Between social media and gossip sites, it certainly feels like we know everything we need to know about the rich and famous. And yet in 2022’s crop of outstanding documentaries, one dominant theme was celebrity intimacy. People who spend a lot of time in the public eye often lose control of their own story, as the press and the public push them into soap opera narratives filled with romances, betrayals, heroism, and villainy. In film after film in 2022, the celebs pushed back, taking us deep inside their mental-health issues and family traumas, and explaining how hard it is to make fans and critics happy all the time.
It’s possible to make a “10 best 2022 documentaries” list just from those movies: Jennifer Lopez: Halftime (about the stress of putting together a Super Bowl show), Louis Armstrong’s Black & Blues (which tells a jazz hero’s story via his private archives), Lucy and Desi (a look back at one of TV’s most volatile couples), Nothing Compares (tracking the rise and fall of Sinéad O’Connor), The Return of Tanya Tucker (about a country-music legend reluctantly getting back to basics), Selena Gomez: My Mind & Me (a harrowing glimpse at a superstar’s performance anxieties), Spring Awakening: Those You’ve Known (in which the now-famous stars of a Broadway smash reflect on their youth), Stutz (in which Jonah Hill celebrates both his therapist and his own therapy), Sr. (Robert Downey Jr.’s simultaneous salute to his filmmaker father and lament for the drug-fueled lifestyle they once both led), and Tony Hawk: Until the Wheels Fall Off (a study of athletic obsession).
As it happens, those all fell just short of the final cut on our list. But their spirit is represented by some of the list-makers below. More importantly, all these films (including the ones above) show how great documentary storytellers find original and illuminating angles on material we think we already know. Whether it’s celebrities, gun violence, systemic racism, addiction, or love, these movies made common problems feel new.
10. The Princess
The British royal family was in the news a lot in 2022, perhaps as much as they’ve been since the very public rise and fall of the romance between the current King Charles III and his late ex-wife, Diana Spencer. Ed Perkins’ surprisingly intense The Princess tells Diana’s story from her first introduction to the public as a bride-to-be to her later embrace of philanthropy and social activism — and then her eventual death while trying to flee relentless paparazzi. Using only news clips and home-movie footage, Perkins emphasizes the pressures of fame, evident in the constant questions and camera-clicks Diana faced. It’s a cautionary tale about what happens when the press and the public turn a real person into a fantasy character.
The Princess is streaming on HBO Max.
9. All the Beauty and the Bloodshed
Photographer Nan Goldin rose to prominence in the New York art world by documenting the communities she lived in throughout the ’70s and ’80s: the queer folks, the punks, the sex workers, and the political radicals. Laura Poitras’ documentary All the Beauty and the Bloodshed is partly about how Goldin’s creative journey was shaped by living among misfits, artists who built their own scenes, then kept them going through the ravages of AIDS and drug addiction. But the movie is also about the stir the artist has caused as an activist by demanding that museums cut ties with the Sacklers, a well-heeled art patron family that made a lot of its fortune thanks to the opioid epidemic. Poitras insightfully connects these pieces of Goldin’s life, showing how grassroots organizing and radical honesty drive her.
All the Beauty and the Bloodshed is currently playing in limited theatrical release.
8. Is That Black Enough for You?!?
This thrilling fusion of cultural history and impassioned personal essay is the work of Elvis Mitchell, a veteran film critic who uses the heyday of 1970s blaxploitation movies like Super Fly and Foxy Brown as a way to dig deeply into the complicated history of Black representation in American cinema. Throughout Is That Black Enough for You?!?, clips from smash-hit action pictures like Shaft alternate with scenes from long-forgotten oddities, all interspersed with commentary by Black showbiz legends like Whoopi Goldberg and Samuel L. Jackson. But the main voice and perspective here belongs to Mitchell, whose vast cinema knowledge and experience allows him to find the larger meaning in even the smallest moments.
Is That Black Enough for You?!? is streaming on Netflix.
7. The Janes
The most obvious selling point for Tia Lessin and Emma Pildes’ thoughtful look back at abortion-rights history is that it’s suddenly relevant, given the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn its previous Roe v. Wade decision. But treating the film like homework would do a disservice to The Janes, which is less about abortion per se than it is about how feminism blossomed in the 1960s, thanks to underground networks that tried to elevate the secrets ladies whispered to each other and make them common knowledge. The surviving members of the clandestine Chicago health care organization JANE tell stories not just about connecting desperate women with helpful doctors, but about how they let those sisters know they weren’t alone.
The Janes is streaming on HBO Max.
6. 2nd Chance
Too many true-crime docs lately just play up the sordid details of sex, violence, and chicanery. And too many are split up into multiple parts in order to fill up programming hours on cable and streaming services. Ramin Bahrani’s strange, surprising 2nd Chance runs a refreshingly zippy 89 minutes, and though its story is full of death and conspiracies, it’s more of a pointed character sketch about a colorful bulletproof vest magnate who sold himself as a friend to law enforcement and the military while his company was putting lives at stake by cutting corners. Though often funny and gripping, this film is really about how we define “criminal,” and about the people we as a society — rightly or wrongly — consider worth saving.
2nd Chance is currently playing in limited theatrical release; it will be streaming in 2023 (date TBA) on Showtime Anytime.
5. Fire of Love
When French volcanologists Katia and Maurice Krafft died on the job in 1991, they left behind a voluminous archive of notes, tapes, and photographs, which collectively offered insight into the decades they spent risking their lives to understand one of nature’s most dangerous phenomenons. But the Kraffts’ real legacy was their film and video footage, which captures eye-popping images of smoke and lava, dwarfing their fragile human figures. Sara Dosa’s Fire of Love sets those pictures — full of searing color and eerie landscapes, all abstract and alien — to a haunting score by Air’s Nicolas Godin and narration by Miranda July, turning this couple’s romantic adventures into something grandly cinematic.
Fire of Love is streaming on Disney Plus.
4. We Met in Virtual Reality
A welcome counterpoint to alarmist takes about alienation and extremism in the social media age, Joe Hunting’s lively animated documentary We Met in Virtual Reality considers the ways that interacting online has been beneficial to people with physical, neurological, psychological, or logistical limitations. Recorded entirely within the online community VRChat, the movie celebrates the real relationships that have developed within virtual spaces, hailing the creativity and bonhomie that has led users to build so many eye-catching gathering spaces populated by sexy and/or whimsically goofy human-animal hybrids.
Director Margaret Brown is best known for her nuanced nonfiction films about Southern culture, like her outstanding 2008 documentary The Order of Myths. For Descendant, Brown brought her cameras to a coastal Alabama community, where historians and amateur treasure-hunters were looking for an infamous shipwreck. In 2019, the discovery of the Clotilda — the last known slave transport vessel to reach American shores, arriving in the mid-19th century — sparked a lot of interest and conversation internationally. But for this film, what matters is that all the attention gave the Black Alabamans of “Africatown” a chance to reflect on how their ancestors’ stories have largely been erased from the historical record, leaving only folklore and anecdotes as the way the community preserves its truths.
Descendant is streaming on Netflix.
2. Riotsville, USA
In the late 1960s, civil unrest across America led to a national debate about possible solutions, and to two major initiatives — both covered in Sierra Pettengill’s remarkable and revelatory Riotsville USA. In one corner, a bipartisan commission studied the riots’ root causes, and found that the best way to reduce crime and violence would be to improve education, introduce job programs, and acknowledge institutional racism. In another corner, a coalition of military and law enforcement leaders constructed fake city blocks in the middle of nowhere and used them to train soldiers and officers to crack the skulls of hippies and ethnic minorities. Assembled almost entirely from archival film and TV clips, Pettengill’s film is set more than 50 years ago, but feels like it’s about the 2020s.
1. Moonage Daydream
Don’t come to Brett Morgen’s sprawling, sensational cinematic experience Moonage Daydream expecting to learn the basic facts about the late pop star and experimental artist David Bowie. With the immense help of the Bowie estate — which gave the director access to a vast archive of audio and video — Morgen has produced a kaleidoscopic 140-minute movie, blending old film clips and cranked-up rock music into a dizzying swirl of sound and vision. The film frames its subject’s frequent metamorphoses as a performer and a public figure as the work of a brilliant actor, disappearing into the role of an eccentric celebrity as a way of entertaining his fans while keeping his real life and self partially shielded from view.