Surveying the Documentary Landscape: Looking Back and Forward

January 3, 2023

As 2022 fades into the rear-view mirror and 2023 looms on the horizon, let’s quickly scan which films, particularly documentary films, garnered the most raves from the year just past while we glance ahead at what the new year may hold. 

We generally avoid any discussion around which films were “best,” seeing whereas that definition is highly subjective. But it’s always interesting to learn which films captured the spotlight and the accolades. As we reviewed “best-of” lists from the closing days of 2022, we were happy to have been reminded of several entries that we’d been meaning to see (many are now available to stream or via VOD). 

Variety introduced their faves by saying their “…list of the year’s best documentaries is a testament to the range of what nonfiction cinema has become. It’s history, it’s activism, it’s portraiture, it’s personal, it’s about science and music and literature and politics and royalty and family… and Pez.”  One film on their list, “Hello Bookstore…follows the life and fate of a beloved independent bookstore in Lenox, Mass., so you might expect it to be the sort of movie that expands into a larger statement about the cherished and precarious state of independent bookstores in the digital/corporate/chain-store era. Yet it does that only by implication. For 86 reverent minutes, A.B. Zax’s film, without ever leaving the premises, traces the daily existence of one deceptively quiet bookstore — which is called, incidentally, The Bookstore — and its missionary owner, Matthew Tannenbaum, a jaunty boomer who curates the place as if it were a library, a cocktail party and a projection of his literary dreams.”

Meanwhile, the folks over at the AV Club maintain that “while the merits of streaming and its impact on the theatrical exhibition marketplace can be debated, there’s no doubt that the advent of digital streaming has contributed to a boom in nonfiction filmmaking. Viewers who would never have seriously considered getting in their car, seeking out a theater, and plunking down $10 or $15 to watch a documentary have indulged curiosity in the genre at a massive scale.”  Among their favorites are “Fire of Love,” “Three Minutes–A Lengthening,” “Cow,” and the David Bowie bio-doc, “Moonage Daydream.” 

In rolling out their top selections from 2022, Esquire provides some context; they contend that “…Sometime, during the great Documentary Boom, we lost our way. HBO pioneering a wave of deft, uber-journalistic true crime documentaries gave way to the Dahmerification and Bundyification of Netflix. (Read: regurgitating serial-killer-obsessed stories and re-traumatizing victims along the way.) The glory days of ESPN’s 30 for 30 feel long gone, as documentaries like Tom Brady’s Man in the Arena—where the athlete all but lords over their portrayal—become more commonplace. Their rundown goes to say, however, that “…the very best of 2022’s slate of documentary films shifted back toward good-intentioned, impartial filmmaking—which feels a bit insane to even have to point out. But here we are, There’s Trish Adlesic’s A Tree of Life: The Pittsburgh Synagogue Shooting, which put the focus squarely on the victims of the tragedy at its center. Louis Armstrong’s Black & Blues is can’t-miss ode to a man who transcended jazz music. And Good Night Oppy? Well, that little space rover simply made our hearts melt.”

If you’re curious what films resonated with The Boston Globe’s film critic, Odie Henderson, check out our year-end chat with him on the Making Media Now podcast. 

So what does 2023 hold in store for documentary film fans? Over in Netflix-land, the first half of January’s documentaries will be dedicated to Bernie Madoff’s ponzi scheme (Madoff, The Monster of Wall Street), Mumbai cops who killed their targets in order to rein in the unchecked power of a crime boss in the ’90s (Mumbai Mafia: Police vs. The Underworld), and a viral sensation’s road from fame to imprisonment (The Hatchet Wielding Hitchhiker), which “…chronicles a happy-go-lucky nomad’s ascent to viral stardom and the steep downward spiral that resulted in his imprisonment”.

Our friends at GBH/PBS’ American Experience bring us “The Lie Detector,” (premiering January 2) and available to stream via their website. Here’s the film’s log-line: In the 1920s, as law enforcement began to develop more scientific methods, researchers claimed they could tell whether someone was lying by using a machine called the polygraph. Popularly known as the ‘lie detector,’ the device transformed police work, seized headlines and was extolled in movies, TV and comics as an infallible crime-fighting tool. Husbands and wives tested each other’s fidelity. Corporations tested employees’ honesty, and government workers were tested for loyalty and “morals.” But the promise of the polygraph turned dark, and the lie detector became an apparatus to frighten and intimidate millions of Americans.” Directed by Rob Rapley, the film is a tale of good intentions, twisted morals and unintended consequences.” Hook us up!

Roberta Flack gets the American Masters treatment in film debuting on PBS on January 24. According to its press materials, the doc “illuminates where reality, memory and imagination mix to present music icon Roberta Flack, a brilliant artist who transformed popular culture, in her own words. With exclusive access to Flack’s archives of film, performances, interviews, home movies, photos, hit songs and unreleased music, the film documents how Flack’s musical virtuosity was inseparable from her lifelong commitment to civil rights.”

Independent Lens closes out the month with “The Picture Taker, which tells the story of Memphis-based Ernest Withers whose Memphis studio held nearly 2 million images and were a treasured record of Black history, but his legacy was complicated by decades of secret FBI service revealed only after his death. Was he a friend of the civil rights community or an enemy — or both?”