2020 may not have been a memorable year for feature films in general. While it did churn out some admirable ones, none of them are the kind that you would praise in years to come. On the other hand, though, we have witnessed some terrific non-fiction storytelling this time — some that definitely made it to my list of 'all-time favourites.' They range from wry to sentimental, virtuous to amoral, and leisurely to invigorating.
Here are the top documentaries and documentary-series of the year, in no particular order:
When I began Time, I assumed that the documentary would operate on the tangents of Ava DuVernay's When They See Us. Instead, it turned out to be a meditative rendition of love, hope, and purpose. Time provides a layered approach to Black experiences — it does not fixate only on the tragedy but also their faith and identities. Sibil Fox Rich, who believes in a forgiving criminal justice system, fights for her incarcerated husband who got caught robbing a bank. And all through this, she raises six precocious children, supports her community, and campaigns endlessly for institutional reform. It is time, as a concept here, that magnifies Sibil's hardships — it is uncertain, slow, painful, a keeper of hope as well as a whetstone for tenacity. And while featuring some of the devastatingly saddest scenes I have come across this year, the documentary reminds us that it is necessary for optimism to meet determination.
I always refer to this documentary as a horror film — what's more terrifying than watching hundreds of teenagers behave like duplicitous, crooked politicians? The story of American politics is bloody, morally ambiguous, and anxiety-inducing. And this documentary, about a bunch of kids that are participating in the famous simulation of Texan gubernatorial elections, gives us a look at the ideological peaks and troughs that have hollowed their political sphere. Not only is it frightening to see children turn into Janus-faced politicians, what really scares you is that they cannot differentiate between good and bad. Boys State is my personal favourite of the year, not just as a documentary but as a feature film. This one gets its hands dirty — it exposes the ideological rot of the West in a manner that no other film has captured yet.
The cinematic exploration of notorious financial crimes in India has been one of 2020's defining moments. And one such key highlight is Netflix's docuseries Bad Boys Billionaires: India. We have seen similar feats from the West — this domain is neither contemporary nor unfamiliar out there. But this is a fledgling aspect of Indian television today and Bad Boy Billionaires is a significant marker of that. The series does not present new facts or ideas — news outlets have time and again capitalised on this plague that has cursed billionaires. This series, however, is a cautionary tale on greed and financial gluttony. It demonstrates exactly what happens when you try to fly too close to the sun. There is something stark and dooming about the rise and fall of billionaires in India — there is no sense of justice when you see it all play out because you feel cheated. And Bad Boy Billionaires evokes exactly that.
Perhaps the most eye-opening and informative documentary of the year, Disclosure is one of Netflix's best releases lately. How does on-screen representation shape our queer eye? Should there be a distinction between the actor and their role? Has trans representation in cinema really improved? Disclosure poses all these questions. Films and documentaries, while talking about these subjects, often fall into the realm of finger-wagging self-importance. They ignore the social context around them and immediately assume a higher pedestal. Disclosure, on the other hand, is searing but sensitive — it's an essential viewing that questions the content we have, rather ignorantly, consumed. And in times of Laxmii and Pati, Patni aur Panga where we've replaced well-meaning representation with trashy humour, India needs this documentary desperately.
The motto 'no pain, no gain' has been inextricably interwoven with sports. It usually has corporeal connotations — you will only persevere if you can endure physical suffering. The Test, Prime Video's finest docuseries, delves into psychological and emotional pain instead — chronicling the evolution of the Australian cricket team after the infamous Sandpapergate scandal. Australia has etched a very particular image when it comes to cricket — they are known to be mechanically strict, no-nonsense, and punctilious. They've possessed the temerity to challenge almost every other team and player. The Test, instead, shows us the cracks in this veneer. With its bravura narrative and intense documentation, the docuseries truly carves a new identity for the Australian team.
It is difficult to come across a documentary that is this amusing while it simultaneously remains heartbreaking. Dick Johnson, who is inching closer to the age of 90 every day, stars in his daughter's film where they create absurd hypotheticals of how it would be like if he died. Lending some life to death, this documentary is zanily ironic. However, you can feel his daughter Kirsten's grief — about losing her mother and the fact that there's not much time left for Dick. And the film that she makes, the documentary we watch, is perhaps one of the only ways through which she can channel those emotions — an attempt to immortalise the mortal. Dick's sprightliness and Kirsten's palpable sense of loss make Dick Johnson is Dead the year's most eclectic and unique documentary.
There is where I succumb to my biases because God, I love Spike Jonze. Beastie Boys Story is part stand-up (not comedy), part documentary — where two Beastie Boys members, Adam "Ad-Rock" Horovitz and Michael "Mike D" Diamond, narrate the band's entire story, from how it began to how their relationships weathered the violence of time. This is a lot like Aziz Ansari's Right Now, also directed by Jonze. Both of them are intimate, profound, and wittily intelligent. There is something enthralling about Jonze's ability to capture men recount their life stories in front of a live audience. While it feels incredibly personal, what stands out most is how Jonze can transport you amongst other spectators — you share their excitement and laughs. Beastie Boys Story, while catered towards the band's fans, never alienates others either. It is high-spirited and immensely fascinating.
Female athletes have been subjected to unforgiving, invasive treatment for several decades now. Gymnastics, as a sport, has been known to scrutinise every movement and manoeuvre of the athlete. They are held captive by the larger dream of making it to the Olympics — a place where beauty and athleticism are given equal attention. And Athlete A not only shows us the unspeakable amounts of psychological trauma that young athletes have registered as a result of it but their sexual trauma as well. It is a harrowing look at how the USA Gymnastics physician Larry Nassar abused over 500 women, most of whom were underage. This true-crime documentary uncovers these sexual misconducts that were swept under the carpet — making you squirm, shudder, and twitch. It is a fierce indictment of a system that, under the guise of accolades and pomp, invisibilises and discards its own sportspeople.
Here are a few special mentions: The Last Dance, Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution, A Secret Love, Formula 1: Drive to Survive (Season 2)