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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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8

‘Long Strange Trip’

You do not need to be a tie-dyed-in-the-wool Deadhead (though it definitely doesn’t hurt) to appreciate Amir Bar-Lev’s marathon-length look at the Grateful Dead, as they morph from acid-test house band to acoustic road hogs to a corporate jam-band juggernaut. Yes, there’s concert footage and talking-head testimonials and folks rhapsodizing about the time that saw what really was the best version of “Dark Star.” But the doc also digs into the darker side of the group’s world, framing how the drugs and outlaw types and dangerous living was the scarred flip-side of their do-your-own-thing coin. Joy is ever-present; so is death. And at the center of it all is Jerry Garcia, a complicated artist who kept chasing after freedom though musical exploration and eventually became a prisoner of what he’d created. You won’t think four hours of this trip is nearly long enough.

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7

‘Whose Streets?’

A boots-on-the-ground look at the aftermath of Michael Brown Jr.’s
murder and the sparks of a movement that sprang from it, Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davis’s impressionistic collection of testimonies, frontline dispatches and
citizen journalism from the days of rage in Ferguson, Missouri, could not feel more essential. Cops fire shots, rioters set fires, tanks roll down Main Street and everyday folks become fed up and then radicalized. At the center of it all is a deep anger, but also a sense of hope – any movie that ends with both an answer to the title question and a preteen girl screaming that it’s duty to fight the power has no time for just wallowing in pessimism. 

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6

‘Machines’

First-timer Rahul Jain takes his cameras in a textile factory right
outside of Calcutta in search of answers. What he
emerges with is a poetic, humanistic look at a sweatshop that leaves its
didacticism at the front door. The ending, in which his
subjects ask the man behind the camera how he will actually
help them feels
like a damning indictment of first-world complicity, third-world
exploitation and the whole notion of social-justice docmaking in one fell swoop.

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5

‘LA 92’

One of two in-depth looks back at the 1992 Rodney King case and its aftermath (you should also check out John Ridley’s equally essential Let It Fall: Los Angeles 1982-1992), Dan Lindsay and T.J. Martin’s assemblage of archival footage retraces the steps that led to rioting and a national emergency. King being beaten on the side of the road, the smug looks on the faces of the cops, shop owners carrying guns, motorists being dragged from their cars, the community in tears and the City of Angels going up in flames – twenty-five years later, none of these images have lost their power to shock. It’s both a potent reminder of what happens when systematic rot pushes people to boiling points and a cautionary tale of how racial inequality is not a thing of the past. Far from it.

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4

‘Ex Libris’

For 50 years and counting, Frederick Wiseman has been taking his cameras into army barracks, insane asylums, community-council meetings, department stores, slaughterhouses, high schools, hospitals, you name it – places where people do a job and play and learn how to live in a society. His look at the New York Public Library and its smaller borough-based branches, however, almost feels like a career summation. You get a front row seat to intellectuals discussing history and poets and musicians entertaining audiences, as well as people arguing in back rooms over funding such endeavors. You see how these vast stores of books, microfiche reels, etc. can be bartered over budgetwise, or simply help somebody read up on cancer research. And most importantly, you get a slowly developing picture of how an institutions is really the sum of their working parts, especially when it’s something as significant as a place in danger of having its currencies – information and communication – devalued. Plus you get Elvis Costello narrating a clip of his dad doing a goofy version of “If I Had a Hammer.” Essential.

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3

‘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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2

‘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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1

‘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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