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The best documentaries of 2023

And where to stream them or catch them in theaters

An image from the animated documentary Aurora’s Sunrise, picturing historical figure Aurora Mardiganian in a white flowing gown and flower crown, holding up a smiling sun mask and looking over her shoulder
Aurora’s Sunrise
Image: POV/American Documentary

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One of 2023’s biggest cinema trends was the way accomplished filmmakers like Martin Scorsese, Greta Gerwig, Wes Anderson, Christopher Nolan, and many more delivered some of the most creatively and commercially successful work of their careers. There was just something in the air this year, as one major artist after another took big swings that connected.

The same was true in the world of nonfiction film. Half of the movies on this list were directed by filmmakers already responsible for some of the best documentaries of this era: reliable old hands like Frederick Wiseman, Errol Morris, Matthew Heineman, Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss… and again, Martin Scorsese. Perhaps there’s a greater sense of urgency as the planet veers from crisis to crisis. Our best cinematic artists don’t have time to make anything too frivolous.

Some venerable documentarians just missed the cut for this list, like Hoop Dreams director Steve James, whose film A Compassionate Spy (streaming on Hulu, about the long aftermath of the Manhattan Project) would make a fine companion piece both to Nolan’s Oppenheimer and Morris’ The Pigeon Tunnel. See also: Wham! (streaming on Netflix), the excellent doc about ’80s pop heroes George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley from Chris Smith, the great director behind American Movie, Fyre, and Tiger King.

As is the case most years, many of 2023’s best documentaries were about visual artists and musicians. But even the movies here not specifically about art are still about how humans try to order and understand their world — and themselves.

10. The Pigeon Tunnel

Where to watch: Apple TV Plus

Writer David Cornwell, known to the public by his pen name, John le Carré, died in 2020. But in the last years of his life, he consented to be interviewed at length by Errol Morris, the renowned documentarian famous for his ability to keep his subjects talking until they revealed hidden truths. Given that Cornwell worked for the British intelligence agencies MI5 and MI6 — and wrote bestselling spy novels — Morris had his work cut out for him. But as The Pigeon Tunnel goes through the details of Cornwell’s life, the film poignantly captures an old man’s regrets at the broken international order his generation helped create.

9. American Symphony

Where to watch: Netflix

Director Matthew Heineman is known for hard-hitting political documentaries like Cartel Land and Retrograde, but he shifts easily into a more sentimental mode with American Symphony, a touching, inspiring film about a year in the life of musician Jon Batiste. Heineman and his crew were around as Batiste experienced both the career highs of winning an armful of Grammys (including Album of the Year) and the personal lows of watching his wife, author and journalist Suleika Jaouad, endure leukemia. This is a story about creative people turning all the stuff of life — their pasts, their joys, their heartbreaks — into art that breathes and bleeds.

8. Personality Crisis: One Night Only

Where to watch: Paramount Plus with Showtime

Killers of the Flower Moon understandably drew a lot of Martin Scorsese fans’ attention this year, but for those pining for the director’s “New York stories” side, Personality Crisis should fill that need. Co-directed with and edited by David Tedeschi — Scorsese’s creative partner on most of his recent documentaries — the film uses a David Johansen cabaret performance as the anchor for a loose, discursive look at the wild adventures of the legendary New York Dolls frontman. In interviews, on the stage, and in archival footage, Johansen describes in funny, colorful, and at times surprisingly emotional terms how the flowering of underground art in the 1960s led to proto-punk in the ’70s and to modern queer culture.

7. Smoke Sauna Sisterhood

Four nude women stand around or inside a small sauna made of raw logs, standing in a vividly green forest, in Smoke Sauna Sisterhood Photo: Ants Tammik/Alexandra Film

Where to watch: Currently in select theaters

Deep in a wintry Estonian forest, a group of women gather in and around a homemade sweat lodge, where they alternate long sessions in sweltering steam with vigorous exercises in the frosty outdoors, all while completely nude. Director Anna Hints moves the camera in tight on these ladies as they soak and scrub in the twinkling, misty sunlight, and as they talk about getting older, dealing with changing family dynamics, and navigating a culture that often reduces them to their bodies alone. Smoke Sauna Sisterhood is a lovely, delicate exercise in intimacy, getting close to people who are so physically and emotionally bare that they are awake to every sensation. (YouTube won’t embed the trailer here because it’s age-restricted, but it’s viewable at the site.)

6. Aurora’s Sunrise

Where to watch: Streaming free through through Jan. 21, 2024

A remarkable new entry in the small subgenre of animated documentaries, Aurora’s Sunrise tells the story of Aurora Mardiganian, who became a minor celebrity in the early 20th century by serving as a living witness to the atrocities visited on Armenians by the Ottoman Empire. Director Inna Sahakyan has some interview footage of Mardiganian from late in her life, and some clips from the mostly lost 1919 film Auction of Souls, starring Mardiganian and based on her memoir. But mostly, Sahakyan relies on painterly animated sequences (guided by illustrator Gediminas Skyrius) that recreate a world which no longer exists, while also illustrating the ongoing nightmare of a woman who spent her life repeatedly describing its demise.

5. The Disappearance of Shere Hite

Where to watch: Currently in select theaters

The title of Nicole Newnham’s The Disappearance of Shere Hite has the ring of true crime, but there’s no grim mystery here. The documentary’s subject, the late American sex researcher and bestselling author Shere Hite, merely faded from public view after moving to Germany in the ’90s. Still, the wealth of footage of Hite in this movie — sharing her controversial findings about female and male sexuality on TV talk shows in the 1970s and ’80s — becomes cumulatively haunting. Hite was a prominent public figure who forced people to rethink their preconceptions about sex. This stirring film shows how the outraged reaction to her books drove her — but not her ideas — into exile.

4. Judy Blume Forever

Where to watch: Prime Video

When directors Davina Pardo and Leah Wolchok started making this moving documentary about beloved YA author Judy Blume, they likely had no idea that all the old stories about outraged parents banning Blume’s novels would become more relevant in 2023 than ever. Judy Blume Forever isn’t an overtly political film; it’s more of a gentle, sweet biography of a low-key American hero. But watching it may remind older people of how bracing it was a kid to read books like Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret and Blubber, and to feel that finally an adult was telling the truth about growing up. As this movie makes clear, that’s an experience no child should be denied.

3. The Mission

Where to watch: Hulu/NatGeo

One distinguishing characteristic in the documentaries of Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss (who previously collaborated on Boys State) is their empathy for decent people whose good intentions sometimes lead them to embrace questionable ideologies and make terrible mistakes. In The Mission, McBaine and Moss tell the story of the Christian missionary John Allen Chau, who in 2018 became a cautionary tale (and the butt of more than a few cruel internet memes) after being killed by the residents of a remote island. The film puts Chau’s willingness to violate international law in the context of missionaries throughout history, examining how religious fervor can be both personally satisfying and socially disastrous.

2. Close to Vermeer

Where to watch: Amazon, Vudu, and other digital retailers

It may not seem like there’s much to this documentary, which in 78 brisk minutes covers the efforts to mount the most comprehensive Vermeer exhibition to date, at Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum. But director Suzanne Raes finds a lot of fascinating wrinkles here, watching as the curators deal with the challenges of borrowing artwork, and as they face the possibility that some paintings credited to Vermeer may actually be by someone else. As the title suggests, long stretches of Close to Vermeer consist of art experts peering at canvases, discussing technique, and contemplating the concept of authorship. What starts as a kind of curatorial procedural develops into a thoughtful meditation on what makes art art.

1. Menus-Plaisirs: Les Troisgros

Where to watch: Currently in select theaters

At 93, Frederick Wiseman delivers a late-career masterpiece with this four-hour film about a restaurant in France that’s rated among the best in the world. Working in his usual quietly observational style, Wiseman immerses the audience in long scenes with no contextual narration or on-screen titles, urging us to watch patiently and raptly as a family of great chefs and their staff shop for ingredients, debate recipes, prep elements, arrange plates, and guide their guests through a one-of-a-kind dining experience. Viewers can draw their own conclusions about the meaning of all this, though one chef’s offhand comment about the ongoing refinement of dishes offers one interpretation. Even an old master like Wiseman has to keep tinkering, finding a sense of purpose in the hundred tiny details that go into an act of creation.