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The 15 Best Documentaries of 2015

by Christopher Campbell on December 22, 2015


This was not a poor year for nonfiction cinema, though it may have seemed that way
because of what was most popular. Not everyone likes to see so many music documentaries
flooding the market, even if those films include some of the most exceptional and affecting
artist profiles weve ever seen. This was a more centralized year for docs in terms of
recognition, also, as evidenced by this websites four primary critics (myself, Daniel
Walber, Dan Schindel and Landon Palmer) being more uniform in our individual best-of
lists than usual. Years where were more scattered on our favorites tend to imply there was
a broader range of great work.
But perhaps 2015 simply gave us more first-rate films we could agree on as being above
and beyond the rest. This year brought new releases by Frederick Wiseman, Joshua
Oppenheimer, Hubert Sauper, Wim Wenders, Asif Kapadia and even the late Les Blank, so
it wasnt surprising that wed be so coordinated in our picks. Plus, newcomers such as Chad
Gracia, Amanda Wilder and Debra Granik (new to nonfiction anyway) delivered such
extraordinary debuts that none of us could dismiss. At least half of the films listed below
were found on three out of the four critics own lists, while the rest represent two critics
each. None of them are too obscure.
That means you should be able to find them, and you really should seek them out.
15. Evaporating Borders
evaporating borders
Cyprus is in flux. Wedged between the nations of Greece and Turkey, the continents of
Africa, Asia and Europe, political extremes and international organizations, it is now much
more than simply a trouble spot. Iva Radivojevic, rather than targeting a single issue, has
instead made a poetic essay that captures the many moods of the island. Fascist
demonstrations in public squares, immigrants living in refugee camps, fed by money from

the European Union, flocks of flamingoes on the coast and the towering residences of
Russian millionaires all pass across the screen like the increasingly treacherous tides of the
Mediterranean. Insightful and frequently quite beautiful, Evaporating Borders is among the
strongest debut features of the year. Daniel Walber
14. Best of Enemies
Best of Enemies
A few years ago, a documentary titled Evocateur positioned Morton Downey, Jr.s
firebrand 1980s talk show as the paradigm for todays pervasive industry of media
demagoguery. The films thesis seemed tacked-on at best, a last-minute big-picture
justification overreaching its case for historical import. More readily answering a call for
putting our toxic media landscape into context, Robert Gordon and Morgan Nevilles
enthralling Best of Enemies chronicled what is essential to any diagnosis of political
polarization via television history: the transient but emotionally intoxicating joy of seeing
your ideological stand-in rhetorically pummel the opposition. This masterfully assembled
recounting of William F. Buckley and Gore Vidals ten oral sparring matches during the
1968 Republican and Democratic National Conventions and their surrounding events is
appropriately bittersweet: it both revels in the party and observes its consequential
hangover. Landon Palmer
13. Finders Keepers
Shannon in Finders Keepers
One of the best things about Finders Keepers is how its filmmakers, directors J. Clay Tweel
and Bryan Carberry and producers Ed Cunningham and Seth Gordon, show improvement
with each new nonfiction work. This is the most directly evolved from their most wellknown (save for Carberry who wasnt part of the team then), the Gordon-helmed The King
of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters. There are two men in a conflict, and theres a lot of humor
due to the absurd premise of one guy finding another guys amputated leg in a grill hed
bought at auction and the custody battle that ensued. However, this is a mature work of
documentary, not just some stranger-than-fiction lark where the crazy story and

unbelievable characters are depended on to drive the film. Its as sad as it is funny, and its
respectful and considerate of the men as human beings, not sensational subjects, and their
lives as more than whats easily mediated on screen, from reality shows to this very feature.
Ultimately, it is a deep and sensitive take on fame, fortune, class, capitalism, justice and
grief, rather than the yokel folk tale it appears to be. Christopher Campbell
12. The Nightmare
The Nightmare
Rodney Aschers Room 237 divided audiences in its unencumbered investigation into the
myriad theories surrounding Stanley Kubricks The Shining from well, enthusiasts
seems too tame a word. The director doubled down on his interest in faithfully re-creating
the subjective experiences of his subjects with The Nightmare, which brings the uncanny
experiences of those who suffer from sleep paralysis to terrifying life. Theres something
radical in Aschers commitment to following his subjects down the rabbit hole of individual
experience and the strange revelations that this journey often brings, eschewing an
authoritative tradition of documentary expertise in the process. But its even more
surprising that such a unique approach to nonfiction could be so entertaining. And fiction or
nonfiction, its the scariest movie of the year. LP
11. In the Basement
in-the-basement-nazis
Ulrich Seidl edits with a vengeance. This documentary, which takes place in the many and
varied basements of Austria, is both a loving portrait and a brutal evisceration of the many
things people hide beneath their homes. Underground portals are a major visual motif, as
Seidl returns again and again to shots of his subjects closing their doors behind him before
cutting to the scene inside. As the film progresses from doll collectors and hunting
enthusiasts to BDSM and Nazi nostalgia, Seidl cuts ever more confrontationally between
increasingly disparate subjects, demanding that we re-examine our own taboos. DW.
10. The Iron Ministry

Cinder Films
The latest project of the Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab explores not a location but a
vehicle a train, one of many traversing the rails of China. An opening sequence
consisting only of the sights and sounds of machinery in motion makes the train feel like a
living being. The various passengers we then meet over the course of the film thus seem
like lesser organisms temporarily thriving off a host. Theyre juvenile remora attached to a
whale. The sense of time and place is subsuming, and the various vignettes of humanity
collectively feel like an effective microcosm of contemporary China. Dan Schindel
9. Stray Dog
Stray Dog 2
Debra Granik set Jennifer Lawrence on the road to superstardom and earned massive
accolades with Winters Bone. If she were a man, she probably would have been handed
the reins of The Hunger Games or some other franchise after that. Instead, she continues to
explore rural America on a minuscule budget, this time in nonfiction form. Vietnam veteran
turned biker Ron Hall doesnt seem on paper like one of the most compelling documentary
protagonists of the year. Hell, he might not even seem it while youre watching the film.
But Graniks casual disregard for convention and easy naturalism flesh out Halls many
nuances, making his pain wholly sympathetic and his little triumphs into tremendous
crowd-pleasers. DS

8. Approaching the Elephant


approaching the elephant
As much as I like to champion innovative takes on nonfiction film, its also great to see
something so nearly unmistakable from the direct cinema of the 1960s and 1970s,
especially if it can still feel fresh as this. Amanda Wilder (who, full disclosure, has written
for this site) still pushes the envelope in her partly old-fashioned observational record of the
first year of a communal free school in New Jersey. Shes hands off as the experiment

(theirs not hers) plays out, and its a thrill to never know what shell show us next even
if it often seems like a kid may become seriously hurt. Theres a level of chaos to the
content, controlled for us through careful storytelling, much of it achieved in the editing (by
Actress director Robert Greene, also a former Nonfics contributor). But all of it was first
collected by an entrusted, nonintrusive camera capturing unforgettable characters, young
and grown, in a time and place and situation that needed to be documented. The result is
like a love child of Frederick Wiseman and Werner Herzog, as impossible as that
conception may sound. Approaching the Elephant is the sort of documentary where you
leave thinking how tragic it would have been had all these images not been recorded. CC
7. The Salt of the Earth
Salt of the Earth
Wim Wenderss plunge into photographer Sebastio Salgados work is an arresting
experience, an intimate look into difficult histories of exploitation, tragedy and struggle told
through its subjects documentation of global social life from labor in Brazilian gold mines
to the Rwandan genocide. But the power of Salgados photography alone is not what makes
The Salt of the Earth a great documentary. As with Wenderss portrayal of dance in Pina,
his use of art to examine the work of artists merges the moving image and still photography
into something that neither could have achieved on their own. By juxtaposing black-andwhite close-ups of Salgado detailing an oral history of his work against the black-and-white
byproducts of said work, Wenders weaves these photographs through a fluid narrative that
constantly confronts the audience with the profound contexts of such beautiful, terrible
images. LP
6. We Come as Friends
BBC Worldwide North America
Hubert Sauper has carved out an unlikely niche as an observer of the hell that exists on the
bad end of globalization. Here, he embarks on a nightmare travelogue of how political,
corporate and religious interests from more powerful entities have already sunk their claws
into the worlds newest country. The establishment of South Sudan was meant as a fresh

start for its people. But from missionaries swindling people out of their land to factories
poisoning nearby soil, its seems that renewal isnt feasible under runaway capitalism. Its a
sobering, almost helpless portrait. DS
5. Amy
Amy
On the one hand, Asif Kapadia (Senna) has constructed a portrait of duality in the fame of
Amy Winehouse, who died of alcohol poisoning four years ago at the age of 27. Its an
emotionally affecting work, accomplished visually in the compilation of preexisting
footage. On the other hand, the film is a product of duality in the documentary image, each
piece of that footage telling us two different things. Structured precisely so that Winehouse
is depicted as a more closed-off character as her story progresses and as her representation
on camera evolves and then devolves, Amy doesnt just ask us to consider what and whom
were watching but how were watching it. Kapadia had to make an ethically complicated
choice in order to make such a brilliant film, but a great documentarian shouldnt avoid
using dirty tools when theyre the only ones that can get the job done. CC
4. In Jackson Heights
In-Jackson-Heights
In Jackson Heights is not a utopian film, but it occasionally brushes up against a
remarkably hopeful message. Frederick Wisemans portrait of Jackson Heights, Queens,
doesnt hide the neighborhoods biggest problems. Gentrification and the collapse of local
businesses, police brutality, discrimination and the struggles of the immigrant community
are at the forefront of this kaleidoscopic, epic work. Yet Wiseman approaches the spirit of
the American dream by profiling the activists and organizations confronting these issues,
with a particular eye for how all of these communities intersect. In Jackson Heights shows
the hard work of driving this country towards its boldly stated but never achieved goals of
equality and understanding, one conversation at a time. DW
3. The Russian Woodpecker

The Russian Woodpecker


Some documentaries attempt to be everything, and almost always they fail in their
excessive scope. In his stunning debut, Chad Gracia has tried for a work of political and
artistic importance and triumphantly succeeds with a constantly surprising mix of history,
humor, drama, character study, journalistic odyssey, global intrigue and terror and what
looks like a bit of sci-fi and fantasy but is all too real. The Russian Woodpecker follows an
investigation down a rabbit hole beginning with a preposterous yet plausible conspiracy
theory and winds up in the middle of the Ukrainian Revolution. This is a paranoid thriller
with levels of dread both intimate and wide-reaching. Its quite possibly the best nonfiction
detective film since The Thin Blue Line and without a doubt the best spy film of the year.
CC
2. A Poem is a Naked Person
A Poem Is a Naked Person
Les Blank was a hungry filmmaker. That comes across in his many lighter, shorter features
about both cooking and mouths, from Yum Yum Yum and Garlic Is As Good As Ten
Mothers to Gap Toothed Women. Yet this discourse of taste, hunger and occasionally
violent consumption had never been quite so viscerally articulated as it is in A Poem Is a
Naked Person, the posthumously released feature that Blank began in 1972. Ostensibly a
portrait of musician Leon Russell, the final product is much grander. Using Russell and his
music as more of a structural tool than a subject, Blank captured the soul of America and
found his masterpiece. DW
1. The Look of Silence
Its unfair to just label The Look of Silence as a sequel to or companion piece of The Act of
Killing, because then we treat it like something that couldnt or doesnt exist or succeed on
its own. Joshua Oppenheimers latest film exposing and confronting the horrendous mass
killings in Indonesia in the mid 1960s is possibly even a stronger work. This time he
focuses on a brave and stoic main character, an optometrist who uses his profession as a
way into the homes and company of men responsible for murdering countless

communists, including his own brother, in order for him interrogate them. Its a more
personal film, and yet the optometrist was born after the death of his sibling so theres also
a kind of detachment there, which informs his and relates to our impossibility to totally
understand such intimate as well as such extensive tragedy. Oppenheimer, too, was born
after many of his own ancestors fell victim to the Holocaust not that this fact provides
any context within the film, but knowing it provides some external insight into his interests
here, especially with the optometrists parents.
The astounding aspect of what Oppenheimer is showing through The Act of Killing and
now The Look of Silence is how the murderers in Indonesia remain on the winning side of
their history and therefore have never otherwise been held accountable, unlike those we
encounter in docs on the Nazi, Khmer Rouge, Sudanese and most other genocidal war
criminals of the past century. The most striking aspect of this film alone, though, is in the
specific reactions of the killers and their loved ones, since theres a concentration on family
and the effects the killings have on those related to both victim and perpetrator. Because as
we see in the film, those closest to the events are starting to pass on, and its memories of
secondhand perspectives that carry forth. So its necessary to keep that next generation, let
alone any following generations, from wrongly remembering their nations past. The Look
of Silence is a record and a tool for changing the world. CC

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