The 20 Best Documentaries of 2022Movies Lists best of 2022
In a year during which the pandemic became something less to emerge from and something more to get used to, documentary films feel like reclamations—of life, of history, of images and narratives, of cultures and physical space, art and our bodies, of ways of seeing and the responsibility inherent in that. Rarely does non-fiction film as a genre carry themes according to the bounds of year-end lists, so rarer is it that two films, one from a legendary documentary filmmaker, would be released in the same year as resplendent odes to the work of Katia and Maurice Krafft. It’s rare that Zora Neale Hurston acts as patron saint of at least three of the films listed below, and is featured in two explicitly. It’s rare we’re given glimpses of ground-level protest in dramatically different places, in famous museums in New York and Paris, and in the streets of Hong Kong, Santiago and rural Michigan. It’s tempting to call out the monoculture. But really, none of this means anything other than the promise of the documentary form at its most visceral, its most ideal: To immerse us in lives we never imagine we could ever comprehend, reminding us that we can.
Here are our picks for the best documentaries of 2022:
It isn’t until halfway through After Sherman, following an impressionistic survey of his family’s South Carolina legacy via their inherited coastal land, that Jon-Sesrie Goff begins to tell of the 2015 shooting at Emanuel AME Church in Georgetown. Only 20 minutes after Goff’s parents, prominent church leaders in the community, left a quarterly meeting, nine people were murdered. Taking on the untold depth of his parish’s grief and shock, Goff’s father stepped in as interim pastor to help lead a broken flock back to the light. But rather than lean into any shades of true-crime, or bear any responsibility for investigating the tragedy on film, Goff counters with a quieter, more mundane act of violence. At an auction selling plots of land part of the Carolina coastline originally bestowed to Black families following the end of the the Civil War—which includes Goff’s family’s land, only saved from auction, Goff explains, because the family’s heirs split the land amongst siblings, allowing it to stay financially manageable—Goff films white buyers blithely out-bidding people who were promised that land more than a century and a half ago. Even with the camera filming how clearly they don’t give a shit, outside investors ignore the pleas from organizations representing proper heirs. Brutality writ both large and small.
Given to a lyrical attachment to the farms and Gullah culture of his home turf (as well as an immersive, ecosystem-appropriate soundscape), Goff confronts his past as it’s splayed out in the stories of his neighbors and loved ones: In antique agreements between dead people, in letters from great-grandma describing the soil of the family’s tract, in psychogeography and conversations between Black friends in New York talking about how unsafe they feel, and simultaneously how drawn they are to, moving back to the South. As Goff has said of his film, “Rather than depicting Black subjects as at the whim of violent forces, it is a document of the imparting of wisdom between generations of African Americans on how to survive not just materially, but spiritually.” Autobiography, ethnography and reclamation, After Sherman resists pity, instead glowing graciously. It is, if anything, a magnanimous debut. —Dom Sinacola
All the Beauty and the Bloodshed
Nan Goldin’s fingerprints are everywhere. The idiosyncratic photographer, activist and subject of Laura Poitras’ first feature documentary in six years is equal parts icon and iconoclast, an embodiment of what it means to hold two truths—wonderful and terrible—in balance: All the Beauty and the Bloodshed. Similarly, the film is structured into two intersplicing sections charging forward at a rate of devastation your tear ducts absolutely cannot keep up with. One section gives Goldin a platform to chronologically tell her life story. The other follows her years-long fight against the pharmaceutical reign of terror that is the appallingly inhumane Sackler/Purdue Pharma operation. They are essentially the same story, Goldin’s story, but one starts at the beginning and looks ahead while the other starts in recent history and looks back, the two colliding and bringing us into the present, where the Goldin-founded P.A.I.N. (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now) is slowly but surely ripping the Sacklers’ mouth from the teat of the art world it so desperately clings to for influence.
Goldin is narrating. An open book, sadistic charmer and seasoned storyteller, she has a dry, frank, true way with words, the kind of person that doesn’t need many to tell you what it means, a master in the art of phrasing. (“I brought him out and he named me Nan, so we liberated each other,” she says summarily of her connection to a dear, lifelong friend.) Known best for her slideshows, Goldin flips through hundreds of pictures and tells story after story—each one gripping, culminating, well-delivered, giving way to an eagerness for the next—often returning to her most famous collection of over 700 photos on 35mm from 1983-2022, titled The Ballad of Sexual Dependency. Overflowing with candor, the photography presents a life fully lived, aiming to capture the universal impossibility in the push-pull relationship between autonomy and dependency. In between stories, Poitras builds out the generation-spanning criminality of the Sacklers through well-researched talking heads that illuminate the family’s cruelty. As Nan describes herself and her family—whom she defiantly defines as friends, the people whom she’s lived and learned alongside, not a romantic partner or biological family—they were “rebels running from America, living out the life they needed to live.” She says it of herself in the past, but All the Beauty and the Bloodshed shows that spirit still thriving, still moving, still turning the world around it upside-down. —Luke Hicks
Bad Axe rests in rural Michigan, two and a half hours away from Ann Arbor, where director David Siev’s older sister, Jaclyn, lives with her husband Michael. As Bad Axe begins, David, Jaclyn and Michael are holed up with their mother, Rachel, and father, Chun, in their lovely, spacious enough home, joined by their two other siblings, Raquel and Michelle, and their significant others, David’s fiancée Kat and Raquel’s boyfriend Austin. It’s the moment before the great plunge, where the COVID-19 pandemic forced the nationwide issuance of stay at home orders plus the shutdown of all non-essential businesses.
Bad Axe invites us to relive a period which none of us want to relive, but through the mounting travails of the Sievs, which worsen as the film glides along and uncertainty bleeds into eternity. The deck is precariously stacked against them off the bat; they run a restaurant, named after Rachel, and they’re a Cambodian Mexican American family in rural, Trump-country Michigan. Chun survived the Cambodian Killing Fields and relocated with what was left of his family to Romeo, Michigan. He’s an American. This is irrelevant to people who singly define “American” as “white.” Bad Axe jabs an angry finger at nationalism and ethnocentrism, while parceling out dignity for Chun, whose martial arts prowess and firearms expertise are excellent reasons not to mess with him; for Rachel, Jaclyn, Michelle, and Raquel; and for David, who, as the filmmaker, is given a partial pardon from beating back the harassment the Sieves face as the movie takes us further into COVID, and the closer to the 2020 election.
So as not to inflate Bad Axe’s stature: It’s a simple film about complicated, often painful confirmations about the country we all call home, and about optimism for what that country can look like when people share it with each other. It’s about what happens when your worst nightmare come true. For Chun, it’s also about suffering a nightmare so dreadful that the foundational trauma of your youth seems preferable by comparison. But it’s especially about the way movies change the people who make them and the people who watch them. Bad Axe is a gift. —Andy Crump
A stomach-churning, ground-level glimpse of mass resistance, Chan Tze-woon’s follow-up to 2016’s Yellowing chronicles the sweeping Hong Kong protests kicked off in 2019 to oppose the Fugitive Offenders extradition bill, quickly expanding to comprise calls for independence in the face of brutal Chinese crackdowns. Far more than visceral documentation, Blue Island is, according to the director, a “desperate attempt to capture the final moments of a sinking island.” Integral to that are Chan’s reenactments of protest movements from three previous flashpoints on the island—1967, 1978 and 1989—casting the mostly young, college-aged activists leading prominent movements today, many who in the wake of the film are either still awaiting trial or serving long sentences for their protests. Likewise, Chan catches up with the people these current activists are playing, decades after they’ve moved on from political work, encouraging the older generations of activists to confront the vitality of the ideals they ostensibly left behind. In that abrasion, as generations rub up against one another, Blue Island becomes a film that offers neither optimism nor pessimism about Hong Kong’s hopes, but a clear-eyed view of what resistance demands of its purest acolytes, and what that means for the rest of us. —Dom Sinacola
Captain Ahab: The Story of Dave Stieb
At what’s become a yearly clip, Jon Bois and Alex Rubenstein have crafted long, lovingly researched films bent around the kind of coincidence and improbability that makes for pretty undeniable cinematic bliss. 2020’s 220-minute The History of the Seattle Mariners surveyed the absurdity of one particularly luck-plagued baseball franchise as both symptom and sign of the power of professional sports, while the next year’s 413-minute The History of the Atlanta Falcons leaned in, charting the majesty of God’s Indifference in impressive statistics and a spiritual knack for making esoterica mean something. In 2022, Bois has been especially prolific, directing three films under the duo’s Dorktown banner—including Section 1, a brisk, 42-minute Tony Scott thriller, and Captain Ahab: The Story of Dave Stieb, what feels like Bois and Rubenstein’s storytelling distilled to its purest, most nakedly exciting form.
Ahab ostensibly chronicles major league pitcher Dave Stieb’s attempt at a no-hitter throughout the ’80s, but in detailing the career of a man who’s been unfairly treated by gods and sports writers and fate and fellow teammates alike, Bois does not hesitate, and not for the first time, to present hyperbole as the foundation of Stieb’s narrative: “There’s no way to make the assertion I’m about to make with much confidence, but it’s possible that what Dave Stieb has just experienced is the most impossibly unlikely outcome in the entire history of competitive sports, that has ever come to pass.” The stakes are undeniable, and deservedly so, with an obvious archnemesis in certifiable dickhead Jack Morris and a redemption arc still unfolding today. When, in the film’s final part, Bois and Rubenstein make the case for how Stieb can still get into the Hall of Fame, festooning their own Stieb plaque with the all-caps “HERE’S SOME DAMN CHARTS”—sometimes life delivers you moments for which you have no choice but to tearfully applaud. Regardless, cosmic bleakness accompanies Stieb’s legacy, is in the air and in between words throughout Bois’s film. Not sadness or trauma, but Lovecraftian incomprehensibility, as if unknown powers are leaking like a pestilence into reality to fuck with this guy. “How can this happen to me?” he asks no one, and everyone, at one point. I don’t know, Dave, but you don’t deserve whatever “this” is. I hate baseball writers now too. —Dom Sinacola
Children of the Mist
What’s most disturbing about Diem HÀ Lê’s directorial debut isn’t the subject matter but rather how nonchalantly it’s treated by those in front of her lens. Among the Hmong people of North Vietnam, it’s customary for young girls to be kidnapped from their homes, forced to become child brides for whomever steals them away. Children of the Mist’s bucolic setting—this mountain community feels like it exists in a mythic past—belies the Hmong’s cruel ritual, and the film focuses on 13-year-old Di, who fears that she could be the next target. But even her parents aren’t all that concerned—after all, it’s tradition—and Diem serves as a silent observer as the townspeople play kidnapping “games,” mocking the terror that awaits these girls. Children of the Mist is deceptively restrained in its first half, but that leads to a finale that’s raw in its pain and anguish. Few recent documentaries have captured anything so heart-wrenching as Di’s abduction, with Diem trying frantically to intervene, her camera recording every traumatizing moment. This is sobering filmmaking that illustrates a terrible injustice and the patriarchal attitudes that keep it thriving. —Tim Grierson
An examination and reclamation of identity in the wake of the recovery of the slave ship Clotilda, a source of long-buried shame for many families in Mobile, Alabama, Margaret Brown’s Descendant at times operates as a litany of ignorance. As news outlets and National Geographic come into Mobile to help finally recover the wreckage-as evidence surfaces that the wreckage may have been found and re-sunk that that long ago-the descendants of the Africans kidnapped and stolen to the Gulf on the Clotilda find they have less and less control over who gets to tell their families’ stories. When National Geographic’s much-too-smiley “archaeologist-in-residence” calls the recreated mock-up illustration of the slave ship, full of bodies, a “really wonderful drawing” and the head of the underwater survey team has to say, “Well, I wouldn’t call it wonderful” in front of a group of descendants seeing this trauma in full-bloom for the first time; when a descendant of the Clotilda’s Captain Foster, getting past his nervousness as he’s welcomed by the Africatown community, tries to describe to the descendants of the people Foster kidnapped and enslaved about how, compared to most slave owners as far as he could tell, Foster treated his slaves with respect. For every casually degrading gesture or remark, Brown counters with a reading from Zora Neale Hurston’s Barracoon, about the original Africatown founders, or with Hurston’s own voice, refusing to allow anyone but the proper descendant’s say. Brown returns, too, to the warm nature of the contemporary Africatown community, how welcoming they are to undeserving small white men and deserved tourism dollars alike. —Dom Sinacola
Winner of the Tiger Competition’s top prize at 2022’s International Film Festival Rotterdam, Paraguayan director Paz Encina’s EAMI attempts to capture a disappearing way of life. Like in Emilia Mello’s recent No Kings, deforestation has devastated everything for a small indigenous community. Like Jessica Beshir’s Faya Dayi, EAMI tells of a dying culture through the grand, imagistic movements of myth, preserving the stories, sounds and sights of Paraguay’s Ayoreo-Totobiegosode people in celluloid. We’ve wandered past the point of no return, and now all we can do is document what’s left before it’s gone.
In voiceover, Eami (Anel Picaneri), a little Ayoreo-Totobiegosode girl, tells of the destruction of her village and her flight into the rainforest. With a talking lizard companion, she wanders as a transformed bird-god to collect any survivors from her people’s diaspora. “Eami,” we’re told immediately, means “forest” in Ayoreo, as well as “world,” all connected and symbiotic. Industrialization has obliterated everything they know. Amidst stentorian bird cackles and the drone of machines pulling the earth apart, Encina weaves in the testaments and recollections of surviving Ayoreo-Totobiegosode people, who tell of outsiders, the so-called coñone (“the insensitive”), mostly workers and migrants employed to violently displace locals. “Shall we all have to heal eternally?” Eami asks, wondering how deep trauma goes. A man answers, recalling his own village’s destruction: “If they kill us, best if they kill us all, so no one is left to regret it.” As we study Eami’s face in close up, Eami’s lizard reminds her of her responsibility, “Remember, we were the ones who lived here…In our eyes we keep all the landscapes.” Through lush soundscapes and prelapsarian dream logic, Encina attempts to do the same. It’s all anyone can do anymore. —Dom Sinacola
Fire of Love
Director Sara Dosa knits together an awesome array of 16 mm footage to tell the doomed love story of volcanologists Katia and Maurice Krafft against the bright, molten backdrop of their shared obsession. Foregrounding the couple’s demise during the explosion of Mount Unzen in Japan in 1991, Dosa allows their charm and enthusiasm to keep the film’s tone afloat—much like Maurice’s unrealized dream of riding a customized canoe down a river of lava—reinforcing the drama of their romance in lovely animation and Miranda July’s voiceover, musing about hidden fault lines and fate and, perhaps too late in the film, the ways their work has contributed inimitably to saving countless lives. Even if the film is too committed to being a biography that reaches past their images, the Kraffts’ footage stands alone, thrilling and magnificently shot, as much a testament to their lives as a reason to catch Fire of Love on as towering a screen as possible. —Dom Sinacola
The Fire Within: A Requiem for Katia and Maurice Krafft
Cut like the History Channel special it is, The Fire Within is parsed with pauses for commercial breaks as if the Channel didn’t even ask Herzog to do that. But such is its ecstatic energy: a documentary that exists for itself despite coming out the same year as a documentary about the same subject, wholly apart from it, a series of small epiphanies in images one might catch briefly flipping through cable channels, old fashioned but transcending that form through the melodrama of every moment, through every unironic declaration of the dream-like grandeur of what the Kraffts caught on film. Like Sara Dosa’s Fire of Love, The Fire Within introduces us to Maurice and Katia Krafft, iconic volcanologists, via their incomprehensibly moving documentary films, but Herzog prequalifies the lack of biographical rigor by admitting his only goal is to celebrate the wonder of the Krafft’s filmmaking, and not, necessarily, their lives. He then does exactly that, running through their oeuvre as artists with an eye for eras, beginning with their amateurish beginnings—“Their films look like home movies shot by tourists. Everything is unspectacular”—and then eventually showering praise on their compositions, as well as their move into more “humanistic” themes. As is his wont, Herzog scores broiling lava and the otherworldly mutations of molten rock to “Pie Jesu” and Verdi’s “Requiem”—as well as two playful, aching ballads by Mexican artist Ana Gabriel—and it’s difficult to not be swept up in Herzog’s awe for what is clearly awe-inspiring. Romanced by it.
Whether Herzog is aware of Fire of Love or not (I’d bet he’d say he isn’t) hardly matters weighed against the irony of its existence as a special meant for the History Channel. That most people won’t see this in a theater, but rather via a streaming service that likely can’t keep up with the breathtaking clarity of the images, inherently limits Herzog’s scope. Still, the film thrives on that tension, drinks in the impossibility of its content, knows intuitively its limits and context. I’m reminded of Herzog’s recent doc, Fireball, which clips some scenes from Mimi Leder’s Deep Impact, one of two asteroid movies from 1998, the other being Armageddon, just two movies about the same thing in the same year, one never really acknowledging the other as if we’re blinking between parallel universes. There was Volcano and Dante’s Peak in 1997. The zeitgeist in superposition. But Fire of Love is about the Kraffts while The Fire Within is about the films they made—about the power of putting a camera where no one has put one before, about the images they wrestled “from the devil’s claws” as Herzog puts it, all to give us a glimpse of “a vision that exists only in dreams.” Who should bear the responsibility of the Krafft’s footage? Herzog, like his subjects, longs to be swallowed by a pyroclastic flow. You know Sara Dosa, like most healthy adults, does not. —Dom Sinacola
I Didn’t See You There
This startling and candid essay film stars its director, Reid Davenport, as he critiques how the disabled are viewed by others. Davenport, who has cerebral palsy and operates a wheelchair, doesn’t add subtitles to his narration, nor does he allow us to see him on-camera. Rather, we watch the world as he watches it, with his camera flying down the street, occasionally nearly being hit by oblivious motorists or pitied by well-meaning but condescending passersby. I Didn’t See You There uses as a framing device a circus tent that’s been erected nearby Davenport’s home, inspiring him to reflect on the marginalization of people like him for generations. (In his darker moments, he wonders if his life is appreciably better than those forced to work as freaks in the bad old days.) The movie takes dead aim at ableism, and Davenport’s anger can be corrosive—deservedly so when you witness, for instance, how insensitive people can be when they thoughtlessly block a wheelchair ramp he needs to get into his apartment complex. Searching and humane, I Didn’t See You There is a personal saga told with battered grace. —Tim Grierson
On paper, Jackass Forever operates in perfect sync with every other long-gap nostalgia sequel/revival being used to prop up various streaming services or the tenuous theatrical experience. It arrives 11 years and change after a second sequel to a movie based on (and very similar to) a TV series, brings back as much of its core cast as possible for more of the same and, in some cases, even circles back to revisit certain sequences from previous installments. Just like past versions, Jackass Forever opens with a more staged action sequence that seems designed to blow remaining budget money on a larger-scale expression of the project’s grody whimsy. It’s Jackass, again, again. Two factors help Jackass Forever mitigate this on-trend sameness, and then transcend it. One is the durability of Jackass itself, which—in case it has somehow escaped you—consists of ringleader Johnny Knoxville and assorted skater-adjacent goofballs performing a variety of stunts and pranks that blur the line between primitive sketch comedy and sophisticated geek show. The second factor also has to do with that longevity. Let any movie or TV series run long enough, and it will become at least in part about its own age, and while Jackass doesn’t get too cutely sentimental about how long these guys have been in each other’s lives and ours, it is unavoidably aware of that fact. In some sequences, Knoxville’s hair is a distinguished mussed gray; more than once, Steve-O brandishes and/or retrieves his false front tooth (“They’re dropping like flies,” he grins semi-ruefully). In an early sequence, Knoxville jokes about the camera needing to avoid capturing his bald spot. Spike Jonze, a longtime cohort who only occasionally makes on-camera appearances, rushes on with some spray paint to cover it up. These guys are well into their forties, and they’re still surprising each other with taser zaps, engaging in everyone-loses slapstick competitions and using each other to prop up bike ramps. This is, as the saying goes, a feature, not a bug. That affability goes a long way: More casual viewers’ mileage may vary on which stunts are laugh-out-loud funny and which are abjectly horrifying, and the rickety carnival rollercoaster ride works better when the other passengers—whether fellow audience members or the on-camera talent—are screaming and laughing along in equal measure. Knoxville himself feels more like a host than ever, jumping into the fray for select bits, including a hell of a curtain call for his closer. He’s been good in fiction films, but he never feels as comfortable onscreen as when he’s presiding over this particular brand of mayhem. He emcees every Jackass movie like he may never get the chance to do it again—an unspoken threat that looms larger than ever over this one. After all, it may not be physically feasible to keep this series going as a Richard Linklater or 7 Up-style chronicle of slapstick performance art. Then again, Forever is right there in the title. —Jesse Hassenger
Directed by filmmakers Chike & Coodie, and produced in collaboration with Leah Natasha Thomas, jeen-yuhs: A Kanye Trilogy is a three-part documentary focusing on ye’s (née Kanye West) rise in the hip-hop industry, the controversies he’s courted during his time in the spotlight and the long shadow cast on his career by his mother’s death in 2007. jeen-yuhs is about the subjective creative experience of documenting an artist’s rise close-up before being forced to watch that artist in their own whirlwind from afar, contrasting the endearing young Kanye with the enigmatic older Kanye, while seldom articulating criticisms. There is concern, but never condemnation. Don’t expect insight into Amber Rose or Kim Kardashian. The interviews that frame many documentaries aren’t here, so viewers will see Kanye say “George Bush doesn’t care about Black people” during the Hurricane Katrina relief telethon and watch Mike Myers and Chris Tucker react, but don’t hear more from Kanye about that. We see Taylor Swift and Beyoncé react to his antics at the VMAs, but not his own response to the fallout. Accept instead a look into his creative process, and the special magic of seeing those early recording sessions with the likes of Chicagoan artist Tarrey Torae and poet J. Ivy, the latter of whom performed on “Never Let Me Down” and co-wrote the jeen-yuhs narration script with Coodie.
What the documentary shows rather than tells is that Kanye suffered greatly after his mother died, including pushing away a close friend and collaborator who was his documentarian. Perhaps Coodie reminded Kanye too much of past vulnerabilities, or after asking for cameras to follow him for so long Kanye became inundated and frustrated by them. The oddest part is that Coodie certainly knows when to turn the camera off—as he does with some frequency in the back end of “Act III,” attempting to protect Kanye’s image from his own rants. There’s nothing to be done about the fact that, more than 15 years ago, Kanye decided he didn’t want the documentary to come out, or that he excluded his hand-picked documentarians from his life for more than a decade. The intimate framing of the series dictated that once they were separated from their subject, the piece lost creative steam only replaceable through reconnection. It feels much more like a success than a failure, but also wasn’t what I expected. As such, it is fittingly Kanye. —Kevin Fox, Jr.
My Imaginary Country
”…this shared feeling we all carried with us deep down inside. That feeling of bitterness, of constant sadness, of disgust and injustice, was a lot stronger than it appeared.”
The third in Patricio Guzmán’s trilogy about the impacts on modern Chile of Allende and then Pinochet’s dictatorships, My Imaginary Country chronicles the public protests exploding in 2019, drawing 1.5 million people to the streets of Santiago to demand a new constitution to replace whatever remained of Pinochet’s influence. As a comprehensive-enough record of complete indignation, of people standing up to yet another country with a “terrible constitution, terrible government,” a misogynist, racist system, a reputation for the steady eradication of indigenous people, and a law enforcement arm fueled by violent, uncontrolled impulses, the film makes sense coming from the country’s most ardent documenter of its trauma. Guzmán knows Chile’s done this before, and very recently. Which is why, as an elder activist, he carries such valuable context with him, why his insight is essential, if predictably given to unhelpful romanticization (and one too many stretched metaphors or melodramatic drone shots). He is appalled by his country devolving without having learned anything from the Allende dictatorship, but he sees hope and humanity and power in revolt. Maybe that simplifies such an expansive movement, one whose lack of a leader and centralized power has put down similar uprisings everywhere—an important part of these new mass social movements is the saturation of “journalists” using social media to raise their own careers and profiles at the expense of activists, a reality in the U.S. made painfully obvious in the wake of the George Floyd protests—but Guzmán is also just as in tune with how easily all of this flirts with impermanence, how strong fascism and ignorance responds, how likely it is to fall apart. The statues are taken down, but just moved to a warehouse to be preserved. To hold onto until the people get tired of resistance. In the end, what seems safely optimistic—left-wing Gabriel Boric winning Chile’s presidency over the far-right candidate and giving a rousing speech about human rights—could just be the beginning of yet another cycle of liberalism going to seed. Or maybe not. As Guzmán knows well, charting his country’s politics against the chthonic standards of constellations or mountain ranges in Nostalgia for the Light and Cordillera of Dreams, the movements of people against those of the landscape feel hopefully trivial. —Dom Sinacola
Documenting the attempted murder of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny by agents working for President Vladimir Putin, Daniel Roher’s Navalny is serious-minded and political true crime. In a streamer-saturated subgenre most notably defined by subpar filmmaking, barrel-scraping supply overload and suspect ethics, Navalny stands out. It’s compelling, shocking, lucid—and it turns a single phone call into the scariest scene of the year.
Yes, just a phone call. The documentary’s observation of Navalny’s month-long hospitalization and post-poisoning physical therapy is wrenching. Its footage of Russian civilians being indiscriminately carted off, arms twisted by riot police, is harrowing. Its inhuman Q&A with Putin is unnerving. But the complex levels of fear unearthed by its climactic call are unmatched. The seven-minute scene comes at the end of a longer section where Bellingcat investigator Christo Grozev, Anti-Corruption Foundation journalist Maria Pevchikh and Navalny himself ring up his would-be assassins. Grozev has identified the Federal Security Service agents—acquiring their phone numbers from data scrapers—and the team is about to go live with their investigative report, announcing that Navalny was poisoned in August 2020 by government wetworkers using Putin’s signature substance, Novichok. Since they’re about to put these agents on blast, they might as well put those phone numbers to use while they still have the element of surprise. Because Navalny calls under the guise of a government bureaucrat, he keeps joking that they’re “prank” calls—but one will make your blood run cold. Cut down from a full 23-minute conversation, the sequence listens in as chemist and would-be killer Konstantin Kudryavtsev companionably explains to Navalny that he’s not sure what went wrong in the Navalny murder. It went off without a hitch, he says, exactly like they’d rehearsed it.
The scene’s unrelenting march starts and ends with death. It watches one of the modern world’s only remaining symbols of justice, investigative journalists, realize that they’re going to get someone shot in the head. It quietly normalizes the organizational practice of assassination. Its filmmaking, consummately modern in its documentary style, is colored by the content it unearths. The world is more QAnon than Illuminati, more Watergate than Parallax View. We saw it every day when Donald Trump was president. Navalny, impotent and furious, is scary because its fallible fascism is tangible, but far scarier because those fascists know they don’t need to be perfect. —Jacob Oller
Outta the Muck
What begins as co-director Ira McKinley’s diaristic return to his family home in Pahokee, Florida, expands to something grander: preservationist document, activist art, family hang-out movie and, in its glorious final stretch, a tear-jerking sports drama about a small high school football team making it to States that beams with glued-to-Saturday-afternoon-TBS Remember the Titans energy. With co-director Bhawin Suchak, McKinley balances picturesque sunsets on Lake Okeechobee with intimate observations of the everyday life of Pahokee residents, their ways and traditions-fishing and catching rabbits, living off the land-more and more threatened by the giant, faceless capitalist machine, giving way to images of mechanical monsters looming behind shirtless kids carrying rabbit carcasses, apocalypse undeniable. But still throughout, hope remains buoyant, McKinley often distracted by a dance party or huge BBQ or a town gathering to breathlessly cheer for teenage hometown heroes. A film of endlessly blooming delights, Outta the Muck refuses to be anything but joyous. —Dom Sinacola
In silent home movies, filmed and kept by her grandmother, middle-aged Italian men drunkenly roam dining rooms, squat specters groping wives and daughters and cousins, laughing soundlessly as they drink and smoke and occasionally force a family member to kiss them deeply on the mouth. The footage at first seems harmless enough, the stuff of alcohol-greased get-togethers between close relatives, but as Relative reveals the generational abuse at the core of so many experiences for women in Tracey Arcabasso Smith’s family—including her own—the old movies bear witness to a family haunted, to a freedom and belligerence in the men that belies dangerous, violent masculinity—as well as to an endurance in the women that can only come from a lifetime of survival. Rather than exorcize all those demons, Smith’s debut feature documents her simply trying to get her family members to talk about what happened to them. Even as family members who were first supportive suddenly drop out of the film, wanting their stories cut, and even as Smith struggles to tell her own story through the film, doubt and exhaustion and guilt creaking in her voice as she addresses the camera, Relative returns to those home movies, bringing voices to their silence. —Dom Sinacola
Rewind & Play
In the Fall of 1969, at the end of a European tour and on the precipice of his Salle Pleyel performance (to be iconized on the album Paris 1969), Thelonius Monk agreed to record an episode of a French TV program hosted by white record producer and fellow jazz pianist Henri Renaud. Editing together outtakes and interstitial liminal space—Monk waiting at the piano, over-lubed with liquor and increasingly sweating beneath the oppressive stage lights as he’s plied to play “Round Midnight” more than once—Alain Gomis weaves a throughline of existential unease amongst the mundane behind-the-scenes moments otherwise doomed to the dustbin of modern critical history. As Renaud treats Monk like a wayward child, figuring out the content and timbre of the conversation as they go along, prodding Monk more and more to answer questions in tune with the narrative he’s creating, Monk loses control over his own mythos, Renaud confirming less and less with Monk over the details of Monk’s story and ignoring the musician’s pleas to stop, to give it up, to go get some dinner together. Renaud delights in telling the camera about visiting Monk in New York, about catching on to Monk’s genius when, apparently, jazz critics hadn’t gotten there yet, but when Monk begs they stop, Renaud replies as the disciplinarian—not a friend, or admirer, or peer—and Gomiz responds with visceral horror: heavy, panicked breathing; close-ups on Monk’s dripping face; the ambient wetness of alcohol poured over and over; and, perhaps most blissfully, Monk’s performances, unparalleled. Elemental—especially given how drunk he was. Rewind & Play is an infuriating, exhilarating experience, an exhibition of transcendent talent as much as it is a document of casual, run-of-the-mill racism. —Dom Sinacola
Sierra Pettengill is fascinated by the ways that Americans reveal their true character in the monuments they construct and the behaviors they exhibit. The director of Graven Image, a study of Stone Mountain that played at True/False in 2019, returns with Riotsville, USA, which shines a light on a little-known corner of our history. Concerned by the increase of urban rioting in the 1960s, President Lyndon Johnson commissioned a panel to get to the root of what was causing these uprisings—meanwhile, the American military began running drills in manufactured cities to train for future civil unrest. Drawing from priceless archival footage, Pettengill illustrates how systemic racism, then as now, is ignored in favor of other “solutions”—in this case, the buildup of law enforcement to stamp out protest. The scenes of the Riotsville training—complete with cops woodenly playing rioters—would be funny if there wasn’t something profoundly chilling about the way that those in power callously view those subservient to them. The documentary is so enraging it may inspire you to take to the streets. —Tim Grierson
The focus of 2022’s True Life Fund at the True/False Fest, and picked up for theatrical release by National Geographic (which means it’s now on Disney+), The Territory chronicles the efforts of a faction of the Uru-eu-wau-wau people (dubbing themselves the “Indignenous surveillance team”) to uphold the dwindling boundaries of their native Brazilian rain forest against state-sanctioned violence. With the indelible help of the Uru-eu-wau-wau community and their young leader Bitate, director Alex Pritz crafts the film as a portrait of peril, attempting to preserve a vanishing way of life on screen while documenting, with restraint and not a small amount of danger, the conflicting forces—political, colonial, environmental, legal—encroaching on the Uru-eu-wau-wau’s literal island. As Bitate defines his role as leader in such a dramatically changing world, bringing more and more technology to his people as non-violent tools to fight back invaders, Pritz introduces us to the other side of the tree line, to the farmers attempting, within the law and without it, to take land they believe is theirs, willing to burn the jungle to embers to prove they can rebuild something better—willing to kill, to savage villages, to raise something more civilized. Apparently. Even as Bitate gains international attention for the small successes his surveillance team achieves, and even as an ambitious farmer’s co-op falls apart (along with his plan to legally steal a huge chunk of Uru-eu-wau-wau land), The Territory admits that this cycle will continue. The Uru-eu-wau-wau will never get land back. But in Pritz’s images, together with those shot by the Indigenous people themselves during the pandemic, life persists unabated, hungry and righteous. It’s enough to understand what’s truly being lost. —Dom Sinacola