This was not a poor year for nonfiction cinema, though it may have seemed that way because of what was most popular. Not everyone likes to see so many music documentaries flooding the market, even if those films include some of the most exceptional and affecting artist profiles we’ve ever seen. This was a more centralized year for docs in terms of recognition, also, as evidenced by Nonfics’s four primary critics (myself, Daniel Walber, Dan Schindel and Landon Palmer) being more uniform in our individual best-of lists than usual. Years where we’re more scattered on our favorites tend to imply there was a broader range of great work.
But perhaps 2015 simply gave us more first-rate films we could agree on as being above and beyond the rest. This year brought new releases by Frederick Wiseman, Joshua Oppenheimer, Hubert Sauper, Wim Wenders, Asif Kapadia and even the late Les Blank, so it wasn’t surprising that we’d be so coordinated in our picks. Plus, newcomers such as Chad Gracia, Amanda Wilder and Debra Granik (new to nonfiction anyway) delivered such extraordinary debuts that none of us could dismiss. At least half of the films listed below were found on three out of the four critics’ own lists, while the rest represent two critics each. None of them are too obscure.
That means you should be able to find them, and you really should seek them out.
15. Evaporating Borders
Cyprus is in flux. Wedged between the nations of Greece and Turkey, the continents of Africa, Asia and Europe, political extremes and international organizations, it is now much more than simply a trouble spot. Iva Radivojevic, rather than targeting a single issue, has instead made a poetic essay that captures the many moods of the island. Fascist demonstrations in public squares, immigrants living in refugee camps, fed by money from the European Union, flocks of flamingoes on the coast and the towering residences of Russian millionaires all pass across the screen like the increasingly treacherous tides of the Mediterranean. Insightful and frequently quite beautiful, Evaporating Borders is among the strongest debut features of the year. — Daniel Walber
14. Best of Enemies
A few years ago, a documentary titled Evocateur positioned Morton Downey, Jr.’s firebrand 1980s talk show as the paradigm for today’s pervasive industry of media demagoguery. The film’s thesis seemed tacked-on at best, a last-minute big-picture justification overreaching its case for historical import. More readily answering a call for putting our toxic media landscape into context, Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville’s enthralling Best of Enemies chronicled what is essential to any diagnosis of political polarization via television history: the transient but emotionally intoxicating joy of seeing your ideological stand-in rhetorically pummel the opposition. This masterfully assembled recounting of William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal’s ten oral sparring matches during the 1968 Republican and Democratic National Conventions and their surrounding events is appropriately bittersweet: it both revels in the party and observes its consequential hangover. — Landon Palmer
13. Finders Keepers
One of the best things about Finders Keepers is how its filmmakers, directors J. Clay Tweel and Bryan Carberry and producers Ed Cunningham and Seth Gordon, show improvement with each new nonfiction work. This is the most directly evolved from their most well-known (save for Carberry who wasn’t part of the team then), the Gordon-helmed The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters. There are two men in a conflict, and there’s a lot of humor due to the absurd premise of one guy finding another guy’s amputated leg in a grill he’d bought at auction and the custody battle that ensued. However, this is a mature work of documentary, not just some stranger-than-fiction lark where the crazy story and unbelievable characters are depended on to drive the film. It’s as sad as it is funny, and it’s respectful and considerate of the men as human beings, not sensational subjects, and their lives as more than what’s easily mediated on screen, from reality shows to this very feature. Ultimately, it is a deep and sensitive take on fame, fortune, class, capitalism, justice and grief, rather than the yokel folk tale it appears to be. — Christopher Campbell
12. The Nightmare
Rodney Ascher’s Room 237 divided audiences in its unencumbered investigation into the myriad theories surrounding Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining from … well, “enthusiasts” seems too tame a word. The director doubled down on his interest in faithfully re-creating the subjective experiences of his subjects with The Nightmare, which brings the uncanny experiences of those who suffer from sleep paralysis to terrifying life. There’s something radical in Ascher’s commitment to following his subjects down the rabbit hole of individual experience and the strange revelations that this journey often brings, eschewing an authoritative tradition of documentary “expertise” in the process. But it’s even more surprising that such a unique approach to nonfiction could be so entertaining. And fiction or nonfiction, it’s the scariest movie of the year. — LP
11. In the Basement
Ulrich Seidl edits with a vengeance. This documentary, which takes place in the many and varied basements of Austria, is both a loving portrait and a brutal evisceration of the many things people hide beneath their homes. Underground portals are a major visual motif, as Seidl returns again and again to shots of his subjects closing their doors behind him before cutting to the scene inside. As the film progresses from doll collectors and hunting enthusiasts to BDSM and Nazi nostalgia, Seidl cuts ever more confrontationally between increasingly disparate subjects, demanding that we re-examine our own taboos. — DW.
10. The Iron Ministry
The latest project of the Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab explores not a location but a vehicle – a train, one of many traversing the rails of China. An opening sequence consisting only of the sights and sounds of machinery in motion makes the train feel like a living being. The various passengers we then meet over the course of the film thus seem like lesser organisms temporarily thriving off a host. They’re juvenile remora attached to a whale. The sense of time and place is subsuming, and the various vignettes of humanity collectively feel like an effective microcosm of contemporary China. — Dan Schindel
9. Stray Dog
Debra Granik set Jennifer Lawrence on the road to superstardom and earned massive accolades with Winter’s Bone. If she were a man, she probably would have been handed the reins of The Hunger Games or some other franchise after that. Instead, she continues to explore rural America on a minuscule budget, this time in nonfiction form. Vietnam veteran turned biker Ron Hall doesn’t seem on paper like one of the most compelling documentary protagonists of the year. Hell, he might not even seem it while you’re watching the film. But Granik’s casual disregard for convention and easy naturalism flesh out Hall’s many nuances, making his pain wholly sympathetic and his little triumphs into tremendous crowd-pleasers. – DS