The Best Documentaries of 2014

As the best of 2014's documentaries find new ways to tell stories, they are also the year's best films.

So many of the past year’s documentaries tell incredible stories. And as the best of them also find new ways to tell stories, to highlight your parts in the process as well as the collaborations between filmmakers and subjects, they are also 2014’s best films.


Film: Virunga

Director: Orlando von Einsiedel

Cast: Andre Bauma, Emmanuel de Merode, Rodrigue Mugaruka Katembo, Melanie Gouby

Studio: Grain Media Ltd.

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/news_art/v/virunga_filmreview_poster200.jpg

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Orlando von Einsiedel

Part undercover investigation, part adventure tale, Virunga tells the story of a group of rangers at Virunga Park in Congo dedicated to saving endangered mountain gorillas. Framed by political struggles over oil and money frame this story, which finds focus through the charismatic ranger Andre Bauma, whose relationships with the gorillas appear deeply emotional. Given that some 140 park rangers have been killed since the civil war in Congo began in 1996, Andre’s dedication to a “family” comprised of gorillas and fellow rangers is shaped by peril as well as sympathy. This inspiration emerges in part because Andre is so patently compassionate, but the appeal he embodies also has to do with the logic of his approach and his understanding of the dynamics among human beings and the planet. In this, Andre is at once utterly familiar: a movie hero and also an incisive and persuasive advocate of common sense.


Film: Life Itself

Director: Steve James

Studio: Kartemquin/CNN

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/news_art/l/lifeitself_filmposter200.jpg

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Life Itself
Steve James

“This is not only your film.” With this brief email message, Roger Ebert makes clear what you already know. Directed by Steve James, Life Itself is, like all documentaries, a collaborative project. If this idea of collaboration might be understood as a theme in this list of best documentaries, it is also a truth too rarely presented so plainly. Ebert, of course, understands and lives this truth, embraces its complexities and contradictions, finds in films their reflections on “life itself” (as he titled the memoir from which the documentary takes its title), but also fins in life reflections of movies. Vibrant and affectionate, Steve James’ film recounts that life, in interviews and in photos, as Ebert faces death from cancer. Here, especially, Ebert, James, and Ebert’s wife Chaz share images that are at once intimate and inspiring, painful and absorbing, concerning the ways that bodies betray and minds persist, lives intertwine and moments are preserved, and loss transforms life.


Film: National Gallery

Director: Frederick Wiseman

Studio: Zipporah Films

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/misc_art/f/film-nationalgallery-poster-2001.jpg

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List number: 8

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National Gallery
Frederick Wiseman

“Paintings change. And how you look at them changes as well,” offers a guide in London’s National Gallery. Fredeick Wiseman’s film shows those who look at paintings as much as it shows paintings, watches people make sense of what they see, arrange space, copy and create art, learn about the past and think about themselves. As Gallery administrators consider how to modernize its appeal (or keep up with modernization and mediation occurring all around it anyway), the art remains simultaneously object of desire and subject of study, a sign of artists’ intentions that can never be known and yet form the focus of all manner of conversation and debate.


Film: The Missing Picture (L’image manquante)

Director: Rithy Panh

Cast: Randal Douc (narrator)

Studio: Strand Releasing

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/misc_art/f/film-missingpicture-poster-200.jpg

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List number: 7

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The Missing Picture (L’image manquante)
Rithy Panh

Looking back again on the genocide in Cambodia, Rithy Panh finds new ways to consider relationships between memory and history, forgetting and surviving. Using footage taken by the Khmer Rouge as well as photos and dolls, The Missing Picture tells multiple stories, at once passionate, personal, and devastating, organized by Panh’s recollections of his family’s brutal treatment and his own discovery of filmmaking. As the dolls embody pain and hopelessness, the “missing picture” cannot be found or possessed, but it can be described and imagined, it can help to make sense of chaos. The closing credits roll over photos of the filmmakers leaning over models, arranging dolls, they close on another diorama, dolls gathered in a city street, dressed in bright colors, playing instruments, singing, and listening. It’s a dolls’ scene as creative fantasy, of life reconceived.

Film: Actress

Director: Robert Greene

Cast: Brandy Burre, Tim Reinke

Studio: Cinema Guild

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/news_art/a/actress_filmreview_poster200.jpg

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Robert Greene

Robert Greene’s documentary is most overtly about Brandy Burre, an actress going through a difficult transition, trying to get back into her professional life after taking time off for and with her family. More subtly, it’s about acting, as means of survival, self-expression, and self-creation. To this end, the film makes visible the subtle, seductive, and sometimes jarring collaboration between Green and Burre, as she ponders the questions that might come up for anyone who’s made choices, who’s followed a particular path or left behind another. As she thinks through her past and considers new options for a future, including her hopes to return to acting, the film observes and also works with her. Throughout, Burre appears utterly and exquisitely self-aware, her moments of confession also thoughtful glosses on the act of confessing.

5 – 1


Film: Return to Homs

Director: Talal Derki

Cast: Talal Derki, Abdul Basset Saroot, Ossama al Homsi

Studio: Proaction Film

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/misc_art/f/film-returntohoms-poster-2001.jpg

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Return to Homs
Talal Derki

Following uprisings in other Arab nations, Syrians hope at first that their protests might ignite change But in Talel Derki’s documentary, filmed between August 2011 and August 2013, the transformations are brutal. Three protagonists — Derki, Abdul Basset Saroot, the celebrated 19-year-old goalkeeper of Syria’s soccer team, and Ossama al Homsi, a 24-year-old media activist — struggle with how to resist and survive the oppression of President Bashar al-Assad’s brutal regime. As determined as they are to use media imagery to make their fight visible and viable, they also face devastating violence, tragedies that persist, as Homs is now, a year after Return to Homs completed filming, still under assault by the Syrian army and ISIS.


Film: Tales of the Grim Sleeper

Director: Nick Broomfield

Cast: Seymour Amster, Pamela Brooks, Nick Broomfield, Christopher Franklin, Nana Gyamfi, Laverne Peters, Margaret Prescod

Studio: HBO Documentary Films

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/news_art/t/talesofthegrimsleeper_filmposter200.jpg

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Tales of the Grim Sleeper
Nick Broomfield

It’s striking when a movie resonates with its time. Selma, for instance, has been called “the right movie for the moment.” So too is Tales of the Grim Sleeper. Like Nick Broomfield’s previous films, it’s structured as a quest, challenging political institutions, media practices, and cultural assumptions as it looks into the corruption and racism that shape the LAPD’s stunning non-pursuit of a serial killer of black women, as well as the distrust of the police by black and poor communities. Their resilience and ingenuity is embodied here by Pamela Brooks, who gives herself over to the film and becomes its moral and emotional center.


Film: Fifi Howls From Happiness (Fifi az khoshhali zooze mikeshad)

Director: Mitra Faharani

Cast: Bahman Mohassess, Rokni Haerizadeh, Ramin Haerizadeh, Farshad Mahootforoush, Mitra Farahani

Studio: Music Box Films

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/misc_art/f/film-fifihowlsfromhappiness-poster-2001.jpg

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Fifi Howls From Happiness (Fifi az khoshhali zooze mikeshad)
Mitra Faharani

As much as Mitra Farahani’s film is about the artist Bahman Mohasses and art as he sees it, it is also about art more broadly, art’s power to resist political tyranny and imagine freedoms. Herself a former prisoner at Evin Prison who now lives in Paris, the filmmaker works with Mohassess, whom she tracks down in Rome, where he’s lived for decades. He poses puzzles (“I really don’t understand what this film you are making about me is about”) and offers advice on when to show what (“When you are editing over our conversation, suddenly you’ll show the city”), she presses him with questions about his career, his choices, his own acts of resistance against the Iranian regimes that suppressed and destroyed his work. Fifi Howls from Happiness celebrates connection as much as it reveals isolation, dedication alongside outrage. Art, you see, is a relationship, as complex as it can be, a function of sharing and debating and wanting.


Film: Manakamana

Director: Stephanie Spray, Pacho Velez

Cast: Chabbi Lal Gandharba, Anish Gandharba, Bindu Gayek, Narayan Gayek, Gopika Gayek, Khim Kumari Gayek

Studio: Cinema Guild

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/misc_art/f/film-manakamana-poster-200.jpg

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Stephanie Spray, Pacho Velez

Approximating the length of time it takes a cable car to take visitors to or from the mountaintop shrine in Nepal, each 10-minute take in Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez’s film considers a relationship — among friends, family members, tourists, and goats. Each take is lovely and entertaining, less because someone you’re watching might say something or pose a question, than because you’re posing questions as you watch, not only of these faces but also of yourself. A new adventure in what films might do, it considers time, in an abstract and also very immediate, everyday sense.


Film: Citizenfour

Director: Laura Poitras

Cast: Edward Snowden, Glenn Greenwald, Ewan MacAskill, Bill Binney, Jeremy Scahill

Studio: Radius-TWC

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Laura Poitras

The story told by Edward Snowden, and thereby the story of the National Security Agency, is alarming and remarkable. The story of his story, how he came to it, how he decided to tell it, and how he found ways to tell it, is at least as dramatic. Both emerge in Laura Poitras’ brilliant documentary, at once closely observed and expansive in scope. As the film continues to be engaged with other forms of reporting, the stories’ political twists and turns continue to mutate, including a lawsuit filed against the film’s producers by a former government official. While the film includes a brief history of NSA activities, its potency comes in storytellers, primarily Snowden, Glenn Greenwald, and Ewen MacAskill in a Hong Kong hotel room, but also, the reporters elsewhere, devising strategies for their reporting. Watching Snowden watch himself on TV you might also reflect on yourself, your social environment, your political assumptions. Your position matters here, more than you can know.