2016 was a year in which reality began to seem rather unreal, where real-world developments beat satirical shows like Veep and Saturday Night Live to the punch with some of the most bizarre turns of events in recent years, with a reality-TV star and general man-child (or as he called himself on Twitter this month, “ratings machine DJT”), now readying himself to become leader of the free world. Like The Donald, documentaries this year have turned their hard gaze to globalisation, with John Pilger, Werner Herzog, Fisher Stevens and Adam Curtis all flitting between dozens of outsider communities whose human stories represent global hope, and tragedy.
Conversely, others have turned to hard introspection: particularly American documentaries who face down their fractured nation by confronting the effects of climate change, foreign affairs and race relations. Meanwhile others pursued an entirely personal philosophy: capturing the people facing huge challenges – be it cult seduction, artistic integrity or personal loss. What follows are a list of the 12 documentaries released in the last 12 months which best represent our planet, the challenges which face it, and the people who live here, as they often instill great faith and optimism when we need it most.
12. Into The Inferno (Netflix)
One of two Netflix documentaries helmed by cinematic pioneer Werner Herzog this year, Into The Inferno takes a deep dive into volcanoes. It’s this kind of seemingly obtuse subject matter which Herzog utilises to cast a light on the manner in which one breed of natural phenomenon can shape whole histories and cultures; as for certain island tribes and the people of North Korea, who have given them religious status, while their sediment has preserved fossils which could help us solve the key of our species’ evolution. Threaded between a plethora of cultures are extended sequences of footage from the fiery core of three volcanoes, with images of explorers dwarfed by fountains of molten lava providing some of the most striking images of the year.
11. Sky Ladder (Netflix)
Proving themselves to be a pioneering platform for documentary makers in the wake of last year’s Making A Murderer, Netflix upped the ante this year and were releasing fascinating material on a near-fortnightly basis, at feature-film quality. Sky Ladder is an example of the opportunities it provides for more obscure subject matter, being a portrayal of the little known (in the West) firework artist Cai Guo-Qiang. Turn on for the staggering displays of choreography which do with gunpowder what you didn’t know possible, and stay for the artist’s battle to retain his own integrity, as Cai garners great wealth and fame, and begins to work on Chinese Government engagements. Oh, and there’s also the small matter of the 1km long firework which burns like a ladder up into the sky…
10. Ole, Ole, Ole: A Trip Across Latin America (Channel 4)
A fairly innocuous sounding travel-film documenting The Rolling Stones’ first tour of South America, Paul Dugdale actually does a marvellous job of portraying the band through the eyes of each of the countries through which they travel, such as in Argentina where the ‘Rollinga’ street gangs worship them like a religion, despite never having seen their heroes live. The cultures of countries we hear little of are captured in vignettes, which culminate in a stunning free concert in Cuba, the first of it’s kind in the country’s history: turning the film into a testament to the power of music itself.
9. Eight Days A Week (StudioCanal)
Ron Howard’s 2016 theatre release seemed like an unnecessary addition to an already comprehensive Beatles canon, particularly considering it covers the least admire half of their career. It’s hard to deny the finished product though, in which Howard takes the viewer straight into the heart of Beatlemania, cleaning up old footage from which the sound was presumably atrocious and making it like new. Even more impressively, it paints a pretty vivid picture of the emotional turmoil the chaos took on the private peace of the Fab Four. (It also proves a good workout for volume-button dexterity, alternating as it does between some of the best pop songs ever written and whole stadiums full of screaming teenage girls…)
8. The Coming War On China (ITV)
Also taking a global view of current affairs developments, the ever-reliable John Pilger takes an objective view of the US policy on China, and doesn’t paint a pretty picture. From the pacific islands whose populations were treated as radiation test labs by American, to Japanese islands whose communities are held hostage by US military bases with their arms aimed at China. It’s a scathing portrait out of which the one-party China comes out looking like democracy-loving liberals by comparison; and is particularly alarming when considering the man who just took control of the button.
7. Lo & Behold, Reveries Of The Connected World (Netflix)
Werner Herzog’s second entry on this list: Lo & Behold offers an even sharper portrait of the world of the Internet. It’s one of the first documentaries I’ve seen which treats the invention as it is: probably the most significant development in mankind since the printing press… perhaps even more so. Delivered in ten precise acts, the film takes us from the very first message passed from one computer to another to the implications of the future, as intellectual heavyweights such as Elon Musk and Lawrence Kraus are wheeled out to offer their thoughts on the philosophical implications of the web. Meanwhile a collective of gamers who helped to unravel a gene which was a major roadblock in cancer treatment, and a family who were sent pictures of their decapitated daughter by online trolls, represent the very best and worst aspects of the net.
6. Holy Hell (Netflix)
Easily the most bizarre documentary of the year, Will Allen uses his own personal footage to tell the tale of his 22 year indoctrination into the Buddhafield cult, led by the enchanting and sinister Michel. It’s fascinating to watch the scales fall from his victim’s eyes, and provides insight to the depths of a phenomenon in which the very people Michel abuses feel compelled to vehemently defend his actions. Even more disturbing than the most loathsome documentary villain of the year is the implication that this could happen to any one of us, and we wouldn’t even know it.
5. 13th (Netflix)
Picking up where Eugen Jaracki’s war-on-drugs opus The House I Live In left off, Ava DuVernay (director of 2015’s excellent Selma) takes a hard look at the mass incarceration endemic facing the United States. Constructing it’s argument with impossible elegance; civil rights activists to Republican Senators are called upon to offer their perspective on the lasting impact of Reaganism, in which young black men’s labour is sold to the highest bidding private contractor. It asks hard questions of those who believe America’s race problems begin and end with police brutality.
4. Casey Neistat’s Daily Vlog (YouTube)
Over 18 months, filmmaker Casey Neistat produced a vlog every day, accruing in the process 6 million subscribers and the title of New Media Pioneer. While there are presumably thousands of people on the internet who record their lives on a daily basis, the phenomenon of Neistat is that he turned the medium into an art form. In making the equipment with which he works part of the narrative, Neistat finally found a way to take advantage of the incredible democratisation of professional-level equipment and online video platforms by turning his every day into a feature film, with aerial photography, timelapses and montages which necessitate incredible creativity and in-the-moment cinematography. The fact some may turn their nose at his work is exactly the point: it’s actually the future of the medium.
3. Hypernormalisation (BBC)
The fact that this is actually one of the more minor films in Adam Curtis’ filmography is quite telling. At almost three hours it’s too rambling and disconnected to match his best work, but still manages to punch a hole through your everyday perception of how the world works by applying the Soviet theory of hypernormalisation, where one is so integrated into the system that you can think of none beside it, to the people of the Western world. Through the lies openly told by Gadaffi, Blair and Donald Trump, which proved to have no pertinence upon events happening or being avoided, it will live on as the definitive statement on the ‘post-truth’ thesis.
2. Before The Flood (National Geographic)
Probably the least creative film on this list, Fisher Stevens’ Before The Flood is, beside allusions to Hieronymus Bosch and a Trent Reznor soundtrack, a fairly conventionally didactic work. The power is in the message however, and it’s strength of will: Stevens and front man Leonardo Dicaprio attempt to provide the definitive statement on climate change, and succeed magnificently. Through a thoroughly comprehensive argument, an admirably honest Dicaprio responds to everything from Cowspiracy to climate change deniers in the Senate, culminating in a genuinely inspirational speech to the UN on why we have to take definitive action today. Given the election of Trump, who considers climate change a hoax invented by the Chinese, it would have been the most haunting film of the year, if it weren’t for…
1. One More Time With Feeling (Picturehouse Entertainment)
Andrew Dominic’s One More Time With Feeling follows rock star Nick Cave as he records his 16th studio album in the wake of the death of his son in the previous year. Shot in evocative black and white, Dominic handles the material with impressive delicacy, whilst not sacrificing the creative desire: each performance enriched by impossibly inventive takes on the simple studio setup. The film is no doubt supported by emotive performances of Cave’s stunning new songs (Skeleton Tree topped our list of favourite albums of the year), but the film stands alone as a singular portrayal of grief, in which “things will be alright – but they’ll never be alright again”. A incredibly intimate depiction of the grief of one man and his family, there was no more personal film of any kind in 2016, and nothing more affirming that life is to be cherished, every day.
Words by Liam Inscoe – Jones