Like comedies, documentaries have long been dismissed as undeserving of best picture consideration. Not because they’re thought of as less serious, but because some say they’re too serious — stuffy and dull and good for you, and not much fun. Recent years have challenged that perception, as docs have taken up topics and styles that stretch conventions. They’re challenging, innovative, and entertaining — this year more than ever. The following aren’t just the best documentaries of 2014, but some of the year’s best films.
The best documentaries don’t merely inform; they show you how to perceive reality. Keep that in mind as you watch this extraordinary film by Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez of Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Laboratory. In Nepal the two filmmakers share rides in a cable car with a series of pilgrims to the shrine of the title deity. Each trip is shot in a single 10-minute take, the camera facing the strangers. Every detail grows in mystery and significance until it all ends in darkness and another trip begins. It’s not just a metaphor, but life itself.
2. “The Missing Picture’’
How does one portray the unthinkable, the systematic genocide of more than 2 million people by a mad ruler obsessed with a harebrained ideology? Among the victims of Cambodian dictator Pol Pot’s murderous reign was then-13-year-old filmmaker Rithy Panh’s entire family. He depicts this catastrophe with clay figures arranged in dioramas, intercut by horrific footage shot by the regime to demonstrate its triumph. “There are many things a man should not see or know,” Panh concludes. “Should he see them he’d be better off dying. But should any of us know or see these things then we must live to tell of them.”
3. “The Overnighters’’
Many conflicting issues emerge in the unexpected twists of Jesse Moss’s documentary about Jay Reinke, the pastor of a church in a North Dakota town that finds itself overwhelmed by unemployed men desperate to find work in the area’s booming oil fields. Reinke offers the church grounds as temporary lodging for the newcomers, arousing a less than charitable response from neighbors. But Moss does not end the story there, and a tragic conflict emerges between image and reality, resulting in a film more complex and humane than a simplistic tract about social justice.
4. “20,000 Days on Earth’’
In Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard’s documentary of a day in the life of Nick Cave, the Australian-born musician, author, and filmmaker comes across as a more benign but equally uncanny real-life version of the bohemian vampires in Jim Jarmusch’s “Only Lovers Left Alive.” Cave cagily reveals himself through a voiceover narrative, a session with a therapist, and tête-à-têtes with friends and colleagues, but mostly through the creative process itself, culminating in performances that aspire to transformation and transcendence.
5. “Point and Shoot’’
Matthew VanDyke achieves transformation in Marshall Curry’s documentary, but transcendence is another matter. In his 20s he decided to put away his privileged, aimless life and achieve manhood. So he traveled thousands of miles across Africa and the Middle East on a motorcycle, managing with difficulty to film himself over the entire journey. Then in Libya he found a friend and a revolution, and his extreme tourism turned into armed combat, all digitally captured as the ultimate selfie, a compelling portrait of a narcissist in search of genuine humanity.
6. “National Gallery’’
National treasure Frederick Wiseman just keeps getting better as he investigates and quietly analyses the institutions that make our lives what they are. As in his previous films “At Berkeley” (2013) and “La Danse” (2009), Wiseman shows both the inner and outer workings of a cultural colossus, in this case London’s National Gallery. There he takes advantage of the opportunity to gaze at masterpieces by Da Vinci, Titian, Turner, and Goya, and look into the faces of those who also gaze.
7. “Rich Hill’’
The town of Rich Hill, Mo., epitomizes the impoverishment of Middle America. Documentarians Tracy Droz Tragos and Andrew Droz Palermo profile three of its teenaged residents, personalizing that tragedy. Andrew has taken over the care of his family from his dysfunctional parents — his sweet nature remains undimmed despite hardship. Appachey suffers from dyslexia and autism, and his fed-up mom can’t get him to take his meds. Harley, whose mother is in jail, is filled with rage. The three tell their stories in voiceover, and it’s like a Terrence Malick movie without the consolation of natural beauty.
8. “Tales of the Grim Sleeper’’
Thousands have protested police killings of innocent black men. But not much has been said about the police response to African-American victims of crime. For more than two decades the “Grim Sleeper” murdered women — at least 10; probably scores more — in South Central Los Angeles until he was captured in 2010. Armed with a camera, a microphone, and a British accent, guided by a plucky woman who was a near victim of the killer, Nick Broomfield investigates the case and unravels a story shocking not just because of the perpetrator’s evil but because of the authorities’ indifference.
9. “The Unknown Known’’
Only the president wields more power than the US Secretary of Defense, but the unforgiving scrutiny of filmmaker Errol Morris and his interviewing apparatus (the “Interrotron”) has proven more than a match for two of those secretaries. Robert McNamara, architect of the Vietnam War, confessed his folly in Morris’s “The Fog of War” (2003), and in “The Unknown Known,” even though Donald Rumsfeld never admits he’s wrong, he proves that even he didn’t know what he was talking about when he pronounced the fatuous phrase of the title. (Note: Released in 2013, the film opened in Boston this year.)
10. “Life Itself’’
For Roger Ebert, movies were life itself, and for millions of fans his name was synonymous with movies. Documentarian Steve James recounts that life: Ebert’s hard-drinking days at the Chicago Sun-Times, where he was the first film critic ever to win a Pulitzer Prize; his sober but spirited sparring with Gene Siskel on a TV show unfortunately more famed for its thumbs than its thoughtful criticism; and his resourceful embrace of the Internet. He heroically battled a crippling, fatal cancer, watching and writing until the end. James is as critical of his subject as Ebert was of the movies he loved: seldom perfect but always worthwhile.