Best Documentaries 2020
Posted on December 30, 2020 at 10:28 pm
We are living in the golden age of documentaries, each year better than the one before. While print and broadcast media are struggling to keep their audiences, too often by becoming shrill and blurring the line between news and commentary, documentaries are becoming a powerful force for journalism, vivid, revealing, and letting us see and hear the significant participants in the story. Many of them were about politics, some more directly than others. But like nearly all documentaries, they were about people who are passionate and dedicated to what they do, whether it is seeking justice or winning an athletic competition. The best of the year, in alphabetical order:
All In ties current voter suppression policies to the Jim Crow history of keeping the poor and people of color away from the voting booth.
Athlete A, named for the then-anonymous gymnast whose complaint led to the first public disclosure of decades of abuse by Larry Nassar, reveals that the toxic culture of USA Gymnastics was about protecting the brand, not the girls.
Boys State: The American Legion brings high school students together to run mock elections in separate gatherings for boys and girls. This documentary is a microcosm of our political system, as seen by and perpetuated by teenagers.
Crip Camp: As significant and has hard fought and as perpetual as the movements for racial and gender equality, but not nearly as well known is the fight for disability rights. And it turns out in large part it began at a summer camp for disabled teenagers in the 1970s. Archival footage of the camp days and the protests and interviews with the major players are moving and inspiring.
Dear Santa: Director Dana Nachman says she hopes her movies inspire tears, laughter, and chills, and “Dear Santa,” about the USPS staff and volunteers who make sure children’s letters to Santa get answered, has plenty of all three. This film’s message that it’s truly better to give than receive is especially timely, combined with the now-nostalgic images of maskless people crowding together and giving each other hugs.
Dick Johnson is Dead is a fantastical meditation on loss from director/cinematographer Kirsten Johnson as her father struggles (cheerfully) with memory loss.
Feels Good Man A gentle cartoonists finds to his horror that his drawing of a frog has been adopted as a symbol by white supremacists, with a fascinating, terrifying, and very creepy look at the way memes go viral.
The Fight follows lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union as they challenge four Trump administration initiatives that raise issues of inequality: separating families seeking legal immigration, the denial of abortion rights for an undocumented minor in custody, the prohibition of trans people in the military, and the insertion of a question about citizenship in the 2020 census.
Howard is not just the story of the life of the gifted writer/lyricist Howard Ashman (“The Little Mermaid,” “Little Shop of Horrors”), but the story of how stories come together, particularly in one monumental turning point at Disney animation.
John Lewis: Good Trouble is the story of one of the leading figures of the 20th century, the youngest speaker at Dr. Martin Luther King’s March on Washington, the student protester whose skull was broken on the march to Selma, and the US Congressman who was an irrepressible force for good.
Nationtime William Greaves’ restoration of archival footage lets us see many of the luminaries at the 1972 meeting of the National Black Political Convention held in Gary, Indiana. Their stirring speeches are inspiring and illuminating as we consider how much has changed and how much has not.
Rising Phoenix The Paralympics, which take place just after the Olympics in the same location, is about more than who can be the fastest, the strongest, the best. It is about reclaiming the idea of wholeness, for the athletes themselves but, more importantly, for everyone, to show differently abled people as powerful, capable. The athletic feats are stunning. The stories are even moreso.
Slaying the Dragon is about the Republican funders’ decision to focus on getting candidates elected by gerrymandering (though both parties are guilty) following the first election of President Obama and the citizen-led initiatives to overturn it.
The Surge “The Surge” follows three idealistic Democratic women who were inspired by the election of Donald Trump to run for office.
The Way I See It White House photographer Pete Souza proves and exemplifies two perennial adages: If a picture is worth a thousand words, his photographs are as eloquent as a whole library. And if journalism is the first draft of history, Souza not only reminds us of how much of our sense of events is formed by images like his, and in his new documentary, “The Way I See It,” like the photographs he took, reward a deeper look.