While the big studios struggle under the restrictions of the pandemic, documentary films thrive. Over 140 have been released in 2020 according to Wikipedia, and with difficulty I have picked 10 favorites. They range from “City Hall,” the 45th film by Frederick Wiseman, a study of a government serving its citizens, to “Feels Good Man,” the first feature by Arthur Jones, a microcosm of how the Internet fails its users. These films are evidence that the documentary genre serves as a touchstone of truth in this era of misinformation.
Here they are, listed in alphabetical order.
Beyond the Visible — Hilma Af Klint Had William Blake been an abstract painter, his work might have resembled that of the overlooked Swedish artist Hilma af Klint (1862-1944). The images of her mandala-like works, eerily hued and hinting at transcendence, would alone make Halina Dyrschka’s film essential viewing. But it also restores af Klint’s reputation and traces her possible influence on artists such as Klee, Mondrian, and Warhol. Though influenced by sources ranging from Madame Blavatsky to Albert Einstein, af Klint’s larger than-life-paintings are sui generis. Her vision is both intensely personal and hauntingly universal.
Available on Amazon Prime, Google Play, iTunes, Vudi; and on DVD and Blu-ray from Kino Lorber. Go to kinolorber.com/product/beyond-the-visible-hilma-af-klint-dvd.
Boys State Compared to the shenanigans of supposedly grown-up politicians, the adolescent versions in Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss’s discerning, lively, and oddly hopeful film show some maturity and competence — but also some of the same venality, ambition, and duplicity. The title refers to the annual American Legion event held in various states attended by selected high school boys (there is a Girls State, too). They are arbitrarily divided into two generic parties that choose candidates, establish a party platform, and contend in mock elections. A portent of our current crisis, the 2017 session at the state capital in Austin, Texas, voted to secede from the union, and pressure is on the 2018 group to take the program more seriously. McBaine and Moss follow three candidates in their pursuit of office, and the unexpected twists in the unfolding story recall Moss’s outstanding “The Overnighters” (2014).
“Boys State” can be streamed on Apple TV+. Go to apple.co/3qSmGE3.
City Hall In his first documentary, “Titicut Follies” (1967), Frederick Wiseman revealed what a government institution looks like at its most destructive and dysfunctional. Now 90, Wiseman seems more sanguine, and his latest film presents an institution that actually gets the job done. It is Boston municipal government, which locals malign as much as they do the title Brutalist structure that houses it. At a brisk, immersive, and incisive 4½ hours the film observes committee meetings intercut with excursions to different parts of the city calling out for City Hall’s attention. The unlikely hero is the ubiquitous Mayor Marty Walsh, who tells his hard luck story of alcoholism and recovery and demonstrates two key qualities of leadership — empathy and humility.
“City Hall” can be seen on Dec. 22 at 8 p.m. on GBH2 and can be streamed simultaneously on PBS.org and the PBS Video App. It can also be streamed via the Brattle and Coolidge Corner theaters’ Virtual Screening Rooms. Go to www.pbs.org/show/city-hall, www.brattlefilm.org/virtual-programs/virtual-screening-room-city-hall, and coolidge.org/films/city-hall.
Collective Alexander Nanau’s film opens with a horrifying sequence: Taken by a cellphone, it shows the Bucharest nightclub Collectiv catching fire, first as a tiny flame, then a conflagration. People scream, the image tumbles, turns red, then black. Twenty-seven died and 180 were injured. When it was revealed that the club had bribed officials to overlook safety violations, outrage spread as fast as the fire. Thousands demonstrated and the prime minister resigned. But the worst was yet to come. As uncovered by the heroic journalist at the heart of the story, officials were pocketing money by diluting the antiseptic used in hospitals, causing many of the survivors to die from infections (a covert video of maggots crawling in a burn victim’s wound is stomach-turning). Nanau methodically follows the investigation while underscoring both the human suffering and the courage of those determined to uncover the truth.
“Collective” is available via Amazon Prime, Google Play, Vudu, YouTube or go to www.collectivemovie.com/watch-at-home.
Feels Good Man Matt Furie watched helplessly as his innocuous though scatological cartoon character Pepe the Frog was coopted by the alt-right. Arthur Jones’s film shows how Pepe was originally conceived as a gentle stoner, became an innocent meme on MySpace, was hijacked by the likes of Alex Jones and Richard Spencer, and retweeted by President Trump, confirming it as a totem of his cult. Though sometimes excruciating as it gazes into the uglier niches of the mass mind, the film’s integration of animation into its story is exhilarating and ingenious. Perhaps someday a rehabilitated Pepe will find its proper audience again.
Gunda A pig lies in the entrance of a crude shack at the beginning of Viktor Kosakovskiy’s stark and elegant study of the secret lives of barnyard animals. The pig seems to be sleeping, but then a tiny, cute piglet squirms over her body, followed by another, then many more, as the sow gives birth to a litter. Meanwhile the camera observes chickens released to a sanctuary from a cage as they gingerly step into their new environment like space explorers landing on an alien planet. Of particular interest is a one-legged chicken who hops boldly where no chicken has gone before. Not long into the film you realize that these are all animals we eat, and what you see becomes less adorable. Like a minimalist black-and-white version of his brilliant, extravagant “Aquarela” (2018), the film presents a fascinating glimpse of the strange beauty of the world with a subtle reminder of how humans abuse it.
Go to neonrated.com/films/gunda.
Mayor Marty Walsh has an easy time of it compared to Musa Hadid, mayor of Ramallah, on the West Bank. He and his staff wanted to change the city’s image to that of a vibrant cultural and economic center. The filmmaker David Osit observes the committee meetings where plans for a new city motto are discussed. At first seemingly absurd, the mayor’s determined efforts to enact his vision prove admirable. Hadid is Christian, as is much of the city’s population. An elaborate Christmas tree lighting, with its carols, light show, and rappelling Santas, is a big hit, as is the new fountain outside city hall. Then President Trump declares Jerusalem to be the capital of Israel, and Ramallah fills with demonstrators, tear gas, and Israeli soldiers. Like Wiseman, Osit celebrates the determination of a local leader, but one at the mercy of forces beyond his control.
“Mayor” can be streamed via the Brattle’s Virtual Screening Room. Go to www.brattlefilm.org/virtual-programs/virtual-screening-room-mayor.
Nasrin With the execution in Iran this month of the journalist Ruhollah Zam for the crime of telling the truth, Jeff Kaufman and Marcia Ross’s rousing, enraging portrait of Nasrin Sotoudeh, a defiant defense lawyer, could not be timelier. Shot in secret over four years by anonymous Iranian filmmakers, the film follows Sotoudeh as she takes on cases including that of a minor sentenced to death and women protesting the law requiring them to wear the hijab. Then Sotoudeh herself is convicted of bogus charges, in 2018, and sentenced to 38 years in prison and 148 lashes. In November, she contracted COVID-19 and was briefly released from prison only to be incarcerated again, though still suffering from the disease.
Go to www.nasrinfilm.com.
Our Time Machine Maleonn, one of China’s leading conceptual artists, learns that his father, a renowned director at the Peking Opera, has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. In an attempt to preserve his father’s memories — and his own memories of his father — he puts together a project called Papa’s Time Machine. With his father’s halting participation, Maleonn creates a surreal performance piece that features huge, oneiric puppets and bizarre devices reminiscent of the work of Terry Gilliam and Jan Švankmajer. The filmmakers Yang Sun and S. Leo Chiang present the story as a multilayered metaphor for the interplay of art, memory, and loss, and as the tragic drama of a complicated father-son relationship.
Available on Amazon Prime, Google Play, iTunes, YouTube. Go to timemachinefilm.com.
White Noise The rise of white nationalism can be traced to people like Richard Spencer, Steve Cernovich, and Lauren Southern, who used the Internet to spread misinformation, lies, and conspiracy theories. Daniel Lombroso’s engrossing and infuriating film profiles these demagogues and reveals the banality of their evil. Targeting a grievance culture and its racism, paranoia, and imperviousness to facts, these three have been lining their pockets, stroking their egos, and debasing democracy. Often hilarious, mostly infuriating, Lombroso’s close access to their antics might disabuse the deluded and enlighten everyone else.
Available on Amazon Prime, Google, iTunes, and Vimeo. Go to www.theatlantic.com/white-noise-movie.
Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.