The Best Biographical Documentaries Ever Made — IndieWire Critics Survey

From "Amy" to "What Happened, Miss Simone?," we're in a golden age of biographical docs. Our panel of film critics picks the best ones ever.
The Best Biographical Documentaries Ever — IndieWire Critics Survey
"Listen to Me Marlon"

Karen Peterson (@KarenMPeterson), Awards Circuit

Perhaps this doesn’t fit into the traditional definition of a “life and times” story, but one of the most compelling documentaries I’ve seen about a person was “The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters.” It is a story that has stayed with me for years, probably because new details emerge periodically. The film follows a nerdy arcade game enthusiast, Steve Wiebe, who just wants to be able to claim the record he has earned.

The funny thing about this story is that in these small circles, there always seems to be a villain — someone who so desperately needs to lay claim to something that makes them feel relevant. The villain here is “Donkey Kong” record holder Billy Mitchell. Mitchell is the kind of guy who just looks like he would be the villain in this kind of story. Walking around with his head held high, daring anyone to question him, and then either dismissing or mocking them relentlessly when they do. It’s the kind of documentary that reminds you that sometimes life, even when it is silly and generally inconsequential to the world at large, is more interesting than fiction. And also that the things that matter to us matter, regardless of what the outside world thinks.

Joey Keogh (@JoeyLDG), Contributor Editor of Wicked Horror, freelance for Birth.Movies.Death, Vague Visages

There are so many really wonderful documentaries about difficult subjects — “Whitney” is a recent example that really floored me — but the one that got to me in a really profound way was Brett Morgen’s “Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck.” There have been so many (too many, really) so-called docs exploring the turbulent life of Kurt Cobain, and most of them focus on the salacious details of his suicide, drug use, possible murder at the hands of Courtney Love(!), whatever it is.

“Montage of Heck” utilizes Cobain’s own artwork, words, and hell even somehow manages to infuse his fantasies, into an intentionally messy portrait of a messy artist, as well as using choice cuts of Nirvana’s grungiest hits. It explodes onto the screen in a wall of guttural guitars and careens about the place, just like Cobain onstage. Of all the bio docs out there, this one feels as though it’s torn directly from the brain of the artist himself. For Nirvana fans, it’s the biggest nerd-out ever (particularly if you read Cobain’s personal diaries back in the day). For everyone else, it’s a fascinating window into a very troubled, yet undeniably brilliant, mind.

Don Shanahan (@casablancadon), Every Movie Has a Lesson

In eight years of writing film criticism and citing takeaway morals along the way on Every Movie Has a Lesson, no film has personified the central message of my website’s chosen title more than the 2016 documentary “Life, Animated” from Oscar-winning director Roger Ross Williams. As a school teacher by day, I firmly believe that any and every movie can teach something tangible. With “Life, Animated” and the plight through autism of its subject Owen Suskind, I encountered a living and breathing example of the intellectual potential and the powerful emotional magic of movies.

From a cinematic standpoint, I was endlessly impressed by its fluid visual blend (edited by David Teague) of testimonial home video pieces, archival Disney clips, and the hand-drawn animated vignettes from visual effects artist Mac Guff. On the impact side, a story like Owen Suskind’s is why I write film reviews. Like him only to a far lesser degree, movies are often a lens to making sense of the world. Simply put, movies can teach and “Life, Animated” is proof of that fanciful theory that I push every chance I get.

Mike McGranaghan (@AisleSeat), The Aisle Seat, Screen Rant

I might be a little biased on this one because he was a personal hero of mine, but I’m going to choose “Life Itself,” the documentary about Roger Ebert. The film gets at everything that made Ebert so influential — his talent, his personality, his cinematic knowledge, the passion for film that drove his career. Most of all, it captures his indomitable spirit in the face of a devastating battle with cancer.

When we talk about people who have done “great” things, it’s usually doctors, scientists, or political/religious leaders who come to mind. Film critics are not high up on that list. Having said that, Roger Ebert inspired a generation of kids (myself included) to grow up wanting to pursue a career in writing about movies. He single-handedly changed the face of film criticism in that regard. It’s pretty impressive when you think about it. How many individuals have done something of that magnitude within their fields? “Life Itself” is a wonderful tribute to the man and his enduring legacy. I may or may not have teared up watching it. (I totally did.)

Ken Bakely (@kbake_99), Freelance for Film Pulse

There are multiple components to an outstanding biographical documentary—not only does it have to comprehensively tell a life story, but it must use the medium of the movies proactively. “Life Itself,” the documentary about Roger Ebert by Steve James (who also made “Hoop Dreams,” another prime contender for this title), is a look through not only the life and work of one man, but the legacy he would leave, evidencing the construction of his impact while guiding us through his journey. Revisiting the film some five years on from Ebert’s death, his absence is even more apparent: not only for his views on the latest movies, but even more, his caring and thoughtful perspective on humanity.

James’s empathetic-yet-unflinching profile provides the same kind of transformative power that its subject championed as one of the great powers of cinema. Sure, it’s primarily about one famous and impactful individual, but it also gorgeously portrays the interconnected world we inhabit, and the value of the passion for life and warmth of spirit we owe each other. Throughout “Life Itself,” James uses the various parts of the standard documentary—interviews, archival footage, and voiceover—to sharply focused heights that move beyond comparison of elements, and into a unified vision of a gifted filmmaker telling a story with both immediacy and universality.

Danielle Solzman (@DanielleSATM), Solzy at the Movies

“Life Itself.” Hands down, Steve James’ documentary on the late film critic, Roger Ebert, is one of the best that I’ve ever seen.  It remains a travesty that that the documentary didn’t receive an Oscar nomination.  Growing up, what Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert had to say on films played a role in the movie-going decisions. A few years after his passing, Roger’s legacy lives on. Whether it’s the people writing for or the approximate 100 film critics in Chicago.

Every time that I watch a film in the screening room here in Chicago, I always sit in the seat in front of where Roger used to sit.  I never had the chance to meet the legend himself, but through watching the documentary, it’s as if I did.

Robert Daniels (@812filmreviews), 812filmreviews

Stevan Riley’s “Listen to Me Marlon” has been a masterwork of the biographical documentary since it was released in 2015. Brando was a mystical, controversial, and talented artist, forever pushing his “real” self out of reach. And much like any investigative piece, the result is part intensive research and part luck. Brando recording taped monologues of himself was pure luck. However, there was work.

Riley had the option of filling his documentary with talking heads and reenactments. Instead, he allowed Brando to tell his story with little inhibition. The decision was both stylistic and practical. Brando, even if only through voice, is and was a mammoth figure. The camera still gently gazes upon him today, causing his past films to explode to the last confines of the screen. Who else, in the actor’s own story, could have shared the camera with him?

And then of course, there are Brando’s thoughts on acting and the “method,” and the ironic relationship his craft had to his withdrawn personality. Later, we find that he surmised acting through two contradictory prisms: pure truth and a skilled con. We’re never sure, even through his own words, whether he’s speaking as the truther or the conman. Riley and Brando keep us on our toes. Also, the music is brilliant. Rare in its ability to make us admire a documentary for its score, the sometimes gentle music often morphs into soaring, driving strings and piano, and is a symphonic harmony of Brando’s panache, rebellion, anger, and fear.

The unraveling of the Brando myth by Riley is akin to Jack knocking the giant down from the beanstalk. The giant may still be formidable, but his perch is no longer. And while Riley never demystifies Brando to the point of discarding, he does rebuild that beanstalk. Through Riley’s curating and Brando’s words, we come to admire Brando, not for his immense stature, but for the measure of the man. We see his need for calm, his troubled relationship with his parents, his protestations for civil rights, and the dedication to his craft. In a perfect world, all biographical documentaries would rise to the heights of “Listen to Me Marlon.” Then again, in a perfect world we’d have more Marlon Brandos.

Anne McCarthy (@annemitchmcc), Bonjour Paris, Teen Vogue, The Telegraph

“Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise” is a documentary that blew me away. Though known mostly for her writing, Angelou was, I learned, a total multi-hyphenate to the nth degree. She was a dancer, a poet, a journalist, an actor, a singer, a civil rights activist, a world traveler, and, lest we forget, a mentor to the great Oprah. Having long been a fan of Angelou’s writing (and also, anything related to my hometown of St. Louis – where Angelou was born), I gave this documentary a go on Netflix one rainy Saturday, and was pleased as punch that I did.

Like all good documentaries, it told an important story. And it did so through the voice of those who knew her best, like her son, Guy Johnson, who spoke candidly about his mother, especially concerning her relationships. Informative interviews from Oprah, Common, Hillary and Bill Clinton, and more, all added depth to her story. And it’s a layered one, too. Angelou’s life story is quite heartbreaking, at times, and also beautiful and hopeful. It is the story of someone rising strong. One of my all-time favorite quotes from Angelou is: “If you don’t like something, change it. If you can’t change it, change your attitude.” This sentiment is one well worth adopting these days (with the world the way it is and in dire need of change). And as far as changing this documentary? I wouldn’t change a thing. It was practically perfect in every way.

Andrew Todd (@mistertodd), Birth.Movies.Death, Slashfilm, IGN

Like many of his films, Errol Morris’ “Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr.” starts as one thing and morphs into something completely different. Leuchter is a fascinating subject from the outset, having designed a host of execution devices and become a self-styled and in-demand expert in mechanised death without any real training or education as an engineer. But his character – an obliviously cheerful textbook case of the Dunning-Kruger effect, with a quiet hunger for recognition, pushes “Mr. Death” into a whole new realm of weirdness.

What started as a wacky tale of a weirdo designing death machines turns more insidious in “Mr. Death”‘s second half. When you make your name as a morally-malleable murder maestro, you’re bound to make some odd bedfellows. Leuchter’s came in the form of Ernst Zündel, on trial for Holocaust denial, who hired him to testify on his behalf. Either ignorant of his report’s meaning or sympathetic with Zündel’s claims, Leuchter conducted his own (illegal and scientifically dubious) research inside Nazi gas chambers to support his claims, becoming a hero of the neo-Nazi movement in the process.

Whether Leuchter’s decisions were immoral or sociopathically amoral is up for debate, but his sickeningly easy slouch from electric chair designer to Holocaust denier is brilliantly told by Morris, fascinated at what drives such a man. If anything, it’s even more vital today, as an example of how hate movements can slip under the skins of people who lack self-awareness. An infuriating watch, at times, but a captivating one.

Jordan Hoffman (@Jhoffman), Freelance for The Guardian, Vanity Fair, Times of Israel

I’m going with the O.G., my boy Nanook from “Nanook of the North!” Not that I’ve watched it since college. (Or his chum from the wider Flaherty Cinematic Universe, the titular “Man of Aran.”)

From the modern age, though, I’ll confess to being just absolutely floored by Errol Morris’ “Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr.” I haven’t seen the movie since its original run (in 1999 at the old Quad!) but, yeah, that deep dive into how someone of seeming intellect could succumb to what we didn’t yet call “fake news” really messed me up.

Q.V. Hough (@QVHough), Vague Visages

As a native Minnesotan from the upper half of the state, I’ve always felt connected to Martin Scorsese’s 2005 documentary “No Direction Home: Bob Dylan.” For nearly four hours, Scorsese — one of my favorite directors — examines the roots of an American icon while relaying an important message than non-Dylan fans inexplicably fail to understand: he’s far more than a rock singer with a weird voice.

I don’t trust people that don’t like Dylan, and I’m cautious of people that ignore his “Minnesota Nice” influence. Much like D.A. Pennebaker’s 1967 documentary “Don’t Look Book,” “No Direction Home” captures Dylan’s passive-aggressive demeanor, at least with the media, as he attempts to explain the distinction between his creative intentions and how the public runs with certain ideas and angles.

While many will remember the skinny, early 60s version of Dylan who rolled with an eclectic group of New York City musicians, it’s important to remember that he arrived as a chubby, naive Midwesterner who was looked down upon for his appearance, and for being unpopular. After watching “No Direction Home,” Dylan’s lyrics — especially those from the early 60s — will likely feel more poignant, as he wasn’t just a man waxing poetic about the world, but rather a kid from the North Country trying to make sense of his own experiences to that point through music. He just happened to become famous during the process.

Clint Worthington (@alcohollywood), Consequence of Sound, Alcohollywood

The best docs are the ones that play with the very assumption that what they’re telling you is the God’s honest truth. “Nuts!”, Penny Lane’s slept-on gem from 2016, is a cheeky exploration of snake-oil huckster and radio pioneer “Dr.” John Romulus Brinkley, who made his living claiming he could cure impotence by grafting goat, erm, glands onto human testicles. Of course, that’s only the tip of the iceberg for “Nuts!”’ dizzying blend of animation, archival audio, and deceptively-earnest narration from Brinkley’s autobiographical memoirs.

Through Brinkley’s blustering tall tales and ostentatious vanity, it’s easy to see some modern parallels, as the American people become wrapped up in the legend of a charismatic, populist con man. But all is not as it seems: by the time “Nuts!” reaches its surprising closing minutes, you realize that Lane has pulled as much of a con on her audience as Brinkley did with his, making for a perfect match between documentarian and subject.

Joanna Langfield (@Joannalangfield), The Movie Minute

As much as I would love to name something more obscure, I must bow to the truly extraordinary “O.J. Made in America”. Ezra Edelman’s almost exhaustive, exhilarating look at one of the most notorious stories of the 20th Century doesn’t just retell the rise and fall of a superstar, but puts the story in sociological perspective. It’s extraordinary work.

Christina Radish (@ChristinaRadish), The Collider

When you’re a big fan of someone or something, it’s hard to find a documentary that feels like it fully satisfies everything you want to know or see. And when you’re as big of a fan of Pearl Jam as I am, for as many years as I have been, the idea of a comprehensive documentary seems impossible, but that’s just what “Pearl Jam Twenty,” directed by Cameron Crowe, is. I’ve been a fan of Pearl Jam since their first album, “Ten,” came out in 1991, and my love for their music and interest in them as musicians and people only grew, over the years. I’ve seen them in concert over 40 times, in a variety of cities and states, and have been a member of their fan club for so long that I have one of the lowest 10 numbers (you receive a number upon joining and get the opportunity to purchase concert tickets through the fan club, with seating often assigned by seniority).

As far as I’m concerned, “Ten” is basically a perfect album, so when “Pearl Jam Twenty” came out in 2011, to mark its 20th anniversary, I was eager to see it, at the same time I definitely had trepidation about not only whether it would be good, but whether it was necessary, at all. Thankfully, I did see it because I enjoyed more than I ever could have imagined or hoped. It perfectly captured the essence, personality and humor of the band, reaffirmed why their music touched me, in the first place, and made me want to go listen to their music again, as quickly as possible. It both chronicled and celebrated the band’s history, impact and longevity, and got me excited about what could still come from them, in the future. It is my favorite biographical documentary about my favorite band.

Richard Brody (@tnyfrontrow), The New Yorker

The biographical documentary is the art-house counterpart to the superhero movie—it partakes of a similar yearning for heroes and a similar (and similarly calculated, even cynical) reliance on fandom. Like superhero movies, they tend to be highly formatted; fortunately, unlike superhero movies, many of them are made on a low budget and even under the radar, and elude the rigid tropes and programmatic emotional scope of the industrial varieties. (Also, like superhero movies, sometimes ones made within the familiar norms of the genre nonetheless reflect distinctive inspiration.) What started in wonder and audacity has largely congealed into narrow channels of emotion and form. It’s a genre born in a radical modernity that most of its latter-day practitioners repudiate (and couldn’t rival anyway): Shirley Clarke’s “Portrait of Jason,” with shout-outs to one of its very close predecessors, “Romy: Anatomy of a Face,” by Hans-Jürgen Syberberg, and one of its early successors, Jean Eustache’s “Numéro Zéro.

Alonso Duralde (@aduralde), TheWrap, What the Flick?!, Linoleum Knife, Who Shot Ya?

My favorite biographical documentary is still Rob Epstein’s “The Times of Harvey Milk,” which so brilliantly captures both its subject and his historical context. (More so the latter, perhaps, which is why the words “Life and” don’t appear in the title.) The film brings Milk to such vivid life that I’ve never been able to see Sean Penn’s impersonation as anything but pale mimicry, and the gusto for which Milk fought for equality burns through every frame. It’s a movie that captures both triumph and tragedy, and it has gone on to inspire generations of newly budding activists.

Candice Frederick (@ReelTalker), Freelance for Bustle, /Film, The Week

There’s a lot to choose from, but I will go with one from recent memory. “What Happened, Miss Simone?” is one of the most impactful biographical documentaries that I’ve seen in a long while. It does what any great biopic should do–it allows the subject to tell her own story. It adds such a personal touch to Nina Simone’s story. Some of the themes she talks about in the doc–being misunderstood, a fear of failure, internal conflict, and using your voice for activism–are ones many us can relate to. It’s profound to hear those struggles directly from an artist with such brilliance and significance–yet despite it all she still implores us to resist.

Oralia Torres, (@oraleia), Cinescopia, Malvestida

Liz Garbus’s “What Happened, Miss Simone?” sets a clear mold on how to approach an iconic singer’s life through a documentary, using photos and video footage. Nina Simone’s life is presented with care on the documentary, including the sociopolitical context of her upbringing and maturity, her important activist work in the 1960s, her impact in Black America (and how the white audiences reacted to her) and her struggle with mental illness, all narrated by her daughter, Lisa Simone Kelly. It’s a great introduction to the high priestess of soul, both for those who haven’t heard about her and for those that are familiar with her voice. It stands apart from other musician’s bio doc as it answers, bitterly, the question posed on its title, with heartbreaking and relevant results that are still present in 2018’s USA.

Sarah Marrs (@Cinesnark),

Today my answer is going to be “Winnebago Man”, the recent-ish documentary about Jack Rebney, star of the viral video of the same name. Ben Steinbauer’s documentary traces how VHS copies of Rebney’s meltdown while filming an industrial video for Winnebago RVs were distributed in the pre-Internet days, going viral before that was even a thing. With the rise of the internet and dawn of Youtube, Rebney’s viral fame spread, becoming a legitimate online sensation, and Steinbauer’s portrait of Rebney is one of the first in-depth explorations of how viral fame can affect those who find their visages splashed across the internet for entertainment.

But what takes “Winnebago Man” to the next level is Rebney himself, a newsman who quit when he became concerned about punditry and the rise of agenda-driven reporting. He’s cranky and combative and maybe also a soothsayer, because Jack Rebney, angry mascot of the internet, saw the world we live in coming, full steam ahead. The doc ends on a high note, showing how viral videos can create shared moments of experience, and Rebney realizes his momentary meltdown can have a positive impact on others. But really, what stands out about “Winnebago Man” is how acutely it foreshadows our current nightmare dystopia where private citizens are regularly exploited for viral-baiting tweet threads and Insta stories. Jack Rebney is the angry mascot of the internet and patron saint of unwanted viral infamy.

Question: What is the best film currently playing in theaters?

Answer: “Sorry to Bother You”

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