The Best Documentaries on Amazon Prime (Spring 2018)

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The Best Documentaries on Amazon Prime (Spring 2018)

Amazon lists 17,613 videos labeled “Documentary” available to watch for free with a Prime membership, a number whose weight you can feel down to your bones attempting to get some sort of usefulness out of Prime’s browsing function. Our #1 documentary selection was buried on page 21 of Amazon Prime documentaries, and we had to scroll 40 pages deep to find the fascinating Anna Wintour doc The September Issue, or squint to catch Matt McCormick’s Buzz One Four. Still, we were pleasantly surprised to find films from directors like Jonathan Demme, Spike Lee and Ken Burns, and some of the best music documentaries capturing Prince, The Grateful Dead, The Stooges, Journey and, of course, Talking Heads. (You’d almost think “stop making sense” were the motto of Amazon’s browsing platform.)

(Heh. Good one.)

For all its inconvenience, there is still plenty worthwhile documentaries to find on Amazon’s streaming service.

Here are the 30 best documentaries (of what we could find) streaming on Amazon Prime:


30. The Kill Team

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Year: 2014
Director: Daniel Krauss
The Kill Team, winner of the Best Documentary Feature at the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival, focuses on one of the more incendiary stories of the Afghan War theater, in which members of an American unit were accused of deliberately targeting and killing innocent civilians, all for simply the thrill of the kill. Directed by Daniel Krauss, Oscar-nominated for his short The Death of Kevin Carter, the film unfolds chiefly through the perspective of Adam Winfield and his parents, Christopher and Emma. When, in early 2010, 21-year-old Winfield heard about and witnessed members of his platoon murdering innocent civilians—planting so-called “drop weapons” on the corpses to make it appear as though they were terrorists—he reached out to his father by instant message, unnerved by these heinous war crimes. Left on his own and with threats against his life by the commanding officer, Staff Sergeant Calvin Gibbs (who was at the center of these actions), Winfield would find himself drawn into a moral abyss, eventually forced, in May of that year, to make a split-second decision. When the platoon’s actions were later discovered, Winfield was among five charged with premeditated murder in a military court. (Six more would be charged with participating in a cover-up.) The Kill Team is certainly bracing in its forthrightness. With extraordinary access to the key individuals involved in the case—including the candid confessions of two other members of the so-called “Kill Team,” Jeremy Warlock and Andrew Holmes—Krauss’ briskly paced film takes a thought-provoking look at one of the types of stories of war that is so frequently forgotten once the first wave of stateside civilian outrage dissipates after a couple of news cycles. —Brent Simon


29. Gimme Danger

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Year: 2016
Director: Jim Jarmusch
Jim Jarmusch opens Gimme Danger, his documentary about the legendary punk rock band The Stooges, on a downbeat note: not with Iggy Pop’s and/or the band’s beginnings, but with the point at which they initially separated, not too long after the release of their third album, Raw Power, in 1973. It’s an unexpectedly daring way to start a movie about the band Jarmusch considers “the greatest rock band ever,” as he willingly admits in an early title card—an opening that suggests a refreshingly honest approach to even a band he reveres. This initial impression is buttressed by Jarmusch’s decision to identify Iggy Pop not by his more famous nom de guerre, but by his real name, James Osterberg, thereby implicitly lifting the veil on the famously anarchic stage personality, bringing him back into the human realm. Alas, Jarmusch’s innovations with the genre end there. Gimme Danger proves to be more or less a straightforward rock documentary from then on, tracing the rise, fall and subsequent revival of The Stooges over the decades. Talking heads predominate, with band members Iggy Pop; drummer Scott Asheton in archival interview footage (he died in 2014); his brother Ron Asheton—who was the Stooges’ guitarist on their first two albums, The Stooges and Fun House—also in archival footage (he died in 2009); and James Williamson, the guitarist on Raw Power, all contributing. At least there’s Iggy Pop, who may no longer be the fireball he was on stage, but who recalls his own life with refreshing forthrightness and august reflection. Perhaps Jarmusch’s relative aesthetic plainness could be said to echo its subjects: Iggy, the Ashetons, Williamson and the rest all exude an air of former bad boys looking back on their halcyon days nostalgically but without sentimentality. —Kenji Fujishima


28. Don’t Stop Believin’: Everyman’s Journey

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Year: 2012
Director: Ramona S. Diaz
Everyone loves a story in which a likable underdog triumphs and finds success; it’s a formula that’s been proven to be a hit with film audiences over and over again. The latest example of this is the story of Arnel Pineda, who was plucked out of obscurity from his life playing in cover bands in the Philippines to become the new frontman of Journey. Ramona S. Diaz’s documentary, which played at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2012, offers an engaging, sweeping overview of Pineda’s story, which is buoyed by the cheesy but classic sounds of Journey and Pineda’s soft-spoken, humble charm. Throughout it all, he comes across as a pretty grounded guy in the midst of a dream from which he doesn’t want to wake. The band seems to really love him, and when the film follows them back to the Philippines for a triumphant hometown concert, this closeness becomes apparent. Don’t Stop Believin’ is more than just a rock documentary—it is, like the subtitle says, a story of an average Joe making good in a way he could never have imagined. And that’s endlessly entertaining. —Jonah Flicker


27. Art and Craft

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Year: 2014
Directors: Sam Cullman, Jennifer Grausman, Mark Becker
On its surface, the documentary Art and Craft is presented as a caper flick. Directors Sam Cullman and Jennifer Grausman, and co-director Mark Becker, follow a forger who’s been working a sort of long con against museums and galleries for the past 30 years. When first seen on camera, we’re introduced to a “culprit” who’s the polar opposite of a Thomas Crown archetype. Mark Landis—also known as Mark Lanois or Father Arthur Scott—is a nebbish, soft-spoken man who lives a quiet life in Laurel, Miss. A slow shuffle, soft voice and hunched shoulders belie his 60 years, and his unassuming personality never even hints at his identity as one of the most prolific and successful counterfeiters in American history. An entertaining and compelling film, Art and Craft includes a cat-and-mouse component between Landis and two art professionals, Matthew Leininger and Aaron Cowan, who try to dissuade him from duping art institutions. But the film blossoms when it instead focuses on its engaging lead character, examining the line that often connects art and madness. Landis, diagnosed with schizophrenia at 17, has combatted a number of mental health issues. Despite his illnesses, he’s clearly a gifted artist. His portfolio includes copies of Picasso, 15th century icons, Dr. Seuss and many more styles and art periods. His talent is jaw-dropping, and even more impressive is that he uses materials from local hobby stores, color photocopies and old coffee grinds to re-create the masterworks in his cramped apartment. Although we know that what Landis is doing is fraudulent, we can’t help but like the guy. Maybe it’s about rooting for a marginalized underdog who’s managed to dupe more than 40 institutions that failed to conduct due diligence on his “donations.” Or perhaps it’s because he’s lived such a seemingly lonely existence that we pity him, especially when the camera captures him eating Melba toast and butter on a silver tray, while watching his favorite old movies and TV shows. Art and Craft is ultimately a film about contradictions. Not only is Landis’s “work” atypical for a counterfeiter, but the documentary also questions an art world awash in inconsistencies, too. —Christine N. Ziemba


26. Where To Invade Next

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Year: 2016
Director: Michael Moore
Where To Invade Next works like a Frankenstein’s Monster of Michael Moore’s favorite themes, making it a nice, if redundant, stroll down memory lane. As he travels from country to country with the express purpose of stealing their “best parts,” familiar issues like universal healthcare and affordable education become Exhibits A through Z about how to make America a better place. Released at a time when America, steeped in toxic cynicism, was (and still is) in a stranglehold with race, violence and poverty, Where To Invade Next retains its relevance even when it’s actively slight—or just plain bad. Filled with winking, easy jokes which skirt racist stereotypes and beset by a fluffy glibness, the film often hobbles itself with its own intentions instead of letting the undeniably powerful subtext breathe. Still, as compared to previous Moore entries: Change doesn’t seem quite so impossible. In the last decade, America has made small but necessary strides in LGBT rights, gun control, mental illness awareness and the fundamental dignity of human beings. Who’s to say we can’t keep going? —Michael Snydel


25. The Source Family

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Directors: Maria Demopolous, Jodi Wille
Year: 2012
A fascinating chronicle of how one violent, star-fucking sociopath can be charming enough to make even the most batshit ideas seem legitimate, The Source Family follows James Edward Baker as he builds a popular health food restaurant in Hollywood into a thriving spiritual cult. Though the details of Baker’s ascension to being Father Yod, leader of the Source Family and self-proclaimed God (that God), are compelling in themselves—especially Baker’s dedication to psych music early in the genre’s development, as well as his adoption of polygamy, which he defended with pretty lame reasons—the film’s nearly obsessive glut of interviews with practically every prominent Source Family member paints a picture of such ballsy manipulation on Baker’s part that one can’t help but look back at the ’70s as a time of deeply depressing spiritual malaise. Long after his death, Father Yod’s “beliefs” still have a few devotees, despite those beliefs never really offering any sort of coherent theology, but paired with interviews detailing the PTSD of Yod’s first wife, among other examples of fall-out, the range of The Source Family’s testimonials provides a terrifying addendum to a decade of supposedly expanded “awareness. ” —Dom Sinacola


24. Tales of the Grim Sleeper

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Year: 2014
Director: Nick Broomfield
Filmmaker Nick Broomfield should have had plenty of source material to work with here, as the “Grim Sleeper” did his thing for a quarter century before finally being apprehended. But because his victims were doing their thing too—trying to feed their bodies, and often their addictions, by walking the streets of South Central LA—few people noticed or cared when they disappeared. There was no interest from the media at the time, and not much more from law enforcement. Broomfield’s film, made for HBO, says as much about society’s dehumanization of these women as it does about the inhuman acts perpetrated against them. —Allison Gorman


23. Sound City

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Year: 2013
Director: Dave Grohl
Sound City is about more than a piece of recording equipment. It’s the story of Fleetwood Mac. It’s the story of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. It’s the story of drum tones and ’80s hair metal and Nevermind and Johnny Cash’s recordings with Rick Rubin. It’s a sprawling documentary that laments what’s been lost in analog recording without ignoring the benefits of technology. And as the legendary board leaves its original home and lands in Grohl’s studio, the documentary shifts to a celebration of studio magic. Grohl invites musicians like Rick Springfield, Stevie Nicks and Paul McCartney to join him in the studio and make new music. In the film’s best moment, Grohl and McCartney are in the midst of a particularly great jam, and Grohl turns to Sir Paul saying “Don’t you wish it was always this easy?” Macca looks at him and says, “It is.” —Josh Jackson


22. The Central Park Five

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Director: Ken Burns, Sarah Burns and David Mcmahon
Year: 2012
The Central Park Five is such a moving piece of work, it is difficult to watch at times. Viewers are witnessing, for all intents and purposes, a modern-day lynching that actually took place in the ’90s. In his unflinching tale of crime, punishment, racial hysteria and ego, Burns holds an entire society, an entire way of thinking, accountable for its role in the true crime of the century—the collective effort to imprison five innocent young men. Journalists, critics, police, jurors, teachers and citizens who remained silent in the midst of strong evidence and gut instinct all participated in the destructive mob mentality that destroyed young lives. Although the story of the Central Park Five has a seemingly happy ending—in 2002 the men were exonerated when the actual rapist confessed—the warning is still there for our generation and for the next: Beware. —Shannon Houston


21. Long Strange Trip

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Year: 2017
Director: Amir Bar-Lev
Long Strange Trip, Amir Bar-Lev’s Grateful Dead documentary, certainly lives up to its title in one respect: It is almost four hours long. (It screened in theaters in its entirety with an intermission, but is presented as a six-episode miniseries on Amazon Prime.) And yet, for a band as shrouded in myth as the Grateful Dead, such a grand treatment seems entirely fitting. Their path—from a scrappy San Francisco group with a penchant for experimental drug use and anti-authoritarianism, to disciplined recording artists, to a purely live act, to a global best-selling phenomenon with a massive cult following—is the kind of all-over-the-place, winding road that can’t be compressed into a mere two hours. As such, Long Strange Trip is packed with incident in its expansive length, and for the most part, the pace never flags. Even better, the insights and perspectives keep on coming at a breezy clip, with Bar-Lev featuring a dizzying array of interviews of current living band members; many of the backstage hands and groupies around them; a record executive or two; and even a couple of self-proclaimed “Deadheads.” All of this will be catnip to fans already predisposed to devouring anything Dead-related. Thankfully, Long Strange Trip offers plenty for those on the outside looking in as well. Not only does the film provide an exhaustive account of the band’s rise and fall, but it also clearly articulates their importance in music history, their singular character as a performing entity and even the distinctive nature of their fandom. The film’s most noteworthy achievement, though, lies in just how well it achieves the grand scope for which it aims. Bar-Lev not only proposes the Grateful Dead as an embodiment of the American ideal of absolute freedom—for better and for worse—but, by sheer force of its epic length and attention to multitudinous biographical and human detail, Long Strange Trip makes that thesis seem absolutely convincing. One may well come away from Long Strange Trip believing that the Grateful Dead is, if not necessarily the greatest band ever, at least the most profoundly American of them all. —Kenji Fujishima


20. Aileen: The Life and Death of a Serial Killer

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Year: 1992; 2003
Director: Nick Broomfield
Though not for the faint of heart, Nick Broomfield’s two studies of famed serial killer Aileen Wuornos combined provide one of the most intimate, interesting portraits of a killer ever committed to film. Perhaps an heir of sorts to In Cold Blood, the two Aileen films together don’t attempt to argue for her innocence, but rather to get to the bottom of who she is, and what went wrong in her life (and later, her defense) to land her in the execution chamber. By itself, Broomfield’s first of the films, 1992’s The Selling of a Serial Killer, is tantalizingly incomplete, mostly following Wuornos’s manipulative “adoptive” mother and bonehead hippie lawyer as they essentially throw her life away. It’s The Life and Death of a Serial Killer that really packs a punch. Wuornos, coming across as honest and even likable in the earlier film, has become sadly paranoid and defensive since landing on death row. Broomfield sticks to her side anyway, delving into her horrific childhood and troubled adulthood by talking to friends, neighbors and even her aloof biological mother. Like Capote’s masterpiece before it, Broomfield’s film reminds us that murderers are human, too—maybe even humans who, abused by family and society from an early age, were never given a chance to be anything but doomed. —Maura McAndrew


16. Ken Burns: Baseball

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Year: 1994
Director: Ken Burns
Ken Burns’ collection of documentaries have captured everything that makes America unique from jazz to our nation parks to the Civil War. So of course he’s devoted his singular talents and robust research department to sum up the history of baseball during the 20th century in just 22 hours (plus his follow-up The Tenth Inning, included here on Amazon Prime). Divided into nine innings, the project spends ample time on all the sport’s biggest personalities from Ty Cobb and Babe Ruth to Jackie Robinson and Roger Maris. But it’s as much about the changes to our nation as it is to what’s happening on the field, just like everything the Great American Chronicler approaches. —Josh Jackson


19. The September Issue

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Year: 2009
Director: R.J. Cutler
Filmmaker R.J. Cutler demonstrates that—as well as anybody—he can capture the interpersonal dynamics that drive a team of headstrong individuals. Or at least he can shape his raw footage so it seems so. He produced The War Room about Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign, and he pioneered reality TV with an innovative series called American High. The September Issue documents the internal machinery of Vogue magazine as run by its editor-in-chief, Anna Wintour—tastemaker of the fashion world and the inspiration for The Devil Wears Prada’s title character. She’s a peach. As she assembles the magazine’s big September issue, she squares off against factions within the industry and within her own editorial staff. When designers and photographers parade their latest creations before her harsh gaze, the film feels like a real-life version of Project Runway or The Apprentice. I’m not sure the film will offer viewers a better idea of what makes Wintour and Vogue tick, but Cutler knows how to entertain, usually by selectively humanizing his characters. Even for those who don’t follow the industry, it’s great fun rooting for creative director Grace Coddington, who steadfastly defends her turf. Cutler makes her the film’s quiet hero. —Robert Davis


18. Gleason

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Year: 2016
Director: Clay Tweel
The best preparation for watching Gleason is to disabuse yourself of its inspirational marketing. You might think about Wiki-researching the film’s star, Steve Gleason, the former New Orleans Saints defensive back who wrote himself into legend in 2006 with a single blocked punt, but why bother? The film does an exemplary job familiarizing the uninitiated with Gleason’s career accomplishments and personality within its first 20 minutes before shifting toward 2011, the year he was diagnosed with ALS. Gird yourself for an emotional shellacking, for all the good that’ll do. It would be wrong to say that Gleason isn’t, in its own way, inspiring, or celebratory, or encouraging, or any number of positive adjectives that convey “triumph.” As the film moves forward, moment by moment, through Gleason’s struggles with ALS, there are heartening, tender and on occasion very funny beats that make Gleason, his wife, Michel Varisco, their friends, their family and the production crew look equally as relentless as his condition. For every push the disease makes in ravaging Gleason’s body, they push back. It helps that Gleason finds purpose by recording video diaries for his and Michel’s unborn son, his way of sharing as much of himself with the child as possible while he’s physically able to. But when you commit to having your life with ALS captured on camera, you commit to being seen at your lowest points, and at points lower than that. Gleason never shies away from reality, and that’s a big component of what makes it great. It’s an even bigger component of what makes the experience of watching the movie so soul-shattering, and by extension is the precise reason why queuing up the film with the phrase “inspirational sports doc” in your head will set you up for a sucker punch. Primarily, Gleason is not an inspiring film. It is a harrowing one. It is a two-hour chronicle of how terminal illness consumes its victims and overwhelms their loved ones, a portrait of what it is like to be helpless, in visceral terms, to your own mortality, and what it is like to watch the person you care about most in the entire world die slowly while you can only stand and watch. You cannot focus on the good in Steve’s life without also giving the bad due consideration. For every victory, there is a setback, every instance of joy, an instance of despair, every “Who dat?” chant, a scene of wrenching intimacy between Michel and Steve that we shouldn’t be seeing. That we’re seeing it at all is a rare, sobering gift. —Andy Crump


17. City of Ghosts

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Year: 2017
Director: Matthew Heineman
There need not be a documentary about the Syrian catastrophe to rally the world around its cause—just as, in Matthew Heineman’s previous film, Cartel Land, there was no need to vilify the world of Mexican cartels or the DEA or the paramilitaristic nationalists patrolling our Southern borders to confirm that murder and drug trafficking are bad. The threats are known and the stakes understood, at least conceptually. And yet, by offering dedicated, deeply intimate portraits of the people caught up in these crises, Heineman complicates them beyond all repair, placing himself in undoubtedly death-defying situations to offer a perspective whose only bias is instinctual. So it is with City of Ghosts, in which he follows members of Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently, a group committed to using citizen-based journalism to expose the otherwise covered-up atrocities committed by ISIS and the Assad regime in Syria. In hiding, in Turkey and Germany and at an event for journalists in the U.S.—in exile—these men, who Heineman characterizes as a very young and even more reluctant resistance, tell of both the increasingly sophisticated multimedia methods of ISIS and their hopes for feeling safe enough to settle and start a family with equal trepidation about what they’ve conditioned themselves to never believe: That perhaps they’ll never be safe. Heineman could have easily bore witness to the atrocities himself, watching these men as they watch, over and over, videos of their loved ones executed by ISIS, a piquant punishment for their crimes of resistance. There is much to be said about the responsibility of seeing in our world today, after all. Instead, while City of Ghosts shares plenty of horrifying images, the director more often that not shields the audience from the graphic details, choosing to focus his up-close camera work on the faces of these men as they take on the responsibility of bearing witness, steeling themselves for a potential lifetime of horror in which everything they know and love will be taken from them. By the time Heineman joins these men as they receive the 2015 International Press Freedom Award for their work, the clapping, beaming journalists in the audience practically indict themselves, unable to see how these Syrian men want to be doing anything but what they feel they must, reinforcing the notion that what seems to count as international reportage anymore is the exact kind of lack of nuance that Heineman so beautifully, empathetically wants to call out. —Dom Sinacola


16. Finders Keepers

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Year: 2015
Directors: Bryan Carberry, Clay Tweel, Alexander Yellen
Finders Keepers can boast of having one of the better single-sentence synopses of recent memory when it comes to documentaries: “After a man loses a leg in a plane crash and mummifies it himself, an errant storage locker sale deposits it into the hands of an entrepreneur who refuses to return the body part even after the leg’s original owner demands it back.” That’s the “meat” of Finders Keepers, if you will—a custody battle over a severed body part that really took place between leg-loser John Wood and leg-finder Shannon Whisnant in the years following 2007, when the discovery of the leg and resulting feud made national news. The document of this détente is an absurd, rambling, he-said/he-said story that reveals two fascinating personalities residing in rural North Carolina. At times, just as the story seems headed toward an expected conclusion, just as it feels like things should be wrapping up—some new hurdle arises to be overcome, making for a ever-tragic comedy of real life errors. —Jim Vorel


15. Best Worst Movie

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Year: 2009
Director: Michael Paul Stephenson
The 1990 horror flick Troll 2 features listless acting, klutzy special effects and not a single troll. It stars a whiny 10-year-old named Michael Paul Stephenson—who, two decades after the movie’s release and titanic flop, is still grappling with that disastrous first brush with stardom. Only a few years ago did Stephenson—by then an aspiring filmmaker—realize how oddly popular the movie had become, winning the strange hearts of B-movie aficionados worldwide. They’d thrown costume parties, hosted public screenings, even dubbed it the “best worst movie of all time.” This unlikely cult following is part of what Stephenson chronicles in his directorial debut, a kind of laughing-with approach to reconciling Troll 2’s disastrous beginnings and unlikely cult following. He also tracks down a number of his co-stars to gauge their enduring relationship to the film; obscurity, thwarted ego and general mental illness plague some, but George Hardy—the actor turned small-town dentist who played Stephenson’s father in Troll 2—becomes the documentary’s de facto star with his guileless, picket-fence grin. It’s a tale of despair, redemption and transcendence—like all the best movies, and all the worst. —Rachael Maddux


14. Dior and I

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Year: 2015
Director: Fr?d?ric Tcheng
In 1956, French designer Christian Dior wrote a memoir detailing his life and the first 10 years of his iconic fashion house. The luxury brand lost its founder just a year later when Dior passed away at the age of 52. Subsequently, the House Of Dior has had six creative directors, including the legendary Yves Saint Laurent. Dior and I chronicles the beleaguered process of latest leader, Belgian designer Raf Simons, as he struggles to both prove himself in the long shadow of everything to come before, and debut his first Dior collection. When Simons was selected to take over in 2012, he was a relative unknown. A former menswear designer for Jil Sander, he favors a minimalist approach to clothing, making him far from the most obvious choice for the role of visionary behind the historically lavish fashion house. Director Fr?d?ric Tcheng—who, in previously working on Valentino: The Last Emperor and co-directing Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has To Travel, has seemingly emerged fully formed as the ideal person to capture the mood and character of this designer at a pivotal point in his career—used a small crew to follow Simons for his first three months on the job, intimately embedded with a stranger, an amateur in the world of Haute Couture. Dior and I expertly observes all aspects of Simons’ stressful transition, especially in the minutiae of being both an artist and a manager. Throughout the film, Simons is never far from his right-hand man, Pieter Mulier, and at times the pair slip into “good cop/bad cop” roles when dealing with the staff. This makes sense, because it allows Simons to remain somewhat insulated from any internal criticism as he continues to tweak the collection under duress, though his staff can’t help but have to compensate for the difficulty that insulation places on their own roles. Yet, Tcheng infuses this rapid tale of the modern fashion process—accompanied by a pulsating electronic soundtrack from artists like The Knife, The xx and Aphex Twin—with voiceover narration reading passages from Dior’s memoir. In this deft blending of past, present and future, Tcheng affirms that Mr. Simons has the utmost concern for protecting the legacy he’s inherited. Having shot over 250 hours of footage, Simons edited down his story to a succinct 89 minutes to emphasize the intensity of his behind-the-scenes look: This is what it takes to pull off a big reveal, to survive in an environment subconsciously bent on proving him wrong. —Matt Shiverdecker


13. The National Parks: America’s Best Idea

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Year: 2009
Director: Ken Burns
Early in Ken Burns’ mega-documentary, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea, a mythic figure appears. At first, he isn’t named (“he called himself an ‘unknown nobody,’” the narrator intones), and the otherwise twangy score settles into gentle piano chords. After a lyrical interlude, the man is finally identified as John Muir, a vagrant Scotsman who entered the Yosemite Valley in the late 1860s and died five decades later as one of the central reasons it remains preserved today. Burns—the legendary documentarian known for chronicling the Civil War, jazz and baseball—frames Muir as a naturalist miracle who arrived precisely when the country needed one most. That personal connection to nature helped set in motion the parks’ history, which his six-part, 12-hour National Parks traces over 150 years. The series opens with hypnotic images of live volcanoes forming new land on the ocean’s edge. More than any other Burns series, National Parks includes large sections that focus on nothing but massive natural vistas—a gesture for viewers to think of the national parks not as dad-mandated family-vacation spots but as some of the most quintessential places on our soil. —Jeffrey Bloomer


12. Buzz One Four

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Year: 2017
Director: Matt McCormick
Portland filmmaker Matt McCormick begins his very personal documentary with an astounding shot of a nuclear mushroom cloud from high above the Earth, a droning ambient soundtrack roaring to a fever pitch as the explosion takes explicit shape. From there, McCormick narrates the story of his grandfather, one of the U.S.’s select B-52 bomber pilots burdened with flying world-clearing, 4-megaton nuclear weapons on marathon missions over North America, staying ever-ready to drop them on Russia should the Cold War come to a disastrous head. The film’s strength is its wordless, practically impressionistic sense of gravity when pouring over so much found footage and assorted documents from the time, detailing just how much of the world’s destiny was shaped by human beings as susceptible to error—to the failings of the human body—as any one of us. Scored by Portland ambient artist Eluvium (Matthew Cooper), Buzz One Four stays so compelling in its powerfully non-verbal wandering, one wishes McCormick got rid of narration altogether. —Dom Sinacola


11. Biggie & Tupac

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Year: 2002
Director: Nick Broomfield
From its very first moments, Biggie & Tupac—a sort of truther’s glimpse into the murders of rappers Notorious BIG and 2Pac—is an exceptionally strange film. Director and narrator Nick Broomfield speaks in a clipped cadence, as if English isn’t his first language, and Earth isn’t his home planet. That he is somehow able to waddle his way into the most exclusive (and sometimes terrifying) situations is nearly incomprehensible, until one realizes that, to some extent, all his weirdness probably makes him seem so non-threatening that the folks who spill deeply incriminating confessions probably never figure his footage will ever see the light of day. And yet, Biggie & Tupac is endlessly compelling, far from an actually competent procedural but still ringing with enough sincerity that, buried beneath Broomfield’s weirdness and his very dubious journalistic intentions, there must be something true he’s tapping into. I’ve heard Broomfield referred to, among other epithets, as a “bottom-feeding creep,” and it’s not a stretch to see how his methods and results could be construed as the work of such. Yet, the access the man gets … when it comes to documentary film, do the ends justify the means? Because: the last 10 minutes of the film alone are worth the journey, in which an interview with Suge Knight (whom the film pretty clearly portrays as the orchestrator of both murders) reveals unnerving opinions on socioeconomic and racial realities. —Dom Sinacola


10. Prince: Sign O’ the Times

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Year: 1987
Director: Prince
Prince’s 1987 concert documentary is one hour and 24 minutes of a generation’s greatest musical performer at the peak of his career (sorry, Boss). With his touring band that included Sheila E. on drums, Miko Weaver on guitar, Levi Seacer Jr. on bass, Eric Leeds on sax, Boni Boyer and Dr. Fink on keyboards, and Cat Glover dancing, the film pulls mostly from his 1987 double-album Sign O’ the Times, with hits like the title track, a piano interlude of “Little Red Corvette” and “U Got the Look.” It was filmed at two European shows, but much of the music was re-recorded later at Paisley Park. Still, it has an urgency that only Prince can deliver, in multiple outfits, of course. Released theatrically in the States, the film received more love after it left theaters. Now it’s one of the best ways to see what the big deal is about a Prince concert. —Josh Jackson


9. Cartel Land

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Year: 2015
Director: Matthew Heineman
Focusing its primary gaze on Michoacán, a Western Mexican state in the grip of the Templar Knights cartel, Cartel Land is a complex, harrowing documentary about drug gangs’ grip on Mexico (and the Mexican-American borderlands) that doubles as a portrait of the difficulties of grassroots revolutionary movements. Director Matthew Heineman’s film centers on Dr. José Mireles, who decided to fight back against the cartels oppressing his community by creating the vigilante group, Autodefensas. Liberating one occupied town after another another, the Autodefensas were a response to both the cartels and to the corrupt government with whom they were in league. Eschewing narration and on-screen text in favor of interviews that serve to keep the story propelled ever-forward—and often taking up residence right beside, or over the shoulder of, its Autodefensas subjects—Cartel Land is the rare nonfiction work that routinely keeps one’s nerves on edge. —Nick Schager


8. Abacus: Small Enough to Jail

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Year: 2017
Director: Steve James
Imperiled families are popular forms of community in documentaries this year—on the more heartwarming side is Abacus: Small Enough to Jail, the deceptively straightforward new film from Hoop Dreams director Steve James. In it, James details the ordeal of the Sungs, who ran the only bank to face federal prosecution in the aftermath of the 2008 financial collapse. What’s even more surprising is that their bank, Abacus Federal Savings, was a tiny, local institution catering to New York City’s Chinatown residents—hardly one of the massive financial corporations that helped crater the world economy. There is a happy ending to Abacus’s legal nightmare, however, but James uses the court case as a means to explore the Sung family, particularly patriarch Thomas Sung, who even in his late 70s still elicits a strong hold over his adult daughters, who help run the bank with him while jockeying to curry his favor. Abacus is a family portrait mixed with current events, and if it’s less ambitious than Hoop Dreams that doesn’t diminish the warmth and subtlety James brings to this look at an anxious, close-knit clan who rally around one another once the government goes after them. —Tim Grierson


7. Dark Days

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Year: 2000
Director: Marc Singer
Marc Singer never intended to be a filmmaker when he befriended a few groups from New York’s homeless community; he never intended to move in for a few months with the denizens of the Freedom Tunnel when he became so close them. And he never intended a documentary, crewed by its own subjects, as anything more than a way to financially help those same subjects. Yet, despite Singer’s less-than-artistic origins, Dark Days rings with unmitigated sincerity—so immersive as to be practically claustrophobic, capturing in stark chiaroscuro a world suffocating beneath the City. It’s rare that a documentary feels almost too up close and personal. —Dom Sinacola


6. Human Flow

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Year: 2017
Director: Ai Weiwei
Human Flow isn’t about its creator, Ai Weiwei, but one of its key moments, occurring about a half an hour before its end, is pure Ai. On their tour of hotspots in our burgeoning global refugee crisis, the director and his crew stop at the U.S./Mexico border to capture footage and talk with locals living on the line of delineation separating the two countries. As the crew films, they are at one point interrupted by the arrival of an American yokel riding a four-wheeler. Whether he’s official or just some self-styled border patrolling vigilante is unclear, though his intent to intimidate the filmmakers is crystalline. Ai Weiwei, having spent the better part of the film’s two-hour running time demonstrating his unfailing grace alongside his bottomless compassion, scarcely reacts. He doesn’t even budge. Ai is not a man you can easily cow. If you’ve read about his trials in China, or watched Alison Klayman’s excellent 2012 documentary Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, then you know this well enough. But watching his mettle in action in Human Flow inspires a different reaction than it does in Never Sorry. Rather than admire his boldness, we’re invited to search out that boldness in ourselves. The problem that Human Flow documents is massive and gaining in scope, chronicled first as a trickle, then a stream, then a torrent, now a deluge—soon a tsunami. The crisis of our refugees all over the world isn’t a problem one fixes merely by, for instance, banging away at a keyboard or saying pretty things in public spaces. Instead, the problem requires action, and Human Flow, generously taken at face value, is a tribute to those in the trenches: relief workers, volunteers, doctors, academics and lawmakers fighting to give refugees fleeing disease, famine and violence unimaginable to many of us the respect and protection they deserve. In turn, the film asks the audience to what lengths they would go to safeguard innocent people from harm, to give them opportunities to make their lives better. Ai has no vanity; he does not position himself as the hero. Through his devotion to his subjects, Human Flow reminds us how much work it is to help the helpless. The tragic conclusion is that we’re not doing enough. —Andy Crump


5. Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills

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Year: 1996
Directors: Joe Berlinger, Bruce Sinofsky
If you’ve never heard of the West Memphis Three, do some research before you begin—you’ll want to be prepared. Within only a minute of the film’s opening, as Metallica’s “Welcome Home (Sanitarium)” noodles forebodingly over pixelated camcorder videos, intolerable images taken straight from police evidence glance across frame, so quickly and frankly you’ll immediately question if they are, in fact, real. Of course, they are—they are images no person should ever have to see, and yet Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky use them only to expose the unbelievable horror at the heart of the appropriately named Paradise Lost. What unfolds over the following two and a half hours is just as heartbreaking: a trio of teenage boys (one with an IQ of 72) is put on trial for the brutal murders of three prepubescent boys, the only evidence against them a seemingly forced confession by the young kid with the below-average IQ, and laughably circumstantial physical proof. The film explores the context of West Memphis, its blindly devoted Christian population and how the fact that these teenagers dressed in black and listened to Metallica somehow led to their predictable fates at the hands of a comprehensively broken justice system. With surprising access to everyone involved in the trial, as well as a deft eye for the subtle exigencies of any criminal case such as this, Paradise Lost is a thorough, infuriating glimpse of the kind of mundane evil that mounts in some of America’s quietest corners. Welcome home. —Dom Sinacola


4. Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father

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Year: 2008
Director: Kurt Kuenne
Kurt Kuenne was childhood friends with a man named Andrew Bagby, who, in late 2001, was murdered by ex-girlfriend Shirley Turner. Relieved he’d finally put an end to a turbulent relationship, he had no idea Turner was pregnant. So she killed him, then fled to Newfoundland, where she gave birth to Bagby’s son, Zachary. This is how Dear Zachary begins: a visual testament to both Andrew Bagby’s life, as well as the enduring hearts of his parents, who, as Kuenne chronicles, moved to Newfoundland after their son’s murder to begin proceedings to gain custody of Zachary. Kuenne only meant the film to be a gift, a love letter to his friend postmarked to Zachary, to allow the baby to one day get to know his father via the many, many people who loved him most. Told in interviews, photos, phone calls, seemingly every piece of detritus from one man’s life, Kuenne’s eulogy is an achingly sad portrait of someone who, in only 28 years, deeply affected the lives of so many people around him. And then Dear Zachary transforms into something profoundly else. It begins to take on the visual language and tone of an infuriating true-crime account, painstakingly detailing the process by which Bagby’s parents gained custody and then—just as they were beginning to find some semblance of consolation—faced their worst nightmares. The film at times becomes exquisitely painful, but Kuenne has a natural gift for tension and pacing that neither exploits the material nor drags the audience through melodramatic mud. In retrospect, Dear Zachary’s expositional approach may seem a bit cloying, but that’s only because Kuenne is willing to tell a story with all the disconsolate surprise of the tragedy itself. You’re gonna bawl your guts out. —Dom Sinacola


3. When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts

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Director: Spike Lee
Year: 2006
Part indictment of FEMA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, part celebration of the unfailingly resilient spirit of New Orleans, Spike Lee’s four-hour-long look at “The City That Care Forgot” a year after the near-obliteration of Hurricane Katrina is an exhausting, comprehensive, worthwhile experience. There’s a reason so many residents refer to the catastrophe as the “Federal flood” and not Katrina itself—Lee’s Peabody-winning doc examines the systemic failure at all levels of government to maintain the storm barriers and deal with the consequences of their negligence. It’s political, it’s racial, it’s accusatory and it’s utterly compelling viewing. It’s also inspiring, thanks to the resolute locals shown struggling to survive and rebuild in the disaster’s aftermath. This is very much a Spike Lee joint; don’t expect anyone in the Dubya administration to come away without a tongue-lashing. But the heart and soul of the doc is the people of New Orleans, and they won’t let you down—on the contrary. —Amanda Schurr


2. I Am Not Your Negro

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Year: 2017
Director: Raoul Peck
Raoul Peck focuses on James Baldwin’s unfinished book Remember This House, a work that would have memorialized three of his friends, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and Medgar Evers. All three black men were assassinated within five years of each other, and we learn in the film that Baldwin was not just concerned about these losses as terrible blows to the Civil Rights movement, but deeply cared for the wives and children of the men who were murdered. Baldwin’s overwhelming pain is as much the subject of the film as his intellect. And so I Am Not Your Negro is not just a portrait of an artist, but a portrait of mourning—what it looks, sounds and feels like to lose friends, and to do so with the whole world watching (and with so much of America refusing to understand how it happened, and why it will keep happening). Peck could have done little else besides give us this feeling, placing us squarely in the presence of Baldwin, and I Am Not Your Negro would have likely still been a success. His decision to steer away from the usual documentary format, where respected minds comment on a subject, creates a sense of intimacy difficult to inspire in films like this. The pleasure of sitting with Baldwin’s words, and his words alone, is exquisite. There’s no interpreter, no one to explain Baldwin but Baldwin—and this is how it should be. —Shannon M. Houston


1. Stop Making Sense

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Year: 1984
Director: Jonathan Demme
Lester Bangs once wrote an essay about “Heaven,” the Talking Heads song that kicks off Jonathan Demme’s concert film. In it, Bangs fixated on one of David Byrne’s iconic lines: “Heaven is a place where nothing ever really happens.” Heaven, he explained, is—to Byrne’s coke-addled mind—a way of life where all of the stimuli of modern society couldn’t reach him. Couldn’t affect him. Couldn’t whip him up into a frenzy. This, according to both Bangs and Byrne, is truly Nirvana. Stop Making Sense happened over two nights at the Pantages Theater in 1983, and the second song on the setlist is “Heaven,” set against a bare stage on the cusp of a drastic remodel. From there, the set, as well as the band, builds itself—instruments and writhing bodies and elaborately weird backdrops are added, one upon another, until the stage is absolutely seething with life. And so, not only was Stop Making Sense a document of a legendary band at the height of their powers, but it even today seems like an unheralded synergy of movement and sound, of image and artist—so much so that the band allows us to watch as they destroy, and then re-do, their own idea of Heaven. —Dom Sinacola

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