Short-changed by the short list?

A still image from “Dawson City: Frozen Time.”
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
A still image from “Dawson City: Frozen Time.”

It can’t be easy picking 15 of the best documentary films of 2017.

Despite the challenge, the Oscar Documentary Committee came up with a laudable short list of films (final nominations will be announced on Jan. 23 and the Oscars will be held on March 4). Certainly no one can complain about the inclusion of 87-year-old Frederick Wiseman’s “Ex Libris” or 79-year-old Agnès Varda’s “Faces/Places.” Though both auteurs have received honorary Oscars, the Academy has never nominated any of their films.

Inevitably, though, some worthy candidates have been left out. Here are five of the best.



In 1978, a bonanza of old nitrate film was discovered under a demolished skating rink in the Yukon town of the title. In 2013, the documentarian Bill Morrison began piecing together remnants from the trove with other archival material to create a simultaneously lyrical and epic narrative. It not only tells the story of how these film relics ended up where they were found, but also tells the story of Dawson City, which is itself a microcosm of over a century of North American history and culture.

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In “Frozen Time” (recently awarded best documentary by the Boston Society of Film Critics), narratives intersect and parallel one another, recur and reveal themselves with the serendipity of films by Krzysztof Kieslowski. Visually rapturous and propelled by an incantatory soundtrack.

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Vinyl is making a comeback, so why not typewriters? The proprietor of the title Berkeley-based repair shop in Doug Nichol’s puckishly profound docu-essay hopes so, but either way he will soldier on.

The shop serves as a focus for a wide-ranging study of the device. Included are a sculptor who uses typewriter parts to construct pieces inspired by Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis”; a collector who has dedicated his life to locating the oldest extant examples of the machine; and our own Boston Typewriter Orchestra, whose performances include a cover of Slayer’s “Raining Blood.”

Other fans are more famous. Tom Hanks picks out one of his favorites from among the 250 or so machines in his collection to hand-type thank-you cards. And the late playwright Sam Shepard and the historian David McCullough rhapsodize about how the meeting place between technology and art is where an inked key strikes a blank page.

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One of the more complex and disturbing figures in the world of conspiracy theories is the subject of Erik Nelson’s multilayered and mysterious investigative documentary.

A veteran of conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, David Crowley was distraught by his experiences in those conflicts and felt a deep animus against the government he saw as responsible. This inspired him to develop “Gray State,” a dystopian thriller about the rise of a covert, murderous dictatorship in the United States.

The idea appealed to militia groups and conspiracy theorists such as InfoWars’s Alex Jones. It also piqued the interest of Hollywood producers who considered investing $30 million in a film which, judging from the skilled and terrifying trailer Nelson managed to complete, looked like a potential hit. But something went terribly wrong, and the tragic outcome has provided plenty of material for others to spin their own conspiracy theories.

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His TV series “Twin Peaks: The Return” has spurred a debate among critics’ groups about whether it should be considered a feature film in their year-end voting. While they’re at it, they might think about casting a vote for Jon Nguyen, Rick Barnes, and Olivia Neergaard-Holm’s seductive and weirdly inspiring study of David Lynch’s accomplishments in studio arts, a vocation that preceded his interest in film.

This interest began in a childhood which Lynch remembers with deceptively folksy fondness as wholesomely middle class — though with the occasional nightmarish moment, such as the naked woman wandering the streets that inspired a memorable image in “Blue Velvet” (1986). The 71-year-old Lynch’s amalgam of the homespun and the bizarre invests his artwork.


His multimedia pieces with cryptic texts resemble canvases by Francis Bacon, Jean Dubuffet, and Hieronymus Bosch. Mostly, though, they recall the filmmaker’s sui generis movies. By imaginatively combining Lynch’s cryptic recollections of his past, archival footage, images from his films and his ongoing work in the studio, “The Art Life” imitates Lynch’s own creative process of merging memory and the imagination.

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Christopher “Quest” Rainey, his wife Christine’a, and their two children — the subjects of Jonathan Olshefski’s documentary — live in a tough neighborhood in North Philadelphia. They are poor, hardworking, resourceful, and artistic. When life sends them stormy weather, the family adapts, using plastic bags to cover the leaks in the roof.

A lot happens in the 10 years that Olshefski embedded himself with the Raineys, including three presidential elections that lurk in the background. During that time, Quest and Christine’a help the community by producing hip-hop music performed by locals, but their top act has a drinking problem. Their son develops a brain tumor and their talented daughter, who has come out as gay, gets shot in the eye in a gang cross fire. All of this unfolds with a naturalism and rhythm that not only shares these lives, but re-creates the experience of passing time.

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Peter Keough can be reached at