That’s the word to describe the year in documentary film, a span that witnessed the emergence of fresh talent and the return of seasoned nonfiction filmmakers at the top of their form. It all made for the single best year for feature documentaries that I can remember.
With so many remarkable films to consider, it becomes exceptionally difficult to narrow the list to a top 10. Easily 20-25 merit high praise. But with the caveat that such a list inevitably omits many worthy contenders, this is my choice of the best documentaries of 2022, in alphabetical order:
All That Breathes
This cinematic marvel from director Shaunak Sen descended from the skies of Delhi, India to the Sundance Film Festival where it won the Grand Jury Prize for World Cinema Documentary. With a mastery of image, sound and poetic language, the film illustrates the quiet resolve of Nadeem and Saud, monkish brothers who occupy a lair in an unprepossessing section of Delhi where they rescue and rehabilitate injured birds of prey, especially black kites.
Eschewing the obvious storytelling techniques of an environmental or nature film, All That Breathes makes a subtle case for the inherent interdependence of living creatures and respect for our mutual right to inhabit the planet.
“Life itself is kinship,” the narration notes. “We’re all a community of air.”
All the Beauty and the Bloodshed
Director Laura Poitras accomplishes what I consider almost impossible: successfully combining two separate themes into a single film. Her documentary constitutes a portrait of an artist – in this case, photographer Nan Goldin, who endured a difficult childhood that saw her dispatched to a variety of foster homes because her parents essentially couldn’t relate to her (nor to her older sister, who committed suicide). It is simultaneously a documentary that hinges on the opioid crisis and the unconscionable actions of the Sackler family, whose Purdue Pharma reaped a fortune through the aggressive marketing of the painkiller OxyContin.
Poitras merges the two themes by following the course of Goldin’s life. We come to understand the artist as brave and yet vulnerable, critical of unfeeling, powerful forces in her life but hampered by co-dependency and addiction. That Goldin became hooked on OxyContin then is no surprise to the audience. Neither, in a sense, is her ability to summon the moral courage to take on the Sacklers. She and members of her group PAIN shamed art institutions like the Met, which had accepted millions in donations from the Sacklers, to rid themselves of the Sackler connection.
The film is told in chapters, many beginning with slideshows of Goldin’s photographs, which often depict subcultures spurned by the larger social structure.
“The first chapter,” Poitras told me, “is called ‘Merciless Logic,’ which we learn Nan’s sister quoted from [Joseph] Conrad. It kind of captured themes of a society, a cruel society that crushes people who are rebels and outsiders and who stand up to power. And it rewards people like the Sacklers who ruthlessly profit off people’s suffering and death.”
It sounds like the title for a horror movie. But, actually, Bad Axe is the small town in Michigan where filmmaker David Siev grew up and where his parents and siblings still live. Their father, Chun, is a Cambodian immigrant and survivor of the Killing Fields; their mother is of Mexican descent and the Sievs number among the only people of color in the white, conservative community.
The film, in a sense, becomes something of a horror story after the pandemic erupts, jeopardizing the Sievs’ ability to keep their modest family restaurant running. Some patrons go ballistic at being told they must wear masks indoors in accordance with state law. Then things really get tense when David’s sister Jaclyn joins a local march in support of the Black Lives Matter movement after the killing of George Floyd. The family suffers a ferocious backlash – members of the white community proclaim a boycott of the restaurant and the family gets death threats.
Siev’s debut feature film earned a place on the Oscar documentary shortlist. It movingly illustrates one family’s story that intersects with race, the immigrant experience and prejudice. And it shows the capacity of film to generate empathy; David Siev told me a screening of the film in Bad Axe brought out locals, and some who had felt antipathy toward the Sievs took the opportunity to mend fences.
The Balcony Movie
Filmmaker Pawel Łoziński managed to make a riveting movie shooting entirely from his balcony overlooking a street in Warsaw, Poland. It is composed solely of interviews with passersby who responded to the director’s entreaties to answer a few questions in the midst of their daily routines.
Some decline the offer to chat; one man returning from fishing nearby says he would rather not engage in a conversation about his experience because “life is shit.” Another passerby tells Łoziński, “You ask very trivial questions.”
Yet a surprisingly touching portrait of humanity emerges through those who do talk – some wistful, sad, or perhaps surprisingly optimistic. One man laments that his wife has left him: “She’s changed me for a newer, better model.” Another person says of herself, “I am a woman who, by a twist of fate, has become very happy.” Under additional questioning, she seems to disclose that her husband has died, providing an unexpected liberation.
One older gentleman appears burdened by grief. He reveals that his partner has died – a man he had always told others was his brother. The director realized it was probably the first time the man had ever come out to someone.
We come to know a series of characters who stop by periodically – neighbors who gossip about each other, for instance, and a homeless man, who struggles to find a job after his release from prison. He says, “I get it that penance is penance. But how much can I take?”
In the end, the man finds employment and a renewed sense of hope. And viewers are rewarded with an unusually tender and enriching experience.
Black Notebooks: Ronit
Filming in vérité suspends a subject in an eternal present – their life unfolds before us and we cannot know where destiny will take them, unless and until the director gives us greater context.
In this documentary directed by Shlomi Elkabetz, the character before us is the actress and director Ronit Elkabetz, Shlomi’s sister. The time period is uncertain, but we see brother and sister as they film a movie about a woman trapped in the Israeli court system. In this present-tense footage we see Ronit struggle with fatigue and anxiety as she tries to deliver her lines, uncertain why she is finding it so difficult to concentrate. Her face compels our attention – every fraught glance from those deep brown eyes rivets with emotional intensity.
Those who are familiar with Ronit Elkabetz know that she died in 2016 from lung cancer. But here, in this film, she is alive, as vital as she ever was, but on the cusp of discovering her illness. She cannot know what is coming, nor can her young children; her brother couldn’t know either. In voiceover only, and not until well into the film does he reveal that his sister is gone and we are seeing her complete work on what would be the final film she directed.
This a haunting experience, made the more so by the director’s inspired choice of score – the very one Bernard Herrmann wrote for Vertigo. And as anyone who has seen the Alfred Hitchcock film knows, it is about a man who cannot let go of the memory of a woman he loved and lost.
Fire of Love
Spectacular imagery of volcanic eruptions makes for the powerful visual experience in this film directed by Sara Dosa. But its emotional heft comes from the way the story is told – not as a nature film, but as a love story between two scientists. The French volcanologists Katia and Maurice Krafft shot the footage seen in the film many decades ago as they traveled the world to document awesome displays of nature’s power. The pursuit would cost them their lives.
Dosa found the ideal narrator in actress-filmmaker Miranda July, the antithesis of “voice of god” types who have weighed down so many documentaries in the past. Here, she brings just the right poignant, evocative touch to the story of a couple consumed by the fire of love.
A House Made of Splinters
Director Simon Lereng Wilmont’s possesses the rare sensitivity needed to enter the world of children, sharing the complex emotions they navigate as the world around them threatens to crumble.
In The Distant Barking of Dogs he followed a boy and his younger brother in Eastern Ukraine who lived within the sound of war between Russian-backed separatists and Ukrainian army forces. In A House Made of Splinters, he evokes the experience of kids in Eastern Ukraine who have been sent to live in a temporary shelter because their parents can no longer care for them – either because of alcoholism, drug addiction, or mental health issues related to the advent of war between Russia and Ukraine.
Wilmont shoots handheld – the slight wavering of the camera communicates the vulnerability of the children. They don’t know what the future holds for them – if they will be reunited with their parents or moved to foster care or a shelter meant for kids who will stay indefinitely. One of the film’s young protagonists, Kolya, was caught by police with his two younger siblings as they sorted through garbage looking for something to sell. Kolya adopts a persona of a tough kid unaffected by his circumstances, but it’s heartbreaking to see him tenderly care for his younger sisters who seem to look at him as their emotional rock. It’s a moving story told with exquisite imagery.
This dazzling cinematic tour de force by Brett Morgen immerses the audience in the brilliance of David Bowie as a singer, songwriter, performer, dancer, multi-media artist and thinker. Morgen eschews the tropes of the typical music documentary in favor of something far more complex – a portrait of someone who remained deeply engaged in the creative process and in challenging himself artistically through the end of his life.
Every sonic and visual choice in this film has been approached with care. On Twitter, the director has posted numerous tweets explaining his colorization choices for concert and other footage, frame by frame. He believes in repurposing archive – not simply “restoring” it to the closest facsimile of its original look. The point is to apply a reading to Bowie’s life – a coherent analysis that takes Bowie from asking at the beginning of the film, what is the meaning of life? Should we bother? Is it worth it? to his ultimate answer, that yes, life is worth it and we should bother.
Morgen not only directed, produced, and wrote the film, but he edited it too – collaging a spectacular display of the literary and popular culture references that influenced Bowie. The film contains interviews Bowie did at various stages of his life, but no “experts” from our present vantage point rendering an opinion about his importance. The result is a film that feels like Bowie telling us in his own words what he was about, his preoccupations and how he tried to make sense of life in such a fragmented time.
This essay-like film directed by Sierra Pettengill begins with a curiosity. Why did the government fund the building of fake “towns” on two U.S. army bases in the late 1960s, ersatz villages that came to be known as “Riotsvilles”?
Pettengill and the outstanding writer Tobi Haslett craft a penetrating answer to that question, which places Riotsvilles in the context of urban upheavals that erupted in the ‘60s in Watts, Newark, Detroit and other cities. As the film explores, the Johnson administration created a commission to study the causes of these civil disturbances, and surprisingly it came back with an astute answer: white racism created and sustained the conditions that Black Americans were protesting against. The commission recommended all sorts of useful things, like investing far more money in bettering the economic circumstances of African Americans and in working towards racial justice.
Tucked into the report was a recommendation to invest more money in policing in case of future urban riots. In the end, that’s where all the money went – not a cent toward aiding oppressed people but to riot suppression training for law enforcement and the military.
It’s one of the most astute analyses I’ve ever seen of structural racism in America and the country’s obdurate refusal to live up to its egalitarian ideals.
Three Minutes – A Lengthening
It might sound impossible to make a 70-minute film out of three minutes of archive footage from 1938, and nothing more. And yet filmmaker Bianca Stigter accomplishes that in this documentary that explores a glimpse at Jewish life in a small town in Poland on the eve of War War II.
The footage in question was shot David Kurtz on a return visit to Nasielsk, Poland, the town he had left as a small boy when he immigrated to America. He recorded people leaving the synagogue after services, kids in the street straining to be captured on camera, shopkeepers outside their doors. Ordinary life. Life that would be destroyed barely a year later when Nazi Germany invaded Poland.
The film tracks the investigation undertaken by David Kurtz’s grandson, Glenn Kurtz, to discover whatever he could about the people who appeared in those 180 seconds of footage. Like Black Notebooks: Ronit, there is a haunting quality to this film – the people shown in it could not know the fate that awaited them, but we, from our present vantage point, understand what would soon transpire.
Those three minutes of archive are played in their entirety at the start of the film, then slowed down, parsed, blown up, all in service of understanding precisely what they show.
“I felt this tremendous sense of responsibility to their memory,” Kurtz told me about his motivation for giving a name to people who would otherwise remain forever anonymous. “I thought if I don’t try and figure out who they are, no one will and their identities will be erased.”
There are many outstanding films that could go on this list: The Territory, Descendant, Navalny, Last Flight Home, What We Leave Behind, Children of the Mist, and Good Night Oppy among them. The good news, in such an outstanding year for documentary, is that they’re all worthy of inclusion.