There are good years for nonfiction films — and then there is 2018, in which no less than four documentaries will have passed a box-office benchmark before we start singing “Auld Lang Syne.” As of this writing, RBG, Three Identical Strangers and Free Solo each racked up more than $10 million in tickets. Won’t You Be My Neighbor, Morgan Neville’s look at the late, great Fred Rogers that’s left audiences weeping from Portland, Oregon to Portland, Maine, has a domestic gross of over $22 million; it’s currently the 12th highest grossing doc of all time, and could be in the top 10 by the time the Oscar nominations are announced in January. (It’s already heavily favored to win the Best Documentary category.) That a portrait of the gentle children’s-TV giant behind Mister Roger’s Neighborhood would strike a chord with folks is not that surprising, especially in this particular Troll-in-Chief–dominated moment. The fact that a bio-doc on Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a stranger-than-fiction mystery about triplets and a look at a man climbing a mountain with no gear or fear also found larger audiences than you might have expected … well, that suggests something bigger is happening.
These would be top-notch documentaries regardless of how much money they earned, mind you, and there are entries on this year-end list that will be lucky to make one-tenth of that benchmark number overall. But it’s hard to deny that docs are having an especially popular moment, which some attribute to a search for “truth” in a landscape of fake news and outright lying leaders. It’s an interesting theory, if nothing else. You could also point to more platforms being available for documentarians, which not only offer more showcases — every film on this list received a theatrical release, though several were made distributed by streaming services and made day-and-date available to subscribers — but have helped stir up an appetite for the form. Binge enough 10-hour true-crime series on Netflix or catch enough of HBO’s numerous political exposés or celebrity portraitures, and you start to develop a taste. There are worse gateway drugs than, say, Making a Murderer.
The documentaries listed below run the gamut of styles and storytelling modes, from straight-forward to sliced-and-diced, big-picture time capsules to boundary-pushing personal collages, socially conscious to subversively non-judgemental. Three of them inadvertently harmonize into a state of our nation circa right now; all of them are extraordinary examples of what nonfiction filmmaking can do. It was hard to limit the list to just 10 — another sign that the form is thriving, and that artists are finding creative ways to tell true stories, 24 frames (or whatever the pixelated equivalent is) a minute.