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The Best Documentaries of 2017

January 17, 2018

By John Corrado

Every year, I end up seeing a lot of really good documentaries, and 2017 was no different.  Between Hot Docs and TIFF, there were a lot of non-fiction films that I really liked, and that’s what I want to highlight here.

There were a few buzzed about films that I didn’t get the chance to see, so this list might look a little bit different than some of the ones that other people have been putting out, but these are my personal picks and I’m happy with them.  It’s also worth noting that half of my top ten films are directed or co-directed by women, which I admittedly only realized after putting this list together.

I’m still catching up on a few more movies from last year, so my list of the best dramatic films of 2017 will hopefully be posted in the next little bit, but for now here is my countdown of my favourite documentaries of last year.  Enjoy!

#10: Gilbert: A portrait of standup comic Gilbert Gottfried, who has become iconic for his squinting eyes and high-pitched voice, Gilbert is one of the most entertaining and enjoyable documentaries of the year.  Directed by Neil Berkeley, who also crafted portraits of unique artists in Beauty is Embarrassing and Harmontown, this is a wonderful look at what makes a comic tick, peeling back layers from his ribald jokes to show the caring family man underneath.  This was also one of my most fun screening experiences of last year.  When I was standing in line to see the film at Hot Docs, I watched as Gilbert Gottfried arrived at the theatre in a taxi, per his usual cheap style.  When he came out on stage to intro the film, he took the mic and used it as an opportunity to tell a trio of delightfully anti-PC ethnic jokes that left the audience in stitches, proving that he’s just as funny in person as he is onscreen.

#9: Becoming Bond: Here’s another one of the most flat-out entertaining documentaries of the year, telling the story of how George Lazenby became the only actor to play James Bond only once.  Through a mix of interviews with George Lazenby, and delightful reenactments using actors, Becoming Bond recounts how he went from being a dirt poor used car salesman in Australia and ended up conning his way into being cast as in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, and then turned down a six film contract to live a life outside the spotlight.  This is a wildly entertaining hybrid of documentary and biopic that is a blast to watch.  It’s also oddly inspiring.

#8: Faces Places: A match up between aging New Wave filmmaker Agnes Varda and young street photographer JR, who travel around the French countryside in a photo truck taking pictures of regular people and printing out large scale versions to be plastered on buildings, Faces Places is a delightful film about two artists coming together.  There is a playful quality to the road trip structure of the film, and the unique friendship that forms between Agnes Varda and JR is immensely charming to watch.

#7: Libera Nos: How often do you see a documentary about real life exorcisms?  So on that front alone, Libera Nos is one of the most unique and intriguing non-fiction works that I saw last year, introducing us to Father Cataldo, a Catholic priest in Sicily who is one of only a handful of priests able to perform exorcisms.  And with claims of demonic possession on the rise, his business is booming.  What’s most haunting about Libera Nos is that filmmaker Frederica Di Giacomo doesn’t pass judgement or try to diagnose the subjects, instead leaving us to decide for ourselves if the people we see onscreen are suffering from being possessed.  It’s thrilling and hard to shake, and I’ve never seen another documentary quite like it.

#6: Unarmed Verses: Francine is a black girl who lives in North York’s Villaways neighbourhood, finding outlets for self-expression through local arts programs.  But the affordable housing unit where she lives with her family is undergoing a forced revitalization project put forth by the city, which means that the building will be demolished in favour of building condos, which the residents will have to enter a lottery in order to see if they are allowed back in.  Director Charles Officer follows his subjects with a compassionate and observational lens, offering a compelling study of race, class and the increasing gentrification of poor areas in major cities.  This is a powerful and humanizing portrait of the poverty that exists right here in Toronto.

#5: The Road Forward: An exciting and unique hybrid of documentary and musical, The Road Forward blew me away when I saw it on the final weekend of Hot Docs.  The film offers a compelling glimpse into the tangled history of aboriginal rights in Canada, touching on the horrifying history of residential schools, the Constitution Express activist movement to protest restrictive government policy in 1980, the suppression of culture and language that still exists in the education system, and the ongoing crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women.  Featuring interviews with different Indigenous artists, coupled with period reenactments and rousing musical sequences, the film offers a frequently stunning collage of the past and present colliding with bittersweet hope for the future.

#4: Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World: Named for Link Wray’s highly influential guitar piece “Rumble,” Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World offers an extensive history of Native American contributions to music.  Touching on pretty much every genre of music, the film offers an expansive and exciting mix of interviews, archival performance footage and concert scenes to shed light on some of the many musicians with Indigenous heritage who have left an indelible mark on the culture as a whole over the past century.  This is a compelling and emotionally resonant film that blew the roof off at Hot Docs, so it’s no surprise that it won both audience awards at the festival.  It’s a crowdpleaser through and through, and the soundtrack is outstanding.

#3: Long Time Running: I waited nearly four hours in a rush line to see the world premiere of Long Time Running at TIFF, swapping stories with fellow Tragically Hip fans who were also in line, in a true testament to the power of their music to bring us together.  Through a mix of concert footage and behind the scenes interviews, the film offers a deeply moving document of the band’s final cross country tour in 2016, which came in the wake of Gord Downie’s diagnosis with terminal brain cancer, and culminated in an emotional final concert that was watched by much of Canada.  More than just a concert film, Long Time Running also serves as a gripping portrait of a man who is forced to stare death in the face and decides to go out on his own terms, giving fans who have embraced his music for decades the chance to say goodbye.  The Tragically Hip will always be remembered as Canada’s band, and it will be even more heartbreaking to watch this film now in the wake of Gord Downie’s death in October.

#2: Brimstone & Glory: Here is an example of documentary as pure visual spectacle.  An on the ground look at the annual fireworks festival in Tultepec, Mexico, Brimstone & Glory is a visceral and breathtaking big screen experience, that wows us with spectacular cinematography.  The filmmakers utilize a thrilling mix of handheld camerawork, drones, GoPros and extreme slow motion to thrust us right in the middle of the action, as fireworks explode all around us.  The images are matched by an exceptional musical score by Dan Romer and Beasts of the Southern Wild‘s Benh Zeitlin, who also helped with the camerawork.  The result is pure cinema, and the only film that I saw twice at Hot Docs, because the experience of seeing it on the big screen was so thrilling that I couldn’t resist going back for more.  This is one of the most visually stunning films I saw last year, documentary or otherwise.

#1: 78/52: I’m an Alfred Hitchcock fan.  I grew up with his work.  So I guess it’s no surprise that my favourite documentary of last year was 78/52, a deep dive into the iconic shower scene in Psycho.  The first feature length film devoted entirely to a single scene, the film features interviews with a variety of filmmakers, historians, actors and editors, as well as Janet Leigh’s body double, to take us through the intricately shot and carefully edited scene frame by frame.  But this is much more than just an essay film, offering a compelling cinematic experience in its own right, leaving us with an even deeper appreciation of Hitchcock’s almost unparalleled mastery when it came to shocking audiences.  Alexandre O. Philippe directs it all with an artistic eye, showing the interviews in black and white, and even shooting some new exterior footage on the Universal soundstage that fits in seamlessly with images from Psycho.  I found 78/52 to be utterly enthralling to watch, and I can’t wait to watch it again, so I’m confident in placing it atop this list as the best documentary of 2017.

Honourable Mentions: Chasing Coral, The DepartureDina, Do Donkeys Act?, Hope, Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond, Our People Will Be Healed, A River Below, Strad Style, There is a House Here, Tongue Cutters, What Lies Upstream.

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