Documentaries, like practically every other fare of genre, have flourished lately. Chalk it up to streaming services new and old pouring billions of dollars into original content to satisfy their subscribers’ insatiable lust for new movies and shows, or simply the glut of fascinating stories waiting to be told. Rarely hits at the box office, nonfiction narratives are particularly well-suited to on-demand viewing, however, offering those who spend hours binge-watching lighter fare the rare opportunity to feel like they’re learning something as they sit on the couch.
Of course, quantity never equals quality, so we’ve dedicated our year to watching as many nonfiction films and series to pluck out the best of them that will expand your intellectual and emotional horizons. Below you’ll find the best documentaries of 2020 (including docuseries, the form that may have benefited more than any other from the streaming revolution). You’ll find streaming hits, obscure treasures, and theatrical and VOD releases, but they all share one common trait: They’ll help you better understand the world, for better or for worse.
Premiere date: February 3 Director: James Lee Hernandez and Brian Lazarte Why it’s a great doc: Some of the best documentary stories are the ones that feel so outrageous that they couldn’t possibly be real. McMillion$ is a solid example of this type of truth that is absolutely stranger than fiction. The six-episode docuseries shines a light on the Monopoly game McDonald’s ran for over a decade, from 1989 to 2001, and the baffling scam that coincided with the seemingly innocent contest. As the story unfolds, the stylized series introduces a quirky group of crime-fighters and criminals-and the mob, let’s not forget about the mob-all orbiting around a $24-million dollar case of fraud that eluded law enforcement for years. McMillion$ explores the crime from every angle, showing just how one man got away with selling off the game’s winning tickets to family, friends, and neighbors, while also shining a light on the bad decisions a little bit of greed can inspire. Where to watch it: HBO (Watch the trailer.)
30. Crip Camp
Release date: March 25 Directors: Nicole Newnham and Jim LeBrecht Why it’s a great doc: Chances are you have not heard of Camp Jened, a camp for disabled people that operated in upstate New York between the 1950s and 1970s. But the documentary Crip Camp invites you into this hippie-run utopia, introducing its attendees that will later go on to fight for disabled rights across the country. The film, produced by Higher Ground, the Obamas’ company, is co-directed by sound designer Jim LeBrecht, who went to the camp in 1971 and the stay changed his life. As a teen suffering from spina bifida, he felt like an outcast among his peers. At Jened he was a cool kid. Through incredible archival footage, the documentary shows how campers at Jened were given the freedom they so often lacked in the outside world. There’s smoking, sex, partying, and a sense of pure community. The narrative then swerves to life outside of this ostensible paradise, following activists like Judy Heumann, who staged protests that led to the adoption of the Americans with Disabilities Act. These are also amazing stories, but you’re left wishing that the filmmakers had spent a little more time delving into the history of Jened beyond this one generation. Where to watch it: Netflix (Watch the trailer.)
29. Visible: Out on Television
Release date: February 14 Director: Ryan White Why it’s a great doc: Just two decades ago, the concept of two women kissing on television almost cost the career and livelihood of one of the most famous personalities in Hollywood today: Ellen Degeneres. Her out-of-the-ashes journey from rising sitcom star to shamed out-of-the-closet lesbian to lifetime achievement award-winning talk show host is just one of the many instances of the homosexual experience, one of life-threatening struggle and world-changing progress, explored in Ryan White’s new Apple TV+ docuseries. Ellen is just one of the many famous faces featured throughout the five-episode series: Oprah Winfrey, Tim Gunn, Lena Waithe and Wilson Cruz, who also acts as the show’s executive producer, are all here, adding heartfelt context to the quickly-paced, deeply-analytical story being told. The docuseries acts as a reminder for some, and an education for others, that it wasn’t that long ago that the gay and lesbian communities were viewed as dangerous delinquents, frequently mentioned alongside the always-feared communist threat of the 1950s. From its wide perception as mental illness to the legalization of gay marriage, LGBTQ representation and acceptance has evolved exponentially over the seven decades since small screen entertainment began. Basically, we’ve all got TV to thank for that. Where to watch it: Apple TV+ (Watch the trailer.)
Premiere date: April 24 Director: Spike Jonze Why it’s a great doc: The Beastie Boys Story is an amalgamation if you will — a movie hybrid that’s one part documentary, one part concert film, and one part live, two-man play. The simple formula, which finds remaining Beastie Boys bandmates Adam Horovitz (aka Ad-Rock) and Mike Diamond (aka Mike D) sharing the story of their lifelong friendship with the late Adam Yauch (aka MCA), and their rise, fall, and subsequent rise again as trend-setting icons in the music world. “We were as much Monty Python as we were Black Flag,” Horovitz says on stage. Ad-Rock and Mike D share pivotal memories, as previously told in their 2018 memoir, the lengthy Beastie Boys Book. The scaled-down storytelling formula of the doc offers an off-the-cuff, intimate experience which shines a light on the ups and downs the group hit in their career-from their embarrassing early days as Def Jam’s hit party boy rap group to the experimental jam sessions that sparked an evolution that propelled the Beastie Boys to new heights, both creatively and spiritually. The Beastie Boys Story takes the formula of a Behind the Music episode and elevates it with humor and heart. As much as it’s an essential lesson in music history, the documentary is a touching tribute to Adam Yauch, who passed away from cancer in 2012. He guided the group on their path, profoundly changed his friends’ lives along the way, and elevated hip hop with humor and heart. Where to watch it: Apple TV+ (Watch the trailer.)
27. Cursed Films
Premiere date: April 2 Director: Jay Cheel Why it’s a great doc: Films commenting on other films always runs the risk of getting a little too meta for an average viewer, but Shudder has done wonders with its original documentaries about horror filmmaking: First with last year’s Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror (one of our favorite movies of 2019), and now with Jay Cheel’s series Cursed Films, tracking down the real stories behind some of Hollywood’s most famously “cursed” productions, like The Crow, Poltergeist, The Exorcist, and others. It’s the perfect vehicle to debunk some of horror’s longest standing dark rumors and theories with talking head interviews, from journalists and authors to high-profile producers and actors who starred in the films themselves. Episodes often take breaks to chat with real-life dark magick practitioners, for example, to perform the sorts of rituals on-camera that freaked so many people out in theaters, breathing some much-needed levity to a sometimes bleakly heady experience. For horror fans, it’s a must-watch; for everyone else, it’s a fascinating entry point into the wide world of on-set conspiracy theories. Where to watch it: Shudder (Watch the trailer.)
26. Trial By Media
Release date: May 11 Director: Multiple Why it’s a great doc: Just when you thought you couldn’t tolerate yet another true-crime series, along came Trial By Media, executive produced by George Clooney, with a refreshing angle on the genre. While some of these kinds of series touch on community and media reactions of violent murders and political scandals, this seven-episode anthology is squarely about that, stepping outside of the inner circle of each case and reflecting on the larger societal context and impact of major cultural moments, such as the tragic killing of Amadou Diallo in 1999 after being shot by NYPD 41 times and its fallout on the city’s racist policing tactics, Jenny Jones and the lawsuits that came out of “gotcha” talk shows, the wild story of disgraced Illinois governor Roy Blagojevich whose swirling corruption scandal landed him on the Celebrity Apprentice. A fascinating look back at the last 30-odd years of history, Trial By Media will reframe these cases that you may or may not have heard of in brand-new light. Where to watch it: Netflix (Watch the trailer.)
25. Stuntwomen: The Untold Hollywood Story
Release date: September 22 Director: April Wright Why it’s a great doc: Film fans have been demanding more recognition for stunt performers for years, so it’s refreshing to finally get a documentary that pays tribute to the daredevils behind the biggest thrills of the biggest Hollywood blockbusters. Specifically, this doc focuses on female stunt performers who more often than not feel undervalued in their own office. Michelle Rodriguez narrates as the documentary takes us through movie history with a captivating trove of personal interviews, archival footage, and images. It’s an ode to the pioneers in the industry and those working today on TV and in the biggest franchises who make their actresses feel fast and furious every day. But the doc isn’t just about the stunts, it highlights how these artists fight on screen and off in order to be included and recognized in a man’s business. They can’t show weakness, they have to work harder, prove themselves more, or they could lose their job to a man in a wig. But as director April Wright hammers home: Stuntwomen can do anything their male counterparts can do, and they can do it in high heels. Where to watch it: VOD (Watch the trailer.)
24. Rebuilding Paradise
Premiere date: July 31 Director: Ron Howard (Pavarotti, The Beatles: Eight Days a Week, Made in America)
On November 8, 2018, a deadly firestorm enveloped the California mountain town of Paradise. The videos and images that soon hit social media, showing the chaos from within the worst of the Camp Fire (which has gone on record as the most destructive wildfire to ever hit California, though that might be revised given the scope of 2020’s wildfires) looked like outtakes from a disaster movie. They weren’t. When it was all over, the majority of Paradise was left in ash. Director Ron Howard, who previously explored the calculating power of fire in his blockbuster Backdraft, decided to grab a camera crew and head to Northern California. Exploring the damning power of Mother Nature amid the ever-growing threat of climate change, Howard’s cinema verite look at the fire, the members of the community it impacted, and the enduring resilience of humanity gives audiences a jarring look at the ways in which these heightened weather patterns are becoming the new norm. The NatGeo documentary is a terrifying, heartbreaking, and inspiring exercise in challenging the human strength and a testament to the members of the Paradise community who refused to let this historic disaster break their spirit. Where to watch it: VOD (Watch the trailer.)
23. Totally Under Control
Release date: October 13 Director: Alex Gibney (TheInventor)
Why it’s a great doc: To some, it might feel too soon to look back on the many hells of 2020-chiefly, the extent to which the Trump administration bungled the country’s COVID-19 response that’s left more than 300,00 people, and counting, dead. But if you have any more room for righteous anger, Alex Gibney’s Totally Under Control is a worthy watch, enumerating the many, many, many, many ways the United States government failed its citizens, both in downplaying the virus in public, to the extent of firing outspoken scientists to replace them with Trump lackeys, and making an utter mess of the processes, like throwing out the well-researched pandemic handbook, that could have potentially lessened the devastation. It’s undeniably frustrating, and yet another look at Trump’s pileup of failures. Where to watch it: Hulu (Watch the trailer.)
22. Night on Earth
Release date: January 29 Director: Multiple Why it’s a great doc: Another must-watch British nature docuseries, Night on Earth feels like an impossibly fresh take in the self-crowded Planet Earth space just by turning off the lights. Not all of the series is high-tech infrared camera shots taken at night; it finds the right balance between daytime animal behaviors and the dramatic, energetic shift into the dark. The juxtaposition, in addition to newly discovered behaviors as animals (like the famous polar bears) are adapting to their altered ecosystems because of climate change, might seem like merely a gimmick with stunning camera work, but don’t be fooled-Night on Earth is the real deal. Where to watch it: Netflix (Watch the trailer.)
Release date: May 8 Director: Matt Wolf (Recorder) Why it’s a great doc: Following in the footsteps of Pauly Shore’s 1996 comedy Bio-Dome isn’t easy, but documentary filmmaker Matt Wolf is up to the task with this non-fiction chronicle of the Biosphere 2 project launched in the late ’80s. Funded by billionaire Ed Bass and spearheaded by artist-engineer John Allen, Biosphere 2 was an attempt to make science-fiction ideas a reality by sending a team of scientists to live in a large self-sustaining, glass-covered ecological structure in Arizona. Spaceship Earth captures both the spirit of utopian hope that powered the wildly ambitious research facility and the culture of secrecy that formed as media scrutiny of the project became more intense. Was it an experimental art project or a rigorous scientific study? A publicity stunt or a noble test? A farce or a tragedy? While the contemporary interviews with participants are revealing, providing necessary context and welcome perspective, the documentary is at its best when it stays firmly rooted in the past, telling a story of counter-cultural idealism thwarted by competing egos and corporate interests. Where to watch: Hulu (Watch the trailer.)
20. The Vow
Release date: August 23 Directors: Jehane Noujaim and Karim Amer (The Great Hack) Why it’s a great doc: 2020 is a big year for long-form exposes on NXIVM, the sex cult masquerading as a self-help program that made national headlines over the past two years as it was disbanded and its key leaders put on trial for a long list of crimes, including sex trafficking and tax fraud. HBO’s The Vow, from the directors of Netflix’s doc The Great Hack on the Cambridge Analytica scandal, follows ex-NXIVM members coming together to stop the reign of terror of the group’s nefarious ringleader Keith Raniere, most infamous for branding women in the group’s inner circle. Cutting in footage taken by Raniere’s former right-hand man, the series lays out the horrific tactics used to keep NXIVM members indoctrinated and the real-time grassroots efforts to save women from the cult’s clutches. It culminates in the shocking finale with Raniere giving feedback on a rough cut of the series, the sort of sociopathic behavior that someone who “feels no remorse” for their crimes would display. Already, The Vow has been renewed for a second season with a focus on the 2019-2020 trial and sentencing that’s ongoing as you’re reading this. Where to watch it: HBO (Watch the trailer.)
19. Class Action Park
Release date: August 20 Director: Seth Porges
Why it’s a great doc: In the late ’70s a new attraction hit unassuming Vernon Township, New Jersey: Action Park, an amusement and water park that drew in thousands from the Tri-state area. It drew attention not just because of its go-carts, wave pools, and massive, experimental water slides, but because of how many injuries, lawsuits, and even deaths they caused. This documentary from Chris Charles Scott and Seth Porges balances the hilarity and shock value of the park with its misbehaving teenage employees and dangerous rides, while examining the seediness behind it and what’s ultimately a darker narrative. It’s a tricky line to walk, but you end the movie with a deeper understanding of this oddball tale of sex, drugs, and go-carts. Where to watch it: HBO Max (Watch the trailer.)
Directors: Pippa Ehrlich, James Reed Why it’s a great doc: Few creatures on this planet have an intelligence so similar to ours, yet so completely alien, as the octopus, the clever huntsman of the deep whose arms have their own brains and whose inquisitive nature is the result of a unique consciousness. In 2010, debilitated by adrenal fatigue and deep in the throes of a creative block, documentarian Craig Foster began freediving off the coast of the poetically named Cape of Storms, whose icy temperatures and rocky intertidal beaches make it a forbidding environment for even the most experienced swimmers. In the kelp forest beyond the waves, Craig met a small female common octopus, whom he decided to visit every single day, no matter the weather. His fascination with her slowly blossoms into a kind of friendship, as the octopus grew more familiar with his presence, and that trust allowed him to observe how she cleverly navigated her undersea world. The movie reminds us that the fleeting nature of life is the very thing that teaches us to appreciate it, and how important it is for us to find a connection to the natural world. Where to watch it: Netflix (Watch the trailer.)
Premiere date: March 20 Directors: Eric Goode and Rebecca Chaiklin Why it’s a great doc: Before Tiger King came along, a few docuseries were vying for the title of Netflix’s craziest true-crime shows. Since Tiger King came out, it’s no longer a contest. This series, a close look into the community of exotic animal keepers hiding in plain sight, has more crazy moments, twists, and real shockers in a single episode that it’s legitimately difficult to keep track of every jaw-dropping revelation. Directors Eric Goode and Rebecca Chaiklin know how to hook an audience: Every episode starts with an epiphany and ends on a cliffhanger as they get deeper into the world of big cats, the drama unfolding between someone like Joe Exotic, who at one point owned the largest private zoo in the United States, and his mortal enemy Carole Baskin, who runs Big Cat Rescue in Florida. Beyond being absolutely insane to watch, Tiger King pulls off the delicate task of telling this impossibly crazy story with both empathy and a critical eye. No one comes out of it unscathed. Where to watch it: Netflix (Watch the trailer.)
16. Mucho Mucho Amor
Release date: July 8 Director: Cristina Costantini and Kareem Tabsch Why it’s a great doc: Walter Mercado knew the value of showmanship. When the famed Puerto Rican astrologer would appear on television, whether it was in a psychic hotline commercial, a daytime talk program like The Sally Jesse Raphael Show, or his own long-running extravaganza on Univision, he always looked immaculate. He was like a statue come to life. The wardrobe, the hair, and the soul-piercing stare made him a star, the type of extravagant screen presence that stops a channel-surfer right in their tracks. Mucho Mucho Amor, a playful and brisk bio-documentary, celebrates his star-making qualities while also arguing that it was his universal message of peace and love that truly made him an icon. Blending captivating footage of Mercado’s flashy heyday, animated sequences, and interviews, the movie provides plenty of context and background information for younger viewers who perhaps only know Mercado as a meme or a distant memory. It lacks the outrageous flash of its subject-how do you compete with all those jewel-covered capes?-but the filmmakers make up for it with a curious, empathetic touch. Where to watch it: Netflix (Watch the trailer.)
15. The Mole Agent
Release date: September 1 Director: Maite Alberdi (The Grown-Ups, Tea Time, I’m Not From Here, etc.) Why it’s a great doc:The Mole Agent is a documentary that sneaks up on the viewer. At the beginning, we meet Detective Romulo, a private investigator seeking a dexterous senior citizen to go undercover and sniff out possible abuse occurring at a nursing home in Chile. The 83-year-old man he chooses for the job, a thoughtful and polite retiree named Sergio, proves to be an effective agent even if he can’t quite get the hang of FaceTime on his phone. The other residents at the home quickly grow to love Sergio, calling him “the gentleman” and showering him with praise. (In one of the funniest and sweetest scenes, Sergio gets elected the home’s equivalent of the prom king.) Like in any compelling spy narrative, Sergio begins to question the nature of his given mission, growing frustrated by his handler’s demands for simple, verifiable answers to complicated questions. Despite a somewhat cutesy score and some repetitive moments, The Mole Agent succeeds as a nimble comedy about old age, familial responsibility, and loneliness. By emulating Sergio’s gentle demeanor, the filmmakers craft a portrait of the elderly that’s both kind-hearted and morally righteous. Where to watch it: VOD (Watch the trailer.)
14. Feels Good Man
Director: Arthur Jones (The Poseidon Project) Why it’s a great doc: In Arthur Jones’ documentary Feels Good Man it’s hard not to develop a level of affection for the frog known as Pepe. No, not the version of Pepe that’s been adopted by the alt-right and white supremacists on the internet. Rather, Jones takes Pepe all the way back to his origins when he was just the fun-loving creation of a soft spoken artist named Matt Furie. Alternately a profile of Furie, a man who watched his beloved cartoon become a monster he couldn’t control thanks to the internet, and a look at the culture that allowed that to happen, Feels Good is a cautionary tale that examines memes, IP, and hate. Where to watch it: VOD (Watch the trailer.)
13. The Truffle Hunters
Release date: TBD Director: Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw (The Last Race) Why it’s a great doc: One of the loveliest films of the year, The Truffle Hunters is a documentary about the truffle trade in Northern Italy. Its stars? A bunch of older Italian men and their beloved dogs, who they treat like children. Directors Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw offer gorgeously shot windows into the serious business of scouring the forests for these delicacies. It’s not entirely sweet pups and their devoted owners, though. Without any extra context, Dweck and Kershaw introduce us to the traders who make the industry a vicious one with a lot of money on the line. Still, the indisputable star is Birba, a sweet pooch of unidentifiable breed whose elderly person feeds from his own dinner table and worries about leaving behind once he passes. Where to watch it: TBD (Watch the trailer.)
12. The Painter and the Thief
Release date: May 22 Director: Benjamin Ree (Magnus) Why it’s a great doc: Norwegian documentary filmmaker Ree paints a remarkable portrait of two lives that become intertwined. Instead of shunning the person who stole two of her pieces from a Norway exhibition, painter Barbora Kysilkova befriends the man, a career criminal named Karl-Bertil, a junkie who pilfered the art in the midst of a bender and has no memory of where he abandoned it. Barbora is desperate to know what became of her dark, hyper-realistic works, but she also finds a muse in Karl-Bertil, who is deeper than his “Crime Pays” T-shirt suggests. Ree allows both of them to tell their sides of the story while following their burgeoning friendship over the course of years. It’s easy to imagine Barbora and Karl-Bertli as characters in a narrative feature, as we see their fortunes shift. After a low point, Karl-Bertli starts rebuilding his life just as Barbora’s starts to fray, her obsessions with turning misery into art becoming a burden. The Painter and the Thief mostly lets the viewer just live with these people and the tension that exists between them as it weaves in questions about muses, pain, and the act of creating art. Where to watch it: Hulu & VOD (Watch the trailer.)
11. The Last Dance
Release date: April 19 Director: Jason Hehir (Andre the Giant) Why it’s a great doc: During the Chicago Bulls dynasty during their final 1997-1998 championship season, a press crew was given intimate access to the team, Michael Jordan, Dennis Rodman, Scottie Pippen, coach Phil Jackson, et al. The result of that footage (plus recently filmed talking head interviews) is The Last Dance, an insightful, nostalgic 10-episode throwback to a time when the Bulls ruled the playground. Obviously, Michael Jordan resides at the center of the series; he not only carried the team, his legend adds to the gravitas of the story being told. Jackson coined the term “The Last Dance” to reference this period of time which shows a conflicted, struggling team fighting through uncertainty as they worked to nab one last championship title before the winning lineup disbanded for good. The series is one of the most satisfying surprises to hit the small screen in some time-even more memeable than Tiger King-and during a time when professional sports are on hold, the evocative and classic game footage of MJ dunking on damn near everyone will surely scratch that b-ball itch. Where to watch it: ESPN, Netflix (Watch the trailer.)
10. Boys State
Premiere date: August 14 Directors: Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss (The Overnighters)
Since 1937, the American-Legion has assembled two yearly gender-segregated programs-Boys State and Girls State-to walk young people through America’s political process. Boys State follows a large swath of teenage boys on the verge of adulthood as they converge to assemble their own mock government. What transpires is reminiscent to Lord of the Flies in the sense that the young people are in charge. But the real entry-point to the story ks the multiple characters the camera crews decide to follow. While the documentary takes place in Texas and is filled with the expected conservative views that come with living in the red state, the movie does its best to explore the views of the next generation without bias. In turn, it shows how handed-down ideologies can impact our young people, and thusly shines a light on our country’s political strengths and weaknesses. While audiences will most certainly be yearning for the female perspective once all is said and done, Boys State acts as a reminder that the children are indeed our future-and that concept plays out in both a terrifying and inspiring light. Where to watch it: Apple TV+ (Watch the trailer.)
9. The Scheme
Release date: March 31 Director: Pat Kondelis Why it’s a great doc: For insight into the NCAA’s inexplicable rules against paying college athletes for spending the majority of their time in highly publicized sports roles while the universities rake in billions, look no further than the endlessly fascinating The Scheme. Told through interviews, the doc focuses on Christian Dawkins, a charismatic and sharp young basketball recruiter from Saginaw, Michigan who figured out how to exploit the crooked system, working as the liaison between coaches desperately in need of talent and up-and-coming players, before he could legally drink. That is, until the FBI entrapment sent him to jail in a pay-to-play scheme as he sought funding for his own agency. Where to watch it: HBO Max (Watch the trailer.)
8. I’ll Be Gone in the Dark
Premiere date: June 28 Director: Liz Garbus (The Fourth Estate, What Happened, Miss Simone?, Bobby Fischer Against the World) I’ll Be Gone in the Dark is different than most of the murder fodder that has bombarded TV, movies, and podcasts in recent years. The six-part HBO docuseries, which was based on Michelle McNamara’s best-selling novel of the same name, not only takes audiences on a wildly tragic dive into the hunt for the notorious murdering rapist known as “The Golden State Killer,” the episodic tale explores the obsessive nature of true crime’s fandom through the sympathetic perspective of the author. The result takes us into McNamara’s world as she delves deeper into her investigation, plagued by sleepless nights and medicated dreams. The tragedy of the HBO series doesn’t just reside in the victims’ accounts of the attacks or the four-decades-long mission to capture the man, it exists within McNamara’s own personal mental health struggle, which abruptly came to an end before Joseph D’Angelo was brought to justice. Her death solidifies the urgency of the story, which, unlike most sensationalized true-crime entertainment, shines a sympathetic light on the survivors’ experiences. Where to watch it: HBO (Watch the trailer.)
Release date: December 11 Director: Victor Kossakovsky (Aquarela) Why it’s a great doc: Effective without a single human face, words, or music appearing-just farm animals and their noises, occasionally plodding boots or the grinding of tractor wheels turning-experimental documentary director Victor Kossakovsky’s Gunda hangs around a pig’s-eye-view of life on a Norwegian farm, also occupied by cows and a one-legged chicken. But this black-and-white film doesn’t need words to get across its unflinching life-cycle portrait of a mother sow, Gunda herself, raising piglets that will eventually leave her. You’ll learn things about animal behavior and their own sentience; the end will inevitably leave you in tears. Where to watch it: VOD (Watch the trailer.)
6. Welcome to Chechnya
Release date: June 30 Director: David France (How to Survive a Plague, The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson) Why it’s a great doc: A devastating international human rights story, Welcome to Chechnya follows the efforts of activists to get lesbian and gay people of the oppressively homophobic Russian republic, where being anything but heterosexual means almost certain death. David France, whose oeuvre has brought necessary light to undertold LGBTQIA stories in history, cuts in archival clips of violent Chechan operations to detain gay people against the real-time struggle of protecting those trying to flee the country, all of it a horrifying example of oppressive homophobia that still grips so many places in the world. Where to watch it: HBO Max (Watch the trailer.)
5. Be Water
Release date: June 7 Director: Bao Nguyen Why it’s a great doc:Since his tragic death in 1973, Bruce Lee’s story has been explored through plenty of books, documentaries, and movies. It honestly feels as if the general public has learned all there is to know about the martial artist, but Be Water is here to tell a different story. The documentary, directed by Bao Nguyen, references the famous quote originally coined by the icon: “Empty your mind, be formless, shapeless-like water. Now you put water in a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle, it becomes the bottle. You put it in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Now water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend.” The movie does dig into the groundbreaking cultural shift Lee ushered into the pop culture lexicon with his on-screen work, but the angle being pursued in the ESPN doc sheds light on Lee’s formative years in Hollywood as a young Chinese-American hustling to prove his worth, while finding his identity along the way. The use of archival footage of Lee and insights given from his closest confidants (from Game of Death co-star and friend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to widow, Linda Lee Cadwell) paints a poetically pensive, and powerfully quiet picture of a man-nimble in his many talents and existential pursuits-who transcended the entertainment medium of cinema. He tragically passed away at the young age of 32, but his life and work catapulted Bruce Lee into legendary status. Be Water isn’t as much about his legend as it is about the hard road Lee traveled in order to break down the many walls of intolerance. It’s been 47 years since he passed, and yet, the themes in the movie-of racism, of cultural appropriation, of legacy, and of identity-feel as timely and relevant as ever. Where to watch it: ESPN (Watch the trailer.)
Release date: November 20 Director: Alexander Nanau Why it’s a great doc: As many reviewers have plainly said, this documentary following Romanian journalists on a dogged crusade to expose government corruption is a feel-bad movie. Collective, or Colectiv, named after the Bucharest club where 27 people died in a deadly fire one night and 37 more from infected burn wounds in hospitals, is a stressful journalistic procedural about the malpractice in Romanian health-care system, striking a sort of fury that Americans, with our broken industry, will find teeth-grindingly relatable. Bit by bit, tragic revelations are made, serving a reminder that a free press is still an essential tool against negligent people in power. Where to watch it: VOD (Watch the trailer.)
3. Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets
Release date: July 10 Directors: Bill and Turner Ross (Contemporary Color, Western, etc.) Why it’s a great doc: The theme song from Cheers succinctly summed up the communal appeal of the local bar: “Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name.” On the surface, this genre-bending documentary from brother filmmaking team Bill and Turner Ross is a straightforward celebration of that concept, one that explores depths of feeling, patterns of behavior, and types of language you wouldn’t see on a network sitcom. Chronicling the closing night of a Las Vegas dive called Roaring ’20s in November 2016, in the the shadow of Donald Trump’s election victory, Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets introduces a series of bartenders and barflys, observing them in verité style as they watch Jeopardy! on TV, sing songs, and get in arguments. An Australian regular takes acid; a cake gets smashed. Just another night out on the town. The setup is simple and the hangout vibe is a pleasure, but the story of how the the film was made, which goes mostly unacknowledged on screen, blurs the line between fiction and non-fiction in a way that gives the events a woozy texture. It’s a sentiment most bar-goers can relate to: Why let the truth get in the way of a great story? Where to watch it: VOD (Watch the trailer.)
Release date: October 23 Director: Garrett Bradley (Alone) Why it’s a great doc: Garrett Bradley’s documentary is both an extraordinary love story and an indictment of America’s corrections system. Using home video from her subject and her own footage, beautifully rendered in black and white, Bradley constructs the story of a woman who has been fighting for 20 years for the release of her husband from prison. Fox Rich and her husband Rob both were involved in a bank robbery, but while Fox’s sentence was relatively brief, Rob’s was for 60 years. In the interim period, Fox raised their children on her own, started a successful career, and began speaking out about the racial injustice inherent in America’s penal policy. Bradley’s film is both a mediation on what it means to wait for someone as much as it is a condemnation of the system that unduly punishes Black people in this country. Where to watch it: Amazon Prime (Watch the trailer.)
1. Dick Johnson Is Dead
Release date: October 2 Director: Kirsten Johnson (Cameraperson) Why it’s a great doc: It’s difficult putting into words what makes Dick Johnson Is Dead likely one of the best movies of the entire year, documentary or otherwise. Kirsten Johnson’s film, which premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, is simply one of the most beautiful, moving, personal, and probably even helpful pieces about loss that anyone has ever created. It’s often laugh-out-loud funny, but also a sob-fest from beginning to end. Johnson, a lauded cinematographer who made the brilliant 2016 documentary Cameraperson by cobbling together footage she had previously shot, was facing the advancing age of her beloved father, C. Richard a.k.a. Dick, when she asked him to collaborate on a project. She wanted to make a film about the end of his life with his full cooperation, not just documenting his own decay, but imagining scenarios in which he could die. Together, Kirsten and Dick stage elaborate (and sometimes hilarious) deaths for him with the help of stunt people, and Dick Johnson Is Dead becomes a portrait of how filmmaking itself trains us and inures us to the very idea of a human’s demise. But along the way, Kirsten shows the very real process of dementia eating away at a once vibrant person’s memory as her psychiatrist dad starts to lose his own mental faculties. Still, for as depressing as it is, Johnson is as much focused on the pain of losing loved ones as she is on the joy of having them in your life. It’s a spectacular portrait that will crush you. Where to watch it: Netflix (Watch the trailer.)Need help finding something to watch? Sign up here for our weekly Streamail newsletter to get streaming recommendations delivered straight to your inbox.
Starting with the new moon on Sunday, January 22, this Lunar New Year ushers in the year of the Rabbit. We’ve put together a guide on celebrating the Lunar New Year in Australia.
What is special about the year of the Rabbit?
As you might know, each year has an animal sign in the Chinese Zodiac, which is based on the moon and has a 12-year cycle. This year, we celebrate the year of the rabbit, known to be the luckiest out of all twelve animals. It symbolises mercy, elegance, and beauty.
What celebrations are taking place and how can I get involved?
There are plenty of festivals happening all around the country which you can get involved with. Here they are per state.
New South Wales
Darling Harbour Fireworks When: Every year, Sydney puts on a fireworks show, and this year, you can catch it on January 28 and February 4 at 9 pm in Darling Harbour.
Dragon Boat Races When: Witness three days of dragon boat races and entertainment on Cockle Bay to usher in the Lunar New Year. The races will commence on January 27 and finish on January 29.
Lion Dances When: Catch a traditional Lion Dance moving to the beat of a vigorous drum bringing good luck and fortune for the Lunar New Year. The dance performances will happen across Darling Harbour on Saturday, January 21, Sunday, January 22, and Sunday, February 4 and 5, around 6 pm and 9 pm.
Lunar New Year at Cirrus Dining When: Barangaroo’s waterfront seafood restaurant, Cirrus, is celebrating the Year of the Rabbit with a special feast menu. Cirrus’ LNY menu is $128pp with optional wine pairing and is available from Saturday, January 21, to Sunday, February 5.
Auntie Philter When: Hello Auntie’s owner and executive chef, Cuong Nguyen will be dishing out some of the most classic Vietnamese street foods with his mum, Linda. All of Philter’s favourites will be on offer, as well as Raspberry Pash Beer Slushies and other cocktails being served at the Philter Brewing rooftop bar on Sunday, January 22 and Sunday, January 29.
Lunar New Year Festival When: Ring in the Lunar New Year with food, music, arts, and more on Sunday, January 22, from 10 am to 9 pm.
BriAsia Festival When: From February 1-19, Brisbane will come alive with performances, including lion dances and martial arts displays. There will be street food, workshops, comedy and more.
Chinatown Adelaide Street Party When: Adelaide is set to hose a fun-filled day celebrating the Chinese New Year on Saturday, January 28, from 12 pm to 9 pm.
Crown Perth When: Across January and February, Crown Perth hosts free live entertainment, including colourful lion dances, roving mascots, and drumming performances. The restaurants will also throw banquets and menus dedicated to the Lunar New Year.