To say this is an official list of the best documentaries of 2014 would be a slight exaggeration. This is a list of the top 10 best documentaries from 2014 based on what I’ve watched, read, and heard.
Many are politically oriented, unpacking, as always, the biggest issues. Others, like Manakamana, are a soothing balm. And the last one, though not the greatest documentary shown this year (though certainly made by a great filmmaker), is a personal favorite highlighting a great institution.
Citizenfour was not my favorite documentary of the year, but it was definitely one of the most talked about—and thrilling. Years into making a film about surveillance in post-911 times, Laura Poitras began receiving encrypted emails from someone named “citizen four.” Citizenfour, or Edward Snowden, was ready to blow the whistle on the National Security Agency for collecting massive amounts of data on United States citizens. Poitras was the first to know of Snowden’s collection of files, and from their first meeting in Hong Kong in 2013, her camera was running. The result? Citizenfour, a clear, intense film that shows the evolution of Snowden from proud whistleblower to paranoid man on the run.
For a great read, check out George Packer’s piece on Poitras, “The Holder of Secrets,” in the October 20 issue of The New Yorker.
2. Big Men
Big Men, on the surface, is about the 2007 discovery of oil off the Ghanaian coast by a small group of American explorers at a Dallas-based oil company called Kosmos Energy. Its director/producer Rachel Boynton’s two-person crew that cracks the story open even wider, offering viewers unprecedented access to Kosmos, its partners, and the swamps of Nigeria, where people are hungry—literally and figuratively—and unwilling to wait for their country’s newfound wealth to trickle down.
3. The Great Invisible
Another film with an eye for the trouble our obsession with oil has wrought, Margaret Brown’s The Great Invisible focuses on the fallout from the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill. While Brown tells the story of BP and its oil executives, her focus is on the far-reaching impact of the spill—emotional, economical, and environmental. Interviews with and footage shot by Golf Coast citizens, oil-rig workers, and nearby fishermen are what piece the film together and ultimately give it power.
Virunga National Park lies in the depths of eastern Congo and is one of the most bio-diverse places on Earth. It’s also home to the planet’s last remaining mountain gorillas. In a united effort, a small team of park rangers (including an ex-child soldier and a member of the Belgian royal family) struggles to protect this UNESCO world heritage site from poachers, armed militia, and more. Virunga is an impassioned, moving portrayal of a group of some courageous individuals, and of life in the Congo.
5. The Overnighters
I haven’t seen Jesse Moss’s The Overnighters yet, but I’m anxious to. A layered documentary, it delves into the lives of men who travel from all over the country to an oil-rich North Dakota town in search of work. Many of these men—with wives and children—are so joyous to have a job they’re willing to do work even if the chemicals involved might do some potential damage. At the center of the film is Lutheran pastor Jay Reinke who converts his church into a makeshift dorm each night, allowing room for the “overnighters,” as he calls them. When Reinke’s congregants begin to protest the overnighters’ presence, he must grapple with the notion of “loving thy neighbor” and make a decision with serious consequences.
Near the center of Nepal, close to the Chinese border, is Manakamana, a temple of the Hindu goddess Durga, believed to have the power to fulfill wishes. To get there and back, passengers take a cable car through a forested mountain. Thus, Manakamana, an ethereal portrait of humanity, devotion, and modernity. Some passengers grin and laugh on the cable car ride up the mountain. Some frown in silence. Others are clearly grieving. To get to see them in these moments feels, at times, unreal.
Not many women have recurring roles on HBO’s “The Wire,” but, like actress Brandy Burre, many give up their career to start a family. As we see in Actress, when Burre decides to reclaim her life as actor, the domestic life she created for herself and her family begins to crumble. In matters relatable to many, Actress is a portrait of a dying relationship, a complicated woman, and what it means to play the leading role in your own life.
8. Last Days in Vietnam
Last Days in Vietnam takes us back to the final days of the Vietnam War. The North Vietnamese Army had closed in on Saigon while the South Vietnamese people tried in desperation to escape. American soldiers and diplomats on the ground faced a moral dilemma: should they obey White House orders to evacuate US citizens alone, or risk being charged with treason and save the lives of as many South Vietnamese citizens as possible? Last Days in Vietnam is a look at the group of heroes who emerged.
9. Life Itself
We lost a great in 2013 with the passing of Roger Ebert. Based on his memoir of the same name, Life Itself unpacks Ebert’s journey from newspaperman to movie critic, Pulitzer Prize winner, household name, and outspoken voice on the Internet when he had lost his ability to physically speak. We even catch a glimpse of what it was like for the beloved Ebert to find love at 50.
10. The 50 Year Argument
This HBO documentary went unseen and unheard of by many, but its maker—Martin Scorsese—was eager to take it on. The 50 Year Argument is an inside look at The New York Review of Books as well as its charismatic founder Robert Silvers who has been guiding the Review (along with his co-editor, Barbara Epstein, who passed away in 2006) since its launch more than 50 years ago. “When we started the paper, we weren’t seeking to be part of an establishment,” says Robert Silvers. “We were seeking quite the opposite…to examine the workings and truthfulness of establishments, whether political or cultural.” A piece of history, in its own small way.