Hollywood Reporter Critics Pick the Best Documentaries of 2017

5:00 AM 12/19/2017

by THR Staff

From a French cinema legend's bittersweet road-trip chronicle to examinations of the Rodney King case, Istanbul cats, Baltimore rats and more, here were the best non-fiction films of the year.

From left, 'Jane,' 'Faces Places,' 'Kedi'
From left, 'Jane,' 'Faces Places,' 'Kedi'
Courtesy of BFI London Film Festival; Courtesy of Cohen Media Group; Courtesy of Termite Films

  1. 10
    10

    EX LIBRIS: The New York Public Library

    Courtesy of Zipporah Films

    In his latest doc, Frederick Wiseman observes the patrons and administrators of America's largest library after the Library of Congress. The result, though not without its challenges, is a stirring political statement as well as an exciting adventure of the mind. Wiseman’s singularity is that he never talks down to his audience; he rather pulls them up to an intellectual level where other filmmakers fear to go. — Deborah Young

  2. 9
    10

    Kedi

    For anyone who’s curious about the historical events and municipal policies affecting Istanbul’s thriving population of street cats, Ceyda Torun’s entrancing documentary offers little in the way of informative detail. But if you’d just like to hang with a few of the scrappy felines, this film is manna from the cat gods. A collective portrait that’s as elegant as its light-footed subjects, Kedi is guaranteed to soothe a weary mind, and just might lower blood pressure, too. — Sheri Linden

  3. 8
    10

    Dawson City: Frozen Time

    Courtesy of Vancouver Public LIbrary/Hypnotic Pictures/Picture Palace Pictures

    Documentarian Bill Morrison delivers a worthy follow-up to his 2002 Decasia with another cinematic tone poem dedicated to the glories of silent cinema. Inspired by the discovery of a long-buried stash of hundreds of silent movies in the titular Yukon Territory town, this doc will delight cinephiles with its copious footage from films previously thought lost forever. It all adds up to a haunting cinematic time capsule. — Frank Scheck

  4. 7
    10

    Step

    Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox

    The members of the step dance team from the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women display fierce moves and determination in Amanda Lipitz’s joyous, thoroughly involving documentary about a high-stakes graduation year. If it sounds like The Fits meets Bring It On, you’re not far off, but any viewer lucky enough to see it will likely share the tears and triumphs of its warm, funny, unselfconscious and unfailingly real protagonists. — David Rooney

  5. 6
    10

    Rat Film

    Courtesy of Locarno Film Festival

    It takes a certain kind of nerve for a director to entitle his debut feature-length work Rat Film, but there's much more to Theo Anthony's richly informative essay on the planet's most-maligned critters than its bluntly confrontational moniker. Indeed, the picture is as much a keenly observed anthropological study of the city of Baltimore — where Anthony resides — as it is about the four-legged friends/fiends who infest this historic port. — Neil Young

  6. 5
    10

    Let It Fall: Los Angeles 1982-1992

    Courtesy of Lincoln Square Productions

    12 Years a Slave screenwriter John Ridley compiles an oral history of the Rodney King case, and the incisive beauty and power of the resulting doc is that it's not a thesis or an argument, but a full-blooded, multifaceted real-life drama. Through recollections and archival material, the writer-director captures what it felt like to live in Los Angeles at the time — not just the emotional turmoil of the weeklong rioting that shook the city, but the decade of politics and tensions that preceded Rodney King's fateful encounter with police.— Sheri Linden

  7. 4
    10

    Quest

    Courtesy of Sundance

    "Daddy, I'm sorry, I got shot!" That's the plea of a young girl in her North Philadelphia neighborhood who has been hit by a stray bullet, as heard in Jonathan Olshefski's piercing new documentary. Undeniably these are "mean streets," yet this film shows the strength and tenderness of a black family whose circumstances are daunting. Devoid of any political posturing or editorial agenda, Quest is a jarring and gentle testament to the powers of family and individual kindness. — Duane Byrge

  8. 3
    10

    My Journey Through French Cinema

    Courtesy of Gaumont

    Veteran French filmmaker Bertrand Tavernier masterfully explores some of the forgotten glories of French movies in the way that Martin Scorsese shined a light on several bygone American auteurs in his A Personal Journey series. Made "with the complicity" of Cannes topper Thierry Fremaux, this three-hour-plus documentary is essential viewing for cinephiles and Francophiles alike. — Jordan Mintzer

  9. 2
    10

    Jane

    Hugo van Lawick/National Geographic Creative

    Set to an emotional score by Philip Glass, Brett Morgen's gorgeous documentary about trailblazing wildlife conservationist Jane Goodall is a wondrous, moving account of a remarkable life that puts us right there with its subject to share directly in her discoveries. There's an authenticity to the vintage footage here — a sense of marvel and a purity, if you will — that makes this a unique experience. — David Rooney

  10. 1
    10

    Faces Places

    Courtesy of Telluride Film Festival

    A sublime addition to the long line of personal documentaries about French life at ground level that Agnes Varda has been making throughout her career. On a road trip in a van that contains a photo booth that also can produce large prints, the 88-year-old veteran director and the 33-year-old visual artist known as JR get to know the locals and post vast photographic portraits on ordinary structures, always leaving something distinctive behind after their visits. — Todd McCarthy

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