1. Amazing Grace – It only took 46 years to see it, but this legendary concert film chronicling Aretha Franklin’s two-night stand at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles — the same 1972 shows that gave her the best-selling album of her career — was more than worth the wait. You will witness the Queen of Soul perform stellar gospel songs and work the audience, from everyday churchgoers to Mick Jagger, into a divine frenzy.
2. Bisbee ’17 – On July 12th, 1917, the residents of Bisbee, Arizona rounded up dozens of miners, loaded them onto a train, and left the men to die in the desert. It became known as “the Bisbee Deportation,” a euphemism for what was essentially a slaughter of pro-union agitators, Mexican workers, and European immigrants. No other movie in 2018 gave us such a haunting meditation on collective memory, social injustice, the connection between labor and communal livelihood, and that much-quoted maxim about us being done with the past but the past not being done with us.
3. Hale County This Morning, This Evening – Working as a coach for a youth basketball league in Hale County, Alabama, filmmaker RaMell Ross brought his camera along to document what he saw: births, burials, babies running around, teens looking to the future, people going to games and church on Sunday; a community going about their business. The result is a free-form exploration of life in the region’s Black Belt, in which snippets of small everyday moments and occasional callbacks to the past create a mosaic of Southern life that feels quietly revelatory.
4. Minding the Gap – Bing Liu was just another skateboarding kid in Rockford, Illinois, schlepping his camera along to parks and house parties to film his buddies. Soon, he started capturing more intimate moments of his friends’ lives off their boards, from troubles at home to the responsibilities of unexpected fatherhood. A stunning, penetrating look at growing up that effortlessly doubles as a snapshot of American life; you feel like it’s a privilege to ride shotgun on this boys-to-men ride, even as you worry about what comes next for each of them.
5. McQueen – Chubby child prodigy, up-and-coming Saville Row-style tailor, haute couture’s agent provocateur, four-time British Designer of the Year, conflicted celebrity casualty: Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui’s portrait of an artist as a kilt-wearing controversy magnet gives you a 360-degree view of Alexander McQueen. It also puts the U.K. fashion maverick’s life and work in context, highlighting his rise one jaw-dropping collection at a time while never losing sight of the human being behind the runway horror shows.
The 11 best documentaries of 2018 according to Vox.
1. Minding the Gap – One of the most extraordinary films of the year, “Minding the Gap” starts out as an engrossing documentary about a group of young people in Rockford, Illinois, as they skateboard and grow up together.
But as the film unfolds, it expands from being a skate movie into something much bigger.
2. Bisbee ’17 – Directed by unconventional documentarian Robert Greene, “Bisbee ’17” is a fierce, lyrical probe into the soul of a town haunted by a history it would rather forget. It’s also an unsettling cipher for America, at a time when the ghosts of our past have revealed themselves in frightening ways.
Greene ventured to Bisbee, Arizona for the centennial of a 1917 incident in which 1,200 striking miners were illegally deported to New Mexico.
By stitching together interviews with locals, quiet shots of the town and the stunning landscape that surrounds it, and footage of Bisbee’s preparations to reenact what happened, the film gently blows the dust of accumulated history of the past and, in the process, exposes some of the town’s still-tender wounds.
3. Amazing Grace – Kept under a bushel for more than four decades while it was held up by both technical issues and lawsuits, it seemed like “Amazing Grace“ — which Sydney Pollack filmed in 1972, as Aretha Franklin recorded the live album of the same name that would become one of her most acclaimed — would never see the light of day. But this year, it was finally finished and released, just months after Franklin’s death.
“Amazing Grace” premiered at the DOC NYC festival in November and will play limited engagements before a theatrical release planned for March 2019.
4. Hale County This Morning, This Evening – As much a poem as a documentary, RaMell Ross’s “Hale County This Morning, This Evening” is the sort of film for which the word “lyrical” was invented.
Ross, who started his career as a large-format photographer, carefully assembled hours of footage he shot while living in Hale County, Alabama — of water droplets on a baby’s skin, of kids goofing off in a parking lot, church congregants singing during mass, of old houses, of insects, and more.
Together, they act as brushstrokes to create a portrait of a community, capturing a way of life in a place burdened by history.
“Hale County This Morning, This Evening” opened in theaters earlier this year and is awaiting digital release.
5. Shirkers – As teenagers in 1992, Sandi Tan and her friends Jasmine and Sophie made Singapore’s first indie movie, a scripted film called “Shirkers” — and then their American mentor absconded with the footage.
The documentary, also called “Shirkers,” is Tan’s personal exploration into what happened with her film, produced decades after George Cardona, the mysterious man who shot the movie with them, then disappeared with the footage in tow.
Using a variety of media — including 16mm, animation, handwritten letters, tapes, digital, Hi8, and Super8 — Tan reconstructs the making of Shirkers and its aftermath, working through the story, sussing out what exactly went down and how it affected the path that she and her friends took in their lives.
The Mind of a Chef (2012) – The Anthony Bourdain-narrated and executive produced docuseries is an intimate look into the thinking processes and inspirations of some of your now-favorite chefs.
Barbecue (2017) – This documentary is an almost two-hour celebration of barbecue around the world.
Food Inc. (2008) – This Michael Pollan documentary might be the most visceral of the bunch. It’s a good first step into learning about the food industry’s effect on the environment—something that’s always concerned the longtime author.
What the Health (2017) – “What the Health” is a bit more sobering than the rest of the list. The film is particularly interested in the links between what we eat and diseases.
Jiro Dreams of Sushi (2011) – “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” follows the now-93-year-old Jiro Ono, who is one of the most renowned sushi chefs in the world. To this day, he helms a 10-seat, $300-a-head restaurant in a Tokyo subway station.
Karl Marx City(2016) – If you didn’t live in East Germany during the decades the Stasi was extending its insidious reach, perhaps your only knowledge of the GDR secret police comes from the 2007 Oscar-winner “The Lives of Others.” Petra Epperlein and Michael Tucker go deeper into elucidating the inner workings of the Stasi authoritarian machinery than most films, exposing a whole society driven by paranoia, and one where few people felt they could trust even their closest friends.
Tower(2016) – The 1966 University of Texas clock tower shooting ought to be a footnote in American history and not a reference point for contemporary national woes. That “Tower,” documentary filmmaker Keith Maitland’s film should feel as relevant and of the moment as it does is startling, or perhaps just disheartening. It was 50 years ago this past August that Charles Whitman ascended the university tower with a cache of guns, killed three people inside, and went on to kill another 12 over the course of an hour and a half.
Best of Enemies(2015) – William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal’s infamously grueling rhetorical slugfest in 1968 is the subject of Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville’s “Best of Enemies.” Neville teamed with Gordon to pull back a different curtain, one concealing the very real ugliness bubbling and boiling off-camera for the length of ABC’s attempt at spicing up the otherwise staid world of presidential conventions. The film deftly contextualizes the debates within the framework of their era, but it’s more concerned about how much those debates have echoed through the years.
She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry(2014) – In spite of the sappy title, this documentary is an excellent primer on the birth of the women’s liberation movement, tracing its earliest years (1966-’71) and the burgeoning power of organizations like NOW. Including interviews with a variety of women who were on the front lines and allowing for a great number of opinions, the result is a lively, challenging film that refuses to simplify the movement—making it as interesting for the newcomer as it is for the more well-initiated.
Cave of Forgotten Dreams(2010) – Werner Herzog’s “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” is the story of humanity’s oldest surviving pieces of artwork: everything they can teach us about ourselves and how we got here. It’s yet another one of those seemingly random yet functionally primordial bits of human minutia that the German director’s imagination so often keys upon, and, in this case, it yielded one of his most placidly beautiful, intimate films.
Belief: The Possession of Janet Moss – This documentary uses interviews and recreated performances to tell the story of Janet Moss, a woman who died at the hands of family members who were trying to perform an exorcism on her.
The Confession Tapes – This docuseries explores cases where the confessions of convicted murderers are believed to be false. Why would someone confess to a crime that he or she didn’t commit? Are the police the bad guys or good guys? It’s safe to say that this series will have you questioning everything.
Evil Genius: The True Story of America’s Most Diabolical Bank Heist – This four-part docuseries begins by telling the story of a pizza delivery man who died while committing a robbery. The cause of death? A bomb tied to his neck. And it only gets crazier from there.
I Am A Killer – Convicted murderers on death row are interviewed on camera explaining the reasons behind their crimes. You’ll literally be getting in the faces of people who’ve taken another life, oftentimes with zero remorse.
Deprogrammed – This documentary explores the phenomenon of deprogramming, the process that people undergo to return to normal life after being part of cults or sects.
Three Identical Strangers – In 1980, Robert Shafran arrived at community college as a freshman only to be greeted as a big man on campus by students who seemed to know him already. He soon found his world shaken when a fellow student figured out what was going on; Robert’s identical twin Eddie, who he had never known, attended the same school the year before. The story got really strange when Robert and Eddie discovered a third brother, David, piecing together that they had all been separated as infants and adopted out to different families.
Their reunion made them celebrities, but Tim Wardle’s documentary delves into what happened next, which is weirder and sadder. Beyond the strange-but-true story, there’s a lot going on in Wardle’s film, including an exploration of what happens when the lights fade on human interest stories, whether it’s nature or nurture that defines us, and, most disturbingly, the flexible scientific ethics that led to their separation in the first place.
Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun? – Travis Wilkerson combines the personal and the political with this dive into his family’s murky history, investigating a murder committed by his great-grandfather in the small town of Bothan, Alabama, where he was a shopkeeper. But the closer Wilkerson gets to the truth, the more resistance he meets, discovering that few locals want to revisit a time when a white man could get away with murder so long as his victim was black.
Wilkerson alternates between interviews with Bothan residents with mesmerizing monologues about his experience in a film that reveals the persistence of old, hateful ideas and the thin line separating the past from the present.
Bisbee ’17 – Some of the same themes surface in Robert Greene’s “Bisbee ’17,” which visits the town of Bisbee, Arizona on the occasion of its most notorious event: the forced deportation of 1,300 striking mine workers — most of Latino or Slavic origin — by an illegally deputized posse who shipped them hundreds of miles away to the desert with orders never to return.
The 1917 incident still divides the residents of Bisbee. Some see it as a monstrous crime, while others still spout the justifications they grew up hearing from relatives who participated in the deportation. To make the past even more present, Greene enlists members of the town to reenact the deportation, mixing interviews with contemporary residents and recreations of the Bisbee that was. Part of what makes the film so haunting is how easily those participating slip into their roles.
Minding the Gap – The past remains the present for filmmaker Bing Liu too. His “Minding the Gap” chronicles his years spent skating through his economically troubled hometown of Rockford, Illinois, usually in the company of pals Zack and Keire. Packing years of change into a tight 93 minutes, the film watches as the friends go down diverging, sometimes troubling paths; Zack becomes a father, a role to which he doesn’t seem suited. Keire, already an outsider as a black kid into skateboards, struggles to figure out his place in the world.
Eventually, the moving film reveals that Liu and his friends are united by more than their love of skating, each sharing an abusive upbringing that they’ve struggled to overcome.
Shirkers – Adolescence still has a hold on Sandi Tan. In 2018, Tan made her feature debut — 26 years after she originally planned. “Shirkers” is both the name of a 1992 feature she shot as a teenager in Singapore but never completed and her fascinating new documentary about the experience of making it — and what happened next when her mysterious American mentor vanished with her footage.
The film doubles as a look back to a particular time and place and what it was like to be a film-obsessed oddball in early 1990s Singapore and an attempt to come to terms with a betrayal she finds she can investigate and illuminate but never really understand.