I saw more documentaries in 2018 than any other year I can remember, so I decided to dedicate a post to them and rank my top seven favorites. There are a lot of facets to a good documentary, including an engaging subject, new information and emotional impact, among others. Those highlighted were my favorites, as they had the most resonance and left the biggest impressions. As with my post of all 2018 films I watched, I know some of these had 2017 festival runs but I went by the official US release dates that I could find.
1. Free Solo
From my review: Visually, the movie is absolutely stunning. Filmed with a combination of shots from the ground, summit, drones and cameras mounted into the rocks, it is absolutely exhilarating and you feel as though you are right there with him, risking life and limb for the rush of achieving the impossible. Numerous times, I found myself gripping my armrests, as though somehow that would keep me from falling out of my seat. The cinematography is brilliant, as every shot during the various climbs feels like the opposite of a Bob Ross painting come to life, as you are experiencing the raw beauty of nature from as close and dangerous a position as possible, as opposed to the far away tranquility of his work. I found my eyes drifting away from Alex just so I could appreciate such incredible views of the world that I would otherwise never get to observe. It is truly a spectacle. Marco Beltrami’s score accents the visuals fantastically, giving us the same aural sense of wonder that our eyes are already attempting to process.
2. Three Identical Strangers
From my review: I don’t want to give anything away, because this is the kind of film that needs to be seen. Deep questions of nature vs nurture, mental health, socioeconomic status and more are in play, and you wind up on a search for answers much like the siblings the film portrays. It is in turn extremely happy and shockingly sad, and its a credit to Tim Wardle’s direction that the film plays out the way it does, hooking you and taking your emotions on an unforgettable ride. This is the kind of movie that is bound to produce much discussion, almost like a work of science fiction. But this isn’t the Twilight Zone episode that it appears to be.
…Or is it?
3. Minding the Gap
This is so much more than the documentary about skateboarding that it may appear to be at first glance. It is about family, poverty, struggle, growing up, friendship, love, art, escapism, abuse, mental health, passion and more. It shows remarkable strength and resolve and takes you on a journey that is sure to leave a lasting impression. Filmed over the course of many years, this is an amazingly powerful piece of cinema that may well force you to examine yourself in deep and difficult ways. It is truly a must-see film and as of this writing is currently available on Hulu.
4. Bipolar Rock ‘N’ Roller
It’s no secret that I love professional wrestling more than just about anything, so this inclusion shouldn’t be shocking, as Mauro Ranallo has been a part of that broadcasting world for the past few years. I didn’t know him before wrestling as I don’t watch other combat sports, but he quickly became my favorite voice in the industry and seeing his personal mental health struggle on display like this was absolutely harrowing and floored me. So many people hide inside themselves and enhance the stigma of these types of disorders, and I can’t imagine the bravery it took to allow the camera crews into his life like this, to put his pain on display for the entire world. It is a very emotional story, and one that resonates with infinite strength and hope.
5. Won’t You Be My Neighbor?
From my review: One thing I really liked was how many shots were included of him meeting the children on their level and truly engaging them. TV was still a relatively new medium, but it was already becoming more and more fast paced, treating kids like consumers and slapstick fodder. Fred saw the medium as a tool for education, to teach them about their feelings and about the world around them, and it resonated with multiple generations of Americans. All he wanted was for us to be kind to each other and protect our children. Sadly, maybe he really did live in a land of Make Believe…
6. The King
I never would have imagined one of my favorite documentaries of the year would revolve around Elvis Presley and his role in American culture, but alas, here we are. The concept that Elvis was a microcosm for a changing American landscape and may even be the thread that we can follow backwards from our current time frame and say “this is where it all started” is interesting and intriguing, and seeing the filmmakers (and VAST array of celebrity guests) pull at that thread is totally engrossing. If you’ve ever looked around and wondered “how the hell did we get here,” this may be the film you need to see.
As someone who is extremely passionate about filmmaking, this one resonated with me in a big way, shining a much-deserved spotlight onto a man who made his career in the shadow of Stanley Kubrick, a self-taught jack-of-all-trades named Leon Vitali. He gave up his life to devote every second of it to Stanley’s work, and his impact is such that even devoted Kubrick superfans may not realize how much he was responsible for. Even years after his mentor’s death, Vitali keeps at it, and it is awe-inspiring to see love and devotion to filmmaking on this level. I think it was the aspect of truly having no idea who he was or what he accomplished that left such a mark on me, as compared to something like They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead, which told the capitaving behind-the-scenes tale of legendary director Orson Welles. This is a great movie that, as of this writing, is currently available on Netflix and should be considered must-see for cinephiles and Kubrick fans.
And the others, in no particular order:
The Most Unknown – I really enjoyed the idea of taking scientists from different fields and letting them explore deep questions in small groups and learning a lot from each other. This was a really enjoyable watch.
Andre the Giant – Another one about wrestling, sure, but a great story with some real emotional impact and some great interviews. I will always remember the late stages of Andre’s life and legacy, and I loved being able to see the early stages here.
They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead – Orson Welles never got the comeback story he deserved, and this little gem helps us learn what may have led to that.
Whitney – I was too young to remember the Whitney Houston craze (outside of The Bodyguard), but this was a very well done story of a tragic rise and fall.
Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind – Showing the dark side of fame, drug use and depression is nothing new, but this movie handled it with grace and precision. Robin seemed like a kid at heart, but there are no kid gloves in this story.
McQueen – The world of high fashion certainly isn’t mine, but this still made for an interesting watch, examining the high cost of the unyielding need for perfection and greatness.
The Final Year – This level of access to a sitting US President and such close members of his team was unprecedented and interesting to see, especially given the setting of the final year in an eight year term.
Love, Gilda – Gilda Ratner was one of the greats when it came to sketch comedy. Thankfully, while the ending is still sad, she didn’t succumb to the same fate that seemed to befall so many of the voices in her field.
Struggle: The Life and Lost Art of Szukalski – This was a very cool portrait of an artist I had never heard of, his brilliant work, crazy theories, and devoted following.
RBG – Ruth Bader Ginsberg, pioneer in the fight against gender discrimination, finally gets the big screen treatment she deserves in 2018 with this documentary and a feature film I have yet to see, On the Basis of Sex. Her legacy is of monumental importance.
Student Athlete – The corrupt world of the NCAA is taken to task for how they promise young athletes the world and profit endlessly from those promises. It may even change how you view your sports watching habits.
Dark Money – Corporate money and politics go hand-in-filthy-disgusting-wretched-gross-hand.