It was a boom year for nonfiction.
Fiction films tend to take up most of the air in the room when it comes to “best movies of the year” lists. But avid movie lovers know that the greatest innovations and most forward-thinking filmmakers are working in nonfiction, turning our shared realities and individual perspectives into absorbing, enlightening films. And in recent years, there’s been a resurgence of interest in the form.
Great documentaries challenge not just what we think about the world but the way in which we look at it, and force us to think about ourselves in new ways. They ask us to reevaluate the very act of watching a movie, or think about the roles we perform in our daily lives.
So it’s no wonder that so many of this year’s best films were nonfiction. Below I’ve collected 16 of the best documentaries, which explored everything from groundbreaking artists and musicians to democracies and surveillance society to the difficult act of healing from trauma, and a lot more.
China is undergoing a drastic transformation, and across the country, workers are chasing the “Chinese dream” — upward mobility and affluence. Ascension is a riveting portrait of the ladder they’re climbing. Director Jessica Kingdon captures, in an observational style with an engrossing score, the labor that Chinese workers perform, starting with factory work (jeans, patches for jackets, sex dolls) and moving through everything from bodyguard and butler training courses to aspiring social media influencers. Messages of loyalty and responsibility toward country and company mix with individualistic aspirations for personal branding and wealth accumulation. What emerges is a snapshot of a vast population sorting out what it means to live a good life, and trying to live out that vision one way or another.
All Light, Everywhere
We undeniably live in a surveillance society. Cameras are ubiquitous, from body cameras on cops to drone-enabled cameras that capture views from above to the phone cameras we hold in our hands every day. But what do cameras miss? Do they really give us a more objective view of reality? Those are the questions Theo Anthony (Rat Film) tackles in All Light, Everywhere, a sprawling essay film about “blind spots” in the technologies we trust (or don’t trust) to keep us safe and the illusions they too often depend upon. Watching All Light, Everywhere is informative, but more importantly, it’s an experience, and a sobering one.
How to watch it: All Light, Everywhere is streaming on Hulu and available to rent or purchase on digital platforms.
The Beatles: Get Back
In January 1969, the Beatles decided to write and rehearse 14 songs, with the intention of performing them on live TV — in less than three weeks. Things did not exactly go as planned, but a film crew was on hand to document the sessions, and 81 minutes of the resulting footage went into their 1970 film Let It Be. But the other 59 ½ hours has been sitting around till now, as Peter Jackson culled it down to an eight-hour, three-episode documentary that culminates in the band’s famous rooftop performance. It’s a fascinating watch for aficionados and casual fans alike — the consummate hangout film that will give you an appreciation for the band’s work and a new perspective on their working dynamic.
How to watch it: The Beatles: Get Back is streaming on Disney+.
Cusp is a little staggering and incredibly beautiful. It centers on three teen girls in a Texas military town and one summer in their lives, but it’s not a joyride. Directors Isabel Bethencourt and Parker Hill only gradually reveal their subject: the pervasiveness of sexual assault in not just the girls’ lives, but also in the lives of their entire age cohort. They talk obliquely about the older men — often friends of their parents — who molested them when they were children. They discuss rape with painful familiarity. It’s to Cusp’s credit that there’s still a sense of magic and possibility throughout the film, as if the girls have some hope for their futures. But Cusp makes it clear that sexual assault is a problem of culture, not of individuals — and that the fault lies with generations that don’t take action to change it.
How to watch it: Cusp is streaming on Showtime Anytime.
The Viewing Booth
Israeli director Ra’anan Alexandrowicz has focused his past films on questions about Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories, but in The Viewing Booth, he confronts the act of viewing itself. Alexandrowicz set up a lab-like room in which he invited American students interested in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to view videos uploaded by activists and verbalize their thoughts. He centers the film on the reactions of one young woman, Maia Levy, whose views of videos originating in the West Bank city of Hebron stand in opposition to Alexandrowicz’s.
Through their conversations, the ways our preconceived ideas shape and dictate the way we view the same images are explored and exposed. The Viewing Booth forces the audience into confrontation with their viewing biases and probes not just how people think about a conflict in the Middle East, but the limits of nonfiction films regarding their ability to persuade and explore reality as it is — and whether such a thing is even possible.
How to watch it: The Viewing Booth is available via a 48-hour digital rental on the film’s website.