The good news for documentary fans? Nonfiction storytelling was hugely popular in 2020. The bad news? The documentaries that soaked up most of the public’s attention tended to be TV series like Tiger King and The Vow, which brought the sprawl and sensationalism of podcasts to the small screen. Those kinds of docs can certainly be enlightening and entertaining, but they aren’t really representative of the artform at its best.
The movies below deal with some of the same kinds of grabby subjects as the new wave of podcast-esque TV: scandals, politics, addiction, sex and death. But the filmmakers behind them have honed their stories finely, finding just the right images and characters to say something artful and relevant about our world. Here are some of the highlights from an excellent year for documentaries.
10. City Hall
Each new Frederick Wiseman film is a major event for documentary devotees, given that he’s both the godfather and the master of the “fly on the wall” observational style, watching life unfold as it happens. City Hall was especially pertinent in this year of all years, when ordinary citizens became more attuned to the intricacies of civic governance. Wiseman’s latest follows the daily business of the Boston mayor’s office, where appointed and elected civil servants interact with their constituents, dealing with issues as mundane as holiday celebrations and as important as safety and justice. These days, “the government” is too often dismissed as ineffectual or malignant, but over the course of its four-plus hours, City Hall shows how the day-to-day process of running a municipality is difficult but essential work.
City Hall is streaming through virtual theater programs nationwide.
Here’s another excellent film about what it takes to run a city. Director David Osit shadows Musa Hadid, the mayor of Ramallah, one of Palestine’s political and cultural centers, where an uneasy relationship with neighboring Israel is an inextricable part of the citizens’ daily lives. Mayor covers the strife in the West Bank, but it’s just as much about Hadid managing seemingly insignificant problems like Ramallah’s tourism campaign slogan, or its public beautification projects. The subtle, poignant message of Osit’s film is that mayors everywhere should have the luxury of being more concerned with what to name a fountain than with how to prevent explosions and gunfights.
Mayor is streaming through virtual theater programs through January 30.
8. I Am Greta
The prospect of watching a film about impassioned, super-serious teenage environmental activist Greta Thunberg may strike some potential viewers as a little too much like homework. But while Nathan Grossman’s I Am Greta doesn’t ignore Thunberg’s urgent climate-change message or the controversies surrounding her cause, this tense, moving movie is really more of a behind-the-scenes look at how a one-of-a-kind youngster handles her followers’ adulation and the empty promises of world leaders, all while managing an autistic spectrum disorder that sometimes manifests as crippling social anxiety.
I Am Greta is streaming on Hulu.
7. Mucho Mucho Amor: The Legend of Walter Mercado
Before the flashily attired TV astrologer Walter Mercado died last year, filmmakers Alex Fumero, Cristina Costantini, and Kareem Tabsch coaxed the reclusive entertainer into talking at length about his nearly 40-year career in Spanish-language media. Between the 1970s and 2010, Mercado became a beloved fixture in millions of homes, even though (or perhaps because) his flamboyant style marked him as possibly gay. Mucho Mucho Amor never definitively answers the questions many Mercado fans have long had about his personal life, but it does explain the significance of having an unapologetic nonconformist establish such an enduring presence on people’s televisions.
Mucho Mucho Amor is streaming on Netflix.
6. The Go-Go’s
This was an excellent year for documentaries about music and musicians, and this slot could’ve easily been filled by Frank Marshall’s The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend a Broken Heart, Julien Temple’s Crock of Gold: A Few Rounds with Shane MacGowan, or Alex Winter’s Zappa. But Alison Ellwood’s The Go-Go’s belongs here, for multiple reasons. Ellwood is a pro at telling these kinds of behind-the-music stories. She’s already been acclaimed for her 2013 movie History of the Eagles, and for this year’s excellent Laurel Canyon docu-series. Here, her in-depth look at a phenomenal but short-lived ’80s L.A. pop-punk band deals frankly and engagingly with the substance abuse and industry sexism these women had to overcome to make — however briefly — some of the catchiest music of their era.
5. You Don’t Nomi
Remember Showgirls? That kitschy 1995 erotic melodrama, lambasted in its day as one of the worst movies ever made? In Jeffrey McHale’s documentary You Don’t Nomi, some cinephiles who deeply love the picture — and a few who still think it sucks — kick around the behind-the-scenes gossip and analyze the particulars of what accomplished filmmaker Paul Verhoeven brought to this very strange project. Watching this film is like getting the best of Showgirls without suffering any of its more grating elements. And while You Don’t Nomi may not change naysayers’ minds, it’ll provoke some fun conversations about what makes a motion picture “good.”
A sort of documentary procedural, Collective follows two parallel stories in Romania: a band of crusading journalists trying to get to the bottom of the rampant mismanagement of state hospitals, and a well-meaning bureaucrat attempting to instigate real institutional change in the healthcare system. Both stories are equal parts gripping and despairing, exposing how even loud demands for reform can be silenced by wealthy crooks who have a vested interest in confusing the public.
3. Welcome to Chechnya
The journalist and filmmaker David France makes amazing use of digital effects in his intense documentary Welcome to Chechnya, employing a cutting-edge visual trick to replace the faces of subjects who prefer to remain anonymous with the faces of actors willing to be their “masks.” The gimmick is necessary, because this movie follows LGBTQ+ citizens who’ve been hounded and threatened by the authorities in Russia’s Chechen Republic. This film partly covers the efforts to help those activists escape, but it’s more about the ridiculous hoops some people have to jump through just to find a way to be themselves.
Welcome to Chechnya is streaming on HBO Max.
2. Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets
There’s some disagreement about whether Bill and Turner Ross’ latest film is a documentary at all, given that nearly everything in it has been staged. The brothers brought together a disparate group of actors and barflies — most of whom had never met before — and asked them to pretend they were longtime acquaintances having one last drunken night at their favorite Las Vegas bar, before it closed for good. But while the scenario is fictional, the alcohol is real and the dialogue is unscripted. What the Rosses end up capturing, beautifully and skillfully, is the offhanded wit and boozy honesty of the right dive on the right night.
1. Dick Johnson Is Dead
It may sound strange to describe a movie about a woman’s dying dad as a crowd-pleaser, but that’s exactly what Dick Johnson Is Dead is. When filmmaker Kirsten Johnson realized her charming, kindly father was rapidly weakening, both physically and mentally, she asked him to live with her so they could spend as much time as possible together, sharing memories and contemplating his mortality. They also had fun staging and filming elaborate death scenarios, as a way of demystifying the process of saying goodbye. The emotional punch of this documentary’s ending — and especially its final line and shot — hits hard. But when the convulsive sobbing subsides, what remains is a lovely and profound film about family, aging, and the too-brief time we all get to be a human.
Dick Johnson is Dead is streaming on Netflix.