If there was any doubt that we are living in a Golden Age for documentaries, look no further than 2018’s slate of feature-length films. Over the past twelve months, documentaries generated audience interest and critical acclaim at nearly unprecedented levels. From animation hybrids to intimate character studies, non-fiction filmmaking in 2018 further proved that cinema is unmatched in its ability to generate empathy. The year’s best documentaries inspired us, enlightened us and sometimes, they even broke our heart. Here are my picks for the Top 10 Documentaries of 2018:
Distributed by: Netflix
Directed by: Ricki Stern, Anne Sundberg
In 1973, the United States Supreme Court settled the case of Roe v Wade, effectively laying the foundation for abortion rights for women. But despite this landmark decision, opponents have challenged the right to choose ever since. Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg’s “Reversing Roe” delves into this historical debate in eye-opening detail, examining the arguments on both sides through candid interviews and striking imagery. Whether you’re pro-choice or pro-life, this fascinating documentary shows that the fight over women’s bodies is an ongoing war that is as urgent as ever.
“Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind”
Distributed by: Jigsaw Productions/HBO
Directed by: Marina Zenovich
When famed comedian/actor Robin Williams passed away in 2014, it was one of the saddest celebrity deaths in recent history. Throughout his decades-spanning career, Williams brought joy to the lives of millions around the world, even while battling his own personal demons. “Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind” is a bittersweet reminder of his unique energy and sense of humor, as director Marina Zenovich engagingly assembles archival footage and intimate reflections from his own words and interviews with loved ones. As complex as Robin Williams himself, this documentary is both hilarious and utterly devastating. A fitting tribute to an irreplaceable talent and remarkable human being.
Distributed by: HBO Documentary Films
Directed by: Tina Brown, Dyana Winkler
The word roller rink probably brings to mind the 1970s and its associated disco culture. But what you may not know is that these centers of music, sport, and dance are one of the most important incubators of African-American culture, pride, and community. In Dyana Winkler and Tina Brown’s “United Skates” documentary, this dying subculture is given a deserving place in the spotlight, showcasing the jaw-dropping athleticism and artistry at “adult nights” across America. But as is often the case with African-American history, these scenes of pure joy also come with underlying pain. As the wider society threatens to sideline this culture through coded racism and the closure of once booming rinks, “United Skates” makes a convincing case that these roller skating communities are a beautiful thing that needs to be protected.
Distributed by: Abramorama
Directed by: Aaron Kopp, Amanda Kopp
The history of cinema is filled with African stories being told by Western filmmakers and catering to Western audiences. Aaron and Amanda Kopp’s “Liyana” is, therefore, a rare gem, crafting an African narrative from the precious perspective of native children. This stunning hybrid of documentary, fictional storytelling and animation bring to life an original fairytale as told by a group of orphans in Swaziland. As guided by renowned South African storyteller Gcina Mhlophe, “Liyana” is a touching window into their imagination, exploring their personal traumas and resilient optimism with deeply felt affection and admiration.
“Boom for Real: The Late Teenage Years of Jean-Michel Basquiat”
Distributed by: Magnolia Pictures
Directed by: Sara Driver
To truly understand an artist, you have to know where they came from. In the late 1970s, downtown New York City was a crime-ridden center of urban decay. But from the ashes of those burning buildings emerged one of the 20th century’s most important artists – Jean Michel Basquiat. Through archival imagery and interviews with friends, contemporaries, and lovers, “Boom for Real: The Late Teenage Years of Jean-Michel Basquiat” unveils the mystique surrounding this revolutionary voice in modern art. His unlikely rise from his beginnings as a graffiti artist is compelling in itself. But this documentary is most illuminating as a portrait of New York City in the 1970s and 1980s, when the anti-establishment youth movement fostered radical changes in various spheres of art and culture, with Jean-Michel Basquiat at the center of it all.
Distributed by: Netflix
Directed by: Sandi Tan
It was a big year for Singapore at the movies, with “Crazy Rich Asians” showing off the glamorous lifestyles of its rich and famous. But while that glossy summer blockbuster was an eye-opener for many, the documentary “Shirkers” was arguably even more incredible. Directed by Sandi Tan, “Shirkers” tells the unbelievable story of the missing road movie she filmed along with her friends in 1992. As she recollects her memories through her engaging narration, Tan crafts a mystery as bizarre and captivating as any work of fiction. Vivid and imaginative, this deeply personal film-about-a-film is a true must-see.
“Hale County This Morning, This Evening”
Distributed by: The Cinema Guild
Directed by: RaMell Ross
When “Hale County This Morning, This Evening” won the Gotham Award for Best Documentary, director RaMell Ross’s acceptance speech mentioned the need to “let black folks choose their own clothes” in cinema. As an authentic representation of minority groups becomes increasingly demanded, Ross’s outstanding vision sets a high mark for that ideal. Combining the elegant framing associated typical of Barry Jenkins with the kaleidoscopic observational qualities of Frederick Wiseman, Ross documents black lives in Hale County, Alabama through a lens of genuine empathy. At once raw and sophisticated, “Hale County This Morning, This Evening” marks one of 2018’s most accomplished debuts.
Distributed by: National Geographic
Directed by: Jimmy Chin, Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi
If you thought Hollywood genre films held a monopoly on nail-biting tension, think again. This year, Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi’s “Free Solo” had us on the edge of our seats with a film so audacious that it has to seen to be believed. Against all odds, “Free Solo” depicts Alex Honnold’s death-defying attempt to climb the 3,000-foot El Capitan rock face without ropes or other safety equipment. Thanks to a nervous camera crew on location, this amazing feat is captured with some of the most awe-inspiring (and vertigo-inducing) cinematography of the year. Meanwhile, the preparation for his ambitious dream delivers an insightful character study into the mind of a man whose personal outlook is just as intriguing as his extraordinary acts of daring.
Distributed by: Roadside Attractions
Directed by: Kevin Macdonald
Back in the mid-90s, the American rapper known as The Notorious B.I.G. recorded the single “Mo’ Money Mo’ Problems”, from an album uncannily titled “Life After Death”. Indeed, the sentiments of that hit song proved to be prescient when it was eventually released posthumously after his murder. Around the same time, another artist was at the peak of her career, only to eventually meet her demise under similarly tragic circumstances. Her name was Whitney Houston, the subject of the latest documentary from Kevin McDonald. “Whitney” chronicles the iconic ringer’s meteoric rise and fall, examining her early years of grooming to become a pop star, through to her troubled final years in the aftermath of her success. In between, the superbly edited footage incisively connects the dots of toxic relationships, racial and sexual identity crises, greed and even our own fanatical obsession. In the process, it illuminates the fatally high price of fame, presenting a profoundly sad argument that her untimely death was both preventable and inevitable.
“Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”
Distributed by: Focus Features
Directed by: Morgan Neville
There’s one quote in Morgan Neville’s “Won’t You Me By Neighbor?” which encapsulates why this biographical portrait of Fred Rogers is one of 2018’s most poignant and timely documentaries. It arrives late in the documentary when protestors wield signs proclaiming anti-LGBT sentiments at Rogers’ memorial service. It is revealed that they were not protesting Rogers’ own sexuality – he had long faced gay rumors due to his extraordinarily tenderhearted demeanor – but rather, they were “intolerant of his tolerance.” Indeed, as our democracies are currently being threatened by fascist ideals, this antagonistic sentiment couldn’t be more relevant to today. What makes this all the more remarkable is that it is directed towards a lifelong Republican and ordained Christian minister. These are just some of the few awe-inspiring revelations explored in this incredibly engaging documentary, crafted with the sincere affection and empathy befitting its subject. Its message of love within an increasingly cynical and hateful world will surely further your appreciation for Rogers, whose social activism and inclusive philosophy transcended his sphere of children’s television to impact our world for the better.