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The Best Documentaries of 2018

January 12, 2019

By John Corrado

We have already officially closed the door on 2018, but before we entirely leave the year in the past, I would be remiss not to highlight the many wonderful films that I saw last year. My list of the best movies of 2018 will be dropping shortly, but first I would like to start by counting down my picks for the best documentaries, something that I have greatly enjoyed doing over the past several years.

Now I don’t separate out these lists because I view documentaries to be somehow inferior or lesser. It’s actually quite the contrary. I generally see so many exceptional documentaries throughout the year that it only seems fair to highlight as many of them as possible, and the best way to do that is by offering a separate list where these achievements can be celebrated entirely on their own. And 2018 was indeed a great year for non-fiction filmmaking, with films like RBG, Free Solo, Three Identical Strangers and  Won’t You Be My Neighbor? not only attracting critical acclaim, but also doing quite well at the box office, all things considered.

Before we get started on the official countdown, I also want to give a special shout out to American Animals and Fake Blood, a pair of ingeniously assembled films that don’t necessarily strictly qualify as documentaries, at least not in the classic sense, but do extremely inventive things with the format and are worth seeking out. Now without further ado, here are my picks for the ten best documentaries of 2018, followed by a selection of honourable mentions.

#10: RBG

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, or the “Notorious RBG” as she’s affectionately come to be known as, has become somewhat of an internet icon over the past several years. Directors Julie Cohen and Betsy West offer an overview of her career in their polished and enjoyable documentary RBG. The film celebrates her legacy of fighting against sex-based discrimination throughout her legal career as a Harvard-educated lawyer, attending the prestigious university at a time when many women weren’t accepted in law school, before becoming only the second woman appointed to the Supreme Court in 1993, where she still serves to this day.

The film shows Ginsburg to be a fighter in both her public and private life, still keeping up a fitness routine in her eighties that some people half her age would struggle through. But it also takes on a bittersweet quality, especially when showcasing the very sweet relationship that she had with her late husband Martin Ginsburg, who was one of her strongest champions and supporters, even meeting with President Bill Clinton to help secure his wife a spot on the Supreme Court. It’s a glossy portrait, to be sure, and a bit overly fawning at times. But RBG still functions as an engaging, inspiring, and very well assembled introduction to a true icon of our times.

#9: McQueen

Alexander McQueen was both a London fashion designer with a style all his own and a shock art provocateur with a penchant for bringing themes of sex and violence to the runway, and the ups and downs of his career and personal life are detailed in the compelling documentary McQueen, co-directed by Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui.

The film compiles a mix of archival footage and interviews with those who knew him personally to show McQueen’s meteoric rise during the 1990s – from his early start apprenticing with Savile Row tailors to his tenure at Givenchy – while also exploring the internal battles he was fighting that led him to take his own life in 2010. This is not only an engaging overview of Alexander McQueen’s career, but also a fascinating and disturbing look inside the tortured mind of a brilliant artist. The film maintains interest throughout its nearly two hour running time, exploring the thin line between genius and madness, and how mental illness and addiction often plagues the most creative of minds.

#8: Love, Gilda

A portrait of the late, great comedian Gilda Radner, Lisa D’Apolito’s Love, Gilda is the sort of film that will make you laugh before it makes you cry. The film details Radner’s rise to fame on Saturday Night Live, where she became a beloved member of the cast and created several iconic characters, while also sensitively exploring her personal struggles with eating disorders and documenting her battle with ovarian cancer, which ultimately took her from us far too soon. Watching it is an experience that is just as funny and ultimately moving as you would expect, especially when the film is focusing on her relationship with Gene Wilder.

#7: Believer

The frontman for the mega band Imagine Dragons, Dan Reynolds is on a mission to get the Mormon church that he grew up in to be more accepting of LGBT youth. While Reynolds himself is not gay, he is moved to act by the letters he receives from young LGBT fans who are struggling to find acceptance within their religion, and director Dan Argott follows him as he organizes an inclusive music festival to be held just a few blocks from the Mormon Temple in Park City, Utah. While Believer is a crowdpleaser through and through, and often a very effective one at that, the film also probes deeper questions about balancing sexuality and religious belief. It’s inspiring and also moving to watch.

#6: Free Solo

At a time when many documentaries only get released through streaming services, there are still some that benefit from being seen on the big screen, and Free Solo is one of them. The film documents rock climber Alex Honnold’s attempts to become the first person ever to free solo climb the 3,000 foot high El Capitan Wall in Yosemite National Park without the aid of any harnesses or ropes, meaning that a single misstep or a slight slip of the hand could cost him his life.

Filmmakers Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi follow him as he prepares to ascend the wall, documenting his setbacks and triumphs in the lead up to this incredible feat. They use a mix of cameras and drones to capture the climb itself, providing a climactic sequence that unfolds with an incredible amount of suspense, as Honnold must rely solely on his own personal strength and endurance in order to stay alive. It sounds crazy, but there is a compelling philosophy behind the art of free soloing that has to do with putting yourself in danger in a way that you are in control of in order to work through your fear, so that you can ultimately emerge stronger at the end.

Honnold himself is a fascinating subject. He is likely on the autism spectrum, and views the life or death stakes of what he is doing in a very matter of fact way. The film is also incidentally one of my favourite romances of last year, documenting Honnold’s very charming relationship with his girlfriend Sandi McCandless, and the tensions that mount between them as she expresses concerns over his safety. At its heart, Free Solo is a compelling film about confronting your fear in order to overcome it, and you will be on the edge of your seat while watching it.

#5: The King

Did the life and death of Elvis Presley represent the rise and fall of the American Dream? That’s the main thesis behind The King, Eugene Jarecki’s stunning documentary that finds the filmmaker driving across America in a Rolls Royce that belonged to Presley himself, using this road trip to examine both the life of Elvis and how the country itself has changed from the post-war boom of the mid-20th Century to where it is now. As the film leads up to the earth-shattering results of the 2016 election, the question that we are left with as an audience is whether the country is in the midst of staging a comeback, or if it is at risk of facing the same fate as the King. This is a thought provoking and deeply powerful film.

#4: Shirkers

A film that never was becomes the basis for one of the best documentaries of the year in Shirkers. When Sandi Tan was a young adult back in the ’90s in Singapore, her and her cinephile friends made an avant-garde art film called Shirkers that would have seriously shaken up Singapore’s non-existent film scene at the time, had their American collaborator Georges Cardona not disappeared with all the footage before they had a chance to complete it. This is a powerful look at memory and cinema, and a moving portrait of an artist finally reclaiming a deeply personal work that was stolen from her. It’s available to watch on Netflix, so check it out.

#3: Three Identical Strangers

There was a part of me that couldn’t resist putting Three Identical Strangers in third place just because there is a nice symmetry to it, but the film also really is good enough to deserve such a high placement on my list. While some will already know the true story before seeing it, it’s best not to spoil the many twists and turns of the film, which uses a brilliantly edited mix of interviews and reenactments to tell the stranger than fiction tale of three adopted men who had no idea they were actually triplets raised by drastically different families. This is a gripping real life thriller, that asks essential questions of nature versus nurture, and sparks a compelling ethical debate.

#2: Minding the Gap

Filmmaker Bing Liu returns to his hometown of Rockford, Illinois and turns the camera on himself and his friends Zack and Kiere, who all grew up together skateboarding around the city. Touching on themes of poverty, the effects of absentee fathers, and how cycles of abuse are allowed to continue, Minding the Gap becomes an extremely powerful portrait of young men who are struggling with the transition into adulthood, and use skateboarding as a way to escape the pain and trauma of their own lives. Providing a moving and at times deeply challenging viewing experience, this is a sensitive and beautifully shot film that will surely be remembered as one of the finest documentaries ever made.

#1: Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

I grew up watching Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, so it’s been heartening to see Fred Rogers, the always calm and gentle host of the beloved PBS show who passed away in 2003, have a resurgence in popularity over the past year. This revival is thanks in part to Morgan Neville’s wonderful documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, which I’ve chosen to place atop this list. The film provides a snapshot of the warmth and kindness that Fred Rogers always brought to his work, while also detailing how his show was quietly revelatory in terms of breaking down barriers. This is a moving and beautifully made film that not only offers an engaging overview of his singular life and career, but also serves as a powerful reminder to treat others with kindness, which is a message that we could all use right now.

Honourable Mentions: The Accountant of Auschwitz; Bachman; Bathtubs Over Broadway; Bisbee ’17; The Bill Murray Stories: Life Lessons Learned From a Mythical Man; The Game Changers; The Lonely Battle of Thomas Reid; Matangi/Maya/M.I.A.; Pick of the Litter; Transformer.

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