While narrative filmmaking has had up years and down years as filmmakers struggle to find their spot in a marketplace dominated by superhero movies and other big-budget blockbusters, documentaries have quietly thrived, with 2018 being another great year for the form. That’s in part because documentary filmmakers keep finding new ways to push the form. It’s not hard to see a traditional interviews-and-archival footage doc — and there’s a lot of life left in that approach as the list below makes clear — but it’s easier than ever to see compelling hybrid films that stretch the definition of documentary.
This year has offered a remarkable variety of memorable documentaries, some featuring breathtaking footage of daring feats, some that seem to do little more than plant their camera in place and watch the world unfold, and all of challenge viewers to look at the world around them in ways they’d never considered. Here are a few of the best the year has had to offer to get you started (and we’ll update the list again before the end of the year).
Three Identical Strangers
In 1980, Robert Shafran arrived to community college as a freshman only to be greeted as a big man on campus by students who seemed to know him already. He soon found his world shaken when a fellow student figured out what was going on: Robert’s identical twin Eddie, who he had never known, attended the same school the year before. The story got really strange when Robert and Eddie discovered a third brother, David, piecing together that they had all been separated as infants and adopted out to different families.
Their reunion made them celebrities, but Tim Wardle’s documentary delves into what happened next, which is weirder and sadder. Beyond the strange-but-true story, there’s a lot going on in Wardle’s film, including an exploration of what happens when the lights fade on human interest stories, whether it’s nature or nurture that defines us and, most disturbingly, the flexible scientific ethics that led to their separation in the first place.
Did You Wonder Who Fired The Gun?
Travis Wilkerson combines the personal and the political with this dive into his family’s murky history, investigating a murder committed by his great-grandfather in the small town of Bothan, Alabama, where he ran a shop. But the closer Wilkerson gets to the truth, the more resistance he meets, discovering that few locals want to revisit a time when a white man could get away with murder so long as his victim was black. The documentarian alternates between interviews with Bothan residents with mesmerizing monologues about his experience in a film that reveals the persistence of old, hateful ideas and the thin line separating the past from the present.
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Some of the same themes surface in Robert Greene’s Bisbee ’17, which visits the town of Bisbee, Arizona on the occasion of its most notorious event: the forced deportation of 1300 striking mine workers — most of Latino or Slavic origin — by an illegally deputized posse who shipped them hundreds of miles away to the desert with orders never to return.
The 1917 incident still divides the residents of Bisbee. Some see it as a monstrous crime, while others still spout the justifications they grew up hearing from relatives who participated in the deportation. To make the past even more present, Greene enlists members of the town to reenact the deportation, mixing interviews with contemporary residents and recreations of the Bisbee that was. Part of what makes the film so haunting is how easily those participating slip into their roles.
Minding the Gap
The past remains present for filmmaker Bing Liu, too. His Minding the Gap chronicles years spent skating through his economically troubled hometown of Rockford, Illinois, usually in the company of pals Zack and Keire. Packing years of change into a tight 93 minutes, the film watches as the friends go down diverging, sometimes troubling paths: Zack becomes a father, a role to which he doesn’t seem suited. Keire, already an outsider as a black kid into skateboards, struggles to figure out his place in the world. Eventually, the moving film reveals that Liu and his friends are united by more than their love of skating, each sharing an abusive upbringing that they’ve struggled to overcome.
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Adolescence still has a hold on Sandi Tan. In 2018, Tan made her feature debut — 26 years after she originally planned. Shirkers is both the name of a 1992 feature she shot as a teenager in Singapore but never completed and her fascinating new documentary about the experience of making it — and of what happened next when her mysterious American mentor vanished with her footage. The film doubles as a look back to a particular time and place and what it was like to be a film-obsessed oddball in early ’90s Singapore and an attempt to come to terms with a betrayal she finds she can investigate and illuminate but never really understand.
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Another sort of cinematic enigma serves as the subject of Tony Zierra’s Filmworker. Leon Vitali was a promising young actor when he played an important supporting role in Stanley Kubrick’s 1975 film Barry Lyndon. Then he just kind of stuck around, taking on a behind-the-scenes role as Kubrick’s assistant, a part he played for the rest of Kubrick’s life — and in some respects still plays. Vitali often worked impossible hours to help Kubrick realize his obsessive vision, performing whatever task Kubrick needed done, whether it be keeping an eye on Danny Lloyd on the set of the shining, helping cast Full Metal Jacket, or playing one of the cloaked figures in Eyes Wide Shut. Vitali’s material gains were relatively meager and the demands of the jobs often proved deleterious to his personal life, but part of what makes the film so compelling — in addition to all the eyewitness Kubrick lore — is that he seems to have no regrets, that aiding a genius in the shadows was its own reward.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor?
There’s nothing groundbreaking about Zierra’s filmmaking in Filmworker, but it’s a welcome reminder that anecdotes and reflection can carry a film when done well. That’s also true of Morgan Neville’s Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, a look at the life of Fred Rogers, who dedicated his life to bringing gentleness and understanding to children’s television on the PBS series Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Anyone expecting skeletons in the closet should look elsewhere. Apart from some allusions to Rogers being demanding on the set, he emerges as a man whose on-screen persona captured his truest self, and that he tried his best to live by the gentle virtues he preached, and that guiding principles couldn’t be put on the shelf when following them became difficult.
There’s a different sort of dedication, the sort that could easily be mistaken for obsession, at the heart of Free Solo, Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin’s chronicle of rock climber Alex Honnold, who, in 2017, became the first person to free-solo climb El Capitan, a forbidding rock formation in Yosemite National Park. “Free solo” means no ropes or harnesses — just one person attempting a feat in which even the smallest mistake could have fatal consequences. Vasarhelyi and Chin score some breathtaking footage of Honnold in action, including some of the scariest moments you’ll see in a movie this year, but it’s Honnold’s unusual personality that gives the film its center. He’s at once fiercely committed to his impossible feats and unnervingly low-key when talking about them and the scenes he shares with his girlfriend reveal him as someone to whom intimacy doesn’t come naturally. It’s less machismo that drives him than some kind of deep personal need that, by his own admission, each triumph only quiets temporarily.
This year also saw the latest film in the long career of 88-year-old master Frederick Wiseman, who was already working steadily as a law professor when he decided to start making documentaries in the early ’60s. Monrovia, Indiana, his 42nd film, is the latest example of the style he’s employed from the start, one that finds him setting up his cameras and observing as life goes on at various locations and institutions around the world. Here it’s the small, central Indiana city of Monrovia, a place of old-timer-filled cafes, semi-heated city council debates about hydrant issues and ceremonies honoring longtime Masons. It’s mundane, everyday material that Wiseman makes poetic both by letting his camera live in the moment and through thoughtful editing, emerging with a depiction of life in the heartland far removed from the many condescending, swing-by profiles of such places that have become so frequent since the 2016 election.
Keith Phipps is a writer and editor specializing in film, television, and other aspects of popular culture. He lives in Chicago with his wife and daughter and does not currently moonlight as a masked vigilante. Find him on Twitter @kphipps3000.