Connect with us
Best Documentaries of 2020

Film

The Best Documentaries of 2020

The Ten Best Documentaries of 2020

As the years have gone on, there have been more and more places for documentaries to show up and gain funding and distribution. That’s a trend that continued in 2020. New streaming services have proliferated, and all of them have offered slates of documentaries. They’re constantly arriving on Netflix, Amazon Prime, HBO (regular and Max), Apple TV+, PBS, and elsewhere. 

Everywhere but theaters, in other words, with the pandemic shutting down theatrical exhibition for much of the year. However, the arthouses who ran “virtual cinemas” offered plenty of movies of the nonfiction variety, as did the year’s many virtual film festivals. 

There were numerous documentaries about politics, the election, racial justice, climate change, and numerous other major topics, and also a massive slate of worthwhile docs about music legends. 

One note: The documentary-style movie I most liked this year was Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets, which purported to depict the final evening of a dive bar in Las Vegas, blocks away from the Strip, on its last night before closing. However, that film — great as it was, and an accurate description of that sort of bar — was staged to the degree that I’m not counting it as a documentary. 

Without further ado, the best documentaries of 2020: 

Time 2020 documentary

1) Time

Garrett Bradbury’s astonishing film, about the mother of six known as Fox Rich seeking to free her husband from a 60-year prison sentence, is great for so many reasons: It expertly deploys heartbreaking documentary footage, it arrived with perfect timing amid the national discussion about race, crime and mass incarceration, and it was primarily about redemption, and not about freeing an innocent man. And the ending is cathartic and entirely earned. Time is streaming on Amazon Prime. 

Dick Johnson is Dead

2) Dick Johnson is Dead

The latest film by Kirsten Johnson, best known for Cameraperson, is an idea just crazy enough to work” Her dad, the titular Dick Johnson, is dying of dementia, so she decides to act out a series of comical series depicting Johnson’s theoretical death. It’s funny, sad, and brilliant- and you’ll be glad you got to know Dick Johnson in the first place. Dick Johnson is Dead is streaming on Netflix.

40 Years a Prisoner

3) 40 Years a Prisoner

Another documentary about someone attempting to free relatives from a prison sentence for a long-ago crime, Tommy Oliver’s film follows Mike Africa Jr., a son of the family from the controversial Philadelphia group MOVE, who is seeking to free his parents after they had been imprisoned for his entire life after a shootout with police in 1978. In addition to the compelling family story, the documentary is a rollicking portrayal of 1970s Philadelphia, including the city’s larger-than-life, Trump-like mayor, Frank Rizzo. 40 Years a Prisoner is streaming on HBO and HBO Max. 

Collective (Collectiv)

4) Collective (Collectiv) 

Director Alexander Nanau’s doc follows a group of journalists in Romania investigating the fire at a rock concert in that country that killed 27 people, while nearly 40 more people died subsequently. The twisty investigation later finds many layers of significant government corruption and wrongdoing. Just an extraordinary use of the documentary form. Collective is available on VOD rental. 

Circus of Books

5) Circus of Books

Rachel Mason’s film tells the story of her mother and father, unassuming Jews who spent decades running the titular bookstore in West Hollywood- one of the West Coast’s leading repositories of gay pornography. It’s a wild story, which includes past attempts at government crackdowns, as well as the parents — who had once literally produced gay porn — struggling to come to terms with their son coming out. Circus of Books is streaming on Netflix. 

The Way I See It.

6) The Way I See It

Dawn Porter’s documentary follows the life of Pete Souza, who was the official White House photographer during Barack Obama’s presidency. The film finds a compelling protagonist in Souza, while also functioning as a breezy tour of the Obama years. It will make you miss what we’ve lost, while also providing hope of what could be again. The Way I See It is streaming on Peacock. 

Father Soldier Son

7) Father Soldier Son

 This amazing, years-spanning doc, from filmmakers Catrin Einhorn and Leslye Davis, hasn’t gotten nearly enough attention this year. It follows many years in the life of a military family, through multiple heartbreaking strategies, while raising the question of whether military service is really worth it. Father Soldier Son is streaming on Netflix.  

white noise documentary

8) White Noise

There have been quite a few documentaries about the rise of the alt-right, and other more extreme subcultures that have arisen in the Trump era, but the best one of all is Daniel Lombardo’s White Noise, which followed Richard Spencer, Mike Cernovich, and Lauren Southern through their rises and falls. What makes the film work is its lack of editorializing and the way it allows these despicable clowns to hang themselves with their own words. White Noise is streaming for rental on VOD channels. 

Totally Under Control

9) Totally Under Control 

There will be many documentaries made in the coming years about the coronavirus pandemic, and there was already a harrowing one, 76 Days, produced in China earlier this year. But Alex Gibney,  Ophelia Harutyunyan, and Suzanne Hillinger’s Totally Under Control was the greatest achievement of its kind to date. Produced in just four months, during the pandemic, and using a specially invented “COVID cam” for interviews, the film provides a damning indictment of the Trump Administration and its handling of the pandemic. Totally Under Control is streaming on Hulu.  

Rebuilding Paradise

10) Rebuilding Paradise 

Ron Howard this year directed the much-derided drama Hillbilly Elegy, but he also made a much better film, a documentary about the town in California that was all but destroyed by the 2018 wildfires, and its inspiring struggle to build back. Rebuilding Paradise is streaming on Hulu. 

Honorable mention: Bruce Springsteen’s Letter to You, David Byrne’s American Utopia, Beastie Boys Story, Fireball: Visitors From Darker Worlds, Crock of Gold: A Few Rounds With Shane MacGowan, MLK/FBI, Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution, Rewind, Epicentro, Scream, Queen: My Nightmare on Elm Street, and The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend a Broken Heart. 

Written By

Stephen Silver is a journalist and film critic based in the Philadelphia area. He is the co-founder of the Philadelphia Film Critics Circle and a Rotten Tomatoes-listed critic since 2008, and his work has appeared in New York Press, Philly Voice, The Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Tablet, The Times of Israel, and RogerEbert.com. In 2009, he became the first American journalist to interview both a sitting FCC chairman and a sitting host of "Jeopardy" on the same day.

Click to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Facebook

Trending

Review Bombing Review Bombing

The Rings of Power and Review Bombing: The Online A-Bomb

Culture

HBO MAX/DISCOVERY HBO MAX/DISCOVERY

WTH is Going on with HBO Max/Discovery?

Culture

Best AEW Dynamite Matches of 2022 Best AEW Dynamite Matches of 2022

Best AEW Dynamite Matches of 2022 (So Far)

Wrestling

BEST AEW PPV Matches 2022 BEST AEW PPV Matches 2022

Best AEW PPV Matches of 2022 (So Far)

Wrestling

Project Wolf Hunting Project Wolf Hunting

Project Wolf Hunting is a Bloody and Entertaining Midnight Delight

Film

While We Watched While We Watched

While We Watched Reveals the Destabilization of Democracy in India

Film

TIFF 2022: Our Most Anticipated Films TIFF 2022: Our Most Anticipated Films

TIFF 2022: Our Most Anticipated Films

Culture

The Rings of Power “A Shadow of the Past” The Rings of Power “A Shadow of the Past”

The Rings of Power “A Shadow of the Past” Sets up Middle Earth’s Second Age

TV

Best AEW Rampage matches of 2022 Best AEW Rampage matches of 2022

Best AEW Rampage matches of 2022 (So Far)

Wrestling

She-Hulk: Attorney at Law episode 3 review disney+ She-Hulk: Attorney at Law episode 3 review disney+

She-Hulk: Attorney at Law Episode 3 Can’t Tip The Scales

TV

Actor Dylan Smith (center) Actor Dylan Smith (center)

LOTR: The Rings of Power: An Interview with Actor Dylan Smith

Features

L.A. Confidential Directed by Curtis Hanson L.A. Confidential Directed by Curtis Hanson

25 Years Later: L.A. Confidential is Hollywood’s last great noir

Friday Film Noir

Eastern Promises (2007) Eastern Promises (2007)

Eastern Promises at 15: Cronenberg’s Gangster Triumph 

Film

Best AEW Moments of 2022 (So Far) Best AEW Moments of 2022 (So Far)

Best AEW Moments of 2022 (So Far)

Wrestling

Marvel D3 2022 Marvel D3 2022

A Breakdown Of Every Marvel Studios Announcement At D23

Culture

Anvil! The Story of Anvil Anvil! The Story of Anvil

Anvil! The Story of Anvil — The Inspiring Story of the Canadian 80s Metal Band

Film

Connect