Every year is a great year for documentaries, because, frankly, so many get made. But it also means that many fall through the cracks, especially when the most visible are typically image-managed biographies of the already famous, one-note issue docs, or sensational true-crime stories. The ten below prove how versatile, artistic, and resonant the non-fiction form can be, brilliantly letting us into everything from closed worlds to open minds, from forgotten history to today’s most urgent concerns. (And yes, there are the occasional celebrities, hot topics, and criminal doings.)
So Close, So Powerful — Runners-Up Worth Mentioning: “Flee” (from oppression to isolation and eventually peace); “The Rescue” (of the Thai boys’ soccer team by expert divers); “Final Account” (of the last surviving, and rationalizing, Nazi-era Germans); “Jacinta” (is a vibrant, troubled young mother); “The Sparks Brothers” (are a celebration of oddball music longevity); “Enemies of the State” (who are hard to discern in this jaw-dropping story); “My Name is Pauli Murray” (and they’re an equal-rights hero); “All Light, Everywhere” (but constrained by our biases); “Tina” (Turner, saying goodbye her way); “Missing in Brooks County” (where US policy condemns migrants to suffer)
10. “Ascension”: Without narration or talking heads, but with an aesthetically keen eye for place, detail, and atmosphere, Jessica Kingdon charts China’s exploding capitalist might through observed vignettes in churning factories, training centers for an aspiring middle class, and, lastly, elite playgrounds of the wealthy. A visually arresting journey up a consumer-economy ladder of increasingly distant rungs, Kingdon wittily, starkly lays bare the growing divide between toilers and enjoyers.
9. “President”: In 2018, Zimbabwe, rid of its longtime dictator Robert Mugabe but still controlled by his ruling party, held elections that were supposed to be the first fair, free, and transparent vote in a generation. What Camilla Nielsson thrillingly captured with her vérité camera was something else, resulting in a film with a chilling message for fragile democracies (and ones that don’t realize they’re fragile) everywhere.
8. “Writing With Fire”: The story of India’s only female-run independent news organization is also the year’s best depiction of journalism as a democratic necessity. The brave Dalit women at the heart of this invigorating, inspiring film from Rintu Thomas and Sushmit Ghosh are leading the charge for truth, transparency, and meaningful societal change in the most underserved parts of an increasingly right-wing and patriarchal nation, risking their lives in the process.
7. ‘Faya Dayi”: “Non-fiction art” best describes Jessica Beshir’s elliptical black-and-white meditation on the culture of khat in Ethiopia, where this chewable narcotic leaf’s harvesting, production, and consumption have entire communities — but most worryingly, their struggling young — in its powerful economic and psychological grip.