Critics' Picks: The 10 Best Documentaries of the Year

6:30 AM 12/19/2016

by THR Staff

THR's film critics rank the best non-fiction films of 2016, including a staggering look at race, murder and celebrity in L.A., a riveting portrait of a scandal-plagued politician and a disturbing investigation of a most unusual sport.

'O.J.: Made in America,' '13th' and 'Weiner'
'O.J.: Made in America,' '13th' and 'Weiner'

  1. 10
    10

    Uncle Howard

    Courtesy of Berlin Film Festival

    In his intensely personal and emotionally enveloping exhumation project, director Aaron Brookner goes digging through the outtakes of a 33-year-old non-fiction feature to flesh out the ghost of his childhood hero: his uncle, the late filmmaker Howard Brookner, best known for his 1983 doc, Burroughs: The Movie. The result, however, is not just a warm portrait of one man and his small body of work; it's also a moving journey through a largely vanished New York, a gritty place where outsider artists and creative risk-takers came to connect and grow. — David Rooney

  2. 9
    10

    Tickled

    Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

    When David Farrier came across a notice of a “competitive endurance tickling” event in Los Angeles, he thought he’d lit upon another weird topic for his lighthearted reports on New Zealand television. But frog-eating survivalists were nothing compared with what the pop-culture journalist would uncover. In this jaw-dropping doc, he and fellow first-time director Dylan Reeve chronicle an investigation that would take them down a rabbit hole of legal threats, leading to a deep-pocketed exploiter of young men in the name of a fetish subculture. The erotic-torture appeal of tickling is only a piece of the puzzle; in its genial, low-key way, the film is a chilling account of cyberbullying, perpetrated on a wide scale over many years. — Sheri Linden

  3. 8
    10

    Tower

    Courtesy of BFI London Film Festival

    Ten years ago, Texas Monthly’s Pamela Colloff published 96 Minutes, a transfixing oral history of Charles Whitman’s 1966 attack on the University of Texas campus. Filmmaker Maitland expands on that work in Tower, adding some interviewees and employing Scanner Darkly-style animation to bring that terrible day to life. What might sound like an odd gimmick serves the film surprisingly well, especially given Maitland’s pairing of actual voices with those of actors, and helps viewers raised in an age of mass shootings to identify with the bafflement felt by Austinites and by all Americans at the time. It’s a gripping combination of oral history and stylized reenactment. — John DeFore

  4. 7
    10

    The Witness

    Courtesy of New York Film Festival

    Few films feel as cathartic as Solomon’s The Witness, about the Kitty Genovese case, in which a 28-year-old woman was sexually molested and stabbed to death while a purported 38 witnesses did nothing to intervene. The catharsis is not for the filmmaker but rather for Bill Genovese, the victim’s younger brother, who is the heart and soul of this gut-wrenching feature. It’s a moving chronicle of one man’s quest for closure — Frank Scheck

  5. 6
    10

    Life, Animated

    Courtesy of Sundance Institute

    If you believe in magic, Life, Animated is the potion for you: a radiant, uplifting story of Owen, a boy with autism who transcends his condition by transferring life’s challenges into the format of a Disney animated movie. Intercutting scenes from an array of Disney classics, Williams unravels a complex medical condition and reaches into Owen’s world, where life makes sense through the prism of Disney plotlines. For him, it’s a happy place of bold and bright colors. The film is a documentary gem. — Duane Byrge

  6. 5
    10

    Weiner

    Courtesy of Sundance Selects

    Plenty of Americans would be perfectly happy never to hear the name Anthony Weiner again; some will never tire of it. The thing about Weiner is, it would be a captivating tragicomedy no matter what year it came out. Kriegman worked for Weiner in 2005 and 2006, which presumably explains not just why he and Steinberg were given access to the politician’s run for mayor in 2013, but also how they stayed in the room once a second wave of sexting revelations broke. Neither has made a feature before, but together with editor Eli Despres (Blackfish), they tell this story expertly. Weiner is a thoroughly involving ride-along with the candidate who would not say die. — J.D.

  7. 4
    10

    Fire at Sea

    Courtesy of TIFF

    Conveying the immensity of the ongoing migrant crisis, which is costing thousands of lives each year as it puts European unity and values sorely to the test, has proven far too great a task for news reporting. It takes a unique documentary filmmaker like Rosi to capture the drama through the periscope of his camera. The humor and compassion the director brought to the denizens of Rome’s ring road in Sacro G.R.A., which won the Venice Golden Lion in 2013, still are very much present, but here they illuminate a subject of far greater interest and import. — Deborah Young

  8. 3
    10

    I Am Not Your Negro

    Courtesy of TIFF

    Peck, the Haiti-born filmmaker and activist, sensitively has illuminated the lives of such figures as Patrice Lumumba, the first prime minister of the Belgian Congo, and Karl Marx. I Am Not Your Negro is a biography of writer James Baldwin only in passing; it is more an attempt to link the ideas of three assassinated American leaders — Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. — to each other and their social context. Above all, it is a searing and topical indictment of racial prejudice and hatred in America that makes for uneasy viewing and is not easily forgotten. — D.Y.

  9. 2
    10

    13th

    Courtesy of Netflix

    Drilling deep into societal ills that, unfortunately, seldom are off the front page these days, DuVernay’s doc takes a comprehensive historical look at the numerous ways the African-American population has continued to be subjugated, marginalized, penalized, punished, victimized and incarcerated over the century and a half since the 13th Amendment abolished slavery. Composed yet intense, measured yet impassioned, analytical yet deeply emotional, this eloquently articulated testimony as to how far the nation remains from true racial equality is a must-see for the socially engaged public. — Todd McCarthy

  10. 1
    10

    O.J.: Made in America

    Courtesy of ESPN Films

    Working with an epic tapestry that lets him cover the racial history of Los Angeles, the football career of a legendary running back, the trial of the century and a complicated psychological portrait all in one film, Edelman proves to be a remarkably confident storyteller on every front. O.J.: Made in America is a provocative, intelligent and thorough documentary that tears along at an impressive clip given its length, with tragedy around every corner. — Daniel Fienberg

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