A good documentary, like a good argument, backs up a cogent opinion with facts, analysis, and judgment. A great documentary, like a great essay, transcends the prosaic and achieves the power of poetry. Many of the best nonfiction films of 2015, in their confrontation with genocide, gun violence, and the prospects for saving the world, attained this level of artistry. Here are 10 of the best.
1 | The Look of Silence
Joshua Oppenheimer’s second — after “The Act of Killing” (2013) — in his diptych about the 1965 Indonesian genocide reverses the point of view of the first film. Instead of the perpetrators reveling in their twisted re-creations of their crimes, the victims get vindication. Adi, an optician under the guise of conducting an exam, looks into the souls of those implicated in the murder of his brother. He does not look away, nor can the viewer look away from the potential for cruelty and evil that abides in everyone.
2 | In Jackson Heights
Frederick Wiseman has not changed his style and approach to making documentaries for decades, but he has refined it into an exquisite tool for exploring universal themes through the microcosm of specific communities and institutions. His in-depth tour of the multicultural Queens neighborhood of the title, the home of the Queens Gay Pride parade and a community where 167 languages are spoken, shows that the biggest threat to such a melting pot is not intolerance and hatred but the sly encroachment of greed and gentrification.
3 | The Armor of Light
The title of Abigail Disney’s intense, intimate, and stirring account of a spiritual journey refers to Romans 13:12: “The night is almost gone, and the day is near. Therefore let us lay aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light.” Her subject, Rev. Rob Schenck, opens the film holding a dead fetus in an anti-abortion demonstration and ends as an anti-gun activist, preaching this biblical verse to unsympathetic members of his fundamentalist following in an eloquent appeal to the true meaning of “pro-life.”
4 | Cartel Land
With the thrills of a Kathryn Bigelow action movie (she is one of the film’s producers), and with the complexity and urgency of an analytical essay, Matthew Heineman’s you-are-there documentary explores vigilantism on both sides of the Mexico-Arizona border. Embedded with volunteer border guards in Arizona and with an anti-cartel self-defense group in Mexico, he demonstrates how the best intentions can lead to the worst outcome.
5 | The Salt of the Earth
In an age with little use for veteran auteur filmmakers, Wim Wenders has reinvented himself as a documentarian. He earned his third best documentary Oscar nomination (the others are 1999’s “Buena Vista Social Club” and 2011’s “Pina”) with this moving portrait of another kind of documentarian — Sebastião Salgado, the photojournalist whose lens has captured such brutish realities as the exploitation of Brazilian miners and the brutalization of African refugees. “We humans are terrible animals,” says Salgado. And so he makes photos that ache with a terrible beauty. The film is co-directed by Juliano Ribeiro Salgado, son of Sebastião.
6 | The Pearl Button
The poetic imagination makes unexpected connections between disparate ideas, objects, and images. So it is with Argentine filmmaker Patricio Guzmán and his slow-building but ultimately devastating essay about his nation’s tragedy — the 1973-98 reign of terror under dictator Augusto Pinochet. A crystal containing a drop of millennia-old water, nodding radio telescopes in the desert, the beach where a friend drowned, and the title button coalesce into an unforgettable epiphany shaped by Guzmán’s spare narration.
7 | The Wolfpack
As the director Crystal Moselle tells it, she came cross her subjects while strolling through Manhattan. A pack of intimidating young men dressed alike in black with long raven hair and dark glasses. She ended up sharing their lives, learning their stories, and most remarkably observing how they transcended years of imposed isolation by watching movies like “Reservoir Dogs” and re-creating them with exacting detail. An impressive combination of synchronicity, innocence, and meta-moviemaking.
8 | We Come as Friends
This is how to make documentary: Build a plane, enlist a cameraman, and fly to a country in the midst of a chaotic partition. That’s how Hubert Sauper (“Darwin’s Nightmare”) did it, piloting his patchwork craft to Sudan. Once there, like the Little Prince with the sensibility of Werner Herzog, he made friends and investigated the situation on the ground. His plane serves as both vehicle and a metaphor for the art of documentary — a DIY apparatus designed to penetrate the truth.
9 | Stray Dog
As is the case with many woman directors, Debra Granik got Oscar nominations for her 2010 feature “Winter’s Bone” and then was forgotten. She perseveres with this documentary about Ron Hall, a Vietnam vet from the Ozarks whom she had cast in a small but pivotal role in “Bone.” Intimidatingly burly, bearded, and tattooed, he is a Harley rider with a checkered past who turns out to be a real sweetheart. Granik follows his cross-country pilgrimages with convoys of fellow bikers to benefit bereft veterans and their families, charting a map of the woes and virtues of a nation.
10 | Brand: A Second Coming
Ever the self-destructive one, Russell Brand distanced himself from Ondi Timoner’s documentary about his new calling as world savior. Perhaps it was not hagiographic enough for him. Instead, it humanizes the confrontational stand-up comic, fair-to-middling movie star, and current candidate for the second coming of Christ. Timoner followed him on his scatological and quixotic traveling show, “Messiah Complex,” and found that the obnoxious narcissist might have a point.Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.