The Movie Club

The best documentaries of 2016.

The best documentaries of the year tested the boundaries of the term documentary.


Photo illustration by Slate. Images by Milestone Film & Video, Janus Films, ESPN Films, Magnolia Pictures, and screenshot via VEVO.

Hello, my fellow travelers:

Bilge’s lucid summary of the twisty-turny documentary Kate Plays Christine—in which director Robert Greene follows around a real-life actress while she rehearses for a fictional movie about the life of a real person—got me thinking: Aren’t we starting to need more words for the bounteously proliferating forms of nonfiction filmmaking besides just documentary? Looking over the impressive crop of nonfiction films this year, it seems like the most noteworthy ones were those that collapsed the boundaries between reality and fiction, or passive documentation and active storytelling, or cinema and television.

For example, O.J.: Made in America, Ezra Edelman’s epic six-part investigation into the life and trial of O.J. Simpson, had a weeklong Oscar-qualifying run in theaters, but it was financed by, produced for, and for the vast majority of its viewers, experienced on TV, complete with chapter-like breaks for commercials. That’s why I didn’t include it on my 10-best list, even though it was incontestably one of the year’s most accomplished and riveting works of moving-picture storytelling. (I told you we need new words!) But Amy put Made in America at No. 2 on her list, because of her differing but equally valid interpretation of the entertainment-industry koan posed by the film’s release strategy: In an age of ever-more-fluid viewing platforms, are the distinctions between movie, TV show, web series, etc. meaningful anymore other than as neutral descriptors of the various viewing modalities (multiplex screens, home televisions, handheld devices, etc.) by which we choose to watch?

Another documentary on the verge of a genre breakdown was Kirsten Johnson’s Cameraperson, a nonfiction film stitched together crazy-quilt style out of outtakes from footage the director, a documentary camera operator and cinematographer, has shot over the course of 25 years. (Her credits include Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 and Laura Poitras’ Edward Snowden documentary Citizenfour.) Thanks to Johnson’s poetic if sometimes cryptic art of collage, one minute we’re seeing a Bosnian shepherd at work as he occasionally throws the camera a skeptical side-eye; the next, we’re hearing the off-camera Johnson as she chats with a Nigerian midwife or crosses a busy street with the philosopher Jacques Derrida.

The result is a sort of documentary turned inside out, a work that deliberately exposes the seams of “objective” filmmaking. There’s a moment, for example, when an off-camera voice—the director’s?—can be heard speaking words of comfort and encouragement to a distraught teenage interview subject. It’s a natural and basic gesture of human connection, yet a superfluous and distracting detail in the context of a conventional “fly-on-the-wall” doc. Johnson shows how the bits that wind up on the cutting room floor, if reclaimed and strung together with insight and wit, can provide a glimpse of the uncapturable plenitude of experience that lies just outside every filmed frame.

And then, oh my Lord, there was Tickled, the bonkers doc about competitive endurance tickling. (As we seem to keep having to say this past year, let that sink in: competitive endurance tickling.) What appears to have started out as a lighthearted exploration of an eccentric online subculture quickly veers into unexpected and dangerous-feeling territory, a web of deceit and paranoia involving homophobia, blackmail, and real-time legal action being pursued against the filmmakers. Because you put it on your top 10 list, Amy, I finally watched Tickled, so thanks for pointing me to a fascinating small film I won’t soon stop thinking about.

In return let me recommend a nonfiction essay film that bowled me over, Ross Lipman’s quiet, idiosyncratic Notfilm. Lipman, a film conservationist, meticulously reconstructs the troubled production history of Film, the 1965 avant-garde short that was Samuel Beckett’s sole foray into cinema. In the course of his research, Lipman finds unexpected visual and thematic rhymes between past and present, cutting together archival clips and present-day interviews with a musician’s sense of rhythm, often letting his voiceover narration drop out of the mix as the images and sounds tell their own story.

As long as we’re talking about genres hopping across platforms and about performers whose force of personality tends to hijack whatever vehicle they’re in, it seems worth at least mentioning Beyoncé’s “visual album” Lemonade, which I spotted on a few movie critics’ Top 10 lists, one-week Oscar-qualifying run be damned. Much as I enjoyed its luscious design and fierce score-settling swagger—never has an outfit been better chosen for smashing in car windows than that goldenrod-yellow chiffon gown—I will admit that much of Lemonade felt to me like an extremely woke perfume commercial. Especially those late soft-focus reconciliation scenes with Jay Z, which seemed to undercut the first half’s affirmation of Bey’s (or her character’s?) newly sovereign selfhood. I don’t begrudge anyone their pleasure in watching and rewatching Lemonade, but who would be satisfied with a movie whose central conflict was resolved that quickly and effortlessly? Talk about your deus ex log.

Lemonade fever did have the beneficial side effect of getting folks (at least those in my admittedly film nerd-heavy circle) pumped up for the 25th anniversary restoration and re-release of Julie Dash’s long-neglected Daughters of the Dust, a languid meditation on the African diaspora set in the Gullah islands off the South Carolina coast at the turn of the 20th century. The movie’s influence on the look and style of Lemonade was obvious to anyone who’d seen it: all those beautiful, serious-faced women of varying shades of brown in Edwardian white lace dresses and parasols, all that Spanish moss. If the Daughters of the Dust restoration makes it to a screen anywhere near you, readers, please seek it out. It’s Lemonade with a better story, a richer sense of history, and stakes.

Over to you, Mark. Now that I’ve ungraciously tried to turn Lemonade back into lemons, is there any widely acclaimed thing-to-be-watched-on-screens from this year you’d like to grouse about? Or better, an underseen jewel you feel the need to polish off and hold up for our appreciation?