I haven't seen all of the documentaries that would likely qualify for a list of the best nonfiction films of 2014 (see my omissions below, please forgive me), so consider this not a definitive list of the top docs of 2014, but more accurately, "a tentative and working list of the top documentaries of the year"--it's just that this latter title would make for a muddier headline.
I don't feel like listing these numerically, either, so consider this list to be in some vague order not exactly of preference, but what felt right at the time of this writing. I saw Concerning Violence first in January of 2014, so it kind of haunts all the rest.
My write-ups, as indicated, are taken from previous writings of mine from a variety of publications.
Subtitled “Nine Scenes from the Anti-Imperialistic Self-Defense,” Concerning Violence is composed entirely of archival footage from the 1960s and ‘70s, of colonizing military forces and wounded African people, overlaid with the fighting words of Franz Fanon, both as text on screen and as voiceover by singer Lauryn Hill, who effectively channels the author’s intellectual indignation. The film’s argument is provocative, but fairly simple: Violence is an acceptable and inevitable rejoinder to colonization, which has had a long and violently oppressive history in Africa. Director Goran Hugo Olsson (The Black Power Mixtape) echoes the occasional bluntness of Fanon’s language (“this is when the niggers beat each other up”) with the inclusion of equally harrowing clips. Recalling such revolutionary montage-makers as Sergei Eisenstein, Fernando Solanas and Santiago Alvarez, Concerning Violence operates like a clarion call from the past that resonates in the present. (SundanceNow)
Tales of the Grim Sleeper
Nick Broomfield is back with this penetrating investigation into the case of Lonnie Franklin Jr., who was arrested in South Central Los Angeles in 2010 as the suspected murderer of a string of young black women near his home over a 20-plus-year period. What might at first appear similar to so many docs about wrongfully convicted black men becomes a broader and damning indictment of a culture that has tolerated the deaths of so many women for so long without proper accountability. Broomfield miraculously withholds judgment from the pornographers, drug addicts, and prostitutes that populate his film, harboring his biggest disdain for an American system that has allowed them to live and die so ignominiously in L.A. (Indiewire)
The political thriller of the year! Both a bracing expose of the U.S. government's massive unchecked surveillance program and a masterpiece of verite filmmaking, particularly in its compelling mid-section, in which we experience Snowden going from arrogant whistleblower to deeply paranoid political refugee, Poitras’ film is tense and precise—and I can’t get those images out of my mind of Glenn Greenwald in Brazil surrounded by a pack of his pet dogs.
The Missing Picture
Skulls. Piles and rows of human skulls. It’s perhaps the most iconic image associated with the Khmer Rough’s killing of some two million Cambodians in the 1970s. But these skeletal remains are vague and abstract reflections of what actually transpired. In his latest movie, Cambodian filmmaker and labor-camp survivor Rithy Panh provides a unique kind of visual record of the atrocities—to provide, in a sense, the pictures missing from history. Using small handcrafted clay figurines, Panh reenacts excruciating stories of humiliation, torture and murder, including the deaths of his own mother and father. More personal than his previous exposé, S-21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine, but never sentimental, The Missing Picture is a beautifully made and deeply haunting portrait of a man struggling to come to terms with his—and his country’s—devastating past. (Utne Reader)
While Jesse Moss's complex, profoundly American documentary is ostensibly a portrait of a caring Lutheran pastor named Jay Reinke, who is more complicated and self-interested than he at first seems, it’s also about the throngs of downtrodden men he seeks to help—men who have traveled from all over the country to an oil-rich North Dakota town in search of work. One young man, who has left his wife and infant child behind, is all too happy to have a job, even if the chemicals involved do some undefined damage to his skin. The Overnighters is not about just one thing—it encompasses a wide range of problems, involving the economy, race, class, sexuality and religion. For in many ways—and this is what makes The Overnighters important—these interrelated issues are necessary to consider where we are as a people today in the face of recession and oppression. (SundanceNow)
The Kill Team
America’s military missteps in Afghanistan have already been well documented, but The Kill Team is a chilling and essential new case study. With extraordinary access and emotional power, director Dan Krauss chronicles the story of the famous Stryker Brigade, who were charged and convicted of killing innocent civilians in Afghanistan. The film finds its focus in private Adam Winfield, a whistleblower who participated in the murders and must defend himself in a military court. Is he scapegoat? Or killer? Or some combination of the two? This fascinating and infuriating film offers no easy answers, revealing how soldiers tried to cover up their crimes and how morality quickly becomes muddied in a war zone. As one soldier ominously suggests, “This goes on more than just us—we’re just the ones that got caught.” (Utne Reader)
There’s a reason they call it “Big Oil.” In this epic investigation into the fickle and mercenary ways of capitalism, director Rachel Boynton (Our Brand is Crisis) crisscrosses back and forth between Texan energy moguls, New York venture capitalists, Guinean politicians and Nigerian militants to chronicle the competitive, cutthroat world of the oil business. Big Men offers a multifaceted portrait of these larger-than-life figures--all of who end up surprisingly more sympathetic and “smaller” than they first appear. Indeed, the documentary is not only an essential and insightful look at the way globalization works, but a haunting picture of the people of all sizes who are cut down in its wake. (Utne Reader)
The Great Invisible
A great double-bill with Big Men, Margaret Brown’s equally sprawling examination of the fallout from the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill never leaves the U.S., but it manages to cut across a wide spectrum of perpetrators and victims, from cigar-smoking Houston oil executives to the traumatized oil-rig workers, local fishermen, and regular Gulf Coast folks whose lives have been torn apart by the disaster. Beautifully photographed and preferring to hammer its message home through imagery over narration, the film is a powerful piece of advocacy filmmaking disguised as an art film.
Real-life thespian Brandy Burre (of Seasons 3 and 4 of “The Wire”) navigates that familiar conflict between domesticity and career aspirations in Robert Greene’s sneaky docu-hybrid. The film opens with a highly composed shot, recalling Todd Haynes via Douglas Sirk, of Burre, clothed in a bright red dress, cleaning dishes at her sink. Even when Actress switches to a more conventional approach, capturing Burre interacting with her kids or talking directly to the camera, it feels slightly phony. Whether that’s because it is actually staged in some way or because Burre just naturally “performs” in real life, it’s never exactly clear. Either way, the film ends on another ambiguous note, rooted in questions of perception and the roles that people play in real life. (SundanceNow)
Captivated: The Trials of Pamela Smart
First, take note of the “trials” in the title of this superb documentary. Pamela Smart, a schoolteacher charged with hiring a lover to kill her husband in 1990, not only faced legal proceedings, but a more insidious and far-ranging level of persecution by our exploitative culture. Well before O.J., Smart’s case became a media sensation, filled with sex and scandal. But as skillfully re-framed by filmmaker Jeremiah Zagar, who combines TV news reports and fictional movie-of-the-week recreations of the events, the Smart case illustrates the unjust ways in which testimony and memory can be manipulated in the public sphere. (Utne Reader)
E-Team and Return to Homs
One of the most important stories of 2014, the civil war in Syria has spawned two of the year’s most powerful documentaries. Syrian filmmaker Talal Derki's shot-on-the-fly Return to Homs may begin with footage of indiscriminate violence, bled-out dead children and utter chaos, but it eventually takes greater shape, becoming an affecting and devastating portrait of one man: charismatic soccer-player-turned-revolutionary Abdul Basset, who ceaselessly and sometimes recklessly strives to liberate his people. The film's iconic image — which shows Basset sitting exhausted in a hallway, with one hand on his head and the other holding his weapon — provides the film with one of its most piercing moments, encapsulating the sense of anguish, futility and frustration that plagues the Syrian resistance.
Looking at the conflict more from the outside, looking in, Katy Chevigny and Ross Kauffman's E-Team examines two English-speaking Human Rights Watch investigators—who are married—and their work in several war-torn regions. But the film's most powerful moments take place in Syria. One such sequence shows an anguished, angry Syrian man, standing atop a pile of rubble in his recently bombed out village, telling the investigators that his brother, sister and stepmother were just killed in the attack. His face, filled with a triple dose of anger, frustration, and grief, will forever stay with me. (Indiewire)
Runners-up: Life Itself, The Green Prince, The Unknown Known
Mea culpa: Should have seen National Gallery, The Last of the Unjust, Jodorowsky's Dune, The Internet’s Own Boy, Virunga, Last Days in Vietnam, The Vanquishing of the Witch Baba Yaga, Manakamana—all of which, I’ve heard, are excellent.