On top of being a stellar year for film in general, 2018 proved to be especially rewarding for lovers of the documentary form. If you loved weekend long Netflix binges of true crime, there was always something available for you, but 2018 saw audiences’ hunger for the medium extend to the multiplex. Not only were documentaries garnering stellar reviews but many of them were making serious bank at the box office. Were viewers hungry for truth or just a version of it that wasn’t so endlessly soul-crushing? We could be here all day trying to decipher the psychological explanation behind it, but the best answer is usually the simplest one: It was a good year for documentaries because so many documentaries were bloody good.
As part of our end of year Best Of-palooza, I’m here to compile the list of the best documentaries of 2018. As always, this is not a comprehensive list. I didn’t see everything and a lot of stuff was not available for me to stream or see at the cinema at the time of writing this piece. So if you’re wondering why Minding the Gap or Bisbee ‘17 or Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda aren’t on here, that’ll be why. Sorry! I’m also sticking to films and not series, but yeah, Netflix’s Wild Wild Country was immensely gripping and worth your time. But onward and upward we go.
2018 as a year of documentaries was hugely defined by the stories of Great Men and Women. We hungered for stories of Genius, preferably nice people who lived nice lives and eschewed the expected trappings that accompany greatness. McQueen didn’t exactly do that. It was more a traditional non-fiction piece about the life, work and death of someone who was irrevocably defined by his genius and the inherent tragedy of that. The enigmatic fashion designer Lee Alexander McQueen was infamous for his bad boy attitude towards the cloistered world of couture. His runway shows were extravagant, his designs bonkers, and his outlook on fashion completely revelatory. McQueen manages to toe that fine line of showing his work, its context and the frequent bouts of inner tragedy behind them without fetishizing the central subject’s depression or suicide. Crucially, McQueen treats his work and the world of fashion with the seriousness it commands. An Alexander McQueen runway show was always a deeply cinematic affair but here the grand scale of his experimentation is given its full due. Sensitive but transgressive, beautiful but off-putting: McQueen would have approved.
In 1992, then-19 year old Sandi Tan and her two best friends, Jasmine Ng and Sophie Siddique, decided to make a movie. In Singapore at a time of cultural flux, this was no mean feat, but soon the trio, along with friend/mentor/teacher Georges Cardona, shot a real film called Shirkers. Then, after shooting finished, Cardona ran away with the footage and never returned. Two decades later, Tan got Shirkers back and decided to turn that into a documentary about its own making. The Shirkers we have is a curious genre blend of detective story, autobiography, exploration of cinema, and personal confession. Tan explores her own life as a long-time lover of film, particularly the American indie scene of the 1980s, and her adolescent determination to become the next big thing. While the obvious villain of the piece is Cardona, an older man who hangs around with teenage girls then snatches their dreams from them when he begins to lose his Svengali-like hold over them, the most striking dissection comes from Tan’s understanding of herself. Her friends are quick to tell her how rose-tinted her view of their past was and the film unfolds slowly as she comes to that realization herself. There’s no closure to that central mystery but Shirkers offers a tangled but uplifting portrait of young women and their artistic tenacity in the face of male bulls—t.
Mr. Rogers is not a thing in the UK. I didn’t grow up with him, I had no real understanding of his immense influence until just recently, and my only true exposure to him had been through parodies, references and cultural osmosis. But man if that documentary doesn’t still hit you like a ton of bricks. Directed by Morgan Neville, the Oscar winner behind 20 Feet from Stardom and Best of Enemies, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is no shocking exposé or destruction of a public idol. Really, it’s the Mr. Rogers movie I imagine his many generations of fans were hoping for. The film doesn’t fawn over Fred Rogers but it does present a rich portrait of exactly what made him so enthralling to millions of kids. The rose-tint of nostalgia is there but not to mask hidden darkness. More than anything else, Won’t You Be My Neighbor is a moving call to action for goodness. Sometimes, you just need to see a good man doing good things and telling you to be a good person. No wonder it became the highest-grossing biographical documentary of all-time. If this doesn’t win Best Documentary at the Oscars, I’ll be stunned.
Speaking of documentaries about great people doing good things… Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has experienced a late in life resurgence as a pop culture force after decades of public service to little fanfare. We’ve all seen the memes, the Kate McKinnon impressions and celebrated the workouts of Notorious RBG. The documentary of the same name is an unabashed crowd pleaser, a giddy fangirl’s cry in the best way possible. It helps that its central subject is so full of vitality and has never shied away from the tougher things in life. Her place in 20th and 21st century political discourse is cemented here, although your tolerance for the stuff on how she became a millennial meme may vary. Prepare to cry a lot with all the scenes featuring her late husband.
Three Identical Strangers
If it wasn’t real life, someone would have had to make it up. Of the myriad documentaries released in 2018, Three Identical Strangers may be the one with the most intriguing premise: Three strangers, identical triplets separated at birth, are reunited by a stroke of coincidence and become global sensations until the fairy-tale crumbles around them to reveal the dark secrets that separated them in the first place. Tim Wardle’s film unfolds like some sort of meticulously written thriller, inviting you to join in the euphoria of the brothers’ reunion and the public’s fascination with them before pummelling you with the unethical madness that tore their lives apart. It’s a story of nature versus nurture, of the humanity oft-forgotten in the pursuit of knowledge, and of Jewish identity across divisions of class and education. Watch it but prepare to be as infuriated as you are enthralled.
Roxana said it better than I ever could:
“I can’t believe you guys are actually gonna watch,” says cameraman Mikey Schaefer, one of Honnold’s friends and fellow climbers who made up Chin’s crew (huddled together, they all look like one of the most attractive, most California groups of people I’ve ever seen in my life — happy, fit, like Point Break without the robberies), and his inability to watch Honnold climb up the mountain, overcome by fear for his friend, is a reminder that what Free Solo captures is human. There’s humanity in Honnold’s admission that he’s driven by a “bottomless pit of self-loathing” and that he worries you can’t “achieve anything great because [you’re] happy and cozy”; there’s humanity in Honnold’s girlfriend, Sanni McCandless, asking whether he considers her when he’s climbing, and her unwieldy mixture of concern and pride for his El Capitan attempt; there’s humanity in Honnold’s mother saying she wishes he would stop free soloing but that she would never ask him to stop, wouldn’t want to take that feeling of purity away from him. “You are not controlling your fear, you are trying to stop outside of it,” Honnold says, and Free Solo captures the beauty and triumph of such an unimaginable feat.
If you can’t see it at the cinema, find the biggest screen possible in any way you can.
What were your favourite documentaries of 2018? Let us know in the comments.