Generally, this feature runs well before the Oscar nominations are announced, but not this year, as the news was revealed this past Monday. Thus, I’ve embedded my comments on the Oscar nods in the list. Let’s go.
- Dick Johnson Is Dead. Kristen Johnson’s 86-year-old father was diagnosed with dementia and not given long to live, so they coped with the news by filming his death over and over in gruesome accidents. In doing so, they made the most imaginative documentary of 2020, with retired psychiatrist Dick Johnson conducting his own interviews of the professionals he met during the stagings and imagining an afterlife where he is with his deceased wife and his genetically deformed feet are made normal. Here’s a movie about dementia that manages to be celebratory and funny without condescending to the afflicted person. You guessed it — it went unnoticed by the Academy.
- David Byrne’s American Utopia. Does anybody do concert films better than Spike Lee? Sure, it helps that he’s working with a musician with a strong visual sense (and who starred in another great concert film, Stop Making Sense). Yet in Lee’s treatment of Byrne’s Broadway show, his camera seems to have a mystical knack for being in the right place at the right time, focusing on Byrne’s 11 indefatigable backing musicians/dancers and giving you views that even the ticket buyers in the seats didn’t have. This was ruled ineligible for the Oscars, so there’s at least an excuse for snubbing this. Between the nifty stage show designed by Annie-B Parsons and Lee’s feel for the music, even “Once in a Lifetime”and “Everybody’s Coming to My House”sound like you’re hearing them for the first time. Amid the joy, Byrne calls out Atatiana Jefferson’ s name from the stage. Say her name.
- The Donut King. If you want a documentary companion to Minari, you may enjoy this film even more. Alice Gu profiles Bun Tek “Ted” Ngoy and how he and his fellow Cambodian immigrants built a chain of West Coast donut shops so powerful that they kept Dunkin’ Donuts out of California. The story isn’t without a tragic element, as Ted eventually lost the business to his gambling addiction. However, Ted himself has perspective on his life and career, and his Donut King shops continue to operate in the Golden State. His descendants, biological and otherwise, have pioneered the upscaling of donuts, too, and this movie will make you want to raise a $5 maple bacon cruller to a man who made an extraordinary American life, one batch of fried dough at a time.
- Crip Camp. While Donald Trump spends his post-presidency life trying to stay out of jail, Barack and Michelle Obama are executive producing good movies like James Lebrecht and Nicole Newnham’s Oscar-nominated account of the summer camp for disabled kids that started in upstate New York in the early 1970s and grew into a political movement for the rights of disabled people. It’s great to give children a sense of purpose when the world might be telling them that they’re a liability, but it’s even better to give them an outlet for that purpose. There have been a ton of documentaries about the civil rights movement, but here’s one that tells a story about it that you likely don’t know.
- Time. Garrett Bradley’s film runs only 81 minutes, yet it makes you feel the passage of the 20 years that Fox Rich spent trying to free her husband from the prison industrial complex’s clutches. Rob Rich is not innocent: He and Fox did commit an armed robbery in 1997 because of his family’s dire financial straits, and he received a draconian 60-year sentence as a result. After her own release from prison, Fox documented the intervening decades as her sons grew from small boys into men and she dealt endlessly with the heartless Kafkaesque system that keeps people locked up for unconscionable lengths of time. This Oscar nominee looks to be an early favorite for the statuette.
- The Truffle Hunters. Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw’s documentary comes to our theaters in the very near future, and it’s one that needs to be seen on the big screen because the photography is so damn beautiful. The film takes in the old men and their dogs who make their living foraging for white truffles in the Piedmont region of Italy. I’ll have more to say when I review the film, but the mountain and forest scenery in the northern part of the country is reason enough to watch this.
- Welcome to Chechnya. Being gay in Russia is even worse than you think. David France (who previously did How to Survive a Plague) documents the plight of LGBT people in Chechnya, where they suffer the double whammy of being persecuted by both the Russian government and by the Muslim population who live there. Using hidden recorders and spycams to track people as they attempt to flee this place for more enlightened corners of Europe, France turns this into a sleek Cold War thriller.
- Be Water. When it aired on ESPN this past summer, Bao Nguyen’s documentary scraped away all the myth and legend that was obscuring the life of Bruce Lee and located the man in his context, the Asian-American communities in Seattle and San Francisco where he grew up and the hard-to-imagine levels of racism in Hollywood and Hong Kong that he overcame to become a global martial arts star at a time when that didn’t exist. His family and the people who studied kung fu alongside him use their words to bring to life this man, without whomlarge chunks of cinema today would not exist.
- The Dissident. Now that the Biden administration has let the Saudi monarchy off the hook for Jamal Khashoggi’s murder, it’s time to see Bryan Fogel’s procedural detailing the journalist’s yeoman work trying to bring freedom and truth to the Middle East and how Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman organized his assassination in the Saudi embassy in Istanbul. Khashoggi’s wife and his friend Omar Abdulaziz give us personal insight into the man, while Fogel (who won an Oscar for Icarusbut won’t for this) examines the Saudis’ online army of trolls and hackers who tracked his movements so he could be killed. Consider this film the blow against them that our government won’t strike.
- Miss Americana. Lana Wilson’s profile of Taylor Swift came out way back in January 2020, before the pandemic hit and Swift canceled her tour, tossed off two acoustic albums, and won great reviews and another Grammy. (Gotta admire her work ethic and adaptability.) Still, this film is less about her music and even less about her love life than it is about her evolving political consciousness in the face of the last four years and the lawsuit over a Denver DJ groping her. How does a superstar stand in for all the young women who have also become newly politically aware during the Trump years? Somehow, she does it.
Honorable mention: Matt Wolf’s Spaceship Earth … Benjamin Ree’s The Painter and the Thief … Alexander Nanau’s Collective … James Reed and Pippa Ehrlich’s My Octopus Teacher … Thomas Kail’s Hamilton … Rachel Mason’s Circus of Books … Kareem Tabsch and Cristian Constantini’s Mucho Mucho Amor: The Legend of Walter Mercado … Naoki Higashida’s The Reason I Jump … Tania Cypriano’s Born to Be … Viktor Kossakovsky’s Gunda … Amanda McBain and Jesse Moss’ Boys State … R.J. Cutler’s Billie Eilish: The World’s a Little Blurry.