The Top 100 Documentaries of the Decade
For those paying attention—and no offence if you haven’t—I have been counting down my top 100 documentaries of the decade. Okay, so it’s technically 110. Shut up, I couldn’t help myself. Check out the list with snap comments for each title on Twitter, or the list is also on Letterboxd. But if you don’t want to make a single click then after the jump you'll get the whole list with chosen highlights and links to full reviews. And just in case you were wondering... number 101? Exit Through the Gift Shop.
Dawson City: Frozen Time (Bill Morrison)
If you were to watch them all from start to finish you would be beginning with Martin Scorsese before taking an international tour through 32 countries from South Sudan to North Korea (with production credits from an additional ten). The shortest film on the list is 39 minutes. The longest is a full five-and-a-half. Subject matter is typically diverse. There are the harsh realities of racism, AIDS, drug abuse, terrorism, child abuse, capitalism and refugees to more light-hearted fare like pop concerts, stand-up comedy, fashion, sushi and even goat testicles. There are eight filmmakers with more than one title. The only one with more than two? The most prolific director, of course, Frederick Wiseman. And speaking of Wiseman, there are multiple nonagenarians!
The number one title was always a foregone conclusion for me. I didn’t even need to think twice from the moment I decided to do the list. The same cannot be said even for numbers two and three, which swapped several times right up until the moment I hit publish.
100 BEST DOCS OF THE DECADE (2010-2019)
* denotes an Oscar nominee ** denotes an Oscar winner
100. George Harrison: Living in the Material World (Martin Scorsese) 99. The Price of Gold (Nanette Burstein) 98. Our People Will Be Healed (Alanis Obomsawin)
A fitting nod to Obomsawin’s sixth decade and a strong showing in the ‘10s with this,We Can't Make the Same Mistake TwiceandThe People of the Kattapiskak River.
97. A River Changes Course (Kalyanee Mam)
96. Stray Dog (Debra Granik)
95. 5B (Paul Haggis, Dan Krauss) andWe Were Here(David Weissman, Bill Weber)
94. Trapped (Dawn Porter) - our first official Doc Corner review!!
93. If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front* (Marshall Curry, Sam Cullman)
92. Last Days in Vietnam* (Rory Kennedy)
91. Aim High in Creation (Anna Broinowski)
90. Mala Mala(Antonio Santini, Dan Sickles) and I Am a Woman Now (Michiel van Erp)
89. Circus of Books (Rachel Mason)
88. Senna (Asif Kapadia)
I have ethical issues withAmyand structural issues withDiego Maradona, but it’s hard to deny the visceral impact of Kapadia’s signature style when applied here to the life of Ayrton Senna.
87. Apollo 11 (Todd Douglas Miller)
86. Oyster Factory – Observational Film #6 (Kazuhiro Sôda)
85. How to Die in Oregon (Peter D. Richarson)
84. Let it Fall: Los Angeles 1982–1992 (John Ridley)
83. Elena (Petra Costa)
82. The Last Time I Saw Macao (João Pedro Rodrigues, João Rui Guerra da Mata)
81. Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami (Sophie Fiennes)
80. No Home Movie (Chantal Akerman) and I Don’t Belong Anywhere: The Cinema of Chantal Akerman (Marianne Lambert)
79. The Proposal (Jill Magid)
78. Catfish (Henry Joost, Ariel Schulman)
77. This is Not a Film (Jafar Panahi, Mojtaba Mirtahmasb)
It’s hard to separate this from the way it came to be (Panahi’s home arrest, being smuggled out of Iran in a cake), but to do so would remove what makes it what it is: a blast of political cinema.
76. The Tall Man (Tony Krawitz)
75. Jiro Dreams of Sushi (David Gelb)
74. Blue (Karina Holden) and Blackfish (Gabriela Cowperthwaite)
73. Let the Fire Burn (Jason Osder)
72. Captivated: The Trials of Pamela Smart (Jeremiah Zagar)
71. Levitated Mass (Doug Pray)
70. Have You Seen the Listers? (Eddie Martin)
69. Peaches Does Herself (Peaches)
68. Bill Cunningham New York (Bill Press)
67. Casting JonBenet (Kitty Green)
66. The Cave* (Feras Fayyad) and Return to Homs(Talal Derki)
The Middle East was arguably the decade’s biggest story for docs, and Syria most prominently. Placing these two side-by-side, a sort of alpha and omega, feels right as works of cinematic time capsules for the country. Add Fayyad’sLast Men in Aleppoand Derki’sOf Fathers and Sons(both 2017) if you want to colour between the lines of the worlds these two films show us.
65. Shirkers (Sandi Tan)
64. 5 Broken Cameras* (Emad Burnat, Guy Dividi)
63. The Russian Woodpecker (Chad Garcia)
62. Bisbee ’17 (Robert Greene)
61. National Gallery (Frederick Wiseman)
60. Tower (Keith Maitland)
59. The Tillman Story (Amir Bar-Lev)
58. The Darkside (Warwick Thornton)
57. Homecoming: A Film by Beyoncé(Beyoncé) and Taylor Swift: Reputation Stadium Tour (Paul Dugdale)
56. Black Mother (Khalik Allah)
A startling sensory remix of image and sound. Watching it feels like watching a film that people in 15 years’ time will claim inspired them, just you watch. A living, breathing memory poem about Jamaica.
55. Into the Inferno (Werner Herzog)
54. Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work (Ricki Stern)
53. Behemoth (Zhao Liang)
52. Bros: After the Screaming Stops (Joe Pearlman, David Soutar)
51. Oklahoma City (Barak Goodman)
50. My Prairie Home (Chelsea McMullen)
49. Utopia (John Pilger)
48. The Oath (Laura Poitras)
47. Nuts! (Penny Lane)
46. Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God (Alex Gibney)
How about thoseTwo Popes, huh? Finds simple yet effective ways to tell the shocking story of deaf children abused by a paedophile Catholic priest. Again, how about thoseTwo Popes, huh?
45. The Interrupters (Steve James) 44. Leviathan (Lucien Castaing-Taylor, Verena Paravel) 43. Yours in Sisterhood (Irene Lustzig) 42. Homeland: Iraq Year Zero (Abbas Fahdel) 41. Searching for Sugarman** (Malik Bendjelloul) 40. In Transit (Albert Maysles, Lynn True, David Usui, Nelson Walker III and Benjamin Wu) 39. Kate Plays Christine (Robert Greene) 38. Dreams of a Life (Carol Morley) and Stories We Tell (Sarah Polley) 37. One More Time with Feeling (Andrew Dominik) 36. Ukraine is Not a Brothel (Kitty Green)
If you give your film a protest slogan for a title, you better back it up. Kitty Green (one of this decades most exciting new non-fiction talents) does.
35. Island of the Hungry Ghosts (Gabrielle Brody) 34. Hit So Hard: The Life and Near Death of Patty Schemel (P. David Ebersole) 33. We Came As Friends (Hubert Sauper) 32. Citizenfour** (Laura Poitras) 31. Restrepo* (Tim Hetherington, Sebastian Junger) 30. At Berkeley (Frederick Wiseman) 29. Dragonslayer (Tristan Patterson) and Minding the Gap* (Bing Lu) 28. American Factory** (Julia Reichert, Steven Bognar) 27. Hale County This Morning, This Evening* (RaMell Ross) 26. Inside Job** (Charles Ferguson)
Began the decade as a horror movie amid a rash of movies about the way America is being fooled by capitalists and destroyed by greed from all sides. At decade’s end it’s almost quaint.
25. Maidan (Sergei Loznitsa) 24. Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory* (Joe Berlinger, Bruce Sinofsky) 23. Pina* (Wim Wenders) 22. Starless Dreams (Merhdad Oskouei) 21. Young Lakota (Marion Lipschutz, Rose Rosenblatt) 20. The Edge of Democracy* (Petra Costa) 19. Heart of a Dog (Laurie Anderson) 18. Out-Takes from the Life of a Happy Man (Jonas Mekas)
As he says in his own narration, here are fragments of a man’s life; just some images for him and his friends. But even what look like off-cuts become wells of memory and life thanks to the icon that is Mekas.
17. Nostalgia for the Light and The Pearl Button (both Patricio Guzmán) 16. Sherpa (Jennifer Peedom) 15. The Distant Barking of Dogs (Simon Lering Wilmont) 14. In Jackson Heights (Frederick Wiseman)
Three hours (and ten minutes!) doesn’t do Jackson Heights justice. But Wiseman, yet again, somehow finds a way to make it all so joyous and as if you experience everything up close and in bold colour.
13. The Square* (Jehane Noujaim) 12. Strong Island* (Yance Ford) 11. Silvered Water, Syria Self-Portrait (Wiam Bedirxan, Ossama Mohammed) 10. How to Survive a Plague* (David France) 9. The Act of Killing* (Joshua Oppenheimer, Christine Cynn, Anonymous) and The Look of Silence* (Joshua Oppenheimer) 8. I Am Not Your Negro* (Raoul Peck) 7. The Event (Sergei Loznitsa) 6. Ex Libris: The New York Public Library (Frederick Wiseman) 5. Dream of a City (Manfred Kirchheimer)
A symphonic relic that was 60 years in the making. Awe-inspiring imagery as a city emerges out of the ground to eventually dwarf the humans who live among it. A true dream.
4. Death in the Terminal (Tali Shemesh, Asaf Sudri) 3. Cameraperson (Kirsten Johnson)
What can—what *should*—non-fiction do? Even with scraps and off-cuts, it can illuminate in ways that fiction almost never can. A bold new type of documentary that muses on their very reality.
2. Dawson City: Frozen Time (Bill Morrison) 1. The Missing Picture* (Rithy Panh)
A procession of haunting (and haunted) images by a director recreating the unfilmed trauma of his childhood. Decaying figurines as the face of an unfaceable national and personal tragedy. A masterpiece.