While 2017 was an excellent year for the cinema, with box office hits like Dunkirk, Get Out, Wonder Woman, Baby Driver, and Star Wars: The Last Jedi, there were some incredible documentaries released at the same time. We decided to give our readers a closer look at what we feel were the best documentary films of the year.
Kedi follows the daily lives and interactions of seven Turkish street cats—Sari, Bengü, Psikopat, Deniz, Aslan Parçasi, Duman, and Gamsiz. It might sound a little strange, but this documentary, aside from being superbly shot, is also an intimate look at the people and places of Istanbul from an angle we’d never considered. Not only do viewers become enthralled by the way these animals live, but we also learn to love the people who love them—who care enough to give them back rubs, leave food out for them, give them water, and even pay vet bills when necessary.
Dawson City: Frozen Time
Dawson City was a big Klondike Gold Rush Town in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. More importantly, at least in the context of this fascinating documentary, it was also the end of a film distribution line. After a film made it to Dawson City, it was tossed out forever—or so people thought, until a construction company in the 1970’s stumbled upon more than 530 of these old silent films, buried deep under what was once a hockey rink. The story of how these films, once thought to be lost forever, were saved and salvaged, coupled with clips from the films themselves, all packaged together by a subtext of the movie business in relation to America’s history of Manifest Destiny, is something truly worth every bit of your time. This is also our second recommendation for this movie, so make sure you take it this time. Film Struck
Undoubtedly the most controversial title on this list, Trophy explores the relationship between big game hunting and wildlife conservation. Now, we’re not huge big game hunting advocates, but, regardless of where you stand on the matter, big game hunting is more complicated than social media would have you believe. Trophy goes through the hazards of poaching, the dwindling African wildlife population, as well as the people who pay massive sums of money to legally hunt them, the gaming and conservation organizations who regulate the hunting, and the people who protest it. You get a look at every side of the discussion in a way that’s pragmatic and objective. We can’t say it changed our minds about big game hunting, but it at least showed us that demanding a dentist forfeit his practice is an overreaction.
The LA Riots of 1992 were one of the scariest times in American history, and took place in an era where much of the country believed such hate, violence, and racism were things of the past. But LA 92 is so much more than a documentary about the riots; it’s a definitive look into the events leading up to the riots, the trial of the four officers who were caught on tape beating Rodney King, and the week-long civil upheaval and terrifying aftermath. The film uses rarely seen and heard video and audio recordings of the events, coupled together with a music score that gives the movie an incredible amount of power. Of course, you couldn’t expect anything less from directors Dan Lindsay and T.J. Martin (Undefeated), along with Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans.
I Called Him Morgan
I Called Him Morgan chronicles the February 1972 shooting of up-and-coming jazz musician Lee Morgan by his wife Helen after a gig at a New York City jazz club. While that sounds like it might have some kind of dubious true crime type of plot, we promise it’s not. In I Called Him Morgan, viewers have a front row seat to a collection of interviews from friends, family, and even Morgan’s killer herself, who all recall the context of what was, believe it or not, an exceptional and beautiful relationship between two imperfect people. In fact, cheesy as it sounds, the documentary plays a lot like a good jazz song—it finds a way to make heart ache and tragedy look beautiful, human, and intimate. Netflix
Ex Libris: The New York Public Library
You probably don’t think your local library is anything more than a glorified museum, filled to the brim with things people don’t use anymore. You’d be wrong, of course, and that’s exactly the premise legendary director and documentarian Frederick Wisemen builds on in Ex Libris: The New York Public Library. The film explores the deep and colorful programming available at the library, how the library benefits millions in New York City every year, and the awesome people who keep things moving swiftly across its 92 branches. While Ex Libris: The New York Library is a films specific to the New York Public Library, in a larger context, it shapes a very honest portrait of what all public libraries still mean to the fabric of American culture.
Artists from all over the Flower Power era cite LSD as the inspiration for their work, and for many, the hippie and beatnik generations simply wouldn’t have been the same without it. But LSD, its origins, and its spread across America weren’t as innocent and fun as Woodstock would have you believe, and that’s what Wormwood tackle. The CIA first started experimenting with the drug in the pre-Flower Power days, and Wormwood takes viewers on a real-life ride through how our government experimented heavily with the drug, and just how far they were willing to cover up their mistakes when things started going south. What makes this documentary exceptional is that its director, Errol Morris, drives the documentary forward by combining documentary-style dialogue with fictional re-enactments to create a surreal, new form of storytelling we haven’t seen before. Netflix
The human mind can be both a beautiful and terrible place, and The Work tells the story of what happens when those two pieces of yin and yang come together to create a living breathing human being. The documentary steps into the infamous Folsom State Prison to give viewers a first-ever bird’s eye view of one of the prison’s longest-running experimental group therapy sessions, where for four days, convicted felons—some of the worst at the prison—are allowed to connect hands-on with people from the outside, in order to find ways over, around, and through some of their issues. It’s intense, captivating, and paints a very interesting portrait about men, our mental health, and the kinds of things we keep bottled up inside.
Long Strange Trip
The Grateful Dead is largely considered one of the most influential rock and roll bands in American history. Over the span of four long and wonderful hours, Long Strange Trip explores everything about them, from Jerry Garcia’s origins as a regular kid just looking for some other dudes to play some bluegrass with, to the LSD acid tests of the ‘60s, all the way up on through their emergence as a worldwide, record-shattering tour de force. It compiles rare archival footage of the band in their younger days, along with interviews from band members, family, and friends like Phil Lesh, Bill Kreutzmann, Mickey Hart, Bob Weir and a bunch of others. Even if you aren’t a fan of The Dead and couldn’t give less of a shit about the hippie movement, Long Strange Trip is an incredible and beautiful film—just ask its executive director, Martin Scorsese. Netflix
Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond
When Jim Carrey was cast to play famous comedian and prankster Andy Kaufman in the 1999 film Man on the Moon, no one really understood how much the role meant to Carrey, or how far he was willing to go to reinvent himself as his idol. Jim & Andy is an incredible documentary about Carrey’s time as Kaufman, and how sometimes, in order to play the part of someone we aren’t, we have to willingly give up every sense of who we are. The film uses roughly 100 hours of behind the scenes footage on the set of Man on the Moon to retell the story of how intense Carrey’s method acting was, while Carrey himself provides reflections and insight into what was going on inside his head. It’s superb. Netflix
One of Us
The world was left in shock after the 2006 release of Heidi Ewing’s and Rachel Grady’s Jesus Camp blew the lid off of crazy evangelist Christians, and they returned in 2017 with One of Us, this time turning their sites on another prevalent but guarded religious ideologies—Hasidic Jews. The film offers viewers incredible access to an otherwise shrouded group of people, compiling over three years of footage to tell the stories of three individuals who made the decision to leave the ultra-orthodox Jewish community at the risk of losing their family, friends, and their lives. Let us warn you, though: It’s not pretty. It’s an intense story about people who seek freedom in the land of the free—and the price they pay for doing so. Netflix