As 2015 comes to a close, the realscreen editorial team reflects on the year’s documentaries, series and unscripted programming, and reveals its top picks. These are the non-fiction titles we’ve admired and remembered throughout the year, and many of them we’ve covered in features and profiles.
1.) The Look Of Silence
Joshua Oppenheimer’s follow-up to The Act Of Killing revisits the mass killings that took place in Indonesia in the late 1960s from the point of view of Adi, an optometrist who sets out to learn how his brother was killed. As Adi questions the perpetrators about the atrocity, the emotional weight of a subject left unspoken for so long seems to permeate the air through the exacting and unsettlingly serene ways Oppenheimer frames the drama.
The final film by Albert Maysles focuses on 93-year-old New York fashion icon Iris Apfel, a self-described (and self-made) “geriatric starlet.” She is one of those people who can put two disparate things together – in this case, overlapping patterns and oversized accessories – and make it work. Full of wisdom and wit, she is a joy to watch on screen.
3.) Janis: Little Girl Blue
Amy Berg’s look at the life of Janis Joplin starts out as a biopic about a rock n’ roll singer and slowly morphs into a document of a doomed romance. Much of the movie focuses on how the ahead-of-her-time performer’s freewheeling attitudes brushed up against the conservatism of the 1960s, but surprising and startling footage dug up by Berg adds a new depth and subversive appeal to a familiar story.
4.) Missing People
David Shapiro’s ambitious documentary juggles crisscrossing themes that include a murder mystery, grief and cultural relativism. The film is about a New York art curator whose quest to find out who killed her brother dovetails with an obsession for collecting the violent drawings of New Orleans outsider artist Roy Ferdinand. At a time when art is synonymous with money and celebrity (especially in art-focused documentaries), Missing People is a reminder of its more ineffable and restorative powers.
Directors Lyric R Cabral and David Felix Sutcliffe embed themselves with an FBI informant, unbeknownst to the FBI, in order to examine the insidious ways anti-terrorism policing undermines free speech rights. Part social issue film, part thriller, the doc is full of complexities and gray areas that are embodied by a truly bizarre and elusive character.
1.) The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst
The trailer alone for Andrew Jarecki’s The Jinx had me absorbed in this case for weeks. The captivating six-part series never once failed to disappoint. It is disturbing, emotional and, at times, chillingly funny. Durst’s deadpan reaction when asked whether he’d purposely shaved his head and eyebrows to avoid detection while on the lam still haunts me: “How do you accidentally shave your eyebrows?”
2.) The Look of Silence
Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Look of Silence follows in the bleak yet visually stunning footsteps of his 2012 film The Act of Killing. The doc, which focuses on a personal account of the attempted eradication of “anti-communists” in Indonesia between 1965 and 1966, serves as a historical warning against fanning the flames of hatred through the avenues of politics and religion.
3.) Cartel Land
Matthew Heineman’s film struck really close to home for me. With family living in the Mexican state of Sonora along the Arizona border, I’d previously heard personal accounts regarding close encounters with cartels and corruption. But to see civilians picking up arms to protect their towns against blood-crazed drug dealers in the shadow of a seemingly indifferent government was astounding.
4.) The Murder Detectives
As Films of Record executive producer Neil Grant states, viewers for years have “been inundated with countless varieties of the same thing.” Channel 4′s The Murder Detectives sets itself apart by taking a vérité approach in following the investigation into a murder from the moment blood is spilled. The ambitious and risky undertaking whisks the viewer on a painstakingly emotional journey full of real-life twists.
5.) 3 ½ Minutes, 10 Bullets
Marc Silver’s documentary about the 2012 slaying of black teenager Jordan Davis due to an argument over loud music puts the issue of American racial tension front and center, offering insight into an issue that dominated newspaper headlines over the past year.
1.) TransFatty Lives
Patrick O’Brien’s self-directed journey of his life with ALS – beginning at the time of his diagnosis in 2005 at 30 and spanning 10 years – is filmed with humor, moxie and guts. As much a gritty illustration of this confounding disease as a declaration of war, O’Brien bravely documents the beauty he sees in ALS, and highlights why others should, too.
2.) Cartel Land
Set in Arizona’s Altar Valley and the Mexican state of Michoacán, director Matt Heineman surely had nine lives in the making of Cartel Land, which follows two citizen-led groups battling Mexican drug cartels from either side of the border. Whether he was filming desert meth operations at twilight or documenting grisly shoot-outs, Heineman went to extreme lengths to tell a refreshingly nuanced portrait about the war on drugs.
3.) Go Back to Where You Came From
After a three-year hiatus, this ground-breaking Australian reality show returned in July to SBS for a three-night engagement, and its timing couldn’t be better. The Cordell Jigsaw Zapruder-produced series challenges its cast’s beliefs about asylum seekers by putting them in their shoes, and this season made headlines during a confrontation with ISIS insurgents in Syria. Its tactics may be dramatic, but Go Back is essential viewing as Western countries grapple with an international refugee crisis.
4.) The Hunting Ground
It’s difficult not to have a white-knuckled reaction to Kirby Dick’s The Hunting Ground, which looks to break the silence and prompt a long-overdue dialog around sexual assaults on American campuses. Bolstered by an impressive social impact campaign by distributor Radius-TWC – not to mention a terrific song by Lady Gaga – The Hunting Ground has been screened on campuses across the U.S., while providing resources for students to effect change at their schools.
5.) Peace Officer
Directors Brad Barber and Scott Christopherson take on the militarization of U.S. police by narrowing their lens on a series of extraordinary incidents in the state of Utah. The SXSW Grand Jury Prize winner follows the unforgettable ex-sheriff Dub Lawrence, and features candid interviews with the families of those shot down by police, as well as with local authorities. Peace Officer is an incisive and even-keeled study of a troubling phenomenon.