Not much else in the past year can be looked back on fondly, but the renaissance in documentary filmmaking continues to offer hope — not just for cinema in general but for the healing of our ruptured world. Here are 10 of the year’s best, listed in alphabetical order.
Robert Greene’s melancholy and triumphant documentary manages to combine the themes of economic injustice, racial and ethnic prejudice, community polarization, and the redemptive power of art. In 1917 copper miners went on strike in the town of Bisbee, Ariz., on the Mexican border. The owners enlisted the local sheriff and a gang of vigilantes to suppress the uprising, a showdown ending in tragedy and causing a split in the community that would last for generations. A century later the townspeople — longtime residents and newcomers — gather together to reenact the historical events. The result is stirring and admonitory.
Hale County This Morning,
In a style that is alternately impressionistic, dreamlike, earthy, and epiphanic, RaMell Ross’s portrait of the African-American community of the title locale — the same Alabama county that is the subject of James Agee and Walker Evans’s 1941 classic, “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men” — compresses several years of observational footage into a resonant fugue. Ross’s approach to the issue of race is oblique and poetic, as when a visit to a dilapidated mansion is punctuated by a silent movie clip of a comedian in blackface and concludes with the hauntingly beautiful image of smoke from burning tires rising into the sunlight.
“Hale County This Morning, This Evening” can be seen at the Brattle Theatre Jan. 18-21.
Yayoi Kusama, now 89, was a fiery feminist provocateur and visionary artist before her time. As seen in Heather Lenz’s exhilarating and infuriating documentary, Kusama engaged in confrontational paintings, performance pieces, and sculptures that did not go over well in the repressed, patriarchal climate that prevailed in Japan, and even New York, in the 1950s. Years of flamboyant stunts to get the attention of the art world and a few suicide attempts resulted in her taking up permanent residence in a mental hospital in 1977. After decades of obscurity, her surreal creations and giddying obsession with polka dots made her one of the world’s most popular and enigmatic artists.
“Kusama: Infinity” is available on digital HD and on DVD ($20.19) on Jan. 8.
Minding the Gap
Bing Liu’s debut film seems at first glance a playful video diary about himself and pals who are involved in the skateboarding subculture of blue-collar Rockford, Ill. But before long the film reveals itself to be a meditation on the documentary medium itself and a subtle analysis of economic inequality, unemployment, addiction, alcoholism, and domestic violence. The result is somber, wistful, and thought-provoking.
Available on Hulu.
For five decades, Frederick Wiseman has refined his meticulously crafted portraits of microcosmic institutions into his own subgenre. Here he visits the rutral community of the title to observe the bucolic beauty of John Deere machinery at work in sun-dappled fields and the seemingly banal town council meetings that reveal the virtues and weaknesses of a community resisting change and fearing the future. Wiseman’s gaze has grown gentler over the years but is no less incisive.
For screening availability go to www.zipporah.com/films/47.
Our New President
The “Our” in the title of Maxim Pozdorovkin’s rambunctiously depressing found-footage film refers to Russia and the “President” in question is Donald Trump. Drawing on clips from state-controlled Russian news channels and amateur social media productions, the film begins its surreal history back when Hillary Clinton was secretary of state and already the target of Putinesque propaganda and continues through the carnivalesque shenanigans of the campaign, the stunning upset election, and finally the gloating mockery of a chief executive whom Russians believe to be their own creation.
“Our New President” is available on Amazon video.
The Pain of Others
Whether imaginary or not, the pain suffered by those afflicted with Morgellons disease is real. Penny Lane’s fascinating and disturbing look at his phenomenon puts together clips from the video diaries of victims of the malady who dwell obsessively on their symptoms (which include the sensation of insects burrowing under the skin and the emergence of microscopic fibers from lesions) and suggest cures (drinking pee is not the most drastic). Despite the extremity of the subject, Lane maintains a tone of compassion.
“The Pain of Others” is available on Fandor.
Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda
Stephen Nomura Schible’s film evokes the contemplative, luminous style and rhythms of its subject, the Japanese composer Ryuichi Sakamoto, whose accomplishments range from the techno-pop of his Yellow Magic Orchestra in the 1970s to an avant-garde piece played on a radioactive piano recovered from the tsunami and nuclear reactor meltdown that ravaged Fukushima, Japan, in 2011, to a 2017 album intended as the soundtrack to a nonexistent movie by Andrei Tarkovsky. A career and a film that are as profound in their silences as in their exquisite sounds.
“Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda” is available on iTunes.
Sandi Tan’s movie about the making of a movie takes several sardonic twists before arriving at an ambiguous, ironically happy ending. In Singapore in 1992 the teenage Tan and two friends set out to make a road movie called “Shirkers,” the extant footage of which indicates that if completed it would have been a surreal treat brimming with energy and inventiveness. Instead the three entrusted their work to their mysterious collaborator, Georges, who disappeared with the footage. They abandoned filmmaking to pursue other careers, but remnants of the film resurfaced years later, and Tan tries to retrace what happened. The original “Shirkers” might be lost, but this brilliant documentary debut is a worthy replacement.
“Shirkers” is available on Netflix.
Three Identical Strangers
Tim Wardle’s documentary about triplets separated at birth is the kind of documentary that takes gasp-inducing twists and turns as it unfolds, and the story reels from heartwarming to shocking, tragic, and, finally, ruefully wise. In 1980, 19-year-old Bobby Shafran bumped into his doppelganger during his first day at college. Shortly afterward the twins found their third identical sibling and the trio became happy-go-lucky media celebrities. But fame did not sit well with all of them, nor did the dark truth about their origins. Wardle courts and inverts narrative expectations in this parable about identity and the warped vagaries of fate.
“Three Identical Strangers” is available on Blu-ray ($29.98), DVD ($22.98), on digital streaming, and on demand.
Go to www.threeidenticalstrangers.com .
Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.