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10 Best Documentaries of 2017

From families in Philly to protests in Ferguson, sweat shops in Calcutta to head trips in Haight-Ashbury – our picks for the year’s best, boldest docs

Man can not live on fiction alone, of course – and in an era when “fake news” has become a catch-all battle cry, the need for capturing and chronicling the world around us has only made documentary filmmaking that much more necessary. If there are indeed precious few positive things to say about 2017, you can at least declare that it was a strong year for docs – the last 12 months gave us marathon-length looks at musical legends and actors going off the deep end, stories of working-class families in Philly and woke convicts in Folsom Prison, portraits of anger on the streets of Ferguson and the City of Angels on fire. Don’t even get us started on the unclassifiable docu-hybrid on drunk Polish millennials that blew our mind. And that was just the tip of the great-vérité iceberg. 

Below are the 10 best documentaries we caught in 2017. Some may be tough to track down, while others are merely a Netflix click away. All of them, however, are not only worth your time but make for vital viewing – snapshots and state-of-the-nation addresses that reflect on the here and now, even when the events portrayed happened decades ago. Your dose of reality starts here.

(Honorable mentions also go out to: Casting JonBenet, The Challenge, Contemporary Color, Dawson City: Frozen Time, I Called Him Morgan, Jane, Last Men in Aleppo, May It Last, Oklahoma City, Rat Film, 78/52 and Turn It Around: The Story of East Bay Punk. You should hunt all of these down as well. Like we said, it was an incredible year for docs.)

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‘All These Sleepless Nights’

And now for something completely different. Imagine the children of Marx and Coca-Cola
updated for the Drake-and-Red-Bull era – that’s the generation at the center
of Polish filmmaker Michal Marczak’s blissful, brilliant docu-fiction hybrid about two Warsaw art-school students drifting through their twenties. This year-in-the-life portrait drops filmgoers in the middle of late-night drunken revelries, early-morning
raves and all-day philosophical hang-out sessions; it also throws in a few sexual
encounters for kicks. Mostly, it’s simply an experiential take on that heady, hedonistic moment between the end of youth and the beginning of adulthood – when everything seems possible and the present feels eternal. We’re still buzzing off the second-hand high.

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‘The Work’

At Folsom Prison, there’s a program called “Inside Circle” that, for four days, allows select individuals to attend group therapy sessions with convicts. These prisoners are doing hard time for serious crimes; they’re also trying to get to the bottom of not only what landed them behind bars but what’s at the root of their issues as well. And they’re determined to help their new friends from the outside world untangle their own traumas and self-destructive tendencies as well. One of the most intense documentaries of recent memory, filmmaker Jairus McLeary put you front and center as these participants cry, scream, lash out and let it all out – you will not see a more moving testament to the power of healing. In a year in which toxic masculinity finally started getting called out (even as it still infected the highest office in the land), it was remarkably profound to watch this group of hard men try to atone for past behavior, find peace and try to put an end to such socially corrosive behavior.

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‘Faces Places’

She’s a 89-year-old pioneer of the French New Wave and an elder stateswoman of world cinema; he’s a 34-year-old enfant terrible of the photography world that loves street art and perpetual sunglasses-wearing. (Press play on this now.) No one could have predicted that Agnes Varda and the gentleman known simply as JR would be the screen duo of 2017. Or that a doc on the two of them traveling through the French countryside, armed with only a printer that makes mammoth pictures and a boundless sense of curiosity, would be one of the most moving, beautiful, life-affirming 90 minutes you’d spend in the dark this year. The joy of riding shotgun with the two of them as they take snapshots of farmers, factory workers, wives, daughters, octogenarians and kids – then blow those photos up to poster- and/or building-size – while eavesdropping on conversations about life, art, movies, mortality and the necessity of being seen can not be overstated. All that, and a cameo (sort of) by “dirty rat” Jean-Luc Godard and Varda singing Anita Ward’s “Ring My Bell.” A masterpiece.

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