POV Poll: The Best Documentaries of 2017

Long Time Running, Jane, Human Flow, Faces Places, Kedi, and Dawson City: Frozen Time
are some of 2017’s best docs.

POV polled Toronto’s film community to determine the best documentaries of 2017. 30 critics and writers submitted their picks for the best documentaries of the year. The wide-ranging results demonstrate what a strong year it was for documentary with well over 75 titles receiving a range of support.

Guidelines for the poll allowed participants to interpret the term “documentary” freely, but submissions generally fell under the umbrella of screen based non-fiction treatments of actuality. For example, a hybrid performance piece such as Julian Rosefeldt’s Manifesto was eligible, while a mockumentary such as Craig Gillespie’s I, Tonya was not.

Participants were also given the guidelines that documentaries were eligible so long as they had been distributed either theatrically, through broadcast, by streaming, or had screened at a 2017 festival and will be released in the early window of 2018. However, POV didn’t play the eligibility police and allowed some flexibility even within that quite loose framework. Participants were also invited to submit their thoughts on the year in film and include a pick for the best unreleased doc of 2017. There wasn’t a single overlap on the submissions received for titles seeking a release, but individual votes included House of Z, Mama Colonel, On the Road, and Susanne Bartsch: On Top.

Agnès Varda and JR’s whimsical road trip documentary Faces Places (Visages Villages) trounced the competition. It nabbed the top spot by a wide margin appearing on the most lists and in the most #1 spots. Runner-up was a close race between Brett Morgen’s archival doc Jane and Ceyda Torun’s cat doc Kedi with Ai Weiwei’s migration epic Human Flow nipping at its heels.

Long Time Running came fourth in the poll and won the title for Best Canadian Documentary. Jennifer Baichwal and Nick de Pencier’s film about the Tragically Hip’s final tour was more than a sentimental favoruite and won the Canuck poll by a fair margin. Runners-up for Best Canadian Documentary were Charles Officer’s Unarmed Verses, Attiya Khan and Lawrence Jackman’s A Better Man, Denis Côté’s A Skin So Soft, and Kazik Radwanski’s Scaffold.

Here is the collective poll based on tabulated votes, followed by the participants’ individual ballots:

The Overall Top Ten:

1. Faces Places
2. Jane
3. Kedi
4. Long Time Running
5. Human Flow
6. Do Donkey’s Act? and Dawson City: Frozen Time (tie)
8. Unarmed Verses
9. A Better Man
10. Rat Film

Best Canadian Film

1. Long Time Running
2. Unarmed Verses
3. A Better Man
4. A Skin So Soft
5. Scaffold

Individual Lists:

Marc Glassman – Editor, POV Magazine; Film Critic Classical 96

1. Faces Places: Agnes Varda’s swan song to cinema is one of her finest works. Rarely acknowledged as a cinema master, she’s spent over 60 years making witty, ebullient documentaries (The Gleaners and I, Daguerrotypes) and humanist feminist narrative features (Cleo from 5 to 7, Vagabond). In Faces Places (or even better in French, Visages Villages), Varda travels through the north of France with the young photographer J.R. meeting and documenting people whose livelihoods are vanishing in the 21st century: farmers, villagers, the children of miners. Through her interviews and J.R.’s massive photos, Varda’s immensely generous film reclaims the dignity of those whose lives are passing by unacknowledged by those who are now in power.

2. Dawson City Frozen Time: Bill Morrison is a master at taking archival material and repurposing it in beautiful and thoughtful ways. Here he finds footage from Dawson City, which was the end of the distribution chain for films during the silent cinema era. Rescuing the bits and pieces of ancient melodramas and comedies, he recreates the last moments of Victorian popular culture as it was preserved for decades in the snow and ice of the Yukon.

3. Ex Libris – The New York Public Library: Frederick Wiseman has spent his career dissecting organizations and Ex Libris is no different. But the subject here, the New York Public Library, is fascinating in an age when books and the whole notion of a literary common space are being challenged. As the function of the Library changes from housing massive amounts of literary treasures to animating spaces, which allow for the free flow of ideas in vast metropolitan environments, Wiseman’s camera discretely records what is clearly a new era. This is a thoughtful doc and one of Wiseman’s best.

4. Jane:The maker of the best film about Kurt Cobain (Montage of Heck), Brett Morgan is hardly an obvious choice to document Jane Goodall. But Morgan is an archivist and a storyteller—and the tale of Goodall’s early years in the forests of Tanzania is an unforgettable one. Mainly using the camerawork of Hugo van Lawick, the photographer and cinematographer who shot footage of the young English animal right’s activist while falling in love with her, Morgan turns Jane into a romantic epic about young lovers who find and lose each other in the turbulent Africa of the Sixties.

5. Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World: What brings guitarist Jesse Ed Davis, jazz singer Mildred Bailey, The Band’s Robbie Robertson, rock legend Jimi Hendrix, bluesman Charley Patton and folksinger Buffy St. Marie together? They’re all Indigenous and certainly knew how to rock the world with their music. The feel-good doc of the year, this film is united by the searing guitar licks of Link Wray, the brilliant composer and virtuoso player of the greatest of the early rock’n’roll instrumentals, Rumble. If you can’t surrender to Link’s sound, daddy, you’ll never know where it’s at.

Maurie Alioff – Freelance

1. Whitney: Can I Be Me?
2. Gilbert
3. Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami
4. I am Another You
5. Rolling Stones: Stories from the Edge
6. GAGA: Five Foot Two
7. The Devil’s Freedom
8. Zaatari Djinn

Jason Anderson – Freelance; Programmer: TIFF, KCFF

1. Song of Granite
2. Rat Film
3. Unarmed Verses
4. I Called Him Morgan
5. Resurrecting Hassan

Nathalie Atkinson – Freelance

1. Last Men in Aleppo
2. Kedi
3. Dawson City: Frozen Time
4. Human Flow
5. Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story

Linda Barnard – Freelance

1. Faces Places
2. Kedi
3. Jane
4. La Chana
5. 78/52

Liz BraunToronto Sun

1. Jane
2. Long Time Running
3. Faces Places
4. The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography
5. An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth To Power (for its “education value”)

Jutta Brendemühl – Program Curator, Goethe-Institut Toronto contributor, POV Magazine

1. Dream Boat by Tristan Ferland Milewski
2. To Be a Teacher by Jakob Schmidt
3. Untitled by Michael Glawogger and Monika Willi
4. Beuys by Andres Veiel
5. Human Flow by Ai Weiwei
6. The Congo Tribunal by Milo Rau
7. Cahier Africain by Heidi Specogna
8. A Better Man by Lawrence Jackman and Attiya Khan
9. Meuthen’s Party by Marc Eberhardt
10. Bee Nation by Lana Šlezić

-2017 was the year of very loud and very quiet documentaries. I cannot wait for the Berlinale to see how Wim Wenders approached the Pope (and how Margarethe von Trotta approached Ingmar Bergman).

Anne BrodieWhat She Said

1. Do Donkeys Act?
2. Kedi
3. Citizen Jane: Battle for the City
4. Long Time Running
5. Faces, Places
6. Born in China
7. Rumble: The Indians who Rocked the World
8. An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power
9. The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography
10. Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent
11. Where the Universe Sings: The Spiritual Journey of Lawren Harris

Bill Chambers – Editor, FilmFreakCentral.net

1. Resurrecting Hassan
2. Dawson City Frozen Time
3. Recruiting for Jihad
4. Faces Places
5. A Better Man

Susan G. Cole – Senior Entertainment and Books Editor, NOW

1. The War Show: Covering conflict in the Middle East can be an exercise in manipulation, even on the part of the good guys. Gloriously complex.

2. Life To Come: Claudio Capanna’s exquisitely intimate take on a mother’s experience tending to her two at-risk prematurely born twins is a meditation on love and anxiety in a technologically advanced medical situation. You won’t believe how much tension can be generated in a scene where a baby tries to latch.

3. Photon: Call this All About Everything as Norman Leto uses massively enlarged microscopic images to advance his theories about the origins of the universe and what’s in store for the future. Whenever he talks politics he’s batshit but apart from that, this is one big bliss-out

4. Faces Places: On its face, this pic tracks directors JR and Agnes Varda as they travel through France, creating large-scale photographs of French villagers that comment on the region’s changing landscape and social structures. But really, it’s a poignant meditation on aging.

5. Citizen Jane: Battle for the City: Try to ignore the fact that this portrait of urban activist Jane Jacobs reads as if she never lived here. Movies have always had a problem conveying complex ideas and this one uses animation as a means of explaining Jacobs’ theories in original, and very effective, ways.

Daniel Glassman – Staff writer, POV Magazine

1. Makala – Emmanuel Gras
2. Faces Places – Agnes Varda
3. Rat Film – Theo Anthony
4. Ex Libris – Frederick Wiseman
5. Mrs. Fang – Wang Bing
6. City of Ghosts – Matthew Heineman
7. Photon – Norman Leto
8. El Mar La Mar – Joshua Bonnetta & J.P. Sniadecki
9. Whose Streets? – Sabaah Folayan
10. One of Us – Heidi Ewing & Rachel Grady

Jason GorberScreenAnarchy.com, CTV News, POV Magazine

1. Trophy- An elegant look at a supremely complex situation, this film is raw, emotional and leaves you bewildered as it delves deeply into the moral ambivalence of game hunting as both folly of recreation and the potential to be the saviour of these majestic animals.

2. Quest – An astonishing accomplishment, the film goes beyond the headlines and follows with tenacity and sensitivity one family and their North Philadelphia community as they undergo moments of triumph, tragedy and everything in between.

3. Jane – Brett Morgen’s ode to Goodall is an immense accomplishment, wrestling hundreds of hours of some of the most sublime nature footage into a compelling narrative. With another fine score by Philip Glass, this master of montage has illuminated the most wonderful of love stories, detailing Jane’s work in ways never before seen.

4. City of Ghosts – After Cartel Land Matthew Heineman could have turned his lens inward, and instead his latest film sees him fading into the background, letting the stories of remarkable, brave journalists take the fore. When the term “fake news” is used as a cudgel by liars and thieves there’s no documentary this year more vital to celebrate the tenacity of true journalists seeking not fame but the truth.

5. Casting Jon Benet – Where Kate Plays Christine received loads of undue praise last year, this magnificent film twists our fascination with true crime on its head, crafting a film that’s both performative and profound. Kitty Green’s work is exceptional, and would dovetail beautifully with I, Tonya, a fictionalized film that explores similar themes and also is one of the best of 2017.

Alex Heeney – Editor in Chief, The Seventh Row

1. Ex Libris – The New York Public Library
2. Manifesto
3. Chasing Coral
4. Abacus: Small Enough to Jail
5. Faces Places
6. School Life
7. On the Road
8. Unrest
9. Citizen Jane: Battle for the City
10. The Work

- There were a lot of interesting “hybrid” documentaries, which fall more in the category of creative nonfiction than strictly information delivery. Manifesto and On the Road were semi-fictionalized/narrative films – but still technically docs, or at the very least mostly non-fiction. But films like Ex Libris and Faces Places also played a lot with form (and were really smart, entertaining, joy-inducing films!).

Barry HertzThe Globe and Mail

1. Faces Places
2. Kedi
3. Unarmed Verses
4. Long Time Running
5. Do Donkeys Act?

Peter HowellToronto Star

1. Faces Places
2. Jane
3. Chasing Coral
4. 78/52
5. Long Time Running

Brian D. Johnson – Contributing Editor, Maclean’s Filmmaker

I’m sure the year produced more brilliant documentaries than I had time to see. So these may not be best of 2017, just the ones that moved me the most:

1. Human Flow: Made on a scale to match the global immensity of its subject, Ai Wei Wei’s 23-country tour of exiled humanity is the year’s most essential doc—a comprehensive, immersive and devastating portrait of the world refugee crisis. And still it finds room for formal beauty and informal humour.

2. Faces Places: If this turned out to be the final film of Agnes Varda’s long and brilliant career, it would be all too fitting. Hovering between an vérité installation road trip and a bittersweet personal memoir, it’s a documentary that disarms us with the emotional force of a dramatic feature, and quietly drives us to tears.

3. Jane: If ever a doc was made in the editing room, it’s this one, a film made over 50 years after it was shot, from 100 hours of footage. Even if the warmed-up, fatly saturated 16 mm nature footage is no match for Planet Earth, It’s not about the footage. ‘Jane’ is the complicated love story of a brave and singular woman. Jane Goodall fell for the chimps and then for her photographer, and eventually had to leave them both. All the sound was constructed in post, brilliantly. And despite an overwrought, stabbing score by Philip Glass, this film achieves subtle magic.

4. Chasing Coral: Chasing coral because it’s disappearing, like the largest canary in the world’s largest coal mine. Director Jeff Orlowski, hot off chasing melting glaciers, hasn’t just delivered a vital environmental wake-up call movie, but a meta-doc on the filmmakers’ frustrating attempts to shoot underwater time-lapse sequences of coral bleaching. That throws up a macabre paradox, as we root for their cameras to capture the white death that’s killing the oceans, and by implication life on this planet. Meanwhile, a funny and poignant coral nerd named Zack Rago steals the movie like a human clown-fish.

5. Long Time Running: Sorry. But this is not a just home town favourite. I’m not even a Tragically Hip fan. But directors Jennifer Baichwal and Nicholas de Pencier tell an epic and extraordinary story on the fly, moving from Gord Downie’s fatal diagnosis to his final concert. And they avoid every pitfall. They cover the whole country without losing their narrative grip. They give each band member a voice so that Downie doesn’t overwhelm the film. They capture intimate moments backstage that never lapse into rockumentary cliche. And cutaways to the stadium fans are never mere ‘B-roll’—we see the crowd singing along to the most obscure lyrics imaginable as they are sung from stage in real time.

Chris KnightNational Post

1. Faces Places: Technically a documentary, this is really more of a breezy travelogue, as famed filmmaker Agnès Varda roams around France with a young photographer named JR, taking large-scale photographs and pasting them up in unexpected, extraordinary places. The result is beautiful, whimsical, adorable and even philosophical; in short, all the best (non-edible) things France has to offer.

2. Do Donkeys Act?: One of two great “donkumentaries” from 2017 – the other is Donkeyote, the story of a Spanish man and his faithful Andalusian burro –this is a poetic meditation on donkey sanctuaries from David Redmon and Ashley Sabin, with narration by Willem Dafoe. Some examples: “Harmonic cacophonies of acoustic communication.” “Darting donkeys flash a voluptuous gestalt.” Or my favourite, over an image of a donkey pulling against its lead: “A stereotype of stubbornness? Practice caution. Who enjoys going to the dentist?”

3. Jane: Here’s a fresh look at the early career years of primatologist Jane Goodall, thanks to a recently unearthed trove of footage shot by her husband at the time. We witness the triumphs and the trials of being the first person to study chimpanzees up close in the wild. It’s a beautiful look back.

4. Kedi: Call it Byzantium, Constantinople or modern Istanbul, Turkey’s largest metropolis has always a city of cats. In Ceyda Torun’s beautifully shot, feline-friendly film, most of them live to eat, sleep and occasionally beg. And every Turk the director finds has something nice to say about them. This is cinematic catnip for cat lovers.

5. Human Flow: Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei presents a snapshot of the global refugee crisis, albeit a 140-minute one. There are a few factoids and talking heads, but mostly on-the-ground images of refugees the world over, some in camps, others on the move, all of them desperate and (lest we forget) human.

Liam LaceyOriginal Cin contributor, POV Magazine

1. Faces, Places
2. Kedi
3. I Called Him Morgan
4. Ex Libris – New York Public Library
5. Do Donkeys Act?

Pat MullenPOV Magazine, Cinemablographer.com

1. Step: Amanda Lipitz’s dance doc about the “Lethal Ladies” step dancing team at an inner city Baltimore high school just can’t be beat. Step brilliantly conveys the significance of the dance team for the girls—the first graduating class of their school—as they ready for college. Lipitz captures the boost of confidence that dance affords the girls and the positive effect it has on their performance in the classroom. This upbeat film set against the greater backdrop of the Black Lives Matter movement has its finger on the pulse and its heart in exactly the right place.

2. Kedi: Kedi takes the cat video to another level.The film conveys the spiritual power cats hold through the soothing relationships that Ceyda Torun builds with the furry subjects. One interviewee says, “A cat meowing at your feet, looking up at you, is life smiling at you.” Each time a cat in Kedi gazes up towards the camera, the film offers a heartwarming grin.

3. Faces Places: What a joy it is to watch a master at work with a young protégé. At once a road trip and a non-fiction art film, Faces Places is a whimsical masterpiece of documentary filmmaking that pays tribute to the land and its inhabitants by intimately connecting the two.

4. Manifesto: This innovative hybrid documentary finds truth in performance as Blanchett plays a baker’s dozen of characters who interpret various artistic manifestos and say that original art is hard to find these days. It’s the most ingenious addition to documentary form this year.

5. Long Time Running: Jennifer Baichwal and Nick de Pencier offer the best Canadian film of the year with this electrifying tear jerker that chronicles the Tragically Hip’s final tour. This patriotic music offers a stirring snapshot of collective Canadian pride.

6. Dawson City: Frozen Time: Anyone with the slightest interest in film history simply must see this documentary. The meticulous restoration and editing of these archival images, accompanied by a spine-tinglingly good score, offers an invaluable essay on film preservation.

7. Jane: Too few documentaries are so fearless in their confidence with materials and aesthetics, but Jane shows that with the right subject, canvas, painter, and paintbrush, any life—human or non-human—can be a work of breathtaking art.

8. A Better Man: Attiya Khan and Lawrence Jackman’s film about confronting and discussing gender-based violence offers an invaluable tool for compassion and healing. Is there a better film that captures the zeitgeist right now?

9. Obit: Vanessa Gould finds an unexpectedly life-affirming subject in the death notices of the New York Times. The film finds amazing grace in its ability to show how any person touches the lives of others and leaves an impact.

10. Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World: Canada finds its 20 Feet from Stardom in this energetic music doc. Rumble assembles an admirable cast of talking heads to pay tribute to the unheralded legacy of Indigenous musicians.

Kalli Paakspuu – Program Director, EstDocs

1. Quebec My Country Mon Pays
2. The Skin We’re In
3. Time to Swim
4. The Nature of Things with David Suzuki: Lost Secrets of the Pyramids
5. The Tea Explorer
6. KONELINE: our land beautiful
7. I am the Blues
8. After the Last River
9. Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World
10. Migrant Dreams

Andrew ParkerTheGate.ca

1. Faces, Places – There are few things more eye opening and life affirming than spending time in the presence of two (relatively) like minded artists collaborating and enjoying each other’s company. While some darkness seeps through the cracks of Varda and JR’s otherwise lighthearted road trip, this film serves as a splendid reminder that there’s beauty in everything if you choose to look for it.

2. I Am Another You – Nanfu Wang’s follow-up to Hooligan Sparrow (which was made somewhat concurrently with that remarkable doc) is a different sort of road trip; an outsiders look at the marginalized American underbelly that would make for a spot-on double bill with fictional counterparts like The Florida Project or American Honey. There’s no single subject of a documentary more magnetic, beguiling, confounding, and contradictory than Dylan Olsen.

3. The DepartureAfter Tiller co-director Lana Wilson spins a meditative and heart-wrenching look at mental illness and recovery through the eyes of Ittetsu Nemoto, a former punk rocker turned Buddhist priest with a desire to help those bordering on suicide. Wilson watches respectfully and compassionately not only as Nemoto-san tries to help those in greatest need, but as the aging spiritual leader struggles with his own demons and his inability to balance his personal and professional life. This film is one that will stick with viewers long after it ends.

4. The Force – Criminally underseen, Peter Nicks’ The Force follows along with the embattled and rebuilding Oakland Police Department as they attempt to reform their image in the wake of scandals and countless charges of racist activity. It’s enlightening for the viewer, but it was probably a horrible mistake on the part of the Oakland P.D. Nicks’s direction suggests a cross between Frederick Wiseman and Michael Mann, making The Force one of the most incendiary, vital, and visceral documentaries of the year.

5. Strong Island – Yance Ford’s deeply personal and intricately researched quest for answers into the death of her brother is all the proof viewers need that there’s something rotten in the American judicial system, and that prejudice is alive and well in a far from “woke” society. Brimming with hard questions and few answers, Ford’s moving and poignant work is like poking at a raw nerve for the whole world to see. And we need to see it.

Chelsea Phillips-Carr – Freelance

1. The Lives of Therese
2. Faces Places
3. A Skin So Soft
4. Spettacolo
5. A Better Man
6. Maison du Bonheur

Alice Shih – Fairchild Radio

1. Faces Places
2. Chasing Coral
3. Step
4. The China Hustle
5. An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power

Radheyan SimonpillaiNOW Magazine
1. Unarmed Verses
2. Faces Places

Jim SlotekOriginal Cin

1. Jane
2. California Typewriter
3. Strangers on The Earth
4. Abacus: Small Enough To Jail
5. Dina

Courtney SmallCinema Axis, InTheSeats.ca

1. Faces Places
2. Last Men in Aleppo
3. Step
4. The Force
5. Unarmed Verses
6. Jane
7. Let it Fall: Los Angeles 1982 – 1992
8. Our People Will Be Healed
9. The Work
10. A Skin So Soft

Kate TaylorThe Globe and Mail

1. Faces Places (Visages Villages): The legendary Agnes Varda teams up with street photographer JR for a deceptively whimsical tour of rural France

2. A Better Man: A shockingly honest reckoning with domestic violence as filmmaker Attiya Khan confronts her ex-boyfriend.

3. The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography: Veteran U.S. filmmaker Errol Morris introduces the giant photos of his old friend.

4. Human Flow: Tracking the refugee crisis from the U.S.-Mexican border to Europe and the Middle East, the Chinese visual artist Ai Wei Wei considers the big picture.

5. Shiners: Canadian Documentarian Stacey Tenenbaum discovers professional shoe shiners everywhere from the impoverished streets of La Paz to a high-end boutique in Tokyo.

Dave Voigt – Editor/Publisher, InTheSeats.ca

1. Faces Places
2. Brimstone & Glory
3. City of Ghosts
4. Human Flow
5. Grace Jones: Bloolight and Bami
6. 78/52
7. Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond
8. Mommy Dead and Dearest
9. Becoming Bond
10. Long Strange Trip

-Just loving how the rise of the streaming services (ie Netflix/Amazon) is making so many more quality docs accessible!

Judy Wolfe – Publisher, POV Magazine

1. Faces Places
2. Chavela
3. Rat Film

What are your favourite documentaries of 2017?