may have been natural to expect that his follow-up would be a glorified assemblage of B-roll or a mess of footage that he hadn’t been able to fit into “The Act of Killing.” Needless to say, that ultimately wasn’t the case. “The Look of Silence” is every bit as searing and essential as the film that preceded it. Switching his focus from the perpetrators of mass murder to the survivors, Oppenheimer hones in on an optometrist named Adi whose brother was killed in the slaughter. Leveraging a classic literary device that has previously been used to great effect in novels like “Slaughterhouse V,” the film follows Adi as he visits the men responsible for his suffering, this impossibly stoic figure remaining calm as he (quite literally) clarifies the world for the people who have bloodied it beyond recognition.

Intimate where “The Act of Killing” was flamboyant, and deeply bereft where Oppenheimer’s previous documentary was largely shellshocked, “The Look of Silence” is an eye-opening addendum to an atrocity that might be forgotten by now if not for the people who are still listening for its echoes. —DE

3. “O.J.: Made in America” (2016)

“O.J.: Made in America”

Ezra Edelmen’s monolithic, eight-hour documentary contextualizes O.J. Simpson’s place in American history, crafting an indisputable argument as to why the Juice’s celebrity — and his crimes — have made him the perfect lens through which to comprehensively explore the role that race continues to play in this country. It’s no secret that Simpson’s murder trial was never just about the deaths of two innocent people, but this incredibly well-sourced and hypnotically compelling time capsule does a brilliant job of locating the iconic event in a continuum of oppression.

Beginning with his subject’s days as a college football star, Edelmen walks us through the steps of a uniquely American life, exploring in unprecedented depth and detail how Simpson “transcended” blackness, and what that meant (and continues to mean) for a nation that sees color as acutely as ever. Is it a movie? Is it a TV show? It doesn’t matter, “Made in America” is essential viewing all the same. —DE

2. “This Is Not a Film” (2011)

“This Is Not a Film”

By striking him down, the Iranian government made Jafar Panahi stronger than they could have possibly imagined. Already one of his country’s leading filmmakers before he was baselessly arrested for crimes against and sentenced to house arrest, Panahi took full advantage of his confinement, and proved that some artists are at their best when backed into a corner. Famously smuggled to Cannes on a USB stick that was buried inside a cake, “This Is Not a Film” is perhaps cinema’s greatest example of turning lemons into lemonade. Most of the movie consists of Panahi walking around his Tehran apartment with an iPhone in his hand, the great director growing stir-crazy as he talks through the script for his next project (eventually going so far as to diagram the sets on his floor), listens to the fireworks outside, and chats with the little boy who comes by to take out the trash.

Panahi, however is no stranger to self-reflexivity, and every second he’s on screen contributes to the remarkable performance at the heart of his protest. He may insist otherwise, but this is very much a film, one whose innate deficiencies only serve to sharpen this piercing glimpse at modern Iran. What begins as a rebuke to censorship ends as an incredibly moving statement about the value of artistic expression. —DE

1. “The Act of Killing” (2013)

“The Act of Killing”

Joshua Oppenheimer’s horrific look at the reverberations of the Indonesian genocide of the 1960’s adopts a terrifying perspective and never flinches: The filmmaker cedes screen time to the practitioners of military torture and lets them reenact their accomplishments. At once subversive and powerfully inquisitive, the movie probes the essence of evil by giving it the floor, and lets its vile subjects convict themselves.

“The Act of Killing” is one of the most unsettling movies ever made in part because it’s so audacious, allowing its subjects to produce exuberant musicals and fantasy productions glorifying their efforts as if dragging us into the center of their psychosis. Oppenheimer doesn’t exactly come up for air, but he does find a memorable road to getting real, when one of the men finally grapples with the horrific nature of his deeds and words fail him. By that point, audiences can relate. —EK

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