What’s the deal with documentaries made up only of found footage? Apollo 11 and Amazing Grace have been on a great many lists of the best docs this year, and while their footage holds immense value, I like a little more craftsmanship and context in my nonfiction films. (It looks like the Oscar voters do, too.) I also like a sense of humor, as you can see from the list below.
1. Hail Satan? Evangelical Christians’ loyalty to Donald Trump in the face of everything has made Satanism look appealing like never before. This often hilarious film by Penny Lane (and, yes, that’s her real name) profiles the Satanic Temple and their masterful acts of trolling by insisting that their religion be represented when state governments put up monuments to Christianity. The Satanists demonstrate how many Christians think religious freedom is only for them. I’d join the Temple, but I think I’d be out of place, because the Satanists seem much nicer people than me.
2. One Child Nation. No one in Wang Nanfu and Lynn Zhang’s film will say that China’s decades-long one-child policy was anything other than a shining success for the country. They do this even while they lay out plenty of evidence that it was a disaster that resulted in broken families and parents murdering their baby girls. Stories of women being dragged kicking and screaming to abortion clinics are told by the people who did the dragging. It’s all framed through Wang’s stories of raising her own children in America, a country she notes is trying to outlaw abortion entirely and take control of women’s bodies just like the Chinese government.
3. Honeyland. This multiple Oscar nominee was supposed to be an informational video about beekeeping put out by the government of North Macedonia. However, Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov’s project grew into something much greater, starting with Fejmi Daut and Samir Ljuma’s breathtaking photography of the country’s mountainous rural areas. Turkish-descended beekeeper Hatidze Muratova initially welcomes the large Turkish family who moves into the trailer next door, but then they move into the honey business, too, and their bees kill all of hers. Hatidze is a compelling and funny character in this story of nature and bad neighbors.
4. Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché. Gotta give props to a movie that informed me so much about a subject that I am supposed to be well-informed about. Pamela B. Green’s film measures the life and times of one of the very first film directors of either gender and how the mostly male community of French film critics and historians tried to erase her from the record after her death. A host of movie celebrities make the case that she deserves to be recognized alongside her colleagues Georges Meliès and the Lumière Brothers in the pantheon of film pioneers. That’s mixed with Guy-Blaché’s colorful life. She taught Lois Weber, the first American woman director, who promptly repaid her mentor by stealing away her husband.
5. Fyre: The Greatest Party that Never Happened. Two documentaries about the ill-fated music festival came out last January, but Chris Smith’s is the only one eligible for this list and has footage from every stage of the planning, such as it was. Watching this film is like having the fiasco unfold before your eyes, as Billy McFarland and Ja Rule think that if they just will their logistically complicated rich-people party to happen, it will materialize amid a cloud of likes on Instagram. If you’re big on schadenfreude like me, this is vastly entertaining.
6. American Factory. This Oscar nominee starts with a Chinese auto glass manufacturer taking over a shuttered GM plant in Dayton, Ohio, and declaring they’ll rejuvenate the area. Oh, but if you know the differences between Chinese and American capitalism, you know how this will end. Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert chronicle how it all comes apart, as American managers are replaced and workers chafe against new bosses who care nothing for workers’ safety or time spent with families. The CEO comes away embittered, saying Americans are lazy, incompetent, and mentally slow for wanting these things. He’s wrong — they’re just not used to being treated like their Chinese counterparts.
7. For Sama. Waad al-Kateab begins her documentary by filming her baby girl doing baby things, as many mothers have done. Then a tank shell hits the building that she’s in, and her husband asks on his daughter’s behalf, “Mama, why did you give birth to me?” It’s a fair question as al-Kateab and co-director Edward Watts document raising a child in Aleppo, Syria, while it’s being bombed daily by Bashar al-Assad’s Russian allies. This Oscar nominee tells the story of this stupidly courageous couple whose love of their hometown makes them film its destruction for baby Sama, who grows up not even reacting to the sound of explosions nearby.
8. At the Heart of Gold: Inside the USA Gymnastics Scandal. Before gymnastics takes center stage at the Summer Olympics, let’s remember that while Larry Nassar molested hundreds of little girls, the sport’s governing body did everything to protect this monster and nothing to protect the elite athletes whom he did his best to ruin. Erin Lee Carr finds plenty of blame to spread to the U.S. Olympic Committee, law enforcement, and Michigan State University. Her interviews with the victims — so many victims — remind us what it took to get the truth out.
9. Cunningham. Oh, look! This movie is playing this week at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth (see: Night & Day). Alla Kovgan’s biography of the choreographer Merce Cunningham relies heavily on extensive footage from the man’s interviews about his work. What really earns this film its spot on the list is its beautifully filmed performances of Cunningham’s dances, restaged in forest clearings, highway tunnels, and other unlikely locales. Try to see this in 3-D.
10. Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am. You can pay tribute to the late American novelist by watching Timothy Sanders-Greenfield’s documentary that includes extensive interviews with the personable Nobel laureate before her death. There’s plenty of stuff about how this black woman forced her way into the white male literary canon by writing African-American stories, but you’ll also learn about her work as a book editor at Random House, where her work (with sometimes unlikely collaborators such as Muhammad Ali) was scarcely less groundbreaking.
Honorable mention: Alex Holmes’ Maiden … A.J. Eaton’s David Crosby: Remember My Name … Joshua Riehl’s The Russian Five … Ed Perkins’ Tell Me Who I Am … Midge Costin’s Making Waves: The Art of Sound in Cinema … John Chester’s The Biggest Little Farm … Viktor Kossakovsky’s Aquarela … Martin Scorsese’s Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story … Jill Magid’s The Proposal … Lauren Greenfield’s The Kingmaker … Max Lewkowicz’ Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles … Rob Garver’s What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael … Matt Wolf’s Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project … Andrew Slater’s Echo in the Canyon … Sydney Pollack and Alan Elliott’s Amazing Grace.