Hollywood Reporter Critics Pick the Best Documentaries of 2018

6:45 AM 12/18/2018

by THR Staff

From an examination of skateboarding and toxic masculinity to a stranger-than-fiction tale of triplets separated at birth, portraits of Jane Fonda, Whitney Houston, Fred Rogers and more, here were the best non-fiction films of the year.

  1. 10

    Jane Fonda in Five Acts

    Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival/HBO

    Susan Lacy’s highly engaging doc about the actress-activist is drawn from 21 hours of interviews and a startlingly rich selection of home movies, film clips and stills. And while there’s nothing exactly earth-shattering in this psychological portrait, when you get right down to it, Fonda is exceedingly good company: a commanding storyteller who's still, at 80, thoroughly absorbed in not just her screen work and social causes but the essential business of sorting out a legacy of pain from a childhood of gothic horror. — SHERI LINDEN

  2. 9


    Courtesy of Bleecker Street

    Ian Bonhote and Peter Ettedgui’s documentary is a ravishing portrait that amplifies over and over again late designer Alexander McQueen's stated aim with his shows — to provoke emotion, whether it be repulsion or exhilaration. At the same time, the film illuminates the deeply affecting personal details of a life that blazed with dangerous intensity only to be snuffed out by tragedy. In the crowded field of fashion docs, this one stands tall. — DAVID ROONEY

  3. 8

    Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood


    Much more than a sensationalistic exposé, Matt Tyrnauer's doc is an engaging, layered, frequently fascinating look at Hollywood legend Scotty Bowers, who spent decades catering to the sexual desires of stars both male and female. It’s a nicely filled-out portrait of different eras, one secrecy-ridden and dedicated to the preservation of illusion, the other wide open and blasé about personal predilections. —TODD MCCARTHY

  4. 7

    Bisbee '17

    Jarred Alterman/4th Row Films

    In the summer of 2017, the residents of a once-grand Arizona mining center devised a series of events, some in collaboration with filmmaker Robert Greene, to mark the hundredth anniversary of an episode known as the Bisbee Deportation. During that face-off between big copper and the International Workers of the World, a posse of almost 2,000 men rounded up about 1,200 striking miners and shipped them in cattle cars through the desert to New Mexico. Greene's bracing doc — a sort of dark, stylized American answer to the doc Spettacolo, about an Italian town's tradition of staging annual plays about itself — stirs up questions rather than answer them, and its contemporary resonance couldn’t be clearer. —SHERI LINDEN

  5. 6

    Hale County, This Morning, This Evening

    Courtesy of Sundance Institute

    For a doc preoccupied with poetic, provocative associations, there’s perhaps none more stimulating than the setting of RaMell Ross’ nonfiction feature debut. It was in Hale County, Alabama, after all, that photographer Walker Evans and writer James Agee composed Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941), their famed text-and-image study of Great Depression-afflicted sharecroppers. There’s not a single close-up of an African-American face in any of Evans’ photos, and there’s a degree to which this film feels like an intended corrective or at least a complicating companion piece to Evans’ and Agee’s efforts. As a lyrical ode to the Southern African-American experience, the doc has tremendous power. — KEITH UHLICH

  6. 5


    Courtesy of The Estate of Whitney E. Houston

    Kevin Macdonald’s haunting, richly contextualized documentary portrait celebrates the pop supernova who became a one-woman hit factory in the 1980s and ‘90s. But it delves more deeply into the troubled persona behind the prodigiously talented star, bedeviled by issues of image and identity, sexuality and childhood trauma that became combustible under the pressures of a bad marriage, a drug habit and a stinging betrayal by the father she idolized. An American tragedy, explored with sensitivity and probing complexity. — DAVID ROONEY

  7. 4

    Free Solo

    Jimmy Chin/National Geographic

    Vertigo sufferers need not apply to Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi’s doc, which follows professional climber Alex Honnold as he prepares for his biggest-ever free solo — scaling Yosemite’s 3,000-foot granite behemoth El Capitan with nothing but a bag of hand chalk. The filmmakers approach Honnold’s quest like a meta action movie, concerning themselves as much with the rehearsal of the climb as with the free solo itself. The result is brilliantly photographed by Chin, Clair Popkin and Mikey Schaefer, often from angles and positions you wouldn’t think possible. — KEITH UHLICH

  8. 3

    Won't You Be My Neighbor?

    Courtesy of Sundance Institute

    It’s hard to judge Morgan Neville’s doc on artistic grounds because mostly it’s a film you want to hug. Starting with a 1967 interview in which Fred Rogers expresses the desire to “help children through some of the difficult modulations of life,” the film traces that wish and how it carried through decades of TV. Over and over, clips prove the faith Rogers put in kids. And again and again, the doc features shots of worshipful fans interacting with him that prove his confidence was rewarded. — DANIEL FIENBERG

  9. 2

    Three Identical Strangers

    Courtesy of Sundance

    Chronicling the startling history of triplets separated at birth who grew up oblivious to one another’s existence, Tim Wardle’s film starts out like a jaunty sitcom, featuring three likable lugs with toothy grins who look like they were cloned from Andy Samberg. But as the euphoria of reconnection subsides and disconcerting questions arise, a mystery freighted with disturbing ethical violations unfolds. This is a distressing story touched by tragedy, told in a brisk, absorbing package. — DAVID ROONEY

  10. 1

    Minding the Gap

    Courtesy of Sundance Institute

    Director-cinematographer Bing Liu had been filming his friends and their skateboarding antics in Rockford, Illinois, for years, capturing every spectacular stunt, every scary face-plant, and hours and hours of boys-will-be-boys banter and bickering. Minding the Gap starts out as one story, suggesting one set of character arcs, and then flows in unexpected directions and underlines new sets of themes, without ever feeling haphazard or ill-considered. It’s twisty, insightful and emotional. — DANIEL FIENBERG