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The Best Documentaries of 2020

January 31, 2021

By John Corrado

A month ago, I shared my picks for the best movies of 2020, and now it’s time to make my selections for the best documentaries of last year. This list has been a long time coming, I know, and It took me a while to put it together, from deciding on the order to catching up on several titles that I missed last year. But I think it came together in the end, and hopefully serves as somewhat of an encapsulation of the insane, rollercoaster ride of a year that was 2020.

A few of these titles will hopefully be in the running for Oscar nominations as well. My write-ups are naturally a little longer for the films that I haven’t previously reviewed, which is fully half of these ten titles, so please bear with me here. Now, without further ado, here are my picks for the best non-fiction feature films of 2020, followed by a selection of honourable mentions.

#10: Time

Director Garrett Bradley’s documentary Time, a sort of cinematic collage following the life of Sibil Fox Richardson and her six sons as she awaits her husband’s release from prison, opens with a collection of clips from old home movies that signify the passage of time. As this grainy home video footage of her kids growing up gives way to pristine widescreen scenes, all presented in crisp black and white, the film gives us the feeling of watching years pass before our eyes.

Seamlessly mixing old and new footage, Time follows Sibil as she fights for the early release of her husband, Rob Richardson, who is serving time at Louisiana State Penitentiary for an armed bank robbery born out of desperation in which no one was physically hurt. Sibil herself spent several years in prison for her role as the driver, while her husband refused to take a plea bargain and got hit with a sixty year sentence, depriving their sons of a father for much of their formative years.

The film uses Sibil’s story to explore deeper themes linking the prison industrial complex to slavery, and what it means for sons to grow up without a father. But going beyond just being an indictment of the justice system, Bradley’s film functions as a sort of tone poem about the flow of time itself, condensing roughly two decades into about eighty minutes. The result is a film about waiting; waiting for change, waiting for justice, and waiting for the return of a loved one, that powerfully encapsulates these themes through a collection of scenes showing life moving ceaselessly through time itself.

Time is now available to steam exclusively on Prime Video.

#9: The Walrus and the Whistleblower

Director Nathalie Bibeau’s engaging documentary The Walrus and the Whistleblower, which won the Audience Award at 2020’s virtual edition of Hot Docs, tells the story of Phil Demers. A former trainer at Ontario’s infamous Marineland, Demers quit working in protest over how poorly the park’s animals were being treated. He became a whistleblower, and embarked on an ongoing legal battle to rescue Smooshi, the walrus that he bonded with at the park. This deep bond between human and animal informs Bibeau’s film, which serves as both a captivating character portrait of Demers and a compelling look at the legal battle to end the practise of keeping marine mammals in captivity. This is one of those documentaries that truly has the power to change things, because I guarantee you that if enough people watch it, attendance at Marineland will drop significantly.

The Walrus and the Whistleblower is now available to watch on a variety of digital platforms.

#8: The Painter and the Thief

The Painter and the Thief tells a story about two people brought together through circumstances so remarkable, that it could easily be mistaken for creative fiction. The painter is Barbora Kysilkova, an artist living in Norway. The thief is Karl Bertil-Nordland, a drug addict who stole two of her paintings from a gallery. When Karl was in court for the crime, Barbora approached him with a simple request to paint his portrait upon his release from jail, and from there a friendship was born. Director Benjamin Ree follows the two subjects over several years with incredible intimacy, as the thief becomes muse for the painter, and layers of trauma from their collective pasts are brought to the surface. From here, the film becomes quite moving to watch, as Barbora and Karl help each other heal in surprising ways.

The Painter and the Thief is now available to watch on a variety of digital platforms.

#7: Miss Americana

When Miss Americana, director Lana Wilson’s portrait of Taylor Swift, premiered on Netflix a year ago, it felt like an up to the minute look at a pop star in the process of reinventing herself and finding her political voice. Looking back on the film now, following a year that saw Miss Swift release not one but two surprise albums (folklore and evermore) that found her pushing herself even further and gaining indie cred by experimenting with an alternative sound, it serves as a compelling portrait of an artist at a turning point, on the cusp of something even greater.

The film mainly follows Swift as she is in the process of recording her 2019 album Lover, a project that was partially born out of the disappointment of having Reputation, the banger 2017 pop album that saw her fiercely shedding her “nice girl” image, unfairly snubbed at the Grammys. We do get the standard bio-doc treatment of her career, as Wilson charts Swift’s rise to fame as a teenage country singer and hones in on key moments, including having the mic snatched from her by Kanye West at the VMAs (though it’s pretty devastating to hear her recount the story in her own words).

But the film also goes deeper into exploring her trouble with body image issues, fuelled by the stress of having her personal life and relationships constantly obsessed over and scrutinized in the media. On a base level, Miss Americana offers an engaging look a woman wrestling to take back control of her own life and image, after years of existing in the public spotlight. Wilson also charts Swift’s path to becoming more politically outspoken, including setting off a Twitter firestorm by going public with her support for the Democrats, after years of people assuming she was conservative.

I will admit that I was already a Taylor Swift fan before watching Miss Americana, and it will hopefully make converts out of more people. It’s compelling enough on its own as a portrait of a pop star evolving, and now serves as a wonderful prelude to the folklore era of Taylor’s career. As an aside, it’s also been nice to see Swift, who has frustratingly never gotten the full credit that she deserves as a songwriter, now basking in the universal praise that has been heaped upon folklore, arguably the best album of 2020.

Miss Americana is now available to steam exclusively on Netflix.

#6: Dick Johnson is Dead

As a way to come to terms with the inevitable death of her aging father Richard Johnson, who is in the early stages of dementia, filmmaker Kirsten Johnson casts him as the lead in a film about his life and, you know, death. The resulting film, Dick Johnson is Dead, is an entirely unique piece of documentary filmmaking, that is by turns funny and absurd as well as moving and bittersweet. You see, Johnson’s way of coping with what is to come involves imagining a series of morbid accidental death scenes involving her father, and bringing them to screen with the help of stunt men and special effects.

The staging of these death scenes provides the basis for the film, and there is a very meta quality to it all, as Richard, a recently retired psychiatrist, playfully goes along with his daughter’s artistic fantasies. But in between these darkly comic death scenes, and the after life fantasy sequences that Johnson films on sound stages, lies an honest meditation on accepting the eventual death of a loved one, especially when that person’s memories are already fading while they are alive.

The project also allows Johnson to reflect on her late mother, Richard’s wife, who succumbed to severe dementia in the final years of her life, and also figured prominently in her previous film Cameraperson. While Johnson’s approach to dealing with her father’s impending demise is unique, to say the least, the story of trying to come to terms with the loss of a loved one is universally relatable. Both morbid and moving, Dick Johnson is Dead is a film that sits on the precipice between darkly comical and deeply emotional, and manages to find a careful balance between the two.

Dick Johnson is Dead is now available to steam exclusively on Netflix.

#5: Leap of Faith: William Friedkin on The Exorcist

Director William Friedkin reflects on the making of his 1973 horror classic The Exorcist. That’s the best logline I can give for Alexandre O. Philippe’s latest documentary, Leap of Faith: William Friedkin on The Exorcist, which was shot over six days at Friedkin’s home, and centres entirely around an absorbing long-form conversation between the two filmmakers. Friedkin not only goes deep into talking about the making of The Exorcist, but also delves into his own faith, his cinematic influences, and the symbolism behind the film. I simply loved listening to Friedkin speak, and Philippe, following up his documentaries on fellow genre favourites Psycho and Alien, once again does a stellar job of working in movie clips and crafting a surprisingly engaging narrative. If the thought of hearing Friedkin reflect on The Exorcist for roughly a hundred minutes appeals to you, then this movie is for you.

Leap of Faith: William Friedkin on The Exorcist is now available to steam exclusively on Shudder.

#4: Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution

“I loved music, I loved life. I wanted to be part of the world, but I didn’t see anyone like me in it.” This quote from co-director and subject James Lebrecht, who was born with spina bifida, comes near the beginning of the wonderful documentary Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution. It perfectly sums up both the importance of the film itself, and also the importance of Camp Jened, the unique summer camp for people with disabilities that it documents. As it turns out, the history behind it is a fascinating one that has gone untold for far too long.

Founded in 1951, Jened was a summer camp in the Catskills that allowed teens and young adults with physical disabilities to have the typical youth experiences that were being denied to them. The camp more infamously turned into a freewheeling retreat when it started being run by pot-smoking hippies in the 1960s and ’70s, and it’s this era that Lebrecht, who was one of the attendees of the program during its heyday, looks back on fondly. The first half of the film finds Lebrecht and other former participants nostalgically reflecting on their experiences there, complimented by some invaluable archival footage that is often striking to witness.

The second half of Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution expands its reach to explore the larger disability rights movement that was born out of it, spearheaded by fellow camper Judith Heumann. Lebrecht co-directs the film with Nicole Newnham, and their approach is empowering and always respectful, capturing a true sense of liberation in its best moments. The result is an invaluable and moving document of the early disability rights movement.

Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution is now available to steam exclusively on Netflix.

#3: Welcome to Chechnya

With LGBTQ individuals being rounded up and detained in Chechnya in an effort to “cleanse” the country of its queer citizens, a group of brave activists have responded by setting up an underground network to help them escape. We follow these efforts in Welcome to Chechnya, a fearless documentary from director David France, who shot the film on the fly and had to make sure the footage was kept secret, to protect the identities of its subjects. The film is also impressive as a technical achievement, seamlessly using Deep Fake technology to alter the faces of its subjects so they won’t be recognizable, while still allowing us to feel a connection to them. The result is an incredibly powerful and vitally important work of documentary filmmaking that, at times, plays out like a real life thriller.

Welcome to Chechnya is now available to watch on a variety of digital platforms.

#2: Boys State

In a year of fraught political tensions, the documentary Boys State, which is about a group of teenage boys taking part in a Texas competition to form a mock government, is one of the non-fiction films that ended up sticking with me the most. Directors Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine offer a compelling vérité portrait of the program, which sees over a thousand kids, broken up into so-called Federalists and Nationalists, learning how to form a representative government, with Governor being the highest office they can seek.

The result is both a crash course in democracy and a fascinating microcosm of the American political system, as the kids learn how to debate policies, run campaigns, and employ attack ads against their opponents. The film mainly focuses on four of the boys, and watching them jockey for power is quite exciting and suspenseful. Yes, the politics may be fake, but there is plenty of real world drama in Boys State. It’s both very interesting and quite entertaining to watch unfold, and I expect to see at least a few of these boys involved in actual politics within the decade.

Boys State is now available to steam exclusively on Apple TV+.

#1: Collective

In 2015, a fire broke out at Collectiv, a night club in Bucharest that didn’t have proper fire escapes. The fire instantly killed 27 people, while injuring another 180, and this regulatory failure led to mass protests and the resignation of Romania’s Social Democratic government. Meanwhile, another 37 burn victims died in hospital from infection over the next four months. This is all revealed within the opening title cards of director Alexander Nanau’s gripping documentary Collective, and the story that follows grows increasingly disturbing.

Nanau, who also shot and edited the film, follows investigative journalist Catalin Tolontan and his team at the sports daily Gazeta Sporturilor as they uncover a massive scandal involving the pharmaceutical company Hexi Pharma. The company’s executives were profiting off of supplying the country’s hospitals with diluted disinfectants that weren’t effective at killing most bacteria, causing the burn victims to die in unsterile environments. The film also follows rookie health minister Vlad Voiculesco, as he tries to get a handle on the crisis, as well as several victims from the fire and their families.

We watch, basically in real time, as the cascading dominoes start to fall as they realize how deep this scandal goes, and the result is a compelling, infuriating work of documentary filmmaking that filled me with a sickening sense of dread. The film is not only about exposing the shocking corruption within the ranks of the Romanian healthcare system, but also about the importance of unbiased investigative journalism and holding all elected officials accountable for their actions. “We have blindly trusted the authorities,” Tolontan says at one point, “myself included, as a journalist. When the press bows down to the authorities, the authorities will mistreat the citizens.”

I finally watched Collective the other night after having it on my watchlist for the last little while, and I’m really glad that I held off on publishing this list until I did. The film instantly shot right to the top of my list. It’s simply stunning, building towards a powerful, heartbreaking final scene, and I’m confident in naming this the best documentary of 2020.

Collective is now available to watch on a variety of digital platforms.

Honourable Mentions: 76 Days, 9/11 Kids, Circus of Books, Disclosure, The Forbidden Reel, Hong Kong Moments, The Mole Agent, No Ordinary Man, There’s No Place Like This Place, Anyplace, They Call Me Dr. Miami.

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