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10 Best Documentaries of 2018

From stunning portraits of small-town America to a trip back to ‘Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood’ — these were the nonfiction highlights of a very good year

rolling stone best docs

Clockwise from left" 'Bisbee '17,' 'Three Identical Strangers,' 'McQueen' and 'Won't You Be My Neighbor' — all picks from Rolling Stone's Best Docs of 2018.

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.

Aretha Franklin, Amazing Grace
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‘Amazing Grace’

It only took 46 years to see it, but this legendary concert film chronicling Aretha Franklin’s two-night stand at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church — the same 1972 shows that gave us the greatest live album to date — was more than worth the wait. Sydney Pollack’s feature isn’t a document of a performance so much as a visual extension of the ecstasy that the singer, her collaborators and the crowd experienced; no matter how many times you’ve heard her interpretations of “Wholy Holy” or “Never Grow Old,” the sight of Franklin, eyes closed and head bowed, working her way through those numbers feels like a revelation. (Watching the choir jump up and egg Aretha on as she testifies during the title track is capable of reducing an entire theater to nothing but goosebumps and teardrops.) You will witness the Queen of Soul do those stellar gospel runs and work the audience, from everyday churchgoers to Mick Jagger, into a divine frenzy. And it will make you feel as if you’ve seen the face of God.

Bisbee '17, 2018
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‘Bisbee ’17’

On July 12th, 1917, the residents of Bisbee, Arizona (“the Queen of the Copper Camps”) rounded up dozens of miners, loaded them on to a train and left the men to die in the desert. It became known as “the Bisbee Deportation,” a nice euphemism for what was essentially a slaughter of pro-Union agitators, Mexican workers and European immigrants. Documentarian Robert Greene (Kate Plays Christine) did what any filmmaker would do, i.e. interview contemporary residents about this historical atrocity on its 100th anniversary. He then asked them to participate in a dramatic recreation, involving local thespians and families who had both perpetrators and victims in their lineage. No other movie in 2018 gave us such a haunting meditation on collective memory, social injustice, the connection between labor and communal livelihood, and that much-quoted maxim about us being done with the past … but the past not being done with us. All this, and a musical number involving a rogue’s gallery of bossmen singing about squashing a strike with violence. Essential viewing.

Hale County, This Morning, This Evening, 2018
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‘Hale County, This Morning, This Evening’

Working as a coach for a youth basketball league in Hale County, Alabama, filmmaker RaMell Ross brought his camera along to document what he saw: births, burials, babies running around, teens looking to the future, folks going to games and church on Sunday, a community going about their business. The result is a free-form exploration of life in the region’s Black Belt, in which snippets of small everyday moments and occasional callbacks to the past — a drive by an antebellum house’s porch here, a clip featuring a silent movie actor in burnt-cork blackface there — create a mosaic of Southern life that feels quietly revelatory. It’s a hell of an achievement.

Minding The Gap, 2018
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‘Minding the Gap’

Bing Liu was just another skateboarding kid in Rockford, Illinois, schlepping his camera along to parks and house parties to film his buddies. Soon, he started capturing more intimate moments of his friends’ lives off their boards, from troubles at home to the responsibilities of unexpected fatherhood. It seems Bing and his two compadres — Zach Mulligan and Keire Johnson — have all been turning to skating as a salve for deep wounds. They also all seem to have a passing familiarity with violence, disappointment, alcoholism, class issues, culture clashes, economic disparity and how the concept of masculinity can become a trap. A stunning, penetrating look at growing up that effortlessly doubles as a snapshot of American life; you feel like it’s a privilege to ride shotgun on this boys-to-men ride, even as you worry about what comes next for each of them. And that closing montage is a killer on your tear ducts.

McQueen, 2018
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‘McQueen’

Chubby child prodigy, up-and-coming Saville Row-style tailor, haute couture’s agent provocateur, four-time British Designer of the Year, conflicted celebrity casualty: Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui’s portrait of an artist as a kilt-wearing controversy magnet gives you a 360-degree view of Alexander McQueen. It also puts the U.K. fashion maverick’s life and work in context, highlighting his rise one jaw-dropping collection at a time while never losing sight of the human being behind the runway horrorshows. (His notorious “Highland Rape” show still hits you like a swift kick in the bollocks.) Like it’s subject, the doc is sensitive yet subversive — and should be considered the definitive look at a lost, sui generis genius.

 

Shirkers, 2018
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‘Shirkers’

Once upon a time, Sandi Tan made a movie — and through a series of betrayals, manipulative head games and inexplicable power moves, the footage was taken away from her. Decades later, she manages to recover the reels of the indie film that her 19-year-old self and her friends had made while growing up in Singapore … all of which leads her to investigate what happened and why. A detective story, a ghost story and a personal exploration of her own past, Tan’s look back in anger at having her cinema-superstar dreams stolen is a compelling take on one woman’s determination to reopen old wounds in order to heal them once and for all.

Monrovia, Indiana, 2018
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‘Monrovia, Indiana’

Welcome to Small Town, USA, where God and guns reign supreme. Frederick Wiseman’s 45th (!) film takes us to Trump Country and, in its own weird way, reclaims it from the partisan talking heads who either want to romanticize or vilify the region. There’s not a MAGA hat in site, nor is there any judgement — like most of the 88-year-old documentarian’s work, it’s an epic of observation sans commentary, edited from hours of footage down to a diamond-sharp distillation of lives lived in diners, schools, city council meetings and storefronts. It ends with a eulogy from a recently deceased citizen that pays tribute to both the individual and the part she played in the community. It’s such a perfect fade-out that you’d have thought Wiseman had scripted it.

Hal, 2018
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‘Hal’

He was a pot-smoking, rabble-rousing, hippie-ish man with a bad attitude towards authority and biblical prophet’s beard — and his name, Hal Ashby, doubled as a password for those who wanted the uncut, real-deal New Hollywood Seventies cinema. Amy Scott’s docuportrait gives viewers beaucoup film clips, juicy behind-the-scenes stories, tributes from a who’s-who of Amerindie royalty and even audio tapes of the man himself. But more importantly, it gives you context for why this former editor-turned-director represented the best of the era’s shaggy, messy, funny, funky filmmakers. You may or may not know why his seven-film run during the Me Decade — from The Landlord to Being There — was so influential when you start Hal. But you sure as hell know why Ashby mattered by the time the credits roll.

Three Identical Strangers, 2018
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‘Three Identical Strangers’

A man meets another man who looks just like him — they’re long-lost twins! Then after the two get their faces in the paper, a third man recognizes them … because they look exactly him as well! Tim Wardle’s doc starts off as a human-interest story write large, charting the reunion of long-lost triplets Robert Shafran, Eddy Galland and David Kellman and their adventures in the New York media spotlight. Then the movie takes what might be described as a sharp left turn, or maybe a plunge off a previously unnoticed cliff. And suddenly, we have a much darker, more tragic tale on our hands, which leaves you thinking about the evil that men do long after you’ve exited the theater.

Won't You Be My Neighbor, 2018
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‘Won’t You Be My Neighbor?’

It was the runaway success story of 2018, and part of an extraordinary one-two punch from filmmaker Morgan Neville (whose They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead, an origin-story doc on the making and unmaking of Orson Welles’ The Other Side of the Wind, was also a highlight of the year). This look back at the life and legacy of Fred Rogers, however, also acted as something like a national salve; if we had a dollar for every time someone told us/tweeted out that they sobbed while watching this, we might be able to match the film’s box office numbers. The vintage Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood clips will inspire nostalgia; the scene in which the TV star gently persuades a cantankerous congressman will inspire awe; the remembrances of how a cardigan-rocking pied piper used puppets, songs and old-fashioned kindness to guide underage viewers into emotional maturity will simply inspire you, period.

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