Movie Machine

The Best Documentaries of 2017

best docs of 2017
Netflix

When it comes to documentaries, peak movie season is year-round. After successfully counting down the best documentaries of 2016, we spent the year ranking the best nonfiction features of 2017: movies that hit theaters either with full releases or pre-television film festival runs (and leaving off specials and series produced for the small screen).

Now we have the final list, a round-up of essential docs that people talked about all year, and will be well past 2017. These are guaranteed conversation starters.

Don't forget to check out our lists for The Best Movies of 2017 and The Best TV Shows of 2017.

an inconvenient truth sequel - al gore
Paramount Pictures

45. An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power

Released: July 28
Directors: Bonni Cohen (The Rape of Europa) and Jon Shenk (The Island President)
Why it's great: The Oscar-winning 2006 documentary An Inconvenient Truth became a phenomenon because of its compelling and crucial focus on climate change, but the film is really about Al Gore and his efforts in that area of study. The follow-up is not only an update on where we are with the cause a decade later but also where the former Vice President is in his struggle and in his achievements -- and what stands to be undone or lost under certain leadership. This mix of issue film and character profile is, like its predecessor, glossy and digestible in its execution, a well-produced, informative, engaging and encouraging feature presentation.
Where to see it right now: iTunes, Amazon, and YouTube (watch the trailer)

ABC News

44. Let It Fall: Los Angeles 1982-1992

Released: April 21
Director: John Ridley (Jimi: All Is by My Side)
Why it’s great: The first of the year’s two major documentaries on the 1992 Los Angeles riots, this is the more conventional work, featuring a lot of talking heads mixed with mostly familiar footage of the Rodney King beating and the violence during the riots at Florence and Normandie. Let It Fall plays as an oral history of the racial tension in LA in the decade leading to the riots, from retired police and family of victims and even some controversial figures who don’t necessarily come across favorably. Ridley, who won an Oscar for writing 12 Years a Slave is thorough (making the film 144 minutes long) as he connects the dots while also getting some incredible interview material.
Where to see it: Stream on Netflix (watch the trailer)

gaga: five foot two
Netflix

43. Gaga: Five Foot Two

Released: September 22
Director: Chris Moukarbel (Banksy Does New York)
Why it’s great: This profile of Lady Gaga follows the pop icon during the production of her deeply personal 2016 album, Joanne, and in the process reveals the human being behind the provocative performer and fashionista. It’s an ironic sort of vanity piece in that it tries to be such an anti-vanity piece -- bluntly intimate, rather than a peek behind the curtain -- but it does feel honest all the way. Whether she’s visiting with her beloved grandmother, planning this year’s Super Bowl halftime show, or dealing with all of the noise of fame, the artist also known as Stefani Germanotta purposefully bares a new side of herself for the camera. The film is not just for her Little Monsters, that’s for sure.
Where to see it right now: Stream on Netflix (watch the trailer)

my scientology movie
Magnolia Pictures

42. My Scientology Movie

Released: March 10
Director: John Dower (Once in a Lifetime: The Extraordinary Story of the New York Cosmos)
Why it’s great: While he’s not the director, this documentary primarily belongs to writer and star Louis Theroux, a popular figure in BBC docuseries. The “My” of the title certainly applies to him, as we follow his investigation into the Church of Scientology, with focus on leader David Miscavige, famed member Tom Cruise and the religion’s propaganda machine. Theroux is a comical and faux-naive host, a cross between Mo Rocca and Nick Broomfield, easily appealing to The Daily Show crowd. As journalism, it’s a goof, but the film uses a conceit where actors are cast as Miscavige and Cruise for staged studies of Scientology’s processes and productions that offers a curious consideration of the Church’s theatrics.
Where to see it right now: Stream on Netflix; rent on iTunes, Amazon, and VUDU (watch the trailer)

Cinereach

41. Brimstone & Glory

Released: November 22
Director: Viktor Jakovleski
Why it’s great: This documentary takes us to Tultepec, Mexico, for the National Pyrotechnic Festival, and you can bet there’s a lot of spectacular visuals in a film focused on fireworks. Jakovleski does a good enough job making us feel like we’re actually there, sometimes climbing up high towers filled with sparkling pinwheels thanks to GoPro cameras, and the danger of some of the pyrotechnics can induce some anxiety. Mostly, though, we’re concerned for a young boy joining in the local traditions and family business, encountering much of the event and its displays through his eyes or at least alongside them. Produced and scored by Beasts of the Southern Wild director Benh Zeitlin, Brimstone & Glory is a mesmerizing and enchanting vérité achievement.
Where to see it: Stream on Netflix (watch the trailer)

casting jonbenet - best documentaries 2017
Netflix

40. Casting JonBenet

Released: April 28
Director: Kitty Green (Ukraine Is Not a Brothel)
Why it's great: One of the most original and clever documentaries of the year, Casting JonBenet is also one of the hardest to just sit back and enjoy. Using the unsolved 1996 murder of 6-year-old JonBenet Ramsey as a foundation, the film finds amateur actors, all local to the town where the tragedy took place, auditioning for parts in a dramatization of the story. The result is more disturbing than expected, though more fascinating in its exploration of the legacy of the mystery and others like it. When it comes to true-crime films, the facts almost always trump the storytelling. This is a major exception, one that should have you discussing much more than the cold case in question.
Where to see it right now: Stream on Netflix (watch the trailer)

all these sleepless nights - best documentaries 2017
The Orchard

39. All These Sleepless Nights

Released: March 24
Director: Michal Marczak (F*ck for Forest)
Why it's great: Not so much an experience of the dream of youth but a dream of the experience of youth, Michal Marczak's film of two aimless, privileged 20-somethings floats through a year, mostly at night, as its subjects go to parties, drink, smoke, fall in and out of love, and fall in and out with each other. It is like a French New Wave film that isn't French nor as fun and just barely less fictional. It is the kind of documentary that many claim isn't really a documentary. Yes, there are scripted elements, but if you're looking for what's real and what isn't, you've overlooked the movie's real insight. Is anyone really real in their 20s anyway?
Where to see it right now: Rent on Amazon and YouTube (watch the trailer)

trumped - best documentaries 2017
Showtime

38. Trumped: Inside the Greatest Political Upset of All Time

Released: February 3
Director: Ted Bourne, Mary Robertson, Banks Tarver
Why it's great: Spinning off from Showtime's The Circus, a weekly, off-the-cuff look at the 2016 election, this impressively immediate feature chronicles Donald J. Trump's road to White House victory. The film uses recycled footage from the show, but either as a substitute for the longer version or a recap for those of us who can't get enough of the political analyst trio of Mark Halperin, John Heilemann, and Mark McKinnon, it's a phenomenal and often funny triumph of election coverage repurposed as history lesson. We can only hope that there will be a sequel following the second season of The Circus focused on the Trump presidency.
Where to see it right now: Stream on Showtime (watch the trailer)

one of us documentary
Netflix

37. One of Us

Released: October 20
Directors: Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady (Jesus Camp)
Why it’s great: The duo behind the Oscar-nominated documentary Jesus Camp take another jab at religious fundamentalism, this time turning their cameras on the Hasidic Jewish community. The film follows three character-driven stories about individuals who’ve left the strict Orthodox faith for various reasons. One of two men showcased has left behind a family to pursue an acting career in Hollywood, while the other winds up struggling with drug addiction. The third, a woman escaping an abusive husband and now fighting an impossible custody battle for their many children, is not only the standout subject of the triptych, but her courage and the film’s portrayal of her transition into general society makes the whole thing a must-see.    
Where to see it right now: Stream on Netflix (watch the trailer)

the reagan show
Gravitas Ventures

36. The Reagan Show

Released: June 30
Director: Sierra Pettengill (Town Hall) and Pacho Velez (Manakamana)
Why it’s great: While a former reality TV star occupies the White House, this film looks back on the presidency of Ronald Reagan and how his former life as a Hollywood star made him a new kind of political leader for America. “How can a president not be an actor?” he asks a journalist curious about how he was transitioning from the one job to the other. Made up completely of historical materials, including behind the scenes footage of Reagan’s television addresses to the US people as well as the Soviets, the film is often uncomfortably humorous. Velez and Pettingill, who is a master of archives, don’t reveal anything totally unknown or surprising about the “performer in chief,” but it’s packaged in such a compelling manner.
Where to see it: Stream on Hulu (watch the trailer)

long strange trip grateful dead documentary
Amazon Video

35. Long Strange Trip

Released: May 26
Director: Amir Bar-Lev (The Tillman Story)
Why it’s great: Could a documentarian give any subject four hours and wind up with a deeper examination than most features allow for? Probably, but only if you craft it as well as this long chronicle of the Grateful Dead, from Frankensteinian experiment to global phenomenon. Compelling whether you care about the band or not, the film really provides a historical understanding of the Dead and of the Deadhead fan base rather than just a case for their enjoyment. Anecdotes and insights from the surviving members and other interviewees are more extensive and enlightening than what is mined for the typical music doc, partly because there’s more time available but also because of Bar-Lev’s talent for steering the narrative and thematic chains..
Where to see it right now: Stream on Amazon Prime (watch the trailer)

joshua teenager vs superpower documentary
Netflix

34. Joshua: Teenager vs. Superpower

Released: May 26
Director: Joe Piscatella
Why it’s great: Once you realize Joshua Wong is a tough egg to crack, this straightforward yet comprehensive chronicle of his triumphs is more than engrossing enough. Wong rose to international prominence in his mid-teens as an activist leader fighting against the Chinese and Hong Kong governments for education and then electoral reforms, and it’s quite obvious why he is celebrated as a hero of the Occupy Central movement. Piscatella has us experience the protests as they happened, with a very clear comprehension of their motives and message, while a featured sit-down interview with Wong provides more expositional than emotional commentary, supplementing the more rousing footage of him in action.
Where to see it right now: Stream on Netflix (watch the trailer)

growing up coy - best documentaries 2017
Still Point Pictures

33. Growing Up Coy

Released: January 6
Director: Eric Juhola
Why it's great: At some point early in Growing Up Coy, perhaps right at the start, you realize you're not watching an "issue film" about a transgender child. This is a family drama in which the family happens to be fighting the State of Colorado over their daughter's right to use the girls bathroom at her school. Is she a trans child? Yes. Is the battle over civil rights for trans persons at play? Yes. But most of the film is focused on the story of a specific couple, their five kids, and their struggle with an unaccepting community. Any issue could be in play. The beauty is that it's also a powerfully empathic film for the cause of trans rights.
Where to see it right now: Stream on Netflix (watch the trailer)

Shella Films

32. Unrest

Released: September 22
Director: Jennifer Brea
Why it’s great: This brave, intimate and emotionally affecting documentary is an autobiographical account of Brea’s investigation into her own mysterious disease, myalgic encephalomyelitis (or chronic fatigue syndrome), that is very hard to understand or diagnose. Started as a video diary, the film evolved into a something that should have seemed impossible. Mostly confined to her bed, she also reaches out to others with ME around the world, interviewing many of them via Skype and Facebook. She experiments with various remedies, experiences drama at home because of the difficult circumstances of her marriage. In addition to sharing her story up-close and personal, the film contains other sad but inspiring stories and global campaigns for awareness and official medical recognition.
Where to see it: Stream on Netflix (watch the trailer)

step documentary
Fox Searchlight

31. Step

Released: August 4
Director: Amanda Lipitz
Why it’s great: Step is the rare thrilling dance competition movie that's also an underdog sports tale, following a Baltimore high school step team as they attempt to win a championship; an affecting character study, focused more on the girls on the team and their efforts to graduate and get into college; and finally a political documentary, by way of the team’s Black Lives Matter-inspired routine responding to the death, in police custody, of Freddie Gray. We’ve seen similar docs involving inner-city teens striving for football or basketball triumphs, but this inspiring look at young women stomping and shouting as they come of age is a unique twist on a familiar story of uplift.
Where to see it right now: Rent on iTunes, Amazon, and VUDU (watch the trailer)

jim & andy documentary
Netflix

30. Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond - Featuring a Very Special, Contractually Obligated Mention of Tony Clifton

Released: November 17
Directors: Chris Smith (American Movie)
Why it’s so great: Featuring one long interview with Jim Carrey about his performance as Andy Kaufman (and Tony Clifton) in the 1999 biopic Man on the Moon, this documentary might be the most in-depth look at the good and bad of method acting that's ever been made. Jim & Andy also something of a biographical portrait of Carrey himself, as he sincerely discusses his rise and peak as a comedy icon and then winds up giving a rather deep existential monologue amidst the intercut archival clips of his career. The main attraction is never-before-seen footage shot during the production of Man on the Moon, adding Jim & Andy to the annals of best "making-of "docs, too.
Where to see it right now: Stream on Netflix (watch the trailer)

city of ghosts documentary
Amazon Studios

29. City of Ghosts

Released: July 7
Director: Matthew Heineman (Cartel Land)
Why it’s great: Heineman follows his Oscar nomination for Cartel Land with another trip to a brutally violent territory. This time he focuses on the heavily documented Syria but specifically spotlights the city of Raqqa and the journalism organization known as Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently. City of Ghost's internationally honored main characters operate from relatively safe locations in Germany and Turkey, while other members bravely report from their ISIS-occupied hometown. The images they put out to the world, much of it collected here and never seen before, is devastating stuff. In addition to being a positive showcase of heroic citizen journalists, the doc presents us with a media war, as RBSS combats, through imagery, the world’s current scariest villains, who use their own videos as weapons of propaganda.
Where to see it right now: Stream on Amazon Prime; rent on iTunes, Amazon, and VUDU (watch the trailer)

the force
PBS

28. The Force

Released: September 15
Director: Peter Nicks (The Waiting Room)
Why it’s great: After embedding us in an ER with his last film, Nicks now drops us into the Oakland Police Department for a two-year stretch as it continues to make improvements in conduct while under federal oversight. We go on ride-alongs, sit in on police academy lectures about changes that need to be made to win the trust of the citizens, and we go outside the station and encounter those citizens during community meetings and protests. This isn’t just an observational experience of the day to day of urban cops, though. Instead, brutal reality keeps rearing its ugly head, in the forms of shootings and scandals as The Force becomes a Sisyphean tale about the struggle to overcome systemic problems.
Where to see it: Stream on Netflix (watch the trailer)

wormwood documentary
Netflix

27. Wormwood

Released: December 15
Director: Errol Morris (The Thin Blue Line)
Why it's great: Morris brings all his best devices to this engrossing, four-hour exploration of a government conspiracy theory wrapped inside another government conspiracy theory, and the lifelong obsession of one man's quest for information about his father's death. The central story concerns a scientist who jumped or fell or was pushed out of a 13th-story hotel window, depending on the CIA's story at any given time. Morris depicts that story in a well-cast dramatization based on official reports if not the reality of the incident. Woven into the doc are a series of dynamic interviews with the man's son, who has investigated the death for years. Put together, either in feature or episodic series form, Wormwood delivers another bold balance of truth and perception.
Where to see it right now: Stream on Netflix (watch the trailer)

faces places
Le Pacte

26. Faces Places

Released: October 6
Directors: Agnes Varda (The Gleaners and IEllis)
Why it’s great: Agnes Varda is such a delightful little woman, charming every moment of this whimsical collaboration whether she’s jauntily chatting with strangers or expressing heartache about an old friend or her deteriorating eyesight. She and famed photographer JR, 55 years her junior, embark together on an art project field trip, snapping portraits of people in villages and on farms and in factories, then plastering giant prints of these works on building walls. Faces on facades. Varda and JR look like a mismatched pair, yet their loving respect for each other gives them terrific chemistry, making them the duo of the year, regardless of whether their endeavors are as interesting as they are.
Where to see it right now: In theaters (watch the trailer)

the work prison documentary
The Orchard

25. The Work

Released: October 20
Director: Jairus McLeary and Gethin Aldous
Why it's great: The Work gives us the incredible opportunity to sit in on an intimate and intense four-day group therapy session at Folsom Prison, where outsiders volunteer to enter the facility and participate. McLeary and Aldous's film focuses on the dichotomy between the incarcerated men and those subjects who are there because they fear one day being incarcerated, but this isn't just a sequel to Scared Straight!; these guys are already scared and that's not enough for them. It's a tough, loud, emotional thing to experience, even through the distancing lens of the camera, powerfully empathetic and maybe even virtually beneficial to viewers who can't attend the real thing.
Where to see it right now: Rent on iTunes, Amazon, and VUDU (watch the trailer)

Grasshopper Films

24. Last Men in Aleppo

Released: May 3
Director: Firas Fayyad, Steen Johannessen, and Hasan Katan
Why it’s great: We got a tease of the Syrian Civil Defence with the Oscar-winning short documentary film The White Helmets, but this feature-length showcase of the unbelievably courageous rescue workers provides a whole other experience, one that is almost overwhelming in its footage of death and destruction and also recovery. Not only does the film spotlight three of the brave White Helmets digging and saving and avoiding bombs themselves, but the filmmakers -- including directors Fayyad and Katan and cinematographers Fadi al-Halabi, Thaher Mohamad and others -- who capture the SCD’s stories deserve extra praise just for embedding and endangering their own lives to produce such a display of heroism, and smuggling it out to be edited by their co-director, Johannessen, in Europe.
Where to see it: Stream on Netflix (watch the trailer)

jane documentary
National Geographic

23. Jane

Released: October 20
Directors: Brett Morgen (The Kid Stays in the Picture)
Why it’s so great: Firstly, because Jane Goodall is great, and she’s portrayed as a scientific superhero. Secondly, because the uncovered, retouched footage of Goodall’s groundbreaking studies of chimpanzees in Gombe, Tanzania in the 1950s and 1960s feels incredibly fresh and brilliant. Thirdly, because the team of Morgen as director and Joe Beshenkovsky as editor prove again, following their collaboration on Cobain: Montage of Heck, to be a powerful force when it comes to archival compilation films. Featuring a stirring score by Philip Glass and insightful new commentary from Goodall, the whole package is a riveting, inspiring, and moving true wonder woman story about an icon of primatology and feminism and world peace.
Where to see it right now: In theaters

whose streets documentary
Magnolia Pictures

22. Whose Streets?

Released: August 11
Director: Sabaah Folayan, Damon Davis
Why it’s great: Made by activist filmmakers who immediately joined the uprising following Michael Brown’s death, Whose Streets? is anything but an objective look at the Ferguson protests. But that other sort of dispassionate history is likely found in numerous other places, from the media to textbooks. This is a more powerful record, a chronicling from the inside, providing us with not just access but an empathic perspective through the events of 2014. By making us feel like we are part of the community most affected by and most active in the unrest, the doc is one of the most engaging film experiences of the year, as well as one that excites and enlightens with its energetic momentum.
Where to see it right now: Stream on Hulu; rent on iTunes, Amazon, and VUDU (watch the trailer)

bright lights - best documentaries 2017
Fisher Family Archives/HBO

21. Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds

Released: January 7
Directors: Fisher Stevens (The Cove) and Alexis Bloom
Why it's great: Who knew that Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds made for a modern-day Beales of Grey Gardens? Although neither as eccentric nor as squalorous as doc icons Little and Big Edie, the famous daughter-mother duo are still fabulous, as intimately profiled by fellow actor-turned-Oscar-winning-documentarian Fisher Stevens. Followed primarily in 2014, each has her respective return to the limelight, Fisher working on Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Reynolds being honored with lifetime achievement awards. Coming out right after both women passed away makes Bright Lights a bittersweet release, and a celebration of their life and love that's too consistently funny to ever be too sad. For 90 minutes, we forget they're gone, spending valuable time with two very different but well-bonded and equally charming Hollywood icons.
Where to see it right now: Stream on HBO GO and HBO NOW (watch the trailer)

the bomb documentary
PBS

20. The Bomb

Released: August 1
Director: Kevin Ford (Three Days), Smriti Keshari, and Eric Schlosser
Why it’s great: Spawned off from the more conventional documentary Command and Control (and Schlosser’s books on the subject matter), this more stirring if not more disturbing film was initially presented as an installation in the form of 360-degree viewing experience with live accompaniment. In its flat, single-screen form, it’s been sold as a music documentary due to the fact that it’s entirely set to a score by the rock group The Acid. Really, though, The Bomb is a kaleidoscopic montage of archival footage of military exercises, nuclear bomb tests and more unnerving material -- some of it more beautiful than you’d prefer to acknowledge. Certainly it owes something to the classic doc The Atomic Cafe, yet this compilation film is hardly so funny.
Where to see it: Stream on Netflix (watch the trailer)

abacus small enough to jail documentary
Kartemquin

19. Abacus: Small Enough to Jail

Released: July 7
Director: Steve James (Hoop Dreams)
Why it’s great: Spotlighting a lesser-known tale of the financial crisis, this unapologetically Capra-esque film presents the story of Abacus Federal Savings Bank, the only institution to face criminal charges, rather than a beneficial bailout, for its involvement in the subprime mortgage debacle. Easily taken for granted because it's not a broader or more hard-hitting work, the perfectly conventionally doc is in fact quite revealing of systemic racism and other grander issues in America and its judicial system. But it’s also primarily just a portrait of a single family coming together against an unfortunate situation and the goliath government prosecutors looking to make an example out of their business, a pillar of New York’s Chinatown community.
Where to see it right now: Stream on Amazon Prime; rent on iTunes, Amazon, and VUDU (watch the trailer)

strong island
Netflix

18. Strong Island

Released: September 15
Director: Yance Ford
Why it’s great: First-time director Yance Ford takes a first-person approach to documenting the case of his brother’s murder in this emotionally gut-wrenching film memoir. It’s a true-crime doc, but it’s also an autobiographical family portrait -- Ford’s main interview subjects are himself and his mother. It's one of the more intimate profiles of a senselessly terminated black life, arriving at a time when many similar stories have entered the current social discourse. We obviously don’t get to meet William Ford, but we get to know the man before he was killed over a dispute about auto repairs. The film feels handmade in a tactile sense, as archival photographs are shared manually on screen, and Ford centers himself so close up that you can almost touch his tears.
Where to see it right now: Stream on Netflix (watch the trailer)

oklahoma city - best documentaries 2017
PBS

17. Oklahoma City

Released: February 3
Director: Barak Goodman (Scottsboro: An American Tragedy)
Why it's great: A perfect example of how a documentary can be conventional without being trite, Oklahoma City is as by-the-book as they come, talking heads and archival footage serving a riveting historical work. Goodman, an Oscar nominee delivering yet another American Experience entry for PBS, specifically revisits the devastating 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City while also chronicling some of the rise of white nationalist groups in the US 25 years ago. The doc traces the disaster's origins back to the 1992 Ruby Ridge standoff and the 1993 Waco standoff, both influences on bomber Timothy McVeigh. The precision research makes for a comprehensive and cautionary tale of tragedy.
Where to see it right now: Stream on Netflix (watch the trailer)

risk laura poitras documentary
Neon

16. Risk

Released: May 12
Director: Laura Poitras (Citizenfour)
Why it’s great: As she helped to break the Edward Snowden story that would become the basis for her Oscar-winning documentary Citizenfour, Poitras was working on this portrait of Julian Assange, from the early years of Wikileaks’ notoriety through his abuse allegations and all the way up to date with what’s happening with the Trump administration (there have already been updates made to the film since its theatrical release). Risk is fascinating for its up-close encounters with Assange as he goes from being simply an interesting yet controversial new celebrity figure to an increasingly ungovernable and unlikable character. Poitras makes the whole thing a more personal doc than it sounds, though, by way of a subjective device that’s both fresh and telling.
Where to see it right now: Stream on Showtime; rent on iTunes, Amazon, and VUDU (watch the trailer)

quest documentary
Cinereach

15. Quest

Released: December 8
Director: Jonathan Olshefski
Why it’s great: Olshefski’s debut is a multifaceted film -- part music doc, part political doc, maybe even part sports doc. Above all it’s a coming-of-age drama wrapped inside of an intimate story of a city-dwelling, African-American family during the eight years of Obama’s presidency. They have their ups and downs, but while the hardships weigh heavier and include some absolute tragedies, the family keeps going the best they can. That’s life. There’s an optimistic undercurrent throughout, felt even when you’re reminded where the world is headed next, with Trump’s election. Like Richard Linklater’s Boyhood but real, Quest is empathetically inspiring and plays a lot differently at the close of 2017 than it did at the beginning.
Where to see it: In theaters (watch the trailer)

dina documentary
The Orchard

14. Dina

Released: October 4
Director: Antonio Santini and Dan Sickles (Mala Mala)
Why it’s great: With its muted cinematography, Dina looks like a Daniel Clowes graphic novel come to life, and its eccentric subjects would fit well as characters in Clowes' work. But in spite of how meticulously planned and well-shot it is, evident in its rigged camera setups and aesthetic choice, this is a documentary about two very real and candid individuals, both of them on the autism spectrum, during the lead-up to their wedding. Unlike other docs with similar stories, this one doesn’t bother over-explaining the characters or their romance through interviews with the couple or anyone else, instead letting their lives show for themselves, genuinely, respectfully and with lots of heart.
Where to see it right now: Rent on iTunes and Amazon (watch the trailer)

human flow documentary ai wei wei
Amazon Studios

13. Human Flow

Released: October 13
Director: Ai Weiwei
Why it's great: Though Syrian refugees and Mediterranean migration crises demanded most of the attention from documentaries lately, Human Flow illustrates the current global situations of emigrants and exiles all over, not just the new desperate travelers but also those displaced decades ago and now taken for granted. The film is long and taxing but shows incredible images of masses of people in motion -- in flow, like currents. It takes an activist artist like Ai Weiwei to make the issue feel so abstract and intimate at the same time, as we encounter crowds from overhead and individuals in close-up. Border walls are everywhere, and so is both hope and uncertainty at every turn of the planet as humans intrinsically seek out better surroundings and futures.
Where to see it right now: Stream on Amazon Prime (watch trailer)

cries from syria
HBO Films

12. Cries From Syria

Released: March 10
Director: Evgeny Afineevsky (Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom)
Why it’s great: The best of the year’s Syria documentaries, the film thoroughly chronicles the situation from revolution to civil war and the refugee migration, as it happened from city to city and beyond. More than just a timeline-based oral history, however, Cries From Syria puts much of the focus on children and how they’re affected by the conflicts and the flight. The infamous image of the young drowned boy, Alan Kurdi, begins a string of accounts from kids, plus highlighted footage of rescued and killed or starved youths. While it’s devastating and might seem exploitive it’s also totally effective, especially considering the child survivors are the ones who’ll be living the longest with the memories.
Where to see it: Stream on HBO Now (watch the trailer)

ex libris the new york public library
Zipporah Films

11. Ex Libris: New York Public Library

Released: September 13
Director: Frederick Wiseman (In Jackson Heights)
Why it’s great: Another three-hour-plus opus from Frederick Wiseman, this documentary is not about the New York Public Library so much as it’s about the people involved with the institution, many of them (a few million or so) not ever seen on screen. The needs of these people comprise a central recurring theme of Ex Libris, whether it’s a need for knowledge through books, internet through broadband hotspot device loan, jobs through a job fair, specialized materials for the impaired and disabled, shelter for the homeless or funding for the library system itself. Through Wiseman’s signature observational style, the film celebrates the NYPL as a vital service for the city and local branch-catering neighborhoods as a space for education, culture, and community.  
Where to see it right now: In select theaters (watch the trailer)

karl marx city
Bond/360

10. Karl Marx City

Released: March 29
Director: Petra Epperlein, Michael Tucker (Gunner Palace)
Why it’s great: Filmmakers constantly work through their personal matters through the documentary medium, but rarely is the result as intriguing and enriching as this dual investigation of Epperlein’s father and fatherland. She and Tucker, her regular collaborator, head to Chemnitz, Germany, known as "Karl Marx City" when the country was divided, to find out if her dad was a Stasi informant. Along the way, she uncovers stunning truths about the place she grew up in but never really knew. Shot in stylish black and white, accompanied by a trove of State archive footage, including rare surveillance clips, the creative narrative and visual devices employed never prove distracting but rather augment a nonfiction tale that blends past and present, memory and discovery.
Where to see it right now: Stream on Netflix (watch the trailer)

bobbi jene documentary
Sonntag Pictures

9. Bobbi Jene

Released: September 22
Director: Elvira Lind (Songs for Alexis)
Why it’s great: An incredibly moving portrait of an artist producing incredibly moving work, this film follows American dancer Bobbi Jene Smith during her attempt to go independent as a performer following a nine-year stint as a member of Israel’s renowned Batsheva Dance Company. Bobbi Jene is also a love story about Smith’s long-distance relationship with a younger colleague who stays behind in Tel Aviv. Can she make the solo thing work, in her art and her life? Elvira Lind has crafted a beautiful and honest film, and while Smith’s own expression and performance are to thank for much of its power, this is a rare artist profile that’s an achievement on its own, beyond its subject.
Where to see it right now: Rent on iTunes, Amazon, and YouTube (watch the trailer)

i called him morgan - best documentaries 2017
FilmRise

8. I Called Him Morgan

Released: March 24
Director: Kasper Collin (My Name Is Albert Ayler)
Why it’s great: The story of murdered jazz trumpeter Lee Morgan is recounted partly by his killer, who also happens to be his widow. More than 20 years following the 1972 incident, Helen Morgan, Lee's common-law wife, gave an audio interview about her life with the musician and how she came to shoot him dead at a packed club one stormy winter night. Now, another two decades later, it serves as the centerpiece of a uniquely captivating music doc. Friends and fellow jazz musicians appear to fill in details in what might be the most pulpy biographical film ever, accentuated as it is with atmospheric archival footage of snow falling on New York City moodily scored by Morgan's own soulful recordings.
Where to see it right now: Stream on Netflix (watch the trailer)

all this panic - best documentaries 2017
Gage Betterton

7. All This Panic

Released: March 31
Director: Jenny Gage
Why it's great: The best nonfiction teen movie (and maybe best teen movie, period) since 2012's Only the Young, this honest and endearing documentary tracks the lives of seven girls in New York City over a few years, shining a light on both common and uncommon struggles of urban youth. All This Panic is more like a real-life John Hughes film than a frank depiction of reality like Kids, but with spurts of underage drinking, candid talk of sex, and an evident level of freedom that living in the Big Apple allows minors, All This Panic captures an innocence, normalcy, and authenticity that this age group rarely earns from documentary.
Where to see it right now: Rent on iTunes and Amazon Video (watch the trailer)

la 92 - best documentaries 2017
National Geographic

6. LA 92

Released: April 30
Director: Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin (Undefeated)
Why it’s great: With footage recorded in the heat of and around the 1992 "Rodney King riots," LA 92's images speak for themselves without need of additional narration or retrospective commentary. (Reports of the time offer what little exposition and context is required.) This is not a supercut of news and home-video clips; Lindsay and Martin craft an impeccable experiential history, reminding us that their Oscar-winning doc, Undefeated, is very similarly a brilliant work of editing. But it's the music score, by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans, that really moves the story and makes LA 92 so engaging.
Where to see it right now: Stream on Hulu or National Geographic Channel (watch the trailer)

trophy
The Orchard

5. Trophy

Released: September 8
Directors: Shaul Schwarz (Narco Cultura) and Christina Clusiau
Why it’s great: With an extraordinary level of empathy, Trophy puts the subject of big-game hunting in a whole new light, enough for viewers to reconsider the industry as part of a systemic solution for wildlife conservation. Not easily, mind you; the documentary is definitely difficult for animal lovers to watch, and the issue is quite complex, presented as a situation of damned if you do and damned if you don’t. Schwarz and co-director/cinematographer Clusiau are clearly challenged themselves by the material as they try to remain neutral and show respect to all sides and characters, including one very passionate hunter. Even if the film doesn’t change your heart, it will affect your mind.
Where to see it right now: Rent on Amazon and VUDU (watch the trailer)

in transit albert maysles
Maysles Documentary Center

4. In Transit

Released: June 23
Director: Albert Maysles (Grey Gardens), Lynn True (Summer Pasture), Nelson Walker III (Summer Pasture), David Usui, Benjamin Wu
Why it’s great: Sometimes the most obvious metaphors are still the most perfect, and that’s especially the case for this film and its multiple-meaning title. The observational documentary is entirely set aboard the Empire Builder, a long-distance Amtrak train traveling through the Northern US, between Chicago and Seattle and including the booming oil fields of North Dakota. The passengers we meet along the way are in transit from one location to another, but they’re also all experiencing some form of transition in their lives, be it romantic or professional or maternal or whatever. We see an America in transit, as well, as microcosmically depicted in this final work of documentary legend Albert Maysles.
Where to see it right now: In select theaters (watch the trailer)

dawson city frozen time
Kino Lorber

3. Dawson City: Frozen Time

Released: June 9
Director: Bill Morrison (Decasia)
Why it’s great: An epic presentation of history, film history, and film as history all in one, this documentary explores the beginnings of cinema up to the advent of sound, while also chronicling in great detail the rise of Dawson City as a hub of the Yukon gold rush. The main event of the whole thing, though, is the remarkable tale of hundreds of rare silent films, most thought lost for half a century, found in an accidental archaeological site there. Many of those films and others, both fiction and nonfiction, are used as archival material in illustrating the history lesson, and it’s absolutely enchanting. If you care about film at all, you have to see this miraculous documentary.
Where to see it right now: Stream on FilmStruck; rent on iTunes, Amazon, and Vudu (watch the trailer)

school life documentary
Magnolia Pictures

2. School Life

Released: September 7
Directors: Neasa Ni Chianain and David Rane (Fairytale of Kathmandu)
Why it’s great: Also known as In Loco Parentis, this could be the most charming film you’ll see this year. It virtually enrolls us at Headford, a boarding school in Ireland, where we observe classes and extracurricular activities, such as the forming of a rock band, over the course of a year. The primary focus is on two of Headford’s longtime teachers, John and Amanda Leyden, who met there decades ago and now live on the school’s land. More than mere educators, they’re also surrogate parents while the students reside on campus. And when, at the end of the film, the kids weepily leave school, we have trouble saying goodbye, as well.
Where to see it right now: Rent on VUDU (watch the trailer)

kedi - best documentaries 2017
Oscilloscope Laboratories

1. Kedi

Released: February 10
Director: Ceyda Torun
Why it’s great: Offering a one-of-a-kind encounter of Istanbul through its feline inhabitants, Kedi is part travelogue, city symphony, nature film, and feature-length cat video. Whimsically shot mostly at street level, the doc occasionally lifts its perspective to allow humans to speak for the freewheeling animals, explaining their general history and significance as well as offering specific introductions and stories. But the movie's stars are the four-legged creatures who roam wild, yet are still well-cared for by citizens willing to leave out food or pay vet bills. Even if you're not a cat person, you'll find Kedi an enchanting and tranquil delight. A tense and thrilling fight scene can't possibly be beaten by any of this year's action movies.
Where to see it right now: Stream on YouTube Red; rent on iTunes, Amazon, and VUDU (watch the trailer)

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Christopher Campbell is a freelance film editor and critic, and the founder of the documentary review site Nonfics. Follow him for opinions of all sorts of movies @thefilmcynic.