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The Best Documentaries of 2016

January 30, 2017

By John Corrado

Life, Animated PosterWith my list of the best movies of 2016 having gone up over the weekend, it’s time for my rundown of the best documentaries of last year.  This list took me a while to put together, with a lot of deliberation between order of the films, but I’m happy with the way things have finally settled into place.

There were a lot of exceptional works of non-fiction released last year, and for this list I have settled on a selection of the ones that stuck with me the most, as well as the works that feel the most vitally important to our current sociopolitical climate.

It’s also worth noting that the majority of these films played at Hot Docs, which is a good indicator of the important place that film festival has in the documentary world.  So below are my picks for the top ten documentaries of 2016, followed by a selection of honourable mentions.

#10: Tower: One of the most unique films of 2016, Tower uses a hybrid of interviews and animated reenactments to recreate the events of August 1st, 1966 when a lone gunmen with a sniper rifle positioned himself atop the clock tower at the University of Texas, and for over ninety minutes unleashed a reign of terror that claimed sixteen lives and left many others wounded.  The events of this fateful day have been painstakingly recreated through striking and beautifully rendered animated sequences.  The film is frequently harrowing to watch, putting us as close as we will ever get to actually having been on campus or in the surrounding area as the terrifying carnage unfolded, all set to an excellent soundtrack that further helps transport us back to the time period.

#9: Tickled: When New Zealand pop culture reporter David Ferrier found bizarre videos online of a sport called Competitive Endurance Tickling, where half-naked young guys are paid to be tied up and tickled by other men, he reached out for an interview with the company behind it.  But he never could have predicted the can of worms he opened up when he tried to investigate the company behind these tickling videos, facing an onslaught of homophobic threats and possible legal action as he got sucked into a delirious internet rabbit hole of fetishes, conspiracies and deceit.  This is one of those films that you should see knowing as little about the story as possible.  It’s a compellingly strange real life thriller, chock full of shocking twists and turns that unfold right before our eyes.

#8: Off the Rails: Darius McCollum was one of the most compelling subjects of any documentary last year.  Having Asperger’s syndrome, Darius is happiest when riding the rails and knows the entire New York transit system like the back of his hand.  Driven by his intense special interest, he has spent over thirty years impersonating transit officials and commandeering buses and subway trains for joy rides, and has ended up stuck in the revolving doors of the prison system because of it.  With Off the Rails, first time director Adam Irving has crafted an incredibly compelling film that is completely sympathetic towards Darius McCollum, while also touching on much larger issues of how the courts often fail individuals with disabilities and people of colour.  This is a fascinating and heartbreaking portrait of a complex and larger than life character who has been absolutely failed by the justice system, but keeps breaking the law in order to do what he loves.

#7: O.J.: Made in America: Why was O.J. Simpson acquitted of brutally murdering his estranged wife Nicole Brown and her friend Ronald Goldman, despite overwhelming evidence that he was guilty and a disturbing history of domestic violence?  That’s the question at the centre of O.J.: Made in America, an epic work of documentary filmmaking that leaves no stone unturned in its exploration of how the O.J. Simpson case went from being a routine murder trial and turned into a media circus that became about no less than race relations in America.  Close to eight hours long, and broken up into five parts so it could air on ESPN, O.J.: Made in America is a dense and fascinating piece of work that is as much journalistic expose as it is a gripping piece of documentary filmmaking.  The film takes us through not only every element of O.J. Simpson’s life and career as a beloved football player and actor, but also the sociopolitical climate of the time and how his star status essentially made him infallible, even in the midst of a grisly double homicide.

The film explores how racial tensions at the time led to O.J. Simpson’s trial being used as a launching pad for a much larger conversation about clashes between black communities and the Los Angeles Police Department, with many willing to overlook a literal blood trail because of their distrust of the law.  The irony behind it all was the fact that O.J. Simpson largely ignored his black identity throughout much of his career, until it benefitted him to exploit this very angle in court, with his legal team bringing in a stacked jury and spending much of the their time in court bringing to light the detective’s previous racist comments, to distract from the murder trial at hand.  Although the verdict stated otherwise, the simple truth remains that O.J. Simpson was guilty, and anyone who sees the graphic photos and evidence on display will likely come to the same conclusion.  Exploring every little detail of this unique case, and the karmic fallout years later, O.J.: Made in America is by turns fascinating, exhausting and infuriating to watch, taking a scalpel to race relations and the way we view celebrity in America.

#6: Angry Inuk: This film does what all great documentaries are able to do, managing to completely rewire the way we think about a hot button issue that many people will already have their own strong opinions about.  Directed by Alethea Arnaquq-Baril, Angry Inuk explores the controversial seal hunt from an Inuit perspective, fearlessly showing how the European Union ban on all commercial seal products has negatively impacted their way of life and practically destroyed their economy.  They rely on seal meat to survive and use the fur to keep warm, with proceeds from selling the skins often providing the only sustainable source of income for their poor communities, but they are being attacked by huge animal rights organizations that have millions of dollars to spend and pay little attention to Native culture or traditions in their criticisms of the hunt.  This is an impassioned and compelling film, that leaves us with a lot of important stuff to talk about.

#5: Cameraperson: Throughout her career as a documentary cinematographer, Kirsten Johnson has worked around the world and with a variety of subjects on countless films including The Invisible War, Citizenfour and Trapped.  With Cameraperson, Kirsten Johnson has turned the attention to her own life, editing together some of her favourite moments from the footage she has shot, coupled with home movies of her own two kids and scenes with her mother who is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s, to craft a cinematic autobiography of sorts.  The result is a unique and surprisingly emotional work that often defies easy categorization.  As shared themes of life, death and humanity start to emerge throughout the footage, Cameraperson becomes a moving look at what it means to work in the documentary field, when the moments in your life are reflected in the footage you capture on camera.

#4: 13th: Following her exceptional biopic Selma, Ava DuVernay made the switch to documentary filmmaking with 13th, one of the most important and thought provoking films of last year.  Featuring interviews with a variety of experts and activists, the film studies how the abolishment of slavery in the 13th Amendment has given way to an unjust prison system in the United States that predominantly targets African Americans.  The film delves into how the War on Drugs and three-strikes policy were largely put in place to target black communities, affectively creating a new form of slavery, with the majority of people in prison being black men with misdemeanour charges.  Plea bargains keep many of these cases out of court by offering lesser sentences in exchange for falsely admitting guilt without a fair trial, as large corporations, that are involved in government lobbying, are financially benefiting from keeping the incarceration rates so high through for-profit prisons.

Despite being produced and distributed by Netflix, 13th feels cinematic in its construction, with these interviews punctuated by graphics showing the lyrics of relevant rap songs.  The film’s gripping narrative takes us through the last several decades of presidential elections, placing blame on both Republicans and Democrats, by showing how many of the extremist “tough on crime” policies introduced under Ronald Reagan in the 1980s were adopted by Bill Clinton in the ’90s in order to make him more popular with voters.  The problems have only continued to this day, and the film explores how the issues go deeper than any one person.  It culminates with clips of Donald Trump’s racist remarks at his campaign rallies, but Hillary Clinton’s comments about “super predators” are also heard loud and clear.  For these reasons, 13th was one of the most important film’s leading up to last year’s divisive election, and it’s even more vital now that Donald Trump is terrifyingly in power, making any chances of sorely needed prison reform seem unlikely in the near future.

#3: Konelīne: Our Land Beautiful: A haunting and visually stunning cinematic tone poem, Konelīne: Our Land Beautiful is a gorgeously captured documentary that offers a powerful and moving hymn to living in harmony with the land.  Directed by Nettie Wild, the film introduces us to a diverse group of people living in a remote British Columbia community that is home to the Tahltan First Nation, giving us a balanced look at their way of life and how it is threatened by corporate interests of mining companies, who threaten to vastly change the landscape.  The camera watches with a nonjudgmental eye as we meet some of the workers who rely on the mine to support their families, powerfully contrasted by many of the Native elders who are trying to preserve their land.  The breathtaking cinematography captures the striking panoramic vistas of this natural landscape in glorious CinemaScope, and the sound work does an equally impressive job of immersing us in the captivating rhythms of the land, adding up to one of the most mesmerizing and profoundly affecting cinematic experiences of last year.

#2: How to Build a Time Machine: Rob Niosi has spent years obsessively building a full size replica of the time machine from the H.G. Wells classic The Time Machine, to remind him of being a kid and seeing the 1960 film in a theatre for the first time with his father.  Ronald Mallett has devoted his life to studying physics and black holes and how they relate to the real life mechanics of time travel, dreaming of a way to reunite with his beloved father who died of a heart attack when he was young.  Both of these men have devoted their lives to the ideas of time travel, and their stories come together beautifully in director Jay Cheel’s thought provoking and deeply moving How to Build a Time Machine.  Evoking profound reflection in the audience, the film offers a poignant exploration of learning to live with regret and accept past mistakes, while also ruminating on the real life possibilities of altering time.

#1: Life, Animated: Owen Suskind is a young autistic man whose keys to understanding the world have come from Disney films, with the animated characters allowing his parents to communicate with him as a child.  Directed by Roger Ross Williams, who is a longtime friend of the family, Life, Animated follows Owen as he prepares to move into his own assisted living apartment, while dealing with typical aspects of young adult life like having a girlfriend and finding a job.  As a Disney fan who has also found life lessons in many of their films over the years, Life, Animated touched me on an incredibly personal level.  This is a wonderful film, a real tearjerker that is also profoundly inspiring, providing a moving testimony to learning to grow up without losing sense of the magic that Disney represents.  For all these reasons, Life, Animated was my favourite documentary of 2016.

Honourable Mentions:
The Bad Kids
Brothers
De Palma
Don Juan
Fear Itself
Gleason
Hotel Coolgardie
Justin Timberlake + The Tennessee Kids
Mattress Men
Out of Print
The Pearl of Africa
Trapped
Under the Sun
Voyage of Time (The IMAX Experience and Life’s Journey)
Weiner

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