Boys State | Apple TV+

The Best Documentaries of 2020

POV reflects on the year in non-fiction

22 mins read

2020 sure has been a ride, hasn’t it? As the coronavirus forced us indoors and kept us at a distance from one another, where were our windows into the world and bridges for human connection? Many of the finest docs of the year spoke directly to the polarised state of the world. They helped one make sense of a year that brought out both the worst and the best in humanity. Docs that tackle right-wing populist politics and systemic racism have given us causes to fight for and extol in the press. Documentarians who are tireless advocates for humanity and democracy have defined the year in film, as have several brilliant portraits of the coronavirus pandemic. Films will be making sense of 2020 for years to come.


Here are the POV team’s picks for the best films that got them through this tumultuous year.

Marc Glassman’s Top Ten

While the year of the pandemic has brought us massive amounts of death and revealed the great weaknesses of all governments across the world, most of the documentaries that made my list are gems that might be gathered together under the old truism, the personal is political.

Even 76 Days, the film that genuinely tackles 2020 dead on, focuses on particular patients and members of the medical staff in Wuhan, China where the pandemic broke out. Patricio Guzmán’s lyrical The Cordillera of Dreams evokes memories of the murderous steps taken by Chilean General Pinochet to destroy the socialist supporters of Allende: the film couldn’t be more intensely personal since Guzmán was born in the mountainous region, where the documentary unfolds. Alexander Nanau’s Collective is one of the finest films about journalism made anywhere, as we see Cătălin Tolontan, a quietly idealistic writer-editor, take on a corrupt medical system and eventually topple a government.

Just as idealistic and practical was Canada’s beloved director-mentor-doc activist Peter Wintonick, the subject of a personal doc, Wintopia, by his daughter Mira Burt-Wintonick, who uses imagery of Don Quixote and contemporary interviews to recreate her father. Another daughter, the acclaimed cinematographer and director Kirsten Johnson, also collaborated with her father on a touching and funny film about his mortality, Dick Johnson Is Dead.

Biographies are always about the personal but they wouldn’t be interesting to us if the subjects weren’t fascinating. Shane McGowan, the brilliant singer and composer for the Pogues, the terrific Irish band, is the perfect subject for Julien Temple’s Crock of Gold, which flashes through the anarchical scene of the punk days—and those of the IRA—while also quietly reflecting on the inevitable effects of alcoholism. From drink to drugs, the past can always be brought to life through its indulgences. In Errol Morris’ wickedly romantic and nostalgic My Psychedelic Love Story, the LSD prophet Tim Leary is remembered by one of his most colourful lovers, Joanna Harcourt-Smith, a woman who was a great storyteller and lived a life to match it.

As the documentary form has evolved, the number of auteurs has increased. One of the best is Hubert Sauper (Darwin’s Nightmare), who offered us in Epicentro a portrait of Havana as it slowly changes from Communism into another political and economic system. Sauper avoids turning his lovely film into a didactic piece but there’s never a question how moved he is by Havana and its denizens. It’s premature to place Quebec’s Jean-François Lesage in the category of Sauper or Guzmán, but in Prayer for a Lost Mitten, he has transformed searching for objects in a lost and found section of a city’s Metro into a poetic look at another great city, Montreal.

For those of us who love documentary, Ra’anan Alexandrowicz’s The Viewing Booth may be the most profound film of the year. The Israeli director shows Maia Levy, an American university student, footage of real events that took place in Palestine, some of which were shot by Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) while others were made by B’Tselem, a human rights organization in Israel. Levy reacts to the short actuality films with emotion and skepticism. She is pro-Israeli and as Alexandrowicz discovers, nothing he shows her can sway her opinions. This allows the director, who is Israeli but in favour of a radical leftist solution to the country’s problems, to reflect that his documentaries may have no effect at all. What is the truth of documentaries? Can they really change people into embraciing better solutions after the pandemic? Who knows?—Marc Glassman

Top Ten in no particular order but I urge you to see them all.

The Cordillera of Dreams
(Chile/France, 85 min)
Dir. Patricio Guzmán

My Psychedelic Love Story
(USA, 102 min.)
Dir. Errol Morris

76 Days
(China/U.S.A., 2020, 93 min)
Dir. Hao Wu, Anonymous and Weixi Chen

The Viewing Booth
(Israel/U.S.A. 2019 )
Dir. Ra’anan Alexandrowicz

(Austria/France, 108 min.)
Dir. Hubert Sauper

(Canada, 88 min.)
Dir. Mira Burt-Wintonick

Dir. Alexander Nanau
(Romania, 109 min.)

Prayer for a Lost Mitten
(Canada, 79 min.)
Dir. Jean- François Lesage

Crock of Gold—A Few Rounds with Shane McGowan
(England/Irish, 124 min.)
Dir. Julien Temple

Dick Johnson Is Dead
(U.S.A., 89 min.)
Dir. Kirsten Johnson

Pat Mullen’s Top Ten

1. Boys State

Dir. Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine | USA

As essential as it is extraordinary, Boys State is a remarkable snapshot of the present and future chaos of American politics. This immersive doc captures eight days in the “Boys State” camp in which aspiring young men perform a mock election. Using a handful of crews to capture the action that unfolds just as rapidly and dramatically as it does in real elections, Moss and McBaine observe a microcosm of American politics. In a situation with a flurry of activity and no room for second takes, the team delivers a lucid portrait of the raucous camp that is equally enlightening and entertaining. They also witness the deep polarisation of the state of the union, and its inevitable discord so long as a two-party system promotes division rather than unity. The film zeroes in on key students from both sides of the aisle and sees young people inspired by idealists and proud socialists in contention with young men parroting punk moves from the GOP playbook. Particularly in Steven Garza, Boys State offers hope for the future. The scene in which this young man finds his voice and summons the rabble is among the finest of the year. The doc is surely a portrait of a new leader in the making.

2. Pahokee

Dir. Patrick Bresnan, Ivete Lucas | USA

Pahokee is an urgent observational portrait of several teens during their final year of high school in Pahokee, Florida. It takes in all aspects of the year from extended marching band performances to after school social sessions. Directors Patrick Bresnan and Ivete Lucas capture a cross section of experiences as the students confront their futures. Some students aspire to study in college, while others simply wonder when they’ll go to jail. The methodical pacing allows time to ingest a collision of factors, the most prominent being race and class, which influence the students’ prospects. A riveting sequence lets one witness firsthand the experience that these students face daily when the camera hits the ground while shooting takes place during a routine football game. As the bullets fly and the crowd around the field scatters, Pahokee conveys that one cannot truly understand some experiences without living them. Perhaps the true hidden gem of 2020, Pahokee was a balm of intelligent cinema when released to virtual cinemas during the early days of the pandemic. It should have received a second wave of support over the summer, however, and deserves further consideration for its portrait of the daily experiences of Black American youths.

3. The Reason I Jump

Dir. Jerry Rothwell | UK

Could somebody please send a copy of The Reason I Jump to Doug Ford? The Reason I Jump offers a nuanced portrait of daily experiences of people with non-verbal autism. Jerry Rothwell’s sensitive adaptation of Naoki Higashida’s popular book feels like a game-changer. The film’s unique sound design lets audiences explore how people with autism experience the world, translating in sonic images what Higashida conveys in words. The film features a quintet of characters with autism and shows the range of supports they receive as society gradually understands a condition that is often impenetrable to the average mind. The global scope lets the stories convey the different sensory experiences people face, some of which may be overwhelming, as well as the stigmas they encounter in societies that are less progressive in their response to understanding autism. This powerful and eye-opening film furthers a much-needed conversation.

4. The Truffle Hunters

Dir. Michael Dweck & Gregory Kershaw | Italy/Greece/USA

Quite possibly the most olfactory doc ever made, The Truffle Hunters delights the senses. Any foodie will truly savour the richness with which this doc evokes the pungently decadent aromas of truffles. However, while many food docs are often content to make audiences drool by watching a parade of food porn, directors Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw cater to refined palettes by exploring the dedication that goes into bringing truffles from the woods to the restaurants. Dizzying foraging adventures with truffle-hunting dogs captured humorously through pooch-vision cameras, offer truly unique views of foodies running through the forest in search of the most delectable fungi in the world. The doc eventually slows down and savours the hunt with the elderly tartufolio who know where the goods are hidden and may take the truffles’ hiding places to their graves. This exquisitely shot film makes the most enchanting food taste even better. Enjoy it with a hearty wine and some truffle chips, allowing your nose a good sniff of each.

5. Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets

Dir. Bill Ross IV, Turner Ross | USA

Raise a glass to the Ross brothers for their form-defying ode to dive bars. The circular argument about whether Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets is a documentary or drama misses the true poetry of the film. I’m comfortable acknowledging that it resides somewhere between the two forms as a documentary-ish essay on alcoholism, tavern culture, and the relationships that are fuelled, enlivened, and destroyed by bloody booze. As the brothers offer a fly-on-the-wall portrait of authentic pub dwellers in a meticulously reconstructed tavern, the camera flows as freely as the liquor does. It captures a spirit of community that emerges between lost souls united by the comfort of drinking buddies. Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets is painfully sobering in its dark humour.

6. Stray

Dir. Elizabeth Lo | USA

To say that Stray does for dogs what Kedi did for cats is just about the highest compliment this cat-loving doc fan can give a film. Elizabeth Lo’s remarkable first feature roams the streets of Istanbul from the height and perspectives of three mutts, Zeytin, Nazar, and Kartal. On one hand, Lo’s observation captures the unique characteristics of each animal without endowing them with human traits. She follows them closely as they navigate the city and bear witness to both the best and worst humanity. The latter proves especially interesting since the human strays that dogs encounter throughout their travels don’t receive as much compassion from their fellow man as they do. With its offbeat sense of humour, ingenious direction, and immersive sound design, Stray offers a unique portrait of urbanism and migration that is truly pooch perfection.

7. Notturno

Dir. Gianfranco Rosi | Italy/France/Germany

Italian master Gianfranco Rosi follows-up his Oscar-nominated Fire at Sea with another finely observed essay about a world in crisis. Notturno probes a different aspect of the migration crisis by observing the locales from which millions of people have been displaced by war. Rosi’s strikingly composed long takes capture fraught situations from all perspectives, chronicling everything from the machinations of soldiers in training to the lamentations of widows in grief. Perhaps the most compelling image in Notturno, however, is the one that appears at both the beginning and the end. It features an ordinary man who just wants to go fishing. As he rolls his boat cautiously through the waters, battle wages in the background with the violence of war lighting the sky. Somehow, life goes on.

8. The Fight

Dir. Elyse Steinberg, Josh Kriegman, Eli Despres | USA

The Trump years were brutal for human rights, but they were great for documentaries. No film captures this predicament quite as well as The Fight does. The Weiner team of Elyse Steinberg, Josh Kriegman, and Eli Despres chronicle the sheer insanity of keeping up with the Trump administration’s whack-a-mole policy decisions in this portrait of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). Following lawyers who defend the Americans against the Trump administration’s war against voting rights, LGBTQ rights, women’s rights, and immigration rights, The Fight is a compelling portrait of ordinary heroes in action. It’s a valiant time capsule of the beating heart of the U.S.A. fighting for its life—and, it seems now, winning.

9. For the Love of Rutland

Dir. Jennifer Maytorena Taylor | USA

Another essential doc portrait of America in the time of Trump comes in this hidden gem from Jennifer Maytorena Taylor. The film, which played at festivals including Hot Docs and DOC NYC, offers a portrait of the working class in Rutland, Vermont. The film strikes documentary gold in its central figure, Stacie, who lives in poverty and is a recovering addict, but opens her doors to Taylor. Similarly, when Rutland’s mayor inspires the town to open its arms to Syrian refugees, the film situates the challenges Americans face within the larger global context. This multifaceted approach provides intimate insight into the unrest at the heart of Trump’s appeal. Rutland captures perfectly the tensions and ideological rifts of contemporary America.

10. Stateless

Dir. Michèle Stephenson | Canada

A fierce companion to the stories of Trump’s divisive politics can be found in Michèle Stephenson’s NFB doc Stateless. The film covers the deep cultural divides and systemic racism in the Dominican Republic where a recent court decision overturned the citizenship of anyone of Haitian descent retroactive to 1929. Stephenson fearlessly captures the battle of narratives that unfolds between Dominican nationalists, who blame their neighbours on the island of Hispaniola, the Haitians, for every problem under the sun and the peaceful activists seeking to help them all better their situations. Featuring some gripping verité sequences and truly memorable characters, Stateless crafts a bold narrative of its own by giving voice to those who help bring the truth to light.

With special shout-outs to Tiffany Hsiung’s Sing Me a Lullaby as the year’s best short doc, Chloé Zhao’s hybrid drama Nomadland, my overall favourite film of 2020 and one that artfully and respectfully gave us the best of both worlds in its union of fiction and non-fiction, and Viktor Kosakovskiy’s masterful nature doc Gunda, a heartbreaking portrait of farm animals that has screened at festivals in the USA, but first comes to Canada in 2021…look for it on next year’s list.

Honourable mentions: 40 Years a Prisoner, 76 Days, Collective, Dick Johnson Is Dead, The Magnitude of All Things, No Ordinary Man, The Way I See It, Welcome to Chechnya

What are your favourite documentaries of 2020? Let us know in the comments or on Twitter and Facebook.

Pat Mullen is the publisher of POV Magazine. He holds a Master’s in Film Studies from Carleton University where his research focused on adaptation and Canadian cinema. Pat has also contributed to outlets including The Canadian Encyclopedia, Paste, That Shelf, Sharp, Xtra, and Complex. He is the vice president of the Toronto Film Critics Association and an international voter for the Golden Globe Awards.

Marc Glassman is the editor of POV Magazine and contributes film reviews to Classical FM. He is an adjunct professor at Toronto Metropolitan University and is the treasurer of the Toronto Film Critics Association.

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