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The Best Documentaries of 2022

February 26, 2023

By John Corrado

At the beginning of January, I shared my picks for the best movies of 2022, fully intending to follow it up with my picks for the best non-fiction films of last year soon after. But time kept getting away from me, and I had several docs that I wanted to catch up with first. Now I’ve finally found the time to watch those movies and finish this list, and I’m pretty happy with how things ended up.

It’s also worth noting that four of these ten films (All That Breaths, All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, Fire of Love, Navalny) have been nominated for Best Documentary Feature at the Oscars (the fifth nominee, A House Made of Splinters, is one that I haven’t been able to watch yet, hence its omission from this list). Now it’s time for the main countdown, preceded by a few honourable mentions.

Honourable Mentions: 2nd Chance; Bad Axe; Descendant; Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A SongRetrograde

#10: “Sr.”

The relationship between movie star Robert Downey Jr. and his father Robert Downey Sr., the scrappy, experimental indie filmmaker behind countercultural movies like 1969’s Putney Swope, is explored in this tender film. Shot in black-and-white, this is very much an elegy to Downey Jr.’s dad, who gave him his first onscreen role in his 1970 film Pound. Director Chris Smith (American Movie) gains intimate access to both subjects, and the film allows Downey Jr. to show a different but still recognizable side of himself, as he grapples with his unconventional childhood and pays tribute to his father, who is in the final stages of Parkinson’s. It’s fitting that, for a movie about a filmmaker, “Sr.” also has somewhat of a meta, experimental quality to it, with Downey Sr. filming his own version of the documentary, including alternate takes of different scenes.

#9: Stutz

Directed by Jonah Hill, Stutz is a portrait of the actor’s longtime therapist; a celebrated psychiatrist by the name of Phil Stutz. Turning the camera on himself, Hill’s documentary starts off as somewhat of a filmed therapy session, but becomes so much more than that, with the black-and-white cinematography and sparse, minimalistic set giving it an artful feel. There is also a poignant reason for this filmed document; Stutz has Parkinson’s, and Hill is partially afraid of losing him.

Hill’s film breaks down barriers to offer an intimate conversation between these two men, who are at different life stages, but grappling with some of the same questions around the human condition. The lines between therapist and patient become blurred, as Stutz blossoms into a moving dialogue about topics like fat-shaming, self-acceptance, masculinity, and healing from grief. As much as it could be described as a self-help film, this is first and foremost a lovely portrait of a surprising friendship.

#8: All That Breathes

Named for their late mother’s guiding belief that all living creatures are bound together by the same air, All That Breathes follows Nadeem and Saud, two brothers in India who have turned their basement into a makeshift animal rehab to care for injured Black Kites; birds that are becoming sick and falling out of the sky due to rampant air pollution in New Delhi. Director Shaunak Sen’s patient film unfolds almost like a kitchen sink drama, offering an engaging vérité portrait of the brothers as they meet the daily challenges of running an animal hospital, while also trying to secure funds to open a bigger facility, and dealing with the violent fallout from India’s newly passed citizenship laws. It’s all filmed in a way that feels cinematic, from quietly urgent scenes of them performing surgery on the birds while facing power outages, to sweeping images of the bustling, smog-filled city and poetic, dreamlike interludes.

#7: Good Night Oppy

It might sound strange to say that a film about Mars rovers tugs at the heartstrings, but Good Night Oppy does just that. Following the journey of Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity, who were sent to the Red Planet to look for signs of water and send photographs back to Earth, the film plays with the joy of scientific discovery, as we watch the scientists and engineers use their ingenuity to help the vehicles operate from down here. It’s genuinely heartwarming and bittersweet to see the bonds that they have with these vehicles, who only have a limited lifespan to do their jobs.

There are some wonderful moments involving the “wakeup songs” that they play every morning, and the film becomes surprisingly moving as the rovers reach the end of their journeys and the team talks about what this mission has meant to them on a personal level. Produced by Amblin Entertainment, and brought to the screen with solid visual effects by Industrial Light and Magic, this is a wonderful and endearing documentary that ends on an uplifting and inspirational note.

#6: Wildcat

A traumatized young veteran tries to heal himself by caring for an orphaned baby ocelot in Wildcat, an emotionally raw film that is as much a moving portrait of the bond between humans and animals as it is a gripping look at mental health, and the challenges of trying to help someone who might not be open to it. The film follows Harry Turner, who is battling PTSD from his time in Afghanistan when he starts working in the remote Peruvian rainforest alongside American biologist Samantha Zwicker, assisting her with running an animal rescue facility.

The couple is fostering an orphaned baby ocelot, trying to help the creature learn to hunt and survive on its own. Through raising this wild cat, Harry gains a sense of purpose in his life, but it’s a bond that can’t last, with the goal being to release the animal back into the wild after eighteen months. It would be a mistake to assume that this is a sappy film; it’s not, and the material is often far more challenging than expected, as Harry’s mental health starts to deteriorate on-camera. This is not always an easy film to watch, but Wildcat is much more honest and truthful for not shying away from the darkness, and far more emotionally powerful as a result.

#5: My Old School

Alan Cumming helps tell the stranger-than-fiction tale of Brandon Lee, an odd student who enrolled himself at a Glasgow high school in 1993, in this surprising, wonderfully crafted documentary. Mixing interviews with former classmates and animated re-enactments done in a crude cartoon style, director Jono McLeod recounts this twist-filled, tabloid-worthy true story in a way that allows for maximum entertainment, but he crucially also has sympathy for his subject; as such, My Old School becomes quite moving by the end. Cumming also has his own history with this story; he was supposed to play Brandon in a movie in the 1990s, before aging out of the role. (Review)

#4: Fire of Love

A romance for the ages, retold entirely through archival footage and poetic narration by Miranda July, director Sara Dosa’s Fire of Love is the story of French volcanologists Katia and Maurice Krafft, who bonded over their shared love of researching volcanoes, before dying together in an eruption. Unfolding through the incredible photos and videos they took on their expeditions to remote parts of the world, the film provides an interesting glimpse into their work and research, as well as a stirring portrait of their life together. Their footage lends a mythic quality to Dosa’s film, but it’s the unique bond they shared that provides the beating heart of this beautifully assembled documentary.

#3: Navalny

Director Daniel Roher’s thriller-like documentary Navalny follows Russian opposition leader Alexai Navalny in the aftermath of him being poisoned with the nerve agent Novichok, as he works backwards with journalists to uncover the culprits and pin blame on Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin. Mixing fly-on-the-wall footage of Navalny working to solve his attempted murder from a safe house in Berlin, with the narrative through-line of Roher’s one-on-one interview with the leader, this is a tautly paced film that blends political intrigue and suspense, with the gripping centrepiece being a prank phone call that pays off in surprising ways. It also functions as a stirring portrait of a modern Russia, and the bravery of one man to lead a movement standing up against an authoritarian regime. (Review)

#2: Moonage Daydream

Filmmaker Brett Morgan (Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck) resurrects David Bowie in this thrilling, kaleidoscopic mix of old interviews and musical performances, offering a compelling window into the artist’s mind and guiding philosophies. The archival concert footage is still just as thrilling as it ever was, but almost equally stirring are the excerpts from groundbreaking interviews in which we get to hear Bowie openly talking about his bisexuality and expansive gender expression. It all blends together seamlessly into a powerful, brilliantly edited visual and sonic symphony. (Review)

#1: All the Beauty and the Bloodshed

This remarkable new documentary from filmmaker Laura Poitras (Citizenfour) works on two levels; both as an engaging biography of New York photographer Nan Goldin, and also a gripping look at her activist work holding the Sackler family to account for their role in the opioid crisis, by staging art protests to get their names removed from museum wings displaying her work. In terms of pure documentary filmmaking, All the Beauty and the Bloodshed sort of unfolds like the great American novel; it has thrilling present day footage of Goldin’s art protests, tied in with these flashbacks to the past that help to recontextualize the urgency of her current actions. There is no doubt in my mind that this is the finest documentary of 2022, and an instant classic of the medium. (Review)

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