What does it mean anymore to search for truth? It’s so tired it’s practically cliche: We think we know the difference between what’s “real” and what’s “fake,” and we use those terms as if we’ve shored up a pretty precise definition between the two in our heads. Functionally, though, we operate as if we care less about what’s “true,” and more about what truth, however it’s defined, does to affect our lives. We’ve transcended finding the difference; we now conceive of truth in terms of whether or not we have to take responsibility for it.
The best documentaries of the past 10 years, then, aren’t about the gray area between truth and fiction, but about the responsibility of witnessing: When truth is in the eye of the beholder, what burden must that beholder carry? What is the burden of seeing?
And so, the following documentaries chronicle the weight of these burdens. They are movies of work, of identity through work, of physical creation, of physical Creation, of taking responsibility for oneself through the privilege of seeing, of that “taking” as both political action and declaration of individual identity. As for our number one pick, the director’s work is to see, and her film has deep respect for that occupation.
We’ve also reserved spots on this list for only one movie per director, unless the film is part of a companion piece. Which means that Frederick Wiseman has made more than one great documentary this decade (see also: Ex Libris and Monrovia: Indiana); so has Robert Greene, and Steve James, and Jodie Mack, and Brett Story… we’re wading into the many shades of capital-”T” truth here, folks. We manipulate it how we see fit.
Some honorable mentions of course just barely missed the list—Brimstone & Glory, Exit Through the Gift Shop, Hypernormalisation and This Is Not a Film all come immediately to mind—but the following is essential.
Here are the best documentaries of the past ten years:
30. Jiro Dreams of Sushi (2013)
DIrector: David Gelb
Jiro Dreams of Sushi is about one of the greatest masters of the culinary world, one of whom casual foodies have never even heard. Although Jiro’s work—literally, the dishes he so effortlessly prepares, and then the act of watching him as he watches his customers eating the dishes—is ostensibly the film’s focus, the story is truly propelled by the chef’s relationship with his two sons: the youngest started his own restaurant, and the oldest, at the age of 50, continues to work with his father, training to one day take over Jiro’s infamous restaurant. Devoid of the typical familial jealousy you may expect (and so devoid, arguably, of much conflict at all), Jiro Dreams of Sushi is only a beautifully filmed documentary about three men who have devoted their lives to the pursuit of perfection. Which in itself is conflict enough, as the film airily asks: Where do style, artistry, practice and perfection meet? —Emily Kirkpatrick
29. 12 O’Clock Boys (2013)
Director: Lotfy Nathan
An elegant mix between a scrappy visual bildungsroman of a 13-year-old Baltimore youth and a cursory glance at the dirt-bike and four-wheeler culture that’s risen to near legendary status in the city, 12 O’Clock Boys is a gorgeously shot testament to the social climate that has made Baltimore such a focus for racial and institutional tension over the past decade (see Rat Film below)—though Nathan’s documentary is almost totally removed from any particular time. Instead, it’s concerned more with the quotidian, how the City’s youth live for their bikes, for the thrill of testing their physical limits, for the freedom and personality such machines afford them in a place that rarely allows them to ever express the same. Baltimore’s problems have been indelible to its personality for so long, and yet, as embraced by Pug—our protagonist, the boy who obsesses over joining the 12 O’Clock Boys, Baltimore’s so-called biker gang—the City is a complex web of thoroughfares and blank slates ready to be etched into stone by anyone with a motor and a death wish. Between goose-pimply vignettes of the 12 O’Clock boys posturing for the camera—popping wheelies and grinning wildly—and sobering passages in which Pug’s family (and friends) face one tragedy after another, the film is moored to the foundation of Pug’s dream: That one day he will be legend too. —Dom Sinacola
28. Tempestad (2016)
Director: Tatiana Huezo
Tatiana Huezo’s Tempestad is the aural record of two women ground under the heel of Mexico’s corrupt government and associated criminal network of cartel control. In measured voice over, Miriam and Adela tell their stories while visual notions and slice-of-life vignettes magnify the prolificacy of their pain across so many lives in Mexico: The former tells of a sudden arrest, accused of a crime she didn’t commit and lost within the cartel’s prison system, and the latter, a traveling circus clown, remembers the ineptitude and cruelty of Mexican authorities in failing to help her get back her kidnapped daughter over the course of the past decade. They persevered, though the intensity of their hardships makes one wonder why; Huezo refrains from inflating, or really even exaggerating in the slightest, what these women experienced. Miriam eventually makes it back to her son, suffering severe post-traumatic stress disorder to this day, and Adela never finds her daughter, continuing to perform, to coach upcoming ingenues, to generally find a reason to keep going every single day. Tempestad ends on a note of transformation, on an image of a silhouette that only grows in importance the more we remember what these women told us. That feels like hope enough—an image, if any, to tie the films of this decade, and those to come, together. Not that anyone would want to. —Dom Sinacola
27. Nostalgia for the Light (2010)
Director: Patricio Guzmán
The goal for every great documentary is to, for at least one fleeting moment, glimpse the inconceivable. There’s no hyperbole in that statement, only recognition of ambition—relentless, endless and indelible, borne from some sort of need to find reasons for all of the incomprehensible chaos that surrounds us. And so director Patricio Guzmán created a spellbinding exploration of the Atacama Desert in Chile, where today astronomers from all over the world flock to fulfill their wildest researching dreams. Due to the renowned lack of moisture in the region, star-watching is almost effortless, and Guzmán acknowledges this, citing his own fascination with astronomy at a young age.
But this he takes even further: Astronomers are studying the ancient past, looking for clues to the origin of all reality in the light of galaxies emitted literally millions of years ago, but the Atacama is also perfect for another kind of archaeological excavation. Because of how dry it is, Atacama preserves so much—plant matter, primeval fish, even human remains—and so Guzmán shifts focus to the atrocities committed by the Pinochet dictatorship in the late ’70s and early ’80s, much of which happened in concentration camps located in the desert. And all these years later, a small group of women who lost loved ones still searches the desert for traces of the old grief they’ve suffered so long.
Guzmán offers no answers to the tragedies befallen the desert and the country—he only attempts to provide consolation through the regularity and awe of the act of searching itself. In that sense, most of the film’s heart is held in long, wandering shots of breathtaking galaxies interspersed with desert vistas, woven together with an almost intuitive grace. And when, in the film’s final moments, he brings these women to state-of-the-art observatories in order to, for once in their lives, look up from the desert floor, Nostalgia for the Light attains something nearly transcendent: the overwhelming feeling that we’re all much too small to matter, and that we’re all in this smallness together. —Dom Sinacola
26. Life Itself (2014)
Director: Steve James
Life Itself may tell the story of a remarkable life, but it’s at its most enlightening when dealing with death. Steve James’s documentary on Roger Ebert naturally chronicles its subject’s exploits, trials and triumphs as he became the most recognizable film critic in the United States. But it weaves his life story around footage shot during the last months of his life, as we see the effect his impairments and mortality have on him and his loved ones.
While the director’s best-known works, like Hoop Dreams and The Interrupters, mainly use location footage and naturalistic interviews shot by James himself, the historical segments of Life Itself take on a slick production quality that would be more closely associated with Ken Burns—complete with old photos and archival footage. While the movie jumps around chronologically, its contemporary footage is the pivot on which it all turns. But James is most at home while working with his own footage, and that’s where the movie really shines. Shooting began a few months before Ebert’s death, but no one knew that the end would come so soon. Ebert had been publicly battling cancer for several years, after all; surgeries and subsequent complications in 2006 left him with no jaw, nearly unrecognizable and unable to eat without tubes or speak without a computer. When James joins him, Ebert is doing even worse after breaking his hip. It’s fitting that Ebert often professed his love for documentaries that unfold in a way the filmmakers couldn’t have predicted when production began. He would have loved this one. —Jeremy Mathews
25. Notfilm (2016)
Director: Ross Lipman
Some movies are the happy accident of mismatched collaborators who, against the odds, produce a masterpiece forged in the fire of their creative clash. Then you have Film, a misbegotten 1965 avant-garde short put together by famed playwright Samuel Beckett and desperate-for-a-paycheck Buster Keaton. In the revelatory documentary Notfilm, director Ross Lipman excavates this little-remembered curio, talking to everyone from cinematographer Haskell Wexler to film historian Leonard Maltin to create a mosaic about celluloid, thwarted ambitions and the reasons why movies still enrapture us after so many years. This is a gift for film-lovers, even if you’re not a Film-lover. —Tim Grierson
24. Heart of a Dog (2016)
Director: Laurie Anderson
Laurie Anderson and Lou Reed purchased their rat terrier Lolabelle from a mall store—a store supplied, no doubt, by a so-called puppy mill, where inbreeding and genetic neglect make for maximum puppy output at the cost of pretty much any functional ethical integrity. This Anderson describes in her lyrical documentary, Heart of a Dog, putting a fine point on it with a tracking shot of adorable baby dogs caged and crushed together, yipping and climbing over one another to find enough room to lay down. The legendary artistic couple—two people, we assume, who must have been attuned to the moral grey they’re wading into by giving money to a store which is totally cool with selling Costco-bulk creatures—were only giving one helpless puppy soul a better life. A better home. They freed Lolabelle. It was one small thing they could do: They gave this dog a better context.
It’s clear in Anderson’s documentary that she and Reed adored Lolabelle, especially in the context of Anderson’s ruminations on grief following Lolabelle’s death, but the more telling aspects of the film are all the ways in which Anderson treated Lolabelle like her own child. She opens the film by retelling a dream in which she forgoes all manner of medical malpractice to give birth to Lolabelle, forcing doctors to implant the full-grown dog, alive and well, into her uterus, to soon after be expelled. Then, too, there are the piano lessons, the recording sessions and performance gigs, the concerted effort to develop a language with the dog—if you aren’t a self-identified “dog person,” this will all translate as alien and obsessive. And yet, the most human of Lolabelle’s luxuries was the fact that Anderson shared with her dog a Buddhist teacher. They would work toward nirvana together.
Instead, Lolabelle moved faster, sprinting down the beach ahead of her owner into oblivion—arriving at the end of her life long before Anderson ever could. When she died she was at home; Anderson and Reed elected to, at the behest of their Buddhist teacher, allow Lolabelle to approach death on her own terms, and not, as their vet had advised, through the intercession of euthanasia. They gave their dog the freedom to confront death, then back away, then confront death again. She could finally go forward when she was ready. Heart of a Dog wallows in the grief that follows. And while Anderson steps aside frequently to muse on post-9/11 surveillance or anecdotes about her childhood, the film’s throughline is that grief: how to deal with it, how to live with it. How to, ultimately, control it.
Because the agony of our reality after 9/11 is that all illusions of control have been completely torn down. It’s what Anderson is talking about when she tells the story of Lolabelle’s encounter with a bird of prey in rural California: She saw the moment in her terrier’s eyes when the dog realized that death could come from the sky, from an entire “180 degrees” of heretofore un-inspected, unguarded space. There’s little more relevant to our ideas of mortality than the notion that every one of us, bipedal or avian or bellies-to-the-ground or whatever, is totally helpless in the face of an indifferent universe.
But control? We’ve got to take it for ourselves—we’ve got to embrace what little control we do have over these short lives of ours, and make it count. With that in mind, in the aftermath of Lolabelle’s death, Anderson’s Buddhist teacher coaches her toward something that at first seems like a paradox: “You should learn how to feel sad without actually being sad.”
The difference between “feeling” and “being” is one of control. To be sad is to exist, rudderless, in a state of misery that’s simply endured, but to feel sad—that’s to hold that sadness, to turn it in your hands, to trace its contours and understand it like a phrenologist treating an especially craggy noggin. Maybe the functional difference between the two doesn’t really matter—and maybe you aren’t into piddling over such semantics—but for Anderson (who in close succession lost her dog, her mom and her husband), the idea that she can take ownership of her sadness is a comfort when dealing with the incomprehensible forces of the universe she has no choice but to live with. —Dom Sinacola
23. Marwencol (2010)
Director: Jeff Malmberg
One night in 2000, Mark Hogencamp was beaten close to death by five men outside of a bar he frequented. No one really knew why it happened; after nine days in a coma, Hogencamp awoke with severe brain damage and little memory of life before. Unable to pay for intensive therapy, he slowly devised a world of his own to reconstruct in place of the one he’d lost: Marwencol, a World-War-II-era Belgian town made from 1/6th scale hobby sets and GI Joe/Barbie dolls. He populated the place with characters transposed from his life as he knew it—himself, friends and the men who attacked him. In order to find reason, and one assumes come to some sort of closure, Hogencamp—charmingly chain-smoking—acts out serialized plots in his little town, meticulously positioning tiny hands or dragging action figure vehicles down back country roads, all the while in thrall to every trivial detail within his control.
Marwencol explores Hogencamp’s imagination as he attempts to rediscover the identity he lost, following the man to New York when his photos of Marwencol are featured in Esopus magazine and shown in an art gallery. The trip proves to be the first time since the accident that Hogencamp’s left his rigorously controlled, excessively private life, and with that director Jeff Malmberg captures him finally getting a grip on the quietly slumbering truths that may have—somehow—brought him to that point. It’s a story rich in awakenings, about the precarious nature of identity and the surprises of spirit awaiting us, somewhere, out of our control, yet held deeply within. —Dom Sinacola
22. Black Mother (2018)
Director: Khalik Allah
When any advertising agency is commissioned to shoot a Jamaican tourism commercial, they’ll inevitably wend their way around to the same old hook: Bob Marley’s “One Love.” Come and visit Jamaica, the land of All Right! Everything’s all right, all the time here on the Jamrock! The ad people are just following the path most traveled (and perhaps even dictated by travel agencies and tourism boards), promoting Jamaica as a land of leisure and ease, where the sun shines, people smile, life is good, and no one wants for anything, especially spiritual assuaging. Advertising may sell audiences on a Jamaican ideal, but with his documentary, Black Mother, director Khalik Allah achieves a goal far greater: presenting audiences with the truth, however lovely or hideous it may be. Allah’s approach takes the form of a visual essay/tone poem. It’s a fractured piece of work, a story about Jamaica the way that Hale County This Morning, This Evening is a story of Alabama. Allah’s filmmaking functions as stream of consciousness. He eschews narrative documentarian traditions. This approach poses a challenge to the viewer—Black Mother is made in a language rarely spoken in cinema, be it multiplex or arthouse. Allah throws his audience into the ocean and forces them to tread water, soaking in the country’s textures and contradictions and trauma. Through his lens, Allah presents a nation decayed by oppression, whether political, social or even religious, and a people forced to do whatever they can to sustain themselves. That doesn’t mean Allah is committing poverty tourism. Instead, he’s a character in the film, made invisible by the tool of his trade. But he lets the people he meets tell their stories in their words, and anchors those words to truth through imagery. The effect of Black Mother’s technique—Allah shot on both 16mm and HD—is dizzying to the point of overwhelming, but the discipline required to engage with it is rewarded by a singular moviegoing experience. —Andy Crump
21. Cartel Land (2015)
Director: Matthew Heineman
Director Matthew Heineman’s film opens at night, alongside masked men cooking meth in the Mexican desert: an up-close-and-personal vantage point that he maintains throughout Cartel Land. Shot with an assured attention to dramatic compositions and edited with a swiftness that generates uneasy, suspenseful momentum, Heineman’s documentary has the electricity of an adrenalized war film. Cartel Land is complex and harrowing, about drug gangs’ grip on Mexico (and the Mexican-American borderlands) as much as it is a portrait of the difficulties of grassroots revolutionary movements. In Michoacán, a Western Mexican state in the grip of the Templar Knights cartel, in response to his neighbors being gunned down and beheaded—an atrocity he photographed with his camera as proof of his enemies’ barbarism—Dr. José Mireles sought to fight back against his community’s oppressors by creating the Autodefensas, a vigilante group that took up arms against the cartels. Liberating one occupied town after another, the Autodefensas were a response to both the cartels and to the corrupt government with whom they were in league. Soon, a state-wide movement was afoot, with fed-up everyday citizens donning the Autodefensas’ uniform—a white t-shirt—and picking up machine guns to oppose an enemy that, as one woman horrifyingly recounts, has committed torture, murder, dismemberment and rape with narcotics-fueled glee.
Cartel Land’s depiction of Mireles’s efforts to expand Autodefensas’s reach, and then to keep the organization together, soon transforms the film into something more than just a snapshot of a particular conflict. As Mireles loses control of his outfit to criminal membership elements and fellow leaders intent on embracing the government’s efforts to integrate the group into a state-sanctioned unit, what emerges is a case study in the various ways in which virtuous independent movements are corrupted from within and co-opted from without. The film’s kinship with fictionalized genre cinema is furthered by the fact that the Autodefensas’s militiamen engage in regular daylight-street shootouts with gunmen, while cartel drug cooks (in an anecdote that suggests a real-life Breaking Bad) confess they learned their trade from a father-son duo who’d been brought in from America by their bosses. Eschewing narration and on-screen text in favor of interviews that serve to keep the story propelled ever-forward—and often taking up residence right beside, or over the shoulder of, its Autodefensas subjects—Cartel Land is the rare non-fiction work that routinely keeps one’s nerves on edge. —Nick Schager
20. One More Time with Feeling (2017)
Director: Andrew Dominik
Following the death of his son in 2016, Nick Cave went to work finishing an album of songs he’d mostly begun before that unfathomable loss, the bulk of which would make up Skeleton Tree, Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds’ 16th studio album. Given intimate access, director Andrew Dominik stages a series of live performances of the album’s songs in black-and-white 3D; Cave and his band and his family quietly flounder in the wake of the tragedy, doing their best to record, to work, to pull something from—or push something through—a vast nothingness. That Cave also offers voice over, as if he’s reading from a diary Dominik asked him to keep to chronicle his own relationship to having his trauma filmed, provides a fourth dimension to something otherwise ungraspable, Dominik struggling alongside his friend (and iconic musician) to witness pain in its many facets—to give shape, aided in part by cinematographer Benoit Debie, to grief. One could be forgiven for ever forgetting that sad songs only make up a portion of what Nick Cave writes: One listen to Skeleton Tree and the portents of his son’s accident sound undeniable. But Cave’s given to surprising thoughtfulness throughout his despair, musing about the elasticity of time, remembering musings later in the film and revising, clarifying revisions even later, always in a conversation with himself about how to narrativize his life, or how to refrain from that. He admits that there’s no way he can deny his lyrics spoke to truths to come—if that were the case, would it matter? Would the mass of his grief weigh any less? Dominik lets those questions linger; one climactic performance in color bears nothing but instant, ravishing relief, whether existential or metaphorical or aesthetic or what, a single key light a magnificent backdrop to the realization that Cave’s loss will not end with the film. His loss will persist, hanging over our heads, probably forever. Dominik literalizes that emptiness, crafting a concert doc of uncommon grace and insight. —Dom Sinacola
19. Dawson City: Frozen Time (2017)
Director: Bill Morrison
For those who know the work of avant-garde documentary filmmaker Bill Morrison well, his latest (and, significantly, longest) opus, Dawson City: Frozen Time, may shock in how formally conventional it is. In essence, the film plays like a feature-length history lesson. That is hardly a criticism, though, when the history is as compelling as it is here. From its humble beginnings as a hunting and fishing village for a nomadic First Nation tribe, Dawson City rose briefly to prominence thanks to the Klondike Gold Rush of 1896, but then plummeted in renown once the rush ended in 1899 and prospectors migrated elsewhere, reducing its population from approximately 40,000 to about 1,000. 1896 was also the year that commercial cinema was basically invented, with the creation of film projectors and the development of movie theaters. These two threads eventually converged in a dilemma for Dawson City officials, as films that were shipped there for exhibition accumulated over time as studios rarely, if ever, asked them to be returned. While many of the prints—all of them made out of nitrate, highly flammable material—burned up in fires, others were simply dumped into the Yukon River, while 533 reels were stored in the basement of the Carnegie Library. In 1929, one official decided to move all those films in the Carnegie Library to a spot underneath a re-built hockey rink, thus unknowingly providing the permafrost cover necessary to ensure their survival and eventual rediscovery in 1978, even as the athletic center that housed the rink burned to the ground in 1951.
Morrison’s fascination with those surviving nitrate reels is certainly in keeping with his general fascination with film history, as evinced by his previous work. But Dawson City: Frozen Time also reminds us that Morrison has never been just a vintage-cinema enthusiast. The Miners’ Hymns, especially, coursed with a working-class empathy that came to the fore in its final section, with archival footage of coal miners marching into a church in union solidarity, illustrated with blazing brass fanfares in Jóhann Jóhannsson’s score. Similarly, Dawson City: Frozen Time isn’t just about film history, but also about the history of this particular town—especially its struggles to stay afloat after the Gold Rush ended—and how that history reflected the history of the world around it (artistic and economic luminaries ranging from Jack London and Fatty Arbuckle, to Sid Grauman and Daniel & Solomon Guggenheim are all noted as having passed through Dawson City in some way).
Ultimately, though, the heart of Morrison’s film lies in that unearthed nitrate footage, and what he shows of it is often astonishing. Clips of lost silent films are one thing, but images of Fatty Arbuckle playing Dawson City stages, and even footage of the crucial play that led to the 1919 Black Sox scandal are quite another. As impressively exhaustive as it is as a work of history, Dawson City: Frozen Time plays even more affectingly as Morrison’s most direct love letter to cinema: a tool not only for recording history, but also for capturing between-the-lines truths that history books can only graze. That nitrate footage unearthed below a hockey rink in Dawson City, on a broader level, stands as a testament to the potential of art to weather and endure the ravages of time. —Kenji Fujishima
18. Casting JonBenet (2017)
Director: Kitty Green
An unlikely cross-section of humanity populates Casting JonBenet, which boasts a provocative idea that yields enormous emotional rewards. Filmmaker Kitty Green invited members of the Boulder, Colorado community where JonBenet Ramsey lived to “audition” for a film about her. But in the tradition of Kate Plays Christine or The Machine Which Makes Everything Disappear, that’s actually a feint: Green uses the on-camera interviews with these people to talk about Ramsey’s murder and the still-lingering questions about who committed the crime. She’s not interested in their acting abilities—she’s trying to pinpoint the ways that a 21-year-old incident still resonates. It’s a premise that could seem cruel or exploitative, but Casting JonBenet is actually incredibly compassionate. Green wizardly finds connective tissue between all these actors, who have internalized the little girl’s killing, drawing parallels in their own lives to this tragedy. High-profile murders like Ramsey’s often provoke gawking, callous media treatment, turning us all into rubberneckers, but Casting JonBenet vigorously works against that tendency, fascinated by our psychological need to judge other people’s lives, but also deeply mournful, even respectful, of the very human reasons why we do so. —Tim Grierson
17. Finding Frances (2018)
The feature-length finale to season four of the Comedy Central “reality” show operates well apart from the rest of the series, both self-contained and synecdochal for the particular brand of business acumen Fielder has flexed throughout the preceding four-plus years. If Nathan for You is about how dishonesty and manipulation are at the foundation of good business, then Finding Frances digs as deeply as it can into that bedrock, determining what lies beneath those lies. Rather than excoriate capitalism, Fielder embraces the surreal nature of “doing business,” an approach which lends itself fitfully to the story of the host helping a Bill-Gates-impersonator-who’s-not-actually-a-Bill-Gates-impersonator, Bill Heath, find the whereabouts of his long-lost paramour, Frances. Traveling together to Arkansas to dig up whatever clues they can, Fielder and Heath heap layer of unreality upon layer of unreality, exploiting loopholes and rules and bureaucratic ephemera and the basic kindness of strangers to get closer and closer to actually finding Frances.
They mount such schemes as convincing a high school that they’re a crew from Mud 2 in order to gain access to the school grounds (and, vicariously, student records) or throwing a fake high school reunion (with Heath posing as a student from Frances’s year, memorizing trivial facts about the guy, in order to interrogate other attendees about Frances) or staging a dress rehearsal with hired actors to prepare Heath for his inevitable meeting with Frances. At each juncture, as the two add one more fabrication to the equation, Heath’s background comes to light, regarding his past with Frances, yes, but also whether or not he actually is a Bill Gates impersonator (he’s not) and what that means about his relationship with Fielder.
Meanwhile, Fielder grows increasingly attached to Maci, an escort, developing a romantic connection that would be upsetting were it not so innocent. As iconic documentarian Errol Morris wrote about Finding Frances, “We all know that it entails an element of artifice. But where does the artifice begin and end?” Morris wonders if Finding Frances is about the essence of roleplaying, pointing out that Heath only pretended to be a Bill Gates impersonator in order to play one on Nathan for You. Similarly, is Fielder playing a weird guy falling in love with a hired escort, or is he actually falling in love—and can the former truthfully lead to the latter? In the film’s last moments, Maci wonders about the film crew still following them around. “You’re filming something. That’s kind of the purpose, right?” she muses. Stupidly hilarious and equally heart-wrenching, Finding Frances literally pulls out in the end to admit that there is no end. Like a Ross McElwee joint without all the solipsism, Fielder’s work never pretends that the documentary form is anything but a grand gesture of pretension, of real people acting out real lives, acting as if someone is watching, faking it until they’re making it—and not knowing where the faking it ends and the making it begins. —Dom Sinacola
16. Minding the Gap (2018)
DIrector: Bing Liu
In a year rich with slice-of-life glimpses at pubescence in flux care of skateboard crews struggling with arrested development, Minding the Gap is undoubtedly the best of its cinematic ilk, clearly focused on interrogating the toxicity that keeps these kids from truly growing up. In Rockford, Illinois, just a smidge too far outside of Chicago to matter, three kids use their friend Bing Liu’s camcorder to chronicle their days spent avoiding responsibility and the economic devastation suffered by so many Rust Belt cities of its kind. Zack is the cute and reckless elder of the crew, about to embark on fatherhood with his (noticeably younger) girlfriend Nina. Keire, a seemingly always-grinning black kid stays stiffly quiet whenever Zack claims that he has permission to use certain racial epithets, or when another kid insists that white trash kids have it the same as black kids. And Bing, the director himself, is one of the few from his friend group able to escape Rockford.
Splicing nostalgic footage of their time skating with urgent documents of their burgeoning adult life, Liu builds a portrait of the modern male in Middle America, lacing ostensibly jovial parties and hang-outs with shots of Rockford billboards vilifying absentee parents and pleas from Nina not to tell Zack that she admitted on-camera he’s hit her. As Liu discovers more and more about the abuse indelible to the young lives of his two friends, he reveals his own story of fear and pain at home, terrorized by his stepfather up until the man’s death, pushing him to confront his mother in the film’s climax about what’s been left unsaid about their mutual tormenter. It all breathes with the nerve-shaking relief of finally having these burdens exposed, though Liu is careful to ground these moments with the harsh reality of Rockford and those towns like it: Billboards beg men not to leave, not to hit their family members, not to take out their deep-seated emotional anxiety on their loved ones.
Because it will happen anyway. Zack, who was abused, will pass on that abuse. We hope he won’t, because we see simultaneously how he skates, how all of his friends skate together, the act less about being great at skating (though a sponsorship could help their pocketbooks), and more about finding respite from the shackles of their worlds. That Liu shoots these scenes—especially the film’s opening, set to a stirring classical score—with so much levity and beauty, with so much kinetic freedom, only assures that, for as much as Crystal Moselle and Jonah Hill love their subjects, Liu lives with them. He’s shared the weight of that. —Dom Sinacola