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The Best Documentaries of 2014

January 25, 2015

By John Corrado

Life Itself PosterI saw numerous documentaries in 2014, and there were a lot of great ones.  Because of this, it was quite a challenge to narrow down this list, and ensuing selection of honourable mentions.

But the ten documentaries I have finally chosen are an eclectic selection of what I consider to be the best nonfiction films of last year, two of which have already received Oscar nominations (CitizenFour and Finding Vivian Maier).

Because many of these release dates are pretty fluid, I have also included a couple of great ones from Hot Docs that haven’t officially been released yet (Songs for Alexis and The Special Need), but absolutely deserve a wider audience.

Even though they didn’t crack my actual top ten, the excellent Last Days in Vietnam and the harrowing Virunga, which are both Oscar nominated as well, also deserve special mentions.  With my picks for the Best Albums of 2014 yesterday, this is the second of my year in review posts, and you can come back tomorrow for my countdown of the best movies of last year.  Enjoy!

#10: The Dog: After holding up a bank to fund his partner’s sex change operation, John Wojtowicz became a celebrity in his own right, and was unforgettably portrayed by Al Pacino in Dog Day Afternoon.  Through interviews with the man himself and those closest to him, The Dog recounts the events around that fateful day in New York, and the aftermath of his attempted robbery that became the point of media fixation.  Compelling and wildly entertaining, this is a remarkable account of a fascinating true story and real life character, that packs a genuine emotional punch and provides the perfect companion piece to the 1975 classic.

#9: Keep On Keepin’ On: A wonderful look at the friendship between aging jazz master Clark Terry and his blind protégé Justin Kauflin, who is just getting started in his promising career, Keep On Keepin’ On is one of the most enjoyable documentaries of 2014.  The conversations between these two genuinely likeable subjects offer plenty of inspiring wisdom, and the film reverberates with the undeniable warmth of the human spirit, offering the touching message that music is the ultimate cure for personal adversity.

#8: Songs for Alexis: I’m a sucker for coming of age films, and the small gem Songs for Alexis is one of the most tender and touching teen love stories of last year.  A beautifully done narrative documentary, the film intimately shows the relationship between transgender musician Ryan Cassata, who comes from a loving and supportive family, and his bisexual girlfriend Alexis, whose parents don’t approve of them being together.  And the soundtrack is also pretty great, with the songs of this incredibly talented young musician providing a poignant backdrop to the film.

#7: Finding Vivian Maier: When visual artist John Maloof purchased several boxes worth of old negatives and photographs from an auction, he became obsessed with finding the elusive photographer behind the brilliant images.  What he uncovered was a reclusive Chicago nanny known only as Vivian Maier, who had recently passed away, leaving behind more than a few secrets.  Compellingly unfolding like a detective story, while still retaining the air of mystery that the title subject clearly wanted, Finding Vivian Maier is a fascinating and also moving look at a life rescued from obscurity.

#6: The Special Need: Perhaps the biggest shame of 2014 was that The Special Need didn’t get the attention it deserved.  Enea is a young man in Italy who has autism and dreams of meeting a beautiful girl, prompting his buddies Carlo and Alex, who treat him like any other guy, to become determined to help him finally get laid.  Directed by longtime friend Carlo Zoratti, his story is told with great sensitivity in this beautifully shot and perfectly structured narrative documentary, that is wonderful to watch from the hilarious opening to the quietly moving final scene.  I adore this film.

#5: Harmontown: After being fired from Community, show creator Dan Harmon went on tour across the United States to record a live podcast, but what starts as a way for him to let loose in front of sold out crowds, becomes an emotional journey for the often self destructive writer.  Director Neil Berkeley paints a fascinating psychological portrait of this complicated genius, and the results are candid, often hilarious and also surprisingly moving.  A real treat for fans of Community that, like the show, is wonderfully inspirational for anyone who has ever felt like a social misfit.

#4: CitizenFour: Documenting the release of classified information by fearless NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, proving that the United States government is using the abundance of electronic data to literally track your every move, CitizenFour plays like a real life political thriller.  Mainly unfolding in the Hong Kong hotel room where Edward Snowden was hiding, allowing director Laura Poitras intimate access to his conversations with reporters, the film offers a compelling look at what went into exposing these disturbing truths.  This is obligatory viewing that opens a fascinating and vital conversation about privacy and free speech, and couldn’t have come at a more relevant time.

#3: The Overnighters: Pastor Jay Reinke has opened the doors of his Lutheran Church in North Dakota as a shelter for the unemployed men passing through town looking for work in the oil fields.  But this simple act of charity becomes a nuanced story with surprising layers that keep being peeled back right up to the haunting final scene, as director Jesse Moss capturing devastatingly raw moments throughout this complex and emotionally involving film.  A heartbreaking portrait of poverty that asks if past sins can ever truly be forgiven, The Overnighters was one of the most talked about films of 2014, for understandable reasons.

#2: Kung Fu Elliot: I literally stumbled upon a screener of Kung Fu Elliot before Hot Docs last year, and the film blew me away.  Following Elliot Scott, who dreams of being Canada’s first action hero and is currently in production on his third low budget feature, this is a shocking and wildly entertaining documentary that morphs into something entirely different before our eyes.  Because as surprising layers are revealed during the stunning last act, Kung Fu Elliot masterfully challenges our perception of the story that filmmakers Jaret Belliveau and Matthew Bauckman set out to tell.  Brilliant and exhilarating.

#1: Life Itself: How could this not be my number one?  A biography of and touching tribute to legendary film critic Roger Ebert, and a love letter to the silver screen, Life Itself was one of the most emotional and powerful films of last year.  Following him in the last few months of his life, and featuring moving interviews with some of the many people whose lives were changed by his work, the film gets to the heart of why he will always be remembered as one of the most important figures in film history.  Put simply, I wouldn’t be a writer or film critic without Roger Ebert, and Life Itself was the best documentary of 2014.

Honourable Mentions:
Advanced Style
Alive Inside
Antarctica: A Year on Ice
Art and Craft
The Backward Class
Beyond Clueless
The Case Against 8
Giuseppe Makes a Movie
The Homestretch
An Honest Liar
The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz
Last Days in Vietnam
The Life and Mind of Mark DeFriest
Meet the Patels
Seymour: An Introduction
Super Duper Alice Cooper
To Be Takei

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