As this year winds down we’ve recapped its highlights to bring you the best of 2016 in fashion, sneakers, music, movies and more.
Somehow, since the invention of cinema, it seems as though documentaries have been relegated to the bottom of the film industry’s cultural hierarchy, coming to be seen as nothing more than glammed-up, long-winded TV. That said, as long as movies have been on this earth, a good smattering of them have had the nerve to be about stuff that actually happened in the real world; and at that – we are stoked.
They aren’t all good, to be sure, but the best of them are seductive pieces of art that fill a vacant space, often shifting public perceptions in ways we never thought possible (would people really be pushing for the elimination of orcas in captivity had there been no Blackfish?).
Documentaries have fought hard to expand both their horizons and their audiences. Today, we’ll happily binge-watch Netflix’s serialized O.J.: Made in America in one sitting, or immerse ourselves in Leo DiCaprio’s environmental passion project, Before the Flood, which has now become one of the most watched documentaries in history.
So, here’s to celebrating the far-reaching documentary genre – and here are 10 of our favorite 2016 films appearing in the land of the real…
Directors: Josh Kriegman, Elyse Steinberg
“This is the worst… Doing a documentary on my scandal,” are perhaps the words that best sum up Weiner, a political defamation played out in slow motion for the big screen. The film follows former U.S. Representative Anthony Weiner’s catastrophic race for Mayor of New York City in 2013. The aptly-named protagonist became embroiled in his second widely publicized sexting scandal during the race, jeopardizing his once-promising political career.
Like the voters in NYC, Weiner viewers ultimately must decide for themselves whether his actions were anyone’s business but him and his wife Huma Abedin’s. We’re also asked whether the media has become desperately addicted to scandals, celebritization and surface values at the expense of serious policy discussions.
Director: Ava DuVernay
13TH takes its title from the 13th amendment, which outlawed slavery but left a loophole that allowed involuntary servitude to be used as a punishment for crime and was exploited immediately in the aftermath of the civil war. In her film, Selma director DuVernay argues that this continues to be abused to this day.
Leaning on eloquent interviews and well-sourced archive material, she studies the abolition of slavery, through the chain gang labor that replaced it, through segregation and “the mythology of black criminality,” to the war on crime and the war on drugs, to the rise in mass incarceration and the big business of prisons.
There’s an understandable anger to the flick, but DuVernay never allows it to cloud the clarity of her message. It will certainly be interesting to see how the Academy’s documentary branch responds to this film.
Before the Flood
Director: Fisher Stevens
Usually, it’s annoying when celebs tell us how we should be living; it’s fine for Gwyneth Paltrow to “practice gratitude daily” while nanny looks after the kids and nutritionist prepares her zucchini slithers, but what about the rest of us? Leonardo DiCaprio’s Before the Flood, however, is a decent, educational documentary about the most important issue of our time – climate change.
Leo’s own interest began with a meeting with Al Gore in 2000 and has been a genuine passion for him since. He concedes that his own celebrity status is a double-edged sword; drawing attention to the topic, but also letting the cynics say that he is a shallow, condescending movie star and this whole issue must therefore be a fad. Anyone who has been conscious this side of the 21st century, however, understands that opposition to climate change stems from politics, not science. This is most certainly the doc to prove it.
One More Time with Feeling
Director: Andrew Dominik
One year after his teenage son’s death, Nick Cave returns with an album and film that ditches hyper-literate narratives and instead grapples with an appalling family tragedy. The forensic facts are that in July last year, 15-year-old Arthur Cave fell from a cliff in Brighton, England, having taken LSD for the first time with a school friend.
One More Time with Feeling is a reflective narrative of the Prince of Darkness’ grieving process and a raw study of existence. Cave was in the process of writing and recording a new album with his band The Bad Seeds when the accident happened. Unable to contemplate facing the media, he invited his friend, the brilliant Aussie filmmaker Andrew Dominik to document the recording sessions, in which he talks about “changing from a known person, to an unknown person” after such loss.
Head to the film’s site to find screening times.
Director: Sonia Kennebeck
“When I first got into the military I thought it was a force for good in the world,” Kennebeck’s documentary begins, “I thought I was going to be on the right side of history. And today, I don’t believe I was.” Using the testimony of three courageous whistleblowers who worked on the U.S. drone programme, this documentary uncovers some disturbing truths about modern American warfare.
National Bird also offers the rare perspective of female veterans, whose first job was to kill, and who are struggling to continue living with this haunting experience. Plagued by guilt, their stories take dramatic turns, leading one of the protagonists to Afghanistan where she speaks about a particularly horrendous incident. Kennebeck may be a newcomer to feature filmmaking, but her presentation of the material is near perfect.
Head to the film’s site to find screening times.
O.J.: Made in America
Director: Ezra Edelman
This serialized documentary examines Simpson’s 1995 trial for the killings of his ex-wife and Ron Goldman through the lens of the history of race relations in Los Angeles. It doesn’t really bring anything new to the table; many of these things have been said before elsewhere, for those who cared to look for them. But for the first time, Edelman archives everything in one place. And by putting certain people through the wringer, he constructs a more damning case against Simpson than the prosecution ever did.
From beginning to end, the documentary is a first-class portrait of the most divisive of icons, contrasting his rise and fall with an eventful period of American history. Ultimately, it’s a sad and troubling glimpse into a part of American life and culture that, to this day, remains as relevant as ever.
Director: Keith Maitland
Documentarian Keith Maitland’s ambitious entwining of creepy archival footage, first-person testimonies, and rotoscope animation may make some Austin natives a little uncomfortable as it depicts the mother of all mass-shootings: Charles Whitman’s 1966 random killing of 16 people from his perch atop the University of Texas Tower.
Maitland crafts an interesting account of the circumstances surrounding the massacre for others to dissect, building surreal feelings as a normal Texas day turns into a waking nightmare. As far as documentary films go, Tower is about as intense as it gets. It’s also insanely detailed and delivered with great care; we’re thinking Academy Award nomination for best documentary.
Head to the film’s site to find screening times.
Into the Inferno
Director: Werner Herzog
Herzog’s obsession with volcanoes began in 1977, when he traveled to La Grande Soufrière in Guadeloupe. Scientists said it would blow imminently (it didn’t) and Herzog came back with a film about it. Later, in Encounters At The End Of The World, he stood on Antarctica’s Erebus as it vomited boiling rock above him. There he met volcanologist Clive Oppenheimer, whose writings inspired this documentary diamond.
The pair visited six volcanoes around the world, collecting footage of the geographical formations and – perhaps more interestingly – the societies and beliefs that have formed around them. Into the Inferno shows us cannibal tribes in Indonesia and how the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea has incorporated the ancient legends of Korea’s volcanoes into the state’s propaganda. And the fact that Herzog’s narrative voice is beautiful enough to hypnotize crocodiles is just a bonus.
Audrie & Daisy
Directors: Jon Shenk, Bonni Cohen
Teenage rape documentary Audrie & Daisy looks at the aftermath for family, friends and communities when two young women find out that the crimes against them have been caught on tape. Having made its world premiere at this year’s Sundance, it takes a close (and pretty uncomfortable) look at America’s teenagers when it comes to drinking, pressure from porn and social media popularity.
The filmmakers make conventional use of talking heads which – although quite uncreative – totally works; the families and friends of both girls make for affecting subjects and speak from the heart. Best of all, though, is both the town’s local sheriff and mayor voicing sexist, massively troubling sentiments about consent, right before the camera. It’s enraging and entirely necessary viewing.
Director: Johan Grimonprez
Based on the book of the same name, this feature-length documentary – having had its world premiere at Tribeca this year – reveals the shocking reality and corruption behind the global weapons trade. Dissecting the so-called “shadow world” of government ties and large-scale arms buys, this is a doco made to blow the roof off some pretty controversial topics.
As you’d expect, it’s also scathing and eye-opening. What’s most exciting about it, however, is the fact that it doesn’t ask us to embrace our sentimental side. Instead, it pulls together a convincing case for political engagement. “Corruption is not a dirty little side effect of the arms trade,” Grimonprez says, “but in fact its defining factor.”
If you’re more into fiction, check out the 10 best movies of 2016.
- Lead Image: Vince Bucci / AFP / Getty Images