I notice a small movement among my friends and Twitter feed that swears 2016 is a disappointing year for film. In what may likely not be my only 2016 movie list, I compiled my 10 favorite 2016 documentaries to show these naysayers that they’re looking in the wrong places.
More than making a point, the following titles are simply captivating from the opening frame to the last. What should further motivate a viewing of each selection is how fascinating each individual film is. From politics to a human story about Lou Gehrig’s disease to more politics to a study in presumed guilt, there’s a lot of diverse subject matter to chew on. First I reveal my…
Before diving into these ten 2016 documentaries, I admit that I definitely overindulged on documentary film viewing. Fortunately that left me with more brief recommendations to pass along to you. If you’re looking to get lost in a great time at a concert, definitely check out Justin Timberlake + The Tennessee Kids on Netflix, directed by Jonathan Demme (The Silence of the Lambs). You want enthralling visuals, see Werner Herzog travel to the earth’s most dangerous volcanoes in Into the Inferno, also on Netflix, although I’d avoid it if you’re not interested in that subject. I’m an avid Beatles fan so seeing the compilation footage Ron Howard constructed in Hulu‘s The Beatles: Eight Days a Week – The Touring Years was a real treat. You’ll find a lot of heart and hope in the story of how an autistic teenager used movies throughout his life as a means to socialize in Life, Animated. What I also had more fun watching than I anticipated was Michael Moore‘s Where to Invade Next. The comedic approach worked and certainly pleasantly distracted me from my general disinterest in Moore and his projects.
Lastly, out of an odd principle, I omitted O.J.: Made in America from my list. The “film” is a 467 minute ride split into 5 parts when it was televised, which to me makes it a miniseries and not a movie eligible for contention in the best 2016 documentaries list. However, I broach the subject because O.J. is expected to receive an Academy Award nomination and seems to be the odds-on favorite to win. Regardless of what I rank at #1 personally, I expect Hollywood to go a separate direction, which is almost always normal for me. With these exceptions out of the way, let’s really dive into the meat of this article: here are my top 10 2016 documentaries.
10. Zero Days
Zero Days, directed by Alex Gibney (Going Clear: Scientology & the Prison of Belief), covers Stuxnet. What is Stuxnet? I still have no clue how to explain it understandably. What I can elaborate on is there’s a lot of discussion about malware or other malicious software created by several governments that got out of control. However, the film was made to try and hold these certain officials accountable for a situation they cannot admit even happened. To say Zero Days is one of the most educational selection of these 2016 documentaries is an understatement. You’ll receive almost an overload of information, but fortunately it’s explained in such intricate, elementary detail for anyone to comprehend. You may have to rewind a few times to let your brain accept the movie’s data, but it’s definitely still a must-watch from this year.
There’s more of a reason to see Weiner other than saying out loud “I saw Weiner this year” unironically. This film is simply compelling from start to finish. You’ll feel disgust and discomfort while thinking of this as a comedy. In the midst of filming a documentary about his political comeback, Anthony Weiner is caught in yet another sexting scandal (and was caught in another one since the movie). Instead of rationally instructing the documentary crew to step aside while he repairs his marriage and his image, he lets them continue filming as his inflated ego deals with the fallout. Like roadkill, it’s almost daring you to look away but you just can’t.
8. Audrie & Daisy
In the first of several Netflix documentary mentions this article, Audrie & Daisy provides insight into 3 separate rape cases and how the victims (and their respective families/towns) dealt with the aftermath. Yes, it is absolutely as angering and heartbreaking as it sounds. However, it’s a much needed educating on situations that otherwise remain somewhat downplayed in mainstream media. I assure you it’s not all dreary darkness: as much as Maryville authorities will infinitely frustrate you, Daisy Coleman’s strength will inspire you.
7. Amanda Knox
What’s brilliant about the documentary Amanda Knox, another Netflix documentary, is its many perspectives. It’s a film that manages to score interviews with Knox herself, a member of the press at the time of her notorious case, and an Italian investigator of her case. Knox does its best to explain all angles instead of driving a firm narrative, which I appreciated. Although my mind is made up about the case, your mind will likely remain unchanged after seeing it, simply because of the diversity in voices. For me, this was yet another infuriating documentary viewing experience, as the more facts that came to light, the more you don’t want to believe how authorities and media handled the case (if you take Knox at her word here). There will be mixed emotions of disbelief, rage, and relief as you watch Knox, which is what makes this a must-see in this slew of 2016 documentaries.
Another number, another Netflix documentary. 13th, directed in secret by Ava DuVernay, aims to throw many statistics to explain why certain groups of people feel the way they do, and completely succeeds. This is likely a documentary you’ll hear the name of again at the Oscars for a reason. Similar to Amanda Knox, DuVernay gathers an array of interviews from varied, differing personalities, but the end goal is clear. While the 13th amendment outlawed slavery in the traditional sense, Ava presents ideas and facts that explain how the idea of slavery has not expired under the enforcement of the current criminal justice system. Like Knox and Audrie & Daisy, this is a touchy subject for many, and may not resonate with everyone. However, the lesson is there for you on Netflix if you have a desire to educate yourself.
5. The Witness
The Witness is a documentary about a historically cited case where a woman is stabbed to death outside her apartment, despite 38 alleged eyewitnesses who saw or heard the crime and did nothing. Under the microscope in this film is the claim of about 38 eyewitnesses, and how her immediate family is still coping with her murder. Her brother is the focus of the picture, and, driven by closure, sets a goal to lay these claims to rest. I won’t spoil what he finds, but there are questions asked that needed to be asked. Furthermore, the film acts as a study of human obsession and when to let things go. The layers to Witness make the movie an easy can’t-miss, which, you guessed it, is also currently on Netflix.
If I told you that there’s a competitive tickling sensation on the internet, you’d briefly think I was lying, then remember all the fetishes on the web, and relent. What Tickled exposes is not only a specific organization’s competitive tickling videos, but the abuse involved in that small (but surprisingly powerful) industry. The secrecy and exploitation of the participants in these videos are on the same level as the Church of Scientology (if you watch and believe the Going Clear documentary). That’s what so compelling and shocking about Tickled: you hear the premise, assume it’s a comedic documentary, and when you discover the darkness, you feel the need to get more eyes on the film and its subject.
3. The Resurrection of Jake the Snake
In yet another of the 2016 documentaries on Netflix, The Resurrection of Jake the Snake is probably the most triumphant title on this list. Jake “The Snake” Roberts, a successful wrestler in the 1980s, spiraled out of control as his professional wrestling life took him on the road more and more days out of the year. From the 90s into the 00s, videos and stories circulate of Jake’s many inebriated occurrences at live pro wrestling events, which included a video showing an intoxicated Roberts incapable of continuing a match or carrying on a promo (where wrestlers give a sometimes-scripted monologue promoting a match or themselves). That video was Roberts’ rock bottom, as this documentary details. You’re taken on a journey as Roberts starts bettering himself with the help of fellow wrestler “Diamond” Dallas Page. There are high points and low points throughout his recovery, but you’ll want to stay for the end. I’d be lying if I said you won’t cry.
2. Thank You for Playing
Thank You for Playing documents the development of an independent game titled That Dragon, Cancer, which just won a 2016 Game Award in the Games for Impact category. Where this movie, and by association the game, stands out is its very real premise: the creators, Ryan and Amy Green, deal with their son Joel’s diagnosis of terminal cancer by creating a game about that very experience. As a gamer who has played the game, it’s a very emotional, dreamlike experience that captures the weight of Ryan and Amy’s struggle while existing as a tribute to their gone-much-too-soon son. The film expands upon their feelings during that time-frame by showing scenes where Ryan records a powerful in-game monologue while in tears, and another scene where Ryan tests the game at a convention for other gamers. The latter remains one of my favorite, most tear-jerking scenes in any 2016 film, regardless of genre. Since this film sheds light on a very unique scenario in a very unique industry, this selection among my favorite 2016 documentaries should be located and watched immediately by all.
If Thank You for Playing doesn’t spend much of your tears, Gleason will make sure to drain you of them all. Gleason is about Steve Gleason, a former New Orleans Saints defensive back who is diagnosed with ALS (or Lou Gehrig’s disease), just as his wife becomes pregnant with their first child. In his goal to capture as much of his life as possible while his motor skills are intact, he films many vlogs to tell his son about himself and his disease, in case he isn’t around much longer to do it himself. As a warning, when I saw this in the theater, there was not a single dry eye in my showing. Everyone from grown, athletic men to older couples were weeping openly. This film deserves every ounce of your emotion and attention. It contains an abundance of heart and surprising humor, which compliments the devastating (yet very crucial) moments very well. I know I’ve recommended every one of these 2016 documentaries by default since they’re on my top 10 list, but Gleason is not a picture to skip. I definitely implore you to watch this ASAP.
All of these aforementioned documentaries nearly landed a spot in my general top 10 2016 films, but because the amount of incredible documentaries this year was aplenty, they all deserved their own article. I stress again: this was absolutely not a bad year for movies, and I’d encourage you to think of the movies you’ve been watching all year before you commit to such a statement. The proof is in the selections I’ve cited above. What I will admit is that I expect only one of these to land an Oscar nomination, but that doesn’t mean any of these should be ignored. In fact, you’ll get out of them the same range of emotions any fictional full-length feature will give you and then some.