When thinking about the best documentaries, it’s hard not to have lofty thoughts. These projects span film and TV and invite you to not just think about a specific corner of the world in a new way but see it through someone else’s eyes. Whether fascinating stranger-than-fiction stories or radicalizing tools for empathy, the best documentaries also reinvent non-fiction storytelling, reminding us of its place as a rarefied art form.
A lot of these stories are self-reflections from the greater world of entertainment. We digest what informs, but it’s also really easy to take lengthy deep dives into why the culture responds to what it does (and who are the people at the center of that). But there are many cases where documentaries invite you to elevate your consciousness and consider an area of life that you never thought could sustain more than a passing fascination, much less many hours of your time.
As we do every year around this part of December, we tried our best to collect the stories, investigations, and connections that meant the most to us this year. Some are unmistakable favorites, ones that made an immediate impression through craft and the subject. Others are memorable in more abstract or lingering ways, stories that shift perceptions over a longer term. Whether you seek illuminating stories of courage in the face of injustice or raucous portraits of daring artists at the top of their craft, there’s something here to inspire everyone.
Kate Erbland, Ryan Lattanzio, Eric Kohn, Sarah Shachat, Carlos Aguilar, and Christian Blauvelt also contributed to this article.