Documentary aficionados perhaps make this claim every year, but 2020 truly felt like a standout year for non-fiction filmmaking. As the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered theaters worldwide and the blockbuster films that pack them, documentaries were able to shine brighter than ever before. And in this historic year of social and political change, documentaries complimented the news cycle brilliantly. Indeed, the year’s best documentaries tapped into the zeitgeist, exploring topics surrounding the prison-industrial complex, police brutality, sexual abuse and existential reflections on the meaning of life. These outstanding works of non-fiction storytelling are presented below in our Top 10 Documentaries of 2020.
10. RED HEAVEN
One of the standouts at this year’s DOC NYC Festival, Lauren DeFilippo and Katherine Gorringe’s Red Heaven asks an essential question – What are the basic essentials for humans to live a happy life? This fascinating documentary attempts to provide an answer through an innovative experiment to simulate a Mars expedition, confining three men and three women in a desolate part of Hawaii for 365 days. As cameras follow their daily lives in this isolated environment – including frequent surveys to monitor their changing mood – Red Heaven is a revealing showcase of human psychology. On a more superficial level, it’s simply one of the coolest documentaries of the year, allowing viewers to vicariously experience this dream of life on Mars, complete with personality clashes and unexpected obstacles worthy of the best reality TV.
9. CRIP CAMP
After winning the Oscar last year for American Factory, the Obamas’ Higher Ground Productions could headed for a repeat with Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution. Directed by James Lebrecht and Nicole Newnham, this inspiring film traces the disability rights movement back to Camp Jened, a summer camp for the disabled that helped to spark a revolution. Recounting the empowering atmosphere created by the camp and the subsequent fight for accessibility rights and equal opportunities, the humor, romance and unwavering determination on display is a powerful testament to the resilience of a minority group that society too often ignores.
8. ON THE RECORD
As the #MeToo movement began to take hold in the wake of the Weinstein allegations, there was notably one piece largely missing from the broader picture – the testimonies of black women. With their sobering documentary On the Record, Kirby Dick and Amy Zeiring offer a corrective, by shining a spotlight on a disheartening trend of sexual harassment and abuse surrounding hip hop music and one of its leading moguls Russell Simmons. Through interviews with Drew Dixon – a former executive at Simmons’ Def Jam Records – and other survivors, On The Record expertly contextualizes their experiences as black women within the music industry, giving insight into the immense courage required to speak out. As they tell their shocking stories of rape, it becomes equally disheartening to realize how much we lose as a society when the lives of such creative, intelligent women are destroyed.
7. THE WAY I SEE IT
Arriving on the eve of a pivotal election, Dawn Porter’s The Way I See It came as a bittersweet dose of nostalgia for progressive-minded audiences. Reflecting on the Obama presidency through the eyes of former White House photographer Pete Souza, this stirring documentary reminded us of better days, when the work of the nation’s highest office was characterized by empathy, intelligence and compassion. The film is also a showcase for Souza’s incredible work, which truly lives up to the old adage that a picture is worth a thousand words.
6. BOYS STATE
If the children are the future, then the revelations of Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss’ Boys State may be cause for concern. This Sundance winner documents one edition of the American Legion’s longstanding Boys State program, an experiment in democracy which selects a group of a thousand teenage boys to enact their own form of government. The results hold up a discomfiting mirror to the dangerously partisan politics of today. However, their passion for the democratic process is ultimately encouraging and their vibrant personalities provide compelling drama.
5. ATHLETE A
Every four years, gymnastics takes center stage as one of the most watched sports at the Summer Olympics. As we gaze upon these superhuman athletes of the US gymnastics team in amazement, however, behind the scenes they were paying a terrible price for success. Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk’s shocking documentary Athlete A illuminates the story behind the USA Gymnastics scandal, which saw hundreds of young girls being sexually abused in decades long cover-up by the national governing body. Detailing the history of a draconian system of leadership, this well-researched expose is a chilling reminder of the devastating effects of greed and corruption on society’s most vulnerable.
4. 40 YEARS A PRISONER
While the events of 2020 have reignited calls for police reform, this outcry is nothing new for the Black community, as evidenced by Tommy Oliver’s latest film 40 Years a Prisoner. This eye-opening documentary chronicles the ordeal of Mike Africa Jr. and his incarcerated parents Mike and Debbie Africa, who were members of a persecuted group of primarily Black members called MOVE, who believed in a primitivist “back to nature” philosophy. Proclaiming public violations within their headquarters, the police staged a blockade that subsequently descended into a chaotic shootout, resulting in the killing of a police officer. In the aftermath, a crooked justice system led to a decades-long imprisonment of nine MOVE members. Revisiting these events with enlightening archival footage, however, 40 Years a Prisoner proves how the media and corrupt legal authorities unfairly vilified the group in the pursuit of injustice.
3. DICK JOHNSON IS DEAD
In her follow-up to 2016’s Cameraperson, Kirsten Johnson once again puts her unique spin on the documentary form with Dick Johnson is Dead. In this inventive artistic collaboration with her octogenarian father, Johnson stages his death through imaginative cinematic accidents, as a way to process his mortality and his debilitating Alzheimer’s diagnosis. At once darkly funny and deeply moving, Dick Johnson is Dead examines the pain and beauty of being human.
Delivering one of the most empathetic films of the year, Garrett Bradley signalled the emergence of a major new talent with her debut documentary feature Time. It follows a woman named Fox Rich and her fight to release her husband from prison, after an unduly harsh 60-year sentence for their attempt to rob a bank. Seamlessly blending home videos and present-day footage from Bradley, Time allows us to understand the dehumanizing nature of the current prison system in Rich’s own impassioned words. While it doesn’t excuse their crime, the film shines a light on the effects of incarceration on Rich and her family, forefronting their humanity through sophisticated filmmaking. Indeed, Time stands as one of the most accomplished films of the year, with warm black-and-white cinematography, astute editing, affecting piano music and the inspiration of a family determined to make up for lost time.
In one of the most amazing discoveries, the year’s most jaw-dropping thriller wasn’t a Hollywood production, but a documentary from Romania titled Collective. Referencing the a night club that became ground zero for a political corruption scandal, Collective follows a gripping investigation into the causes of a deadly fire that killed 27 people. Through rigorous journalism captured through director Alexander Nanau’s unflinching lens, the film lays out a trail of corruption all the way up to the highest levels of government. From building code violations to diluted disinfectants in hospitals, Collective is a hard-hitting look at the importance of a free press and the real human cost of a broken democracy.