Movie Machine

The 30 Best Documentaries of 2018

best documentaries
'Generation Wealth' | Courtesy of Amazon Studios
'Generation Wealth' | Courtesy of Amazon Studios

This year more than ever, documentaries are expected to challenge our idea of what’s real and what’s fake. That doesn’t apply to this list, which is the (subjectively one person’s) true ranking of the best nonfiction films of 2018. From the conventional yet topical to the more creatively compelling, we’ve been watching them all as the year goes on, and we’ve highlighted the essentials. We recommend you check them all out (and don't forget to catch up with the best documentaries of 2017 when you're done).

hitler's hollywood
Kino Lorber

30. Hitler’s Hollywood

Released: April 11
Director: Rüdiger Suchsland (From Caligari to Hitler)
Why it’s great: With actor Udo Kier (Iron Sky) serving as our instructor-narrator, watching Hitler’s Hollywood is like taking an in-depth film history course in the span of about 100 minutes. Whether it’s for curiosity sake or adding to our education about cinema, this documentary teaches us about the theatrical propaganda and entertainment -- and where those two things combined -- that were produced in Germany during the Third Reich. We see clips from those films, including Leni Riefenstahl's infamous propaganda movie Triumph of the Will and the Nazis’ own Titanic disaster drama, while Kier discusses them.
Where to see it: Rent on YouTube (watch the trailer)

andre the giant
HBO

29. Andre the Giant

Released: April 10
Director: Jason Hehir (The Fab Five)
Why it’s great: Andre the Giant was great, in so many ways. The towering professional wrestler, also known for starring in The Princess Bride and being an all-around pop culture icon, was an easily lovable figure in his lifetime, and he fortunately continues his appeal in this biographical sports documentary. Not that he’s simply given an exalting profile, but Hehir is certainly in awe of his subject and paints an adoring portrait with few warts on display. The film covers Andre the myth, Andre the legend, Andre the ladies man, and, yep, Andre the flatulent. It showcases him as a champion and a tragic human being. Even if you’re not a wrestling fan, you’ll appreciate and enjoy Andre the Giant.
Where to see it: Stream on HBO (watch the trailer)

that summer
IFC Films

28. That Summer

Released: May 18
Director: Göran Hugo Olsson (The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975)
Why it’s great: Best appreciated, if not exclusively so, if you’re familiar with the classic Maysles brothers documentary, Grey Gardens, and its subjects, Big Edie and Little Edie Beale, That Summer is a treasure trove of previously unearthed material. The new feature functions as an unofficial prequel to the 1975 film, which has already spawned a sequel, stage play, dramatic retelling, and more. The reclusive mother and daughter remain two of the most delightful and perplexing on-screen personalities, and it’s no wonder they wound up taking over as the Maysles’ focus when Lee Radziwell’s own original project, detailed here as a broader look at her family and their East Hampton neighbors, went unfinished. It’s primarily for Grey Gardens fans, but everyone ought to be a Grey Gardens fan.
Where to see it: Hulu; rent on YouTube, Amazon Prime (watch the trailer)

Active Measures

27. Active Measures

Released: August 31
Director: Jack Bryan (Life After Dark: The Story of Siberia Bar)
Why it’s great: Without proving anything outright, Active Measures does an effective job of laying out the likelihood of collusion between Trump and Russia. Featured among its talking heads are Hillary Clinton, John McCain, and John Podesta, and its evidence includes details about cyber propaganda schemes, money laundering, and historical precedence. There’s an overwhelming amount of information in the film, which is probably intended even if you feel a need to watch it a second time to understand everything.
Where to see it: Hulu; rent on YouTube (watch the trailer)

tell them we are rising
PBS

26. Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Black Colleges and Universities

Released: February 19
Director: Stanley Nelson (The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution)
Why it’s great: Nelson is PBS' go-to filmmaker for documentaries on black history topics, but unlike his usual work, this one leaves you with more than just a lesson on the past. Chronicling the milestones of and discourse around African-American education, from the slavery years through today, Tell Them We Are Rising focuses on the establishment of Historically Black Colleges and Universities while also highlighting the general importance of learning for the sake of empowerment and progress. Hearing from historians and seeing the compiled archival footage here, we’re reminded of the taken-for-granted significance of education to influencing culture and inspiring past, present, and future civil rights movements. The history may be specific, but the encouragement should affect anyone.    
Where to see it: Rent on YouTube (watch the trailer)

shrirkers
Netflix

25. Shirkers

Released: October 26
Director: Sandi Tan
Why it’s great: Joining such films as Lost in La Mancha, Jodorowsky’s Dune, and The Death of ‘Superman Lives’: What Happened?, Shirkers is another entry in a growing subgenre of "unmaking-of" documentaries. Unlike those other works, the production in focus here had no famous names or IP involved. Director Sandi Tan and her friends shot an independent feature in Singapore in the early 1990s, but one of their collaborators disappeared with all of the unedited footage after they wrapped. Fortunately, the material has finally been found and is used here as the primary vehicle for a kind of memoir film for Tan, who revisits all her surviving associates to weave a whimsically compelling first-person narrative.
Where to see it: Netflix (watch the trailer)

rbg
Magnolia Pictures

24. RBG

Released: May 4
Director: Julie Cohen (American Veteran) and Betsy West
Why it’s great: Benefited by its timeliness, which has become even more apparent since its release, RBG is a celebratory spotlight on the life and work and recent memetic notoriety of the 85-year-old U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The documentary mixes biography, mostly highlighting significant legal cases involving Ginsburg before and since joining the highest bench in the land, and character study, following the subject in her routines. Friends, family, and colleagues honor her with favorable anecdotes and praise while Ginsburg herself appears for a charming personal interview. The whole thing, but especially scenes focused on her health, seems aimed at convincing the audience that she needs to be around a while longer, and for that it’s very effective.
Where to see it: Hulu; rent on Amazon Prime, YouTube (watch the trailer)

on her shoulders
Oscilloscope

23. On Her Shoulders

Released: October 19
Director: Alexandria Bombach (Frame by Frame)
Why it’s great: Before being honored as one of this year’s recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize, Iraqi human rights activist Nadia Murad was followed around for many months by Bombach and her camera. The film depicts the tedious and thankless pageantry of being a public figure in the fight for a cause: Murad mostly meets with politicians and appears on radio and TV programs to spread awareness of the Yazidi genocide in Iraq, as well as the issue of sex slavery, while constantly having to detail her own experiences of being kidnapped and raped. But in the scenes she meets with refugees and participates in marches, we see her passion, leadership, and the necessity of all her campaigning.
Where to see it: Rent on iTunes, Amazon Prime, Vimeo (watch the trailer)

john mccain for whom the bell tolls
HBO

22. John McCain: For Whom the Bell Tolls

Released: May 28
Director: George Kunhardt, Peter K. Kunhardt, and Teddy Kunhardt (Nixon by Nixon: In His Own Words)
Why it’s great: While Senator John McCain can be a problematic politician, he has also bridged the aisle on numerous occasions. That makes him not just a distinct figure in American government but also an interesting subject for a movie. This balanced and often melancholy documentary showcases the war hero, longtime public servant, and former presidential candidate as a symbol of bipartisanship and of a seemingly bygone era in U.S. politics. Because McCain has also been diagnosed with terminal brain cancer, he knows he will be gone soon, and his voiceover narration serves as a self-eulogizing look back through life and career, reflecting on good and bad moments with equal recognition.
Where to see it: Stream on HBO (watch the trailer)

crime + punishment
Hulu

21. Crime + Punishment

Released: August 24
Director: Stephen Maing (High Tech, Low Life)
Why it’s great: Focusing on the New York Police Department, this immersive, character-driven documentary reveals the fight against the long-established, but now illegal, practice of arrest quotas, which traditionally targets minority communities to serve the courts rather than the community. Maing, who goes as far as collaborating with his subjects, tracks the stories of whistleblowing cops who faced alienating consequences for declining to participate in the corruption.
Where to see it: Hulu (watch the trailer)

three identical strangers
Neon

20. Three Identical Strangers

Released: June 29
Director: Tim Wardle (One Killer Punch)
Why it’s great: Three Identical Strangers definitely has the most incredible documentary story of the year, and the initial focus on three young men who discovered, by happenstance, that they were triplets separated at birth is only the beginning. Wardle weaves an incredible and amiable stranger-than-fiction profile of the brothers into a dark and disturbing exposé that ultimately gets viewers contemplating the nature versus nurture debate -- this isn’t a doc to see alone, because you'll need to talk about it afterward. A well-plotted nonfiction thriller (unsurprisingly, Hollywood is remaking it), the film has a lot going on, but there’s very little to share or address about the shocking narrative without spoiling its twists. It’s therefore objectively a must-see.
Where to see it: Rent on YouTube, Amazon Prime (watch the trailer)

hal
Oscilloscope

19. Hal 

Released: September 7
Director: Amy Scott
Why it’s great: Biographical documentaries about filmmakers are a dime a dozen these days, and they don’t have to be great to appeal to critics and fans who are eager to learn about certain subjects like Steven Spielberg or Brian De Palma. This tribute to Hal Ashby, though, is more fine-tuned in its focus, even if that’s only because the director of '70s classics such as Harold and Maude and Being There was more consistent in his career and uncompromising in his ideals and his integrity. Ashby has been dead for 30 years, but through a well-polished mix of the standard peer testimonial-meets-archival footage approach, he seems to come back to life in this impressive debut documentary.
Where to see it: Rent on iTunes, Amazon Prime (watch the trailer)

a dangerous son
HBO

18. A Dangerous Son

Released: May 7
Director: Liz Garbus (Bobby Fischer Against the World, What Happened, Miss Simone?)
Why it’s great: Liz Garbus is one of the most prolific, proficient, and versatile documentary filmmakers working today (the two-time Oscar nominee also has the Emmy-nominated political series The Fourth Estate out this year). With this important and deeply concerning feature, which is difficult to watch at moments, she tackles the ever-timely issue of children with severe emotional and mental illness while separately profiling three struggling families. Providing an alternative focus regarding the increasing problem of school violence (contrasting against the greater prevalence of gun-control-focused docs), Garbus’s emotional, character-driven film works as an alarming expose and another accomplishment in dramatic nonfiction storytelling for the director.
Where to see it: Stream on HBO (watch the trailer)

the road
Oscilloscope Laboratories

17. The Road Movie

Released: January 19
Director: Dimitrii Kalashnikov
Why it’s great: There is a disturbing pleasure to be enjoyed in dashboard-cam footage of traffic accidents, though The Road Movie isn’t just a compilation of Russia’s craziest car videos. Through these recordings, viewers also witness strange encounters with bears and brides and prostitutes and parachuters. We experience a camera’s theft by way of its own documentation of the incident. We travel into a forest in flames -- an incredibly surreal sight -- courtesy of one device. We take an inadvertent dip into a river thanks to another. There are surprises aplenty in this Warholian presentation of real-life death and destruction, and it will leave you paranoid about getting behind the wheel of your own vehicle.
Where to see it: Stream on Amazon Prime; rent on iTunes, Amazon, and YouTube (watch the trailer)

generation wealth
Amazon Studios

16. Generation Wealth

Released: July 20
Director: Lauren Greenfield (The Queen of Versailles)
Why it’s great: Lauren Greenfield follows her hit 2012 documentary The Queen of Versailles with a continued look at the problems -- er, problem -- of the rich and famous. The film is partly based on Greenfield’s book of the same name, both critical indictments of the increasingly popular desire around the world to be, or -- and this is apparently more psychologically concerning -- at least seem to be, affluent. On an extra level, Generation Wealth is also a deeply personal work with a compelling first-person narrative in which Greenfield reflects on her career photographing the excessively and garishly wealthy, revisiting subjects she’s captured over the decades with fresh insight.
Where to see it: Rent on YouTube, Amazon Prime (watch the trailer)

fahrenheit 11/9
State Run Films and Briarcliff Entertainment

15. Fahrenheit 11/9

Released: September 21
Director: Michael Moore (Fahrenheit 9/11, Bowling for Columbine)
Why it’s great: Comparatively light on humor, Moore’s latest mostly trades in his trademark political shenanigans for an angry inquiry into "how the f**k" Donald Trump was elected president. Yes, there are some jokes and stunts here and there, but they’re not as substantial as the serious approaches he takes to addressing not just Trump’s victory, but the Democrats’ mistakes -- plus, the Flint water crisis, the Parkland shooting, the rise of white nationalism, and the general anxiety of the collapse of democracy in America. 
Where to see it: Home video, rent on YouTube (watch the trailer)

cage fighter
Sundance Selects

14. The Cage Fighter

Released: February 2
Director: Jeff Unay
Why it’s great: Calling The Cage Fighter a real-life version of Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler, as pretty much every review has done, is a disservice to both films but certainly gives you an easy sell on this verité profile of an aging small-time, mixed-martial-arts competitor. Unay, whose past credits are mostly in visual effects for such blockbusters as Avatar and King Kong, makes a stunningly confident and cinematic feature debut following the dramatic life of Joe Carman, who struggles with the clash between his passion for fighting and his family’s fearful disapproval of the part-time profession. The unscripted film offers a rare case of truth being more riveting than fiction.
Where to see it: Home video (watch the trailer)

306 hollywood
El Tigre Productions

13. 306 Hollywood

Released: September 28
Directors: Elan Bogarin and Jonathan Bogarin
Why it’s great: One of the most clever docs of the year, 306 Hollywood is a wonderful debut feature from brother and sister team Jonathan and Elan Bogarin about their late grandmother, Annette Ontell, and the home and various objects she left behind after her death. The filmmakers present a magical archaeological portrait of the woman as the sum of her things, from her clothes to her many vacuum cleaners, as well as a series of video interviews Elan conducted over many years. Ontell’s life is handled uniquely and playfully in a way that’s rarely been seen in a documentary before.
Where to see it: In theaters (watch the trailer)

ryuichi sakamoto coda
Mubi

12. Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda

Released: July 6
Director: Stephen Nomura Schible
Why it’s great: Unlike most music documentaries, this one isn’t so much geared for fans of the artist as it is fans of intimate character portraits. Of course, those familiar with the Oscar-winning film composer aren’t lacking for an appreciation of Ryuichi Sakamoto. We see the cancer-stricken artist working on various endeavors, including his music for The Revenant, and also participating in anti-nuke activism. The doc just doesn’t tell the audience about his life and work. It follows him in both, all the while tangentially acknowledging past performances and projects through smoothly compiled archival footage -- the editing team of Hisayo Kushida and Yûji Ohshige deserve a lot of recognition for how impeccable this portrait is.
Where to see it: Rent on iTunes (watch the trailer)

bisbee 17
4th Row Rilms

11. Bisbee '17

Released: September 5
Director: Robert Greene (Kate Plays Christine, Actress)
Why it’s great: Greene, who has become well-regarded for his interests in the dramatic and performative capabilities of documentary, orchestrates a commemorative historical reenactment in this film, which confronts a shameful and mostly forgotten 100-year-old stain on the legacy of the eponymous Arizona mining town. Back in 1917, a deputized posse illegally rounded up and exiled more than a thousand striking workers, leaving them for dead in New Mexico's desert. Now, the centennial staging of the events of the Bisbee Deportation asks the citizens today to candidly reflect on their town's difficult history for a powerful reckoning.
Where to see it: In theaters (watch the trailer)

monrovia indiana
Zipporah Films

10. Monrovia, Indiana 

Released: October 26
Director: Frederick Wiseman (Titicut Follies, In Jackson Heights)
Why it’s great: For his latest exploration of place, Wiseman spotlights the titular small Midwestern municipality. There aren't a lot in the details of Monrovia, Indiana, which is more than the sum of its parts as a subtly political indictment or celebration of provincial life. It can be a chore to sit through what’s presented of the bucolic bubble of Monrovia, including the activities of a Freemason lodge, proceedings of a tractor auction, minor meetings of government officials, and many shots of farm landscapes. But docs aren’t supposed to be passive experiences, and the more you put in, the more you get out of this one.
Where to see it: In theaters (watch the trailer)

hale county
IDIOM FIlms

9. Hale County This Morning, This Evening

Released: September 14
Director: RaMell Ross
Why it’s great: Ross's debut is an intimate and fragmented look at the mostly poor, mostly black Hale County in Alabama, and it’s certainly one of the most distinct films of the year. Although there is some narrative throughline, specific character studies, and implicit political themes to be found in the 75-minute feature, the storytelling takes the loose, lyrical form of a succession of gorgeous shots, the majority of them brief and disconnected. Such incredible cinematography shouldn’t be surprising coming from an established photographer just turning to film in his 30s, and yet nearly every moment is a stunning work on its own. Together, they make up a remarkable picture.
Where to see it: Coming to home video (watch the trailer)

mcqueen
Ann Ray

8. McQueen

Released: July 20
Directors: Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui
Why it’s great: Fashion designer Alexander McQueen gets one of the most widely appealing biographical documentaries in some time with this perfectly constructed film. Don’t care about fashion? Don’t know who he was? Not a problem, since McQueen’s rags-to-riches story is universally compelling and thoroughly riveting, even if ultimately it has an unhappy ending. He was a rock star in the fashion world, and McQueen is appropriately sort of a rock doc. Accessibly broken up into a chaptered narrative based around audio recordings of the late subject, the film offers a portrait of an intriguingly humble, yet shockingly brilliant artist. Even if you don’t like his work, you’ll be inspired and saddened by his story.
Where to see it: Amazon Prime (watch the trailer)

john mcenroe doc
Oscilloscope

7. John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection

Released: August 22
Director: Julien Faraut
Why it’s great: While possibly disappointing for anyone looking for a biographical portrait of tennis legend John McEnroe, this film offers a methodical profile of his talents on the clay court. Culled from footage originally shot for an athletic study by the French Sports Institute, In the Realm of Perfection is primarily concerned with McEnroe’s performance at the 1984 French Open and takes inspiration from Jean-Luc Godards statement that "cinema can lie, not sport." 
Where to see it: Rent on YouTube, Amazon Prime (watch the trailer)

won't you be my neighbor
Focus Features

6. Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

Released: June 29
Director: Morgan Neville (20 Feet From Stardom)
Why it’s great: Nobody can deny that Fred Rogers, aka children’s television icon, "Mister Rogers," makes for a great subject worth watching in any form (that’s one reason Won't You Be My Neighbor? is already one of the top-grossing docs of all time). Fortunately, this particular film comes in the form of a tightly focused profile on the late Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood host by the Oscar-winning director Morgan Neville. As with his other films, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? has more to it than merely spotlighting its main subject. There’s a little history lesson here, a subtle political jab there, and yes, a guaranteed tear-jerking moment (though not where you think). It’s a beautiful film for a neighbor.
Where to see it: Rent on YouTube, Amazon Prime (watch the trailer)

24 frames
Janus Films

5. 24 Frames

Released: February 2
Director: Abbas Kiarostami (Close-Up)
Why it’s great: The final film of one of Iran's cinema masters, 24 Frames is an absolutely mesmerizing documentary -- although many purists will disqualify it as such. The film is an experimental work that takes 24 static images, mostly photographs by Kiarostami plus one Dutch Renaissance painting, and animates them as four-and-a-half-minute vignettes focused mainly on wildlife and its interferences. What seems to be captured nature in these perfect shots of landscapes, some through windows, is all heavily constructed, yet hardly more manipulated than any edited work of nonfiction cinema or photography. Simultaneously an appreciation of the still and the moving image, 24 Frames actually feels more genuine than most documentaries, especially for its acknowledgment of the omnipresence of birdlife.  
Where to see it: Coming to home video (watch the trailer)

free solo
National Geographic

4. Free Solo

Released: September 28
Directors: Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi (Meru)
Why it’s great: In following free solo climber Alex Honnold in his effort to conquer Yosemite's El Capitan Wall without any equipment, Chin and Vasarhelyi could have delivered yet another thrilling look at an exceptional mountaineering feat. Even then, their latest contains the usual dilemma for the filmmakers regarding the potential to document their subject’s death, making for an extra layer of meta-narrative. This film ascends the primary point, though, by also involving romantic drama as Honnold, normally a loner, enters a serious relationship that could affect not only his concentration while climbing but his career as a climber as a whole. 
Where to see it: In theaters (watch the trailer)

the king doc
Oscilloscope

3. The King

Released: June 22
Director: Eugene Jarecki (Reagan)
Why it’s great: One of two great looks at the legacy of Elvis Presley out this year (the other is HBO’s two-part series Elvis Presley: The Searcher), this feature paints a picture of America through the metaphoric lens of celebration and criticism of the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll. Eugene Jarecki, who tends to swing for the fences with big ideas (see Why We Fight and The House I Live In), hits another home run. With this more gimmicky but effective effort, he drives Elvis’ 1963 Rolls Royce around the U.S., interviewing people about the legend as they sit in the backseat. If Elvis is America, is the country in the downfall years about to overdose and die? That’s the sort of rhetoric to be found in the film, also filled with terrific music performances by current artists.
Where to see it: Rent on YouTube, Amazon Prime (watch the trailer)

minding the gap
Hulu

2. Minding the Gap

Released: August 17
Director: Bing Liu
Why it’s great: Marking his debut with this feature (as well as a co-directorial credit on the Steve James nonfiction limited series America to Me), Liu has arrived on the scene as maybe the most exciting new voice in documentary film in years. He’s no sudden phenomenon, though, as Minding the Gap was a long time coming, having begun with the filmmaker’s skate videos he shot as a kid and continued with his own and two of his best friends' evolutions into adulthood. The doc deals heavily in stories of abuse, mainly chronicling the lives of young father Zack and Keire, who is dealing with the death of his dad, eventually also getting deep into Liu’s personal dramas. It's unforgettable.
Where to see it: Hulu (watch the trailer)

did you ever wonder
Grasshopper Film

1. Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun?

Released: February 28
Director: Travis Wilkerson (An Injury to One)
Why it’s great: Not since Ross McElwee’s Sherman’s March has there been such a contemplative and resonating look at the South through a subjective documentary lens. In this experimental, personal-essay film, Wilkerson explores a difficult ancestral legacy as he investigates the unpunished murder of a black man committed by his own great-grandfather in Alabama more than 70 years ago. Through a powerful collage of old and new material, some of it inviting audience participation (the film was originally presented at festivals with live narration), plus examinations of more famous nearby racially motivated incidents such as the rape of Recy Taylor, we’re challenged along with Wilkerson in our ideas about family, American history, and even iconic literary heroes.
Where to see it: Rent on iTunes (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.